BOOKS Complex critique is required reading The Illegal Architect by Jonathan Hill. Black Dog Publishing, 1998. 64pp. £12.95
Dense, tantalising and ultimately sinister, The Illegal Architect is a project on the theme that 'Things Are Not What They Seem'. For Hill, the illegal architect is both the creative user of architecture and 'a different type of architectural producer, one unrestrained by professionalism'. Contrary to our habitual, comfortable view, much of our professional activity is based not on the user's benign accommodation but rather on curtailing his/her own power to define architecture.
Some of this is to do with straight denial. In a hilarious but telling passage, Hill compares the way we clutch at the user-free perspective or photograph of a building to a child clinging to its teddy bear. Both child and architect are unable to face a messy, peopled future away from their idealised security prop, which is passive and predictable. Curtailment of the user's architectural potency persists in other more subtle ways, of which Hill identifies three: science, theatre and art. Science in its various functionalist guises limits use to predictable mechanical effects. Theatre involves a conception of the user as a kind of actor playing a role (as identified by Beatriz Colomina in the work of Loos and Le Corbusier). But the role of art is the most original and subversive in Hill's litany of repressive tyrants.
While many recent texts in architecture take for granted that 'art' is somehow a practice free from the power politics of professional activity, Hill notes how the uncritical contemplation of a building as if it were an object in an art gallery erases the complexity of user-occupation: 'The photograph acts as the mediator between the writer and the reader, who is encouraged to equate the experience of a photograph with the experience of a building. Consequently, in architectural discourse, the object of the discussion is often the photograph, not the building, because the former most closely fulfils the desires and expectations of the architect and historian for an object of artistic contemplation.'
Yet an example of the book's intriguing complexity is the way that liberating possibilities of current artistic ideas are taken up in the second half of the text. Examples are the conception of architecture not as a stable entity but as a relationship between a subject and an object in which both participate, and the extension of architecture beyond accepted professional propriety to encompass such possibilites as a wall of coffee beans by artist Jannis Kounellis.
As might be expected from someone who is a thorough-going architect as well as a writer, the 'Things Are Not What They Seem' theme determines the form of the book as much as its content. There are three parallel texts: first, a sustained discourse on defence strategies in the architectural profession's notion of architecture; second, a set of drawings and photographs of an imaginary Institute for Illegal Architects to be built opposite the riba in Portland Place; and third, a literary description, in the manner of Jeanette Winterson at her best, of the experience of the new institute. This last gaily conjures up a place blowing a perpetual raspberry at the adjacent riba. It celebrates all that is erased from that po-faced institution.
At first sight, the drawings of the institute make wilful use of the very arty assumptions under attack in the book's discursive text. The point is that the institute as a building is utterly illegible as a set of architectural drawings. This drawn description is an absolute denial of the simple equation what-you-see-is-what-you-get - the professional lie whose exposure is at the heart of Hill's text. Instead of architectural drawings these are cartoons which obliquely cock a snook at the profession: they exist in a parallel universe of puzzle magazines and crosswords, subject to an absurd yet fascinating insiders' code.
The Illegal Architect is a milestone. It is the first text to make a sustained interpretation of recent cultural theory with specific reference to architecture as a profession, and to do so poignantly using the tools most dear to that profession - writing and drawing. As such, not only does it deserve pride of place on Part III book lists, but its message should make it required reading if cpd is ever to acquire its much-needed intellectual credentials.
Katherine Shonfield teaches at South Bank University