The latest trend among architectural academics in America seems to be the revival of theoretical positions from the 1950s and 1960s. With the fashion for French Post-Structuralism on the wane, we find instead the search for a political critique of architecture that offers the possibility of constructive action. In this collection of essays on the subject of everyday architecture, the reference point is the philosophy of everyday life advanced by Henri Lefebvre (with copious nods to Marcuse, McLuhan, Arendt, and others of the period).
You can see the attraction of a return to the ideas of Lefebvre, particularly in the us. It provides a means to side-step the simplicities and limitations of the Structuralist/Post-Structuralist opposition, and in doing so removes the likes of Eisenman and Tschumi from the equation. Lefebvre was a critic of fixed academic positions, and his iconoclastic views on Marxism got him expelled from the French Communist Party. He saw changes in history less as the result of sudden revolutionary moments than of longer-term shifts in social conditions and mentalities. This gave architects and others a definite role in reformulating commonplace urban existence, tackling in particular the negative effects of economic rationalisation, zoning, and unequal spatial distributions of wealth.
Architecture of the Everyday revolves around four excellent essays: Mary McLeod on Lefebvre's legacy, Deborah Fausch on the influence of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Joan Ockman on post-war commercial practice in the us, and Peggy Deamer on Archigram and other consumption-oriented groups of the 1960s. There are also some shorter pieces by architects, artists and photographers. These bring in pertinent issues of race, gender and sexuality, and include fascinating items such as architectural plans of homes in famous American sit-coms.
Taken together, it is a stimulating mix, but ultimately the premise behind the book is misguided. There have been numerous attempts in the past to self-consciously capture the spirit of everyday architecture: one thinks of the Vernacular Revival of Morris and Webb or the Smithsons in the uk, of Venturi and Scott Brown in the us. Today, a number of younger architects are returning to the theme. Yet all such attempts fall flat on their face. To begin with, the analysis is never sophisticated enough: the actual nature of the everyday is endlessly complicated and riven by nuance, and in comparison the attempts to replicate it are limited and patronising. Even the contributors to this book admit that in the us the 'everyday' always seems to refer to white, suburban, lower-middle class existence - prevalent, but far from the only quotidian architecture in the country.
There is a further false assumption. Several writers here argue that the problem with current practice is that architects are intent on producing exceptional, fashionable, 'star' buildings which do not correspond to ordinary needs or wishes. But this contention is simply not true: in the us, as in Britain, the vast bulk of architectural output is humdrum and conformist. Only a relatively small percentage of buildings try to stand out, and even the contributors to this book admit that society require some exhilarating buildings, usually as a form of monument.
So, if in fact the prescription is what is happening already, the argument behind Architecture of the Everyday collapses. The book becomes instead a polemic for an aesthetic preference which values ordinariness and banality in architecture - not an uncommon position throughout this century. Perhaps the desire for social analysis and change might be better served by architects who challenge and explore new conditions, and do not let themselves be constrained by ideas of what everyday experience must be.
Murray Fraser teaches at Oxford Brookes University