Visionary Architecture: Blueprints of Modern Imagination By Neil Spiller.Thames & Hudson, 2006. £35.00
Neil Spiller's latest book is a pleasing object - beautifully illustrated and well designed.
It claims to be a definitive history of 'visionary architecture' and a good poke in the eye for banal architecture. Chapter one discusses Francesco Colonna, Piranesi and Ledoux; chapter two looks at early-20thcentury Avant-Garde art and architecture (Dada, the Futurists, the Constructivists); and the Situationists, the hippies and Archigram all appear in later chapters. The book continues with Deconstructive architecture and concludes with an assortment of recent architects and work considered under the rubric of digital architecture.
Although the book claims to be a history, Spiller is not a historian. He describes himself as a 'visionary', and anyone familiar with his work will know that he could but produce a visionary's take on visionary architecture. The standard menu of a history - sustained comparisons, systematic argument, consistent analytic method and a well defined object of study - is not on offer.
One can enjoy the plethora of art and architecture and the invitation to see their visionary qualities, but to make a chronicle of anything, much less a history, there needs to be at least one consistent degree of synthesis. After just a few pages, most readers will find themselves asking the same questions that have always surrounded Spiller's work.
Is he an apostle, a mystic, an entertaining charlatan, a wellread delirious schizophrenic, a neo-Surrealist, or a comedian?
It is part of the pleasure of the book to keep asking these questions, to leave the answers open and enjoy the way Spiller projects his imagination onto the work through freewheeling metaphoric and metonymic jumps. History aside, all of this can be excused, even applauded.
But there is still something rather retrograde about his accomplishment in comparison with most of the artists and architects he discusses.
The Surrealists, the Pop movement, the practitioners of the fold (to name but a few), all had a conception of subjectivity that provided some degree of critical self-reection.
Whether it was through Freud, Jung, Deleuze and Guattari, or just a sheer sense of wit, there was always a fairly rich basis on which to reect on the nature and cause of visionary practices. The title of the book suggests what is missing: a 'blueprint of the imagination', a theory of the nature of visionary subjectivity and creativity. Sadly there is no such concept and so the book never rises much above the level of provocative infotainment.
At its best it puts visionary architectural practices back on the agenda. Spiller seeks to deliver a poke in the eye to banal architecture, but without some recognition of his own mirror of reection he comes dangerously close to poking himself in the eye, and making the work he admires seem as banal as the work he seeks to challenge.