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Seductive stories

Asking, Looking, Playing, Making by Mike Tonkin with Anna Liu. Black Dog Publishing, 1999. 72pp. £12.95

Asking, Looking, Playing, Making is the archetypal 'how to seduce an architect' manual. If it were female it would be Monroe: if it were male, Brad Pitt. It is about high lip-gloss surface and colour factors beyond Space nk or Bobbi Brown's wildest dreams. It is a page turner like the best of picture books. You are hungry for the thrill just overleaf, and can't leave off until you have consumed the whole.

The language itself is of make-up artists and advertisers: hedonistic fantasy, amoral. It is superimposed on, and becomes part of, the persuading image. A red-painted cinema interior is described thus: 'in the first theatre two men fought: blood was drawn: flock to the big screen and watch the killing: red is a thrill, red is power, red is second only to white.'

Asking, Looking, Playing, Making is, as the estate agents say, deceptively simple. It recognises that architectural meaning is a very crude instrument. It chooses its moment well. At a time when celebratory architecture is assumed to reside solely in how esoterically one element rests on another, this book reminds us of a whole other tradition - illusion, fantasy, escape, immediate sensuality. Tonkin and Liu aren't bothered about truth. They're into stories, the most successful of which are intensely beguiling.

Yet despite it being an ad-man's dream, the tradition this book sits in is that of Palladio and Le Corbusier. Lots of pictures, a simple message repeated over and over. Seduce the architects and you will seduce the client. And, like Corb, Tonkin makes sure you remember his name, sitting like an enabling verb on the front cover.

The practice has worked on the usual outlets of the talented young in the 1990s: clubs, hairdressers, private houses. But the book carries the implicit question: can't all architecture partake of this drive for immediate pleasure? Do we need po-faced libraries, schools, nurseries and bus stops in the next decades - or will they have a chance to get Tonked up?

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