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Rules of engagement

Architects and the 'Building World' from Chambers to Ruskin: Constructing Authority By Brian Hanson. Cambridge University Press, 2003. £55 A pleasure in reviewing books is to come across one that weaves loose threads together, which guide into order the hares that others set running. Such a book does not have to be great or ambitious; it may merely flip the more substantial themes of others into a hitherto unseen coherence. Brian Hanson's Architects and the 'Building World' from Chambers to Ruskin achieves this effect; but it is certainly ambitious and it may be great.

As its title suggests, it deliberately aims to put unfamiliar fellows into bed with each other but, as Hanson demonstrates, the architectural world operates a mysterious alchemy - called style, perhaps - which reverses normal rules of attraction. 'The building world, ' Hanson writes, 'comprising architects and their representatives, contractors, and various degrees of operatives, constitutes a true microcosm of society, mingling together fihighfl and filowfl, fipolitefl and fivulgarfl.'

If you consider architecture to be the rightful primus inter pares of the building world, it's hardly surprising that the discipline has attracted all manner of control freaks. But looking at the 'building world' more generally gives a different perspective.

There it matters little whether you like your arches pointed or rounded; it's the way you make them and the purpose to which you put them that counts.

Such a discussion necessarily goes broader and deeper into social history than most discussions of architecture, and Hanson has amassed formidable evidence from extensive archival work. The underlying point is that all architects have to make some form of engagement with the 'building world', though some might choose to gather up the connecting sinews and float above it like an airship leaving its moorings, while others immerse themselves within it.

Among the former, shows Hanson, was Soane, while the latter included (though not without ambiguity) William Chambers.

Hanson's formulation adds an extra tier to our understanding of such giants. Chambers' architecture, always grandiose and occasionally lumpen, derives from a different productive base that might shape its perceived qualities to its advantage; Soane's architecture, never lumpen, always sophisticated and occasionally in touch with the sublime, draws its essence from a narrower productive base. Without answering the whole question, this point broadens the explanations for Soane's apparently mysterious failure to establish any coherent school of followers from the all-too-easy one that he was an unrepeatable genius.

If Hanson remained at that level, he would still have produced a formidable work of social and construction history. His references range from studies of Swedish labour relations that show the only recorded strikes in 18th-century Sweden were in the construction industry, to Richard Price's reconceptualisation of labour relations in 19th-century Britain. But he also attempts the Everest of architectural history, which is to show how those sorts of developments might relate to aesthetic theory. Ultimately this is the sort of insight that architecture alone can offer, because 'we accept that it is the job of the architect to translate social reality into built form. He or she is the only one who has the vision necessary to penetrate the complexities of modern society.'

Hanson draws on works such as John Brewer's Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the 18th Century, and Sidney Robinson's Inquiry into the Picturesque to underpin his argument that '[Charles] Barry's picturesque architectural philosophy was not neutral? the discipline instilled by general contractors was necessary to the particular balance of mass and detail desired by the architect', and 'the logic of general contracting was reinforced by an aesthetic logic which itself required unyielding authority'.

We may not yet have got Chambers and Ruskin into the same bed, but we are close to consummating the relationship between Barry and Pugin, which historians weaned on the 'Battle of the Styles' as an interpretative mode for 19th-century architecture inevitably find curious.

Hanson's formulations help to propose new explanations for other such 'awkward' historical facts, and in doing so his book goes right to the front of the pack. Are there criticisms? It would be fairer to call them unanswered questions. The better the work, the more one wants to debate and discuss.

The rise of architectural competitions - especially in furthering the career of Charles Barry, who emerges as a rather humourless pedant - could help to reinforce or expand his point. And it is a sad reminder of the distinctions between journalism and 'academic' work that the entertaining coincidence of both George Dance and Norman Foster being accused of using the 'wrong' stone on important public buildings is relegated to footnotes. Such anecdotes might have relieved a rather dense text.

And Ruskin - he emerges as the culmination, rather than the originator, of a tradition of thought that studies power relations within construction; an insight that should lead to the revision of our understanding of later 19th-century architecture and the Arts and Crafts movement.Hanson's discussion is intelligent and original: his use of The Poetry of Architecture, with its explicit adaptation of picturesque theory, fits with the general thrust of the book.

But if he had had more space and time, I would have been fascinated by his views on Ruskin's later works, such as the Queen of the Air, St Mark's Rest and the Bible of Amiens, which Ruskin explicitly saw as a revision of Modern Painters, the Stones of Venice and the Seven Lamps, and where he negotiated that seminal Victorian 'intellectual crisis' - the realisation that literal interpretation and representation was a dead end, and what mattered was allusion, symbolism and the metaphysical. But it would be quite another challenge to show how that was translated into built form.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher at South Bank University

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