Immaterial Architecture By Jonathan Hill. Routledge, 2006.227pp. £25
This culturally well-rounded book is organised around two main chapters and an illustrated dictionary. It begins with a look at the historical formation of the private house in 17th-century Holland, as old divisions between inner and outer, private and public, were modified to foster a model of selfhood that lives on in domestic architecture throughout the western world.
Hill's emphasis is on the need for rootedness and identity, and how a particular subjectivity emerged in conjunction with a particular architectural form.
This Dutch model is contrasted with Modernist housing of the early 20th century. The whitewash of Le Corbusier and the glass of Mies prove to be far more deterministic, producing a different subjectivity - one more pliable to the rapacious demands of industrialism and its domination of nature.
Many of the tropes established in this account are then rolled over and applied to a brief history of the institutional domestication of architecture in Europe. The story of the professionalisation of architecture is told as an allegory of the creation of domestic architecture, with a concluding moral. The identity of the self that architects promoted in the house turns out to have its parallels in architecture's struggle for identity in seeking an appropriate institution.
In just 26 pages, this chapter turns a great many of its theoretical sources away from their original intent. Most Structuralist, Post-Structuralist and psychoanalytic theory was meant to put a hole in the dough of humanist conceptions of identity, and to remind us how the sphere of subjectivity was more like a bagel. Yet Hill initially uses these theories to bake a very familiar loaf.
But the next chapter, searching for the identity of architecture, serves up some real bagels. It 'hunts in the shadows' for the holes lurking in architecture's identity, starting with a history of the medium of drawing. In a very palatable manner, Deconstruction, phenomenology and psychoanalysis are used to reveal the 'immaterial' aspects of architectural drawing (abstract ideas, perceptions, etc. ) which contribute to a marvellously unstable identity.
Hill's conclusions are quite convincing variations on many theoretical themes.
The final half of the book consists of an intelligently poetic index, a list of the many ways that architecture and art take on conceptual, linguistic and imaginary properties, or can be dematerialised so as to be introjected into the psyche or flattened into a screen for the projection of fantasies.
This index is, in a sense, a cookbook for Post-Modern architecture that is poor as art criticism, and yet is far more encouraging of creativity than many a 'beginner's guide', and more immediately applicable to studio practice than the raw ingredients found in anthologies of architectural theory. As such it deserves a place at the table of students and practitioners alike.
Tim Martin teaches at Leicester School of Architecture