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Media studies

review

This Is Not Architecture Edited by Kester Rattenbury. Spon Press, 2002. £24.99

Architecture's relationship to the media is one of those subjects where many have prejudices, though few have real knowledge, and even fewer genuine insight. This is partly because those who know about the media's modalities are mainly journalists, whose capacity for insight is curtailed precisely by those modalities and the structural beliefs they engender. Meanwhile, architects see media coverage of their subject as a travesty, but lack insight into the weirdly distorting mirror of that world.

Brave in tackling a subject where myths abound, and in its range across the issues, This Is Not Architecture is a welcome book.

But that spread is also a weakness; it is as if the editor, Kester Rattenbury, felt obliged to put something in for every constituency.

This is a shame because the contribution which best combines insight with relevance is her own, 'Naturally Biased: Architecture in the UK National Press'. Based on 15-year-old PhD research which methodically examined coverage of architecture in various national papers, it should still be required reading for every architect who has ambitions to appear in the media. It is also one of very few serious studies into how national papers cover a specialist subject, imposing distortions which all too often lie unexamined beneath the surface of what is written or said.

'It is still common to hear that the media represent the voice of the people, ' writes Rattenbury. 'It is worth saying at once that this view has almost no support in any serious research.' Architecture, she shows, demonstrates almost the exact opposite of this view:

what the media can and does extensively cover are aesthetic issues rather than architecture's contribution, say, to public services.

The media's taxonomy of subjects, still largely based on ministerial curtilages which themselves derive from 19th-century political priorities, simply cannot deal with architecture's hydra-headedness.

With an empirical research base and a grasp of both the theoretical and practical operation of the media, Rattenbury is well capable of developing this into a serious methodological hypothesis. Instead, the book is filled up with other contributions that either follow trends or derive from serious academic work, though virtually none actually turn the academic insight onto the media. Perhaps, in the specific sense of electronic media, the closest is MIT's Bill Mitchell on the 'Revenge of the Place', which makes a cogent case for the necessity of real architecture in the digital age.

Others in this vein are Alan Powers on architectural books, Harvard professor emeritus James Ackerman on photography, Alberto Perez-Gomez on perspective, and Beatriz Colomina on 'architectureproduction' (sic). Each is perceptive in itself, but too many are extracted from different contexts.

The last, for example, comes from a publication to whose other essays Colomina makes frequent reference. But this does not undermine her insight that architecture exists in a vortex of production and reproduction, where processes which conventionally 'reproduce' (ie the 'media') are sometimes the most active agents of production.

Representing another tendency is Neil Leach's empty-headed attempt to define a Wallpaper* person. Its selection of subject is itself a product of media construction and the apparent analogue between Wallpaperesque lifestyle and Georg Simmel's concepts of modernity. Leach may know 'The Metropolis and Mental Life' backwards and Benjamin sideways, but if he wants to comment on the interaction between capitalism and the consumerism the magazine represents, it would help if he could also read its balance sheet and business plan.

Media organisations are rather good at matching such ideas to money-making opportunities, almost as good as advertising agents, and certainly better than architects who all too often give away their most lucrative ideas. Without such grounding Leach inevitably dematerialises into the virtuality he so superficially despises.

But just in bringing this motley collection together, Rattenbury has performed an invaluable service. In true 'media studies' style, she combines the high and low; paying more than lip service to Post-Modernity, she accepts many points of view. But, above all, she gives a glimmer of hope that, with patience and effort, real methodological progress might be made in understanding the skein of relationships which bring architecture into public consciousness.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher at South Bank University

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