BOOKS Ambition lapsing into anecdote The Structure of the Ordinary by N J Habraken. MIT Press, 1998. 359pp. £34.95
In an age when we are conditioned to believe that we will never know everything that we might know, it is refreshing to come across a book which aspires to universal significance. For that is what N J Habraken attempts in The Structure of the Ordinary. Its subject is the built environment; its aim to 'seek more intimate knowledge of it', and its method 'rooted in applied research . . . on the distinction of support and infill levels in housing design'.
Given these conditions, we might expect some anomalies and loose threads. But a combination of huge subjects, self-evident aims and limited methods does not bode well, even if Habraken excuses the last with another truism: 'as I reluctantly and painfully had to learn, no single discipline could easily accommodate [the three-part structure which emerged to interpret the built environment].' But big theses are often more interesting if they are manically unified, when a place is ascribed to everything, even if we disagree with that assignation. Instead, Habraken offers a counterpoint of rambling narrative within an increasingly invisible overall structure.
This might be grounds for instant dismissal, but Habraken is too canny and experienced for that. In fact, his narrative mirrors precisely the condition of the built environment which he seeks to describe - with its underlying, given and more-or-less unchangeable support, and its infill controllable at the most devolved level possible.
Habraken's threefold structure comprises physical, territorial and cultural orders. They interweave to create the environment, which consequently acquires its significance through the relationship of form, use and ideological constructs. In some pre-industrial, pre-professional past, their combination occurred through implicit means. 'During the modern era, however,' writes Habraken, 'professional intervention has extended to encompass domestic as well as institutional buildings, places of production, service and commerce . . . What used to remain unquestioned has been taken up as a design problem to be solved.'
This is the old, familiar territory of Structuralism, which since the customisations of Le Corbusier's Pessac housing, has been engrained within housing discourse. In Aldo van Eyck and Herman Hertzberger, it was the dominant strain of Dutch architecture until Koolhaas changed the game - a process coinciding with Habraken's exile from his native land as head of architecture at mit. Merely passing out of fashion does not itself invalidate a system of ideas, but this is the first (and by no means the worst) of the inherent weaknesses of Structuralism which Habraken's theory carries.
Principal among these is the belief that an underlying structure can be postulated at all. Alongside Dutch towns, French bastides, Paris, London, Bath, Venice, Urbino and American suburbs, Habraken throws in the relevant but also popular examples of Latin American barriadas, Tokyo and North African cities. This eclectic mixture might pass for a representative sample in which similarities could be ascribed to universal principles, but I would be more convinced if such destinations did not figure with such regularity on the professional and vacational itineraries of today's academics.
Habraken's cursory recognition of cultural difference does little to allay suspicion. Having devised a universal system of interpretation, it by definition cancels out the possibility of local stimulants to the same ends. So, for example, increasing density in cities as varied as Cambridge (Massachusetts), Mexico City, Birmingham and Glasgow is explained as a product of the same urges: to create value through territorial depth. At other times, such as the brief discussion of Nash's London and Edinburgh New Town, we are offered little more than an anecdotal summary of their development, and left to draw our own conclusions. Coming close to the end of the book, perhaps Habraken believes we are indoctrinated enough.
This points to another weakness in Habraken's Structuralist approach: everything can be explained with reference to his own theory. Huge cultural issues which might benefit from the odd cross-reference to serious studies are explained with niggling, down-home naivete. Perhaps a great writer, a Banham or a Summerson, could bring off such a sleight of hand, but Habraken's prose fails to excite. What starts with the promise of a holistic theory descends into unsatisfying anecdotage.
Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher