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Jencks' formula for excess

review: Ecstatic Architecture by Charles Jencks. Academy Editions, 1999. 176pp. £29.95

So what is happening in architecture? Historians of the future will have to rely on books like Ecstatic Architecture, a compilation based on an Academy Forum in November 1997, and may be puzzled at the way in which nearly everyone involved missed the point.

Charles Jencks has outshone all competition in labelling and packaging architecture during the last 30 years, and Ecstatic Architecture follows on from previous bright and attractive boxes. Like Post-Modernism, Neo- Modernism and Deconstruction, the labelling can obscure the product and it may take years of patient work to remove it and see what is really underneath. As an organising concept, 'Ecstatic Architecture' has the substantiality of bubble-wrap, but the general area of exploration - which I would prefer to calla post-Cartesian architecture - is interesting and genuinely important.

The cast-list of architects is fairly predictable: Gehry, Libeskind, Coates, Moss, Coop Himmelblau, Alsop, Decq and Takamatsu. Antecedents include Gaudi, Borromini, and anything prior which has a sufficient 'wow' factor.

Paolo Portoghesi remarks that 'starting with Boullee - and even Beethoven - the whole modern adventure is dotted with ecstatic objects, the purpose of which is to take one away from ordinary experience.' True, but only with the rise of scientific rationalism were the arts edged towards their role of compensation and replacement for religion, rather than being a form of knowledge integrated with all other forms. However, he strikes deeper when he says that 'ecstasis implies contemplation'.

Like other contributors, Portoghesi takes Bernini's The Ecstasy of St Theresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome as a point of definition - a work whose date, 1650, nearly enough coincides with Descartes' Discourse on Method, 1637, to suggest that as soon as ecstasy had to be objectified, it began to lose its meaning. Trying to get airborne along with Bernini's illusionistic mass of marble, modern commentators never leave the ground any more than even the most ecstatic buildings can. It's all in the mind.

Ecstasy, as Jencks explains, is the process of being lifted out of yourself by some uncommon experience, or, as Neil Leach more subtly suggests in a paraphrase of Julia Kristeva, 'to be closed off to the potential of art amounts to a form of death'. It is no new revelation that architecture, along with the other arts, can provide the life-giving antidote, but the problem of Ecstatic Architecture is that it builds its category almost exclusively from the highest range of excess - bright colour, wacky shapes, bits sticking out - while the potential field is so much wider.

Post-Cartesian architecture shifts the balance towards subjectivity. In these early days, we are still trying to discuss it in an old language of objectivity, but there is a middle position between robotic unresponsiveness and being out of your head (the range of alternatives offered here). It is frustrating that there is so little attention to the broader underlying issues of alienation from nature and the body, against which 'ecstatic architecture' is an extreme reaction.

Alienation can be overcome by many kinds of authentic experience, but never by working to a formula based on a category. Whenever Jencks publishes a book, a nightmare vision arises that in 10 years' time the out-of-town superstores (or whatever their fast-architecture equivalent turns out to be) will imitate the latest formula which he has etherised upon a table. That is why a genuinely transformative building like the Guggenheim, Bilbao (above left) is being sold short if it is seen only as the biggest and best sweetie in the jar.

Alan Powers is an architectural historian

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