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BOOK

REVIEW - The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful Shape the World By Deyan Sudjic. Penguin/Allen Lane, 2005. 346pp. £25

It is alarming to see so respected a commentator as Deyan Sudjic writing what amounts to a suicide note for the architectural profession.

Sudjic claims: 'Despite a certain amount of pious rhetoric in recent years about architecture's duty to serve the community, to work at all in any culture the architect has to establish a relationship with the rich and powerful.' In the terms in which his book defines the rich and powerful - almost exclusively power-crazed or egocentric dictators, presidents and billionaires - Sudjic is surely wrong. Most architects make a living designing for the likes of health service trusts, educational authorities and housing associations; for housebuilders and development companies driven by nothing more exotic than their shareholders' appetite for dividends; or for householders wanting a bit more space.

Where Sudjic sees 'a certain amount of pious rhetoric in recent years', others might see a century of debate about the social role of architecture. Consciously or not, architects make decisions every day about how to serve their often conflicting allegiances.

They have allegiances to their own integrity as designers; to the client; to those who will use the development, see it or be shaded or obstructed by it; to those whose space will be defined by it, or who will suffer the traffic, pollution or noise it creates; to those whose opportunities it may reduce and to those whose resources it will consume.

Architects make their choices by deciding what sort of practices to work for; what sort of clients to serve and how to design their buildings. The best of them work miracles in producing social and environmental benefits from unpromising briefs.

Sudjic does not see it like that. 'It is the genetically predetermined destiny of the architect to do anything he can to build, ' he writes. 'The architectural profession can be seen, then, not as well-meaning but ready to enter a Faustian bargain. They have no alternative but to trim and compromise with whatever regime is in power.' Wrong again. Architects, like Faust, do have choices, and those who sell their souls to the devil must be condemned. Those who provide socially responsible design stand as proof that the alternatives are real.

Sudjic considers architects such as Le Corbusier, who was as ready to work for Stalin as for Mussolini, and Mies, who worked for both Hitler and the Sparticists. He comments: 'The legal profession has managed to carve out the space for itself to operate with apparent integrity independently of the merits, or lack of them, of its clients. To suggest that architects cannot do the same? is to imply that architecture is somehow more important to a society even than the legal system.' It does nothing of the sort.

It is in the interests of justice for wrongdoers to have legal representation, whereas an architect helping to fulfil the dreams of a despot is likely to be undermining justice.

Readers who can forgive Sudjic his blinkered view of the profession will enjoy The Edifice Complex as a series of well-told, colourful tales of how architects built banal and bombastic monuments for some of the most terrifying monsters of the past century.

But the glare of celebrity should not blind us to the fact that most of those who shape the world are bureaucrats, local politicians and bean-counters of anonymous corporations.

It is in their offices that the battle for architecture's soul is being fought.

Robert Cowan is director of the Urban Design Group and author of the Dictionary of Urbanism

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