How Architecture Got Its Hump
By Roger Connah.MIT Press, 2001. 209pp. £11.50
Roger Connah is a canny fellow, writes Jeremy Melvin. In answering such a personal question as How Architecture Got Its Hump, he immediately licences any amount of digression, allusion or obfuscation. Rather like pre-Mozartian 18th-century operas, when divine intervention in response to a nifty aria resolved tangled plots, Connah appeals to Kipling or Antoine de SaintExupÚry when his arguments threaten to unravel. Whether these children's fables have anything to add to architectural discourse is another matter.
It is not surprising that Connah needs help from any quarter because his basic thesis derives from the improbable combination of medieval European linguistics and Tibetan philosophy. From the first comes the term 'bull', meaning 'fraud, deceit, trickery' in Old French and falsehood in Middle English, while in Iceland it signified nonsense. Connah hopes it might offer 'some credibility to newer, errant architectures, architectures ambushed by their own surprise and unrest'.
From Tibet comes the concept of 'bardo': 'commonly used to describe the intermediate state beneath death and rebirthà [the juncture] when the possibility of liberation or enlightenment is heightened.'
Unfortunately this is not quite as original as it sounds. It puts architecture back there with Abbot Suger and Erwin Panofsky, dwelling neither in the slime of the earth nor the celestial glory of the heavens but somewhere in between. After all, Suger's great abbey at St Denis (pictured) - which inaugurated the stylistic coherence we term Gothic - was certainly new, probably errant, and quite possibly 'ambushed by its own surprise and unrest'.
Connah, though, brings the dual concept of bull and bardo to bear on the contemporary. Being a film-maker as well as a writer, he is interested in the proliferation of images, image-making and presentation. He is also interested in the interstices between them.
'Mind the gap, ' he repeatedly warns, after the desiccated London Underground voice; but bull and bardo, I suspect, are a way of turning the gap from something negative, to be overcome, to something positive - opportunities for invention. It is no coincidence that there are several references to the anthropologist Edmund Leach, who suggested that rituals somehow stood outside the normal sequence of time - hiatuses which reconfigured their society's composition.
Again, bull and bardo are not entirely original concepts;
although useful, they dress up existing ideas. So what is important about Connah's book is the dressing, and here he shows an invention which shames many fashion editors.
Deconstruction, he suggests, might be 'the Heideggerization of architecture in and through Jacques Derrida'; 'Nouvel, Tschumi, Koolhaas, Libeskind, Ito, Eisenman, Alsop, Gehry, Herzog, de Meuron, MVRDV, UN, Zumthorà the names agglutinise unstoppableà' Leaving aside the cheap point that such name-dropping is tantamount to asking for the next lucrative guest lectureship (How Architecture Got Its Hump started life as a lecture series at Cornell University in 1995), if you do not accept that Connah has found some interpretative framework which ties these diverse people together, you are left feeling slightly nauseous.
Instead of following through an argument, Connah turns to another of his myriad references to get out of difficulties.So, looking for an analogy for the progress of 20th-century architecture, he alights on Laurence Sterne's diagrams of the narrative of his novel Tristram Shandy, written in the early 18th century.
It is true they have humps and bumps, squiggles and reversals, but so do many other images. Connah reverts to the trusty device that the 'century's architecture surely comes to mind when we see Sterne's four diagrams'.
I suppose that shooting backwards and forwards in time is nothing your average divinity in a Handelian opera could not do, but Connah lacks the divine spark.
Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher