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Image driven

aj review

Small Houses By Nicolas Pople. Laurence King, 2003. 208pp. £35

Small Houses is a square-format hardcover with 208 pages of fine white glaze containing 400 illustrations (300 colour-printed in Singapore). It is divided into three sections - 'Rural Retreats', 'Urban and Suburban Bases', and 'Small Clusters and 'Multiples' - but a quick glance at the varied contents, all drawn from the past few years, suggests this is not a systematic study of what Karel Teige called 'the minimum dwelling' (AJ 30.1.03).

Indeed, the introductory note states that: 'Small houses are no longer synonymous with cheap houses and lack of privilege.

Instead, they symbolise a range of culturally coded values: compactness, efficiency, discrimination, discreteness, minimalism.' So, rather than Le Corbusier's Maison Minimum, low-cost workers' housing, it is the Maison Minimaliste? Not exactly, as holiday homes, apartments, lofts and even museum installations are included, and the 'House at Twin Peaks', San Francisco, at a rambling 150m2, is hardly small - especially when compared with the 'House in a Suitcase', a temporary home of 27m2 sitting on the roof of a Barcelona apartment block and included in the same section.

Plans and details, sometimes oddly printed over blocks of bright colour (to make them interesting? ), context, construction and costs are all subservient to the colour plates. The front cover shows a dramatic night view of a fully-glazed facade, internally lit to reveal what looks like a stylish furniture showroom, apparently floating above a podium - a diminutive temple of consumption even. 'Signs of occupancy', to use the Smithsons' memorable term, are minimal, as they are throughout - just four people and a dog in 37 projects.

In Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Frederick Jameson writes: 'Postmodernism raises questions about architecture which it at once redirects.' What we want to consume, he suggests, are not the buildings, which we might not even recognise in their everyday setting, but the glamorous photographs; and how could we do that if there's somebody else in the picture? Jameson goes on to suggest that Post-Modern architecture might be the property of literary critics after all, textual in more ways than one.

This would certainly apply here, as Nicolas Pople writes extremely well, peppering this eclectic collection with scholarly and sometimes charming references - the Grimms' fairy tale The Briar Rose and Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden when discussing tree-screened holiday houses in Jupilles, for instance - and you have to take your hat off to someone who can bring Goethe into a description of a converted pigsty.

'Only the rich can afford to live in slums, ' said Cedric Price at the time of the first cottage-conversion boom. What at first might seem, ironically, to confirm that comment, is in fact an example of EF Schumacher's Small is Beautiful (1973): the house that Christopher Day has built for himself from reclaimed local materials on a tiny budget.

Regionally distinctive and energy efficient, it is in sharp contrast to the rest of the book.

It is good to find an example of social housing ('Tell us about the Welfare State, grandad') - a typically stylish project by current favourites Herzog & de Meuron; but how does it demonstrate the premise that 'the really intelligent agenda behind this scheme is to attempt to make the position of the architect disappear and to give emphasis to design as seen from those who experience it on a daily basis'?

What remains truly contentious is the blithe statement that 'in the world's major capitals, even the super-rich can no longer afford large amounts of space for their exclusive use'; and trying to tie in the theme of the small house with the miniaturisation of many design objects, and claim that they are no longer linked with poverty, is to fly in the face of economic reality.

Otherwise, in today's parlance, the commentary is inclusive and non-judgmental, as the author comes to terms with the changed conditions of production outside the academic. Today, Walter Benjamin's Modernist concept of 'the author as producer' is overturned. In a saturated market - overproduction evidenced by a host of discount bookshops - publishers are driven to widen their appeal and look to the global market.

Photographers and picture researchers come to the fore, as time spent in the periodical or slide library replaces the 'grand tour'. Presentation takes precedence over criticism, and image over experience.

David Wild is an architect and author of Fragments of Utopia (Hyphen Press)

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