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Mind and body

review

Guide to Ecstacity By Nigel Coates. Laurence King, 2003. 464pp. £35

It is not altogether surprising that the designer of those two gigantic, strangely androgynous bodies, which did so much to make the Millennium Dome repellent, should claim that 'bodies are islands from which their owners interminably try to escape'. But, continues Nigel Coates in his book Ecstacity, 'the body is the key to urban debate'. Leaving aside the thought that, if we are all trying to escape from the key to urban debate, we might stop our reading at Ebenezer Howard, his point is just about plausible in the clichéd world of contemporary urban theory - fascinated as it is with 'the body', especially when it comes with a skateboard attached to its toes.

Maybe in ecstacity, the amalgam of urban experiences that Coates tries to forge into one entity, such distinctions do not matter.

Appropriating the branch of travel writing that belongs to in-flight magazines rather than Baedeker, he interweaves impressions of London, Rome, Tokyo, Rio, Cairo, Mumbai and New York with the cheerful themes of 'Tuning In', 'Locking On', 'Undressing', 'Letting Go', 'Cranking Up' and 'Flipping Out'.

After all, ever since we first tuned into Simmel about a decade ago, we've locked onto the idea that modern cities undress our minds as well as our bodies. They let the distinctions between real and virtual go, cranking feeling up into thought, and flipping even those ineluctably physical conditions of gender and sexual orientation. But before we tackle that lot, we have a little thicket in the shape of Coates' theory that we need to negotiate.

On first sight everything in the book seems to be on loan from somewhere else.

Simon Patterson's Great Bear reworking of the London underground map appears amid cuttings from glossy magazines; Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau take a bow in the graphics, and the text ladles clichéd sentiment into banality of expression. 'Despite the pressure for buildings to become brands the greater question is how can the brand vocabulary be harnessed to subversive means?' asks Coates in manifesto mode, while evoking Kenneth Frampton's 'architecture of resistance' - all from architectural ideas' central casting.

Once you accept the initial conceit, that ecstacity is an imaginary amalgam, everything follows with a dreary literalness. The text floats from one identifiable location to another, from a Roppongi nightclub to a meal in Borough Market , where you can mix sushi, pecorino, curry and burgers. I think, though I can't be sure, that we are meant to marvel at this promiscuity: frankly, it's dwarfed by the reality of Borough Market at the weekend, where one can buy much more exciting varieties of food than Coates describes - and have the pleasure of bumping into old friends without arranging it by text message, as he imagines you have to do.

The point here is that something like ecstacity really does exist - a different version in each of our heads. I suspect Coates would agree, but with the didacticism of a teacher and self-confidence of a proselytiser for particular lifestyles, he seems to believe that most of us are too square or lacking in faith to realise it. Perhaps that implicit assumption lies behind a subtle but pervasive sense the book has of being a catechism - that the simplistic and direct repetition of certain aspects of doctrine will make us believers without the bother of rational argument.

If this is true, 'Tuning In', 'Locking On', and the rest might be the equivalent of spiritual exercises. But unlike those of St Ignatius, their purpose is to fold participants into the temptations of fleshly existence, rather than to prepare them for its tribulations.

This distinction is the key, because where Coates is no doubt right (although hardly original) in describing urban life as an overwhelming series of sensory impressions, the real point is to use our intellect to understand it. In cities this is particularly true, because so much of the modern metropolis is counter-intuitive - about reversing the flow of rivers or filling in bits of the sea, or adapting a fabric devised for one ideology to another contradictory one. Sensory impressions alone will not engender an appreciation of these issues.

If we merely want to enjoy cities, Coates, despite the pedantry, has something to offer.

But if we want to understand them, we need something else.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher at South Bank University

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