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Dazed and confused

review

The House: Its Origins and Evolution By Stephen Gardiner. Constable & Robinson, 2002. 371pp. £25

It is not, on the face of it, surprising that a book called The House: Its Origins and Evolution should be quirky, eccentric and deeply flawed, but Stephen Gardiner descends way beyond all expectations.

For starters, there is no such thing as 'the house', despite Gardiner's unseemly teleology, which leads him to claim that house building is an arc punctuated by 'discoveries' such as the community frame, the mandala and penetration between inside and outside space - so taking us from Ur to SPAN.

Lines from T S Eliot's Burnt Norton, 'Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future/ And time future contained in time past', license his flitting between millennia and culture with scarcely a nod to historical method. If you are disappointed that Eliot left out 'time past in time present', Gardiner's extensive bibliography will give solace: with a mere four items published since 1970, it is stuck in a time warp.

There could be, perhaps, a history of domesticity which would cover issues such as gender, class and generational relationships, but this raises further questions about Gardiner's method. He focuses on form and construction, adducing them as evident both of intent and what actually happened, with no corroboration. So in the Minoans' 'perception of architecture their consciousness of the outside and the relationship of this to the inside - there must have been a unique freedom of thought. It would appear that they had broken through several barriers at once and realised their position - on the borderline of history and prehistory, between the ancient East and young West - and attempted a complete fusion of the two which had not taken shape.'

We might think such an endeavour took the mind off those poor virgins sacrificed to the Minotaur, but Gardiner disabuses us, pointing out that because their palaces had no walls, 'the Cretans were free from fear'.

I will save the cusp on which Gardiner is poised for later; meanwhile, let's enjoy his own 'unique freedom of thought'.

Palladio, he concludes, with the confidence of a playwright and the deathless prose style of an architecture critic, said of the Palazzo Chiericati: 'You see, a palace is just a house, after all - it has the same functions and all people are equal.' One assumes that Gardiner has neither a copy of the Quattro Libri, nor Ackerman's little monograph, because both suggest something different.

If Palladio heralded Marx, Inigo Jones played the part John Summerson would write for him three centuries on. 'He stood for continuity; a dedicated Royalist, he preferred to remain in the background, controlling operations; a maker of backgrounds, he became himself a background against which others tested their abilities; a consultant to whom, perhaps, his disciples went for advice on architectural principles a man who became a frame that accepted the variations of others. This makes him a genius. The man and the work suddenly merge.'

Ben Jonson, who had a famous disagreement with Inigo Jones, certainly did not see him as 'background'; Jones himself would hardly have understood the term 'consultant'; and becoming a frame is a rather odd criterion for genius.

So here we have it.Architectural history is the work of geniuses, whose genius is established by their ability to anticipate the concerns of later generations. It is a peculiarly atrophied variant of the Pevsnerite teleological method, without the master's pioneering research.

Flitting backwards and forwards across history is the only way to overcome the 'confusion' of the present day, to find elements which fit the framework of Gardiner's own devising, filled by Eric Lyons, Geoffrey Powell and Jim Cadbury-Brown. 'Genius simplifies, ' he claims. In the rarefied world of holiday homes this generation built for themselves on the Suffolk littoral, such naivety might not do any damage. As a prescription for housing, it is patchy.

Gardiner is happy to cite Darbourne and Darke's Lillington Street in Westminster, but not their very similar, though socially disastrous, Marquess Estate in Islington - another selective blind spot which inconveniently implies that Conservative councils are better at managing public housing than their Labour counterparts. If such lacunae scarred Gardiner's journalism for The Spectator and The Observer, it is hardly surprising that the public still finds architecture confusing, and sections of it hold architects in contempt.

Occasionally a genuine humanity does shine through, in Gardiner's own housing designs, his comments on the horrors of tower blocks, and what he rather charmingly calls the difficulty of living 'a full married life' in system-built homes. That phrase, though, betrays that this book is essentially a republication of one from 1974. Confused and self-seeking in its origin, a pathetic, paralysed parody in its revival, this book, if not its author, deserves to be poised on the borderline of history and oblivion.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher at South Bank University

Malcolm Frost: Graphic Design for Architects Images, 2002. 128pp. £15 (in slipcase with companion volume on designer Ken Cato). ISBN 1 87690 772 X Leaf through this attractive little book and you may be surprised to see just how pervasive within architectural culture are the designs of one-time Architectural Review art editor Malcolm Frost.

Books, exhibitions, periodicals, posters - all are represented here, including several spreads and covers from Frost's time with the AR. The book inaugurates the 'Hands on Graphics Series' from Australian publisher Images, intended to showcase exemplary graphic design from across the world.

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