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Living with the machine

technical & practice

A review of books and events that explore the battle between mankind and technological or social machinery

Architect's Guide to Feng Shui: Exploding the Myth By Cate Bramble.Architectural Press,2003.206 pp. £16.99

'What could be worse than living in a house where the interior staircase ends on a line with the front door?' Well, actually, writes Liz Bailey, I can think of quite a few things: a leaky roof; draughts; a rodent infestation, enough said. Though this book is vaguely useful in a dabbling sort of way, its investigation of the topic can in no way be considered rigorous.

Purporting to be 'a practical guide showing architects how to assess and apply the principles of authentic feng shui', Bramble's book is in fact a-not-terribly-successful attempt to encourage architects to take this intriguing pseudo-science more seriously. The book suffers from a profound lack of structure. The introduction does not introduce, though the chapter on rules and expertise does clarify things a bit, explaining the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of traditional Chinese science and thus of feng shui.

Wuxing, or the five elements, for instance, 'provide a framework for viewing the components of any system, their relationship and the pattern of motion based on their interaction.' Yes, but how does that help architects? Bramble does not elucidate.

The chapters on planning, environmental assessment and human factors are useful only if you want to be seen to be applying some tenets of feng shui to a new build, while the meaningless flounderings of 'Pseudo- and protoscience' and 'Overlooked and overblown issues' are downright hilarious. Bramble abhors 'feng shui 'lite'' - what she calls 'McFengshui' - but never really says how this differs from the real thing.

It's difficult not to laugh at some of the author's assertions. In her chapter 'Crime and its relation to the environment', Bramble insists that 'reducing crime may be as simple as adequate sunlight, open space, and plant and animal life.' Are you listening Mr Blunkett? Ignoring the news in the papers about the killings in sunny, vast and vegetated Liberia, she tries to back this up with statistics. Wait for it. A study in Chicago showed that buildings near 'high levels of vegetation' experienced 56 per cent fewer violent crimes than those away from greenery. Try telling that to Tony Martin in his vegetation over-run Bleak House.

Liz Bailey is a freelance writer on technological issues

REGULAR CONFERENCE GOERS

At this year's Ideal Home Show, to be held at Earl's Court in London in early October, the show's main sponsors offer 'a relaxing Andrex and Aloe Vera Sanctuary' featuring their diverse product ranges.

If you want to 'experience the plant's active properties', pamper yourself (sic) with a complimentary Aloe Vera candle, and avail yourself of other 'amenities which will all be stocked with the toilet tissue brand', the Ideal Home Exhibition is the place to go. Forget ground-breaking housing design and enjoy footage of your favourite 'icon - the Andrex Puppy'. Other delights include a Healthy Living Day, where experts will advise you on 'how to make your home a sanctuary of healthy living, how to eat well and beauty tips to keep you looking and feeling healthy.'Or as my dad would say - much to the chagrin of the core sponsor - 'how to keep regular.'

For more details visit the website www. autumnidealhomeshow. co. uk

'Collaborative' contracts

The new JCT Major Project Form 2003 has been launched as a lump sum contract for experienced clients and contractors regularly involved in the procurement of large-scale buildings. It should be handled with care as RIBA Enterprises states that it is shorter than both JCT98 and WCD98 and so 'will appeal to those clients and users who require limited procedural provisions in the contract and who already have their own in-house procedures'.

The contract is based on 'collaborative' arrangements with the parties and the main points of interest include clauses on accelerating projects; bonuses for early completion; cost savings and value improvements; and covers both private and public sector buildings.

Artificial Love: A Story of Machines and Architecture Paul Shepheard. The MIT Press, 2003. 296pp.

£10.50. £27.95 cloth

Seldom does this writer lose her head to a book, writes Liz Bailey. This time she's lost her heart -to Paul Shepheard's Artificial Love.

Shepheard seamlessly meshes Shakespeare, Greek mythology, the tale of the origins of Islam and stories from his own life with his musings on technology and architecture. He begins with the premise that 'technology is a force of nature. It is the force of the human presence in the world', and carries on telling you how it is.

The book is divided into four seminars tracing conversations Shepheard has had with students about architecture and machines; a 'soap opera' based loosely on the Bard's seven ages of man exploring the same topic through the lens of his friends' and family's experiences; and a delightfully annotated index, a kind of 'scatty and free range' trawl through the same material in alphabetical order.

Underlying this structure are the mostly abortive attempts of his student Jacques' attempts to create a taxonomy of technology, what he calls 'A Field Guide to the Machines', and spicy little discussions on geoid corrections and mapping and hegemony; on globalisation and capitalism and tribalism.

Appropriately enough, this book explores relationships: between technology and architecture; between Shepheard and his students; among the members of Shepheard's extended family; between the way an architect plans the use of a building and the way it is actually used in practice; between one global hegemony and the one that succeeds it. 'The Spanish ran colonisation like the exploration they ran in on. The English ran industrialisation like colonisation.'

Shepheard flings pungent remarks about like rice at a wedding: 'Machines don't have sex with each other like we do but they do reproduce/they use us to do it for them.'

You may not agree with many of these - in fact you probably won't - and yet his observations might make you consider things in a slightly different light: 'It is the fall of 2001, ' he writes. 'A month ago, 19 terrorists attacked the United States by taking one piece of its machinery and turning it against another.'

He poses some stunning questions, though admittedly he doesn't often answer them fully, or even at all.

Are great buildings such as the Parthenon 'great because they are confident of their own time, and that's what we need to find for our time? Or is it that they are great because they are great, and we should be striving to emulate their instructive forms?'

And 'How do we enable our clumsy, representational, remotely activated version of democracy to handle the continuous ocean of automation technologies?' This, then, is the book's only real failing, if it can be called such: it is that if you're the sort of reader who craves closure and firm conclusions and unambiguous messages, this may not be the book for you. If, however, the meanderings of one passionate, if slightly mad guy, about humanity, machines and buildings appeal to you, you'll not be able to put it down.

A Turbulent Transition: Building Contracts 1980 to 2001 By James Nisbet. Stoke Publications, 2002.

64pp. £7.50

This is a very useful and interesting book, or should I say polemic. It sets itself the task of explaining and commenting on the changes in construction contracts since the 1800s - but, more rigorously, those changes that have occurred since 1980.

Nisbet starts by asserting that after the end of post-war austerity and the associated hype of material scarcity, 'tranquillity descended for about two decades', but 'by the end of the 1980s the urge to reorganise returned with increased vigour'. This turbulence culminated in the Latham and Egan reports, both of which were 'so open to interpretation that any enthusiast with a hobbyhorse could ride aboard'.

Nisbet, a quantity surveyor, perhaps understandably has an instrumental view of events, but even though he avoids overt political commentary, he manages a few well-aimed comments. It is useful to be reminded of the Thatcherite paradigm of fragmenting responsibility for the provision of public services from the public sector to the private sector, and seeing how these early policies have legitimised the political practices of the current government's public sector strategy, for example.

Just as author Christian Wolmar has dispelled the common presumption that there's a difference between PFI and PPP (the former, Wolmar says, prioritises the word 'private' and is thus a Tory construct; while the latter uses the cosier word 'public' simply to represent New Labour's caring credentials), so Nisbet allows the message to come through on its own. 'As PFI/PPP projects are classified as private expenditure the records of national construction statistics are likely to change, ' he says. In other words, as a lease-back scheme, it has been a handy way of removing state-spending costs from the Treasury statistics or at least spreading the lump sum over 30 years. Thus things look healthier than they might otherwise.

Nisbet gently insinuates his critique of the many politically-motivated changes to the 'system' and makes very good use of the bureaucratic machinations construction practices to show that they may have no effect whatsoever on the out-turn product. Assessing value for money, for example, he suggests, is a political rather than practical proposal, since Procurement Guidance 2 acknowledges that, for the life span of any building, there is an enormous gap in available data' enabling comparisons to be drawn. In cost terms; in time and labour expended, it is an inefficient way of comparing actual and possible costs for only theoretical returns.

This book is a refreshing read; thoughtprovokingly critical without veering into the cynical. It deserves to be read by all architects to ensure that they retain a hold on reality.

Construction Cock-Up A recent news item in AJ's sister paper, Construction News, reported the aftermath of a horrific accident in a bid to encourage safety on construction sites.Undoubtedly, it may be the most resonant way of pushing for greater recognition of the risks caused by inadequately protected machinery on site.

The story concerns an accident to a roofer, which took place two years ago.Headlined '£5,000 for man who lost testicles, ' the article says that 'he leant over an engine with an unguarded shaft to get a lever when the shaft caught his clothing, cutting into both testicles and removing the skin from his penis.'

The article continued that he has received plastic surgery and is 'expected to need hormone treatment for the rest of his life'.After such an apparently paltry sum, the victim is currently launching a separate civil action.

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