Divided we stand
Weighing in at just over 500 pages including footnotes and references, this book is unlikely to appeal to the casual reader or anyone wanting a handy introduction to the state of play in architectural history and theory. But if you have the stamina to survive the dense and lengthy early chapters (on medieval optics, philosophy of light, and Renaissance perspective), Vesely provides an impressively broad and engaging panorama of some fascinating - yet disputed - territory in the contemporary architectural debate.
Disputed because, for Vesely, architecture has been gradually reduced to a branch of technology and in the process has given up its once privileged status as the embodiment of cultural memory and significance.
The resulting condition of 'divided representation' refers to an opposition between the technical and symbolic potential of architecture as a means of communication and expression: 'Ultimately, the instrumental representation of reality is part of the essence of modern technology. For that reason, symbolic and instrumental representation are inevitably deeply opposed.
While the former is reconciliatory and serves as a vehicle of participation, understanding and global meaning, the latter is aggressive and serves as an instrument of autonomy, domination and control.' The historical background to this problematic situation is long and complex, but will be familiar to many readers from the work of Joseph Rykwert and Alberto PerezGomez (among others). What is new is Vesely's 'archaeological' delving into the darker regions, prior to the development of perspective in the 15th century as a means of structuring represented space.
By describing in detail - and with remarkable clarity - the medieval philosophy of light, and its influence on the geometrical and proportional thinking at the heart of the perspective view of the world, he provides a much richer account than we have had before; based on his underlying premise of cultural continuity and evolution, as opposed to revolutionary rupture caused by individual innovations.
The alignment of perspective with Euclidean and Cartesian descriptions of space comes later, in the 17th century, resulting in the ultimately reductive view of the modern world provided by the mathematical sciences.
Thankfully, it's not all doom and gloom in Vesely's world. After highlighting the lessons of the Baroque and early Romanticism as perhaps the last examples of (what he calls) truly integrated cultural activity within a shared 'horizon of meaning', in the second half of the book he sets out the framework within which buildings could again be seen as 'situated' - communicative and significant in a broader cultural context.
This possibility is predicated on the notion that we might still inhabit some form of 'communicative space' - a web of cultural texts in which buildings play their part but also provide a stable background. In other words, according to a rather hubristic claim, as text is to literature, architecture is to culture as a whole.
What then emerges is labelled a new 'poetics of architecture', forming the climax of the final chapter. This is based on the idea of articulating the 'paradigmatic situations' of contemporary life in a series of architectural settings celebrating everyday events. Despite the rapid advances in modern technology, Vesely claims that these everyday situations have remained relatively stable throughout history. We might, therefore, reconnect ourselves with a larger 'cosmic framework' that still has the power to orientate us as embodied human beings in relation to the rhythmic patterns of the natural world.
Vesely also highlights the paradoxically restorative function of fragments - as distinct from fragmentation - in his account of the early Modern innovations of Cubism and Surrealism, and in particular the technique of collage. The architectural potential of this approach is further illustrated in a series of fascinating descriptions of projects, such as Eric Parry's Stockley Park office building, and a selection of composite drawings ('metaphorical studies') taken from recent student work.
As an influential teacher of architecture (mainly at the AA and Cambridge schools), Vesely has for too long remained stubbornly faithful to the limitations of the oral tradition he so obviously admires. Having finally succumbed to the possibilities offered by the technology of the printed word, his challenging thoughts still retain their force and immediacy, and deserve to be heard by a wider audience.
Jonathan Hale is an architect and senior lecturer at the University of Nottingham