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Soft options


Architecture: The Subject is Matter Edited by Jonathan Hill. Routledge, 2001. £19.99

When Le Corbusier was introduced to Salvador Dali, he asked: 'What do you think is the future of architecture?' 'It will be soft and hairy, ' came the unexpected reply. This book opens with the hairy (Till & Wigglesworth's 'straw-bale' house) and closes with the soft (Rachel Armstrong's 'wet architecture'). Sadly, though, it is on the level of ideas and inspiration that too much of this volume is soft, and not a little is extremely hairy.

Collections of essays appear from Routledge with extraordinary rapidity, at times appearing more like a new edition of Architectural Design than a book: excerpts of ongoing conversations and not yet secure arguments, grossly over-validated in footnote and reference; bizarre juxtapositions and in-talk (in this case Bartlett-centric), with a fair smattering of gobbledegook to keep us amused. The contrast between this, quite valid but journal-like format, and a book of essays is seen in another new Routledge product, What is Architecture? (edited by Andrew Ballantyne), in which very varied, often key recent texts are subtly chosen and valuably re-aired.

What, indeed, is architecture? 'Architectural matter, ' Hill tells us, 'is whatever architecture is made of, whether words, bricks, blood cells, sounds or pixels. Architecture can be found in the incisions of a surgeon. Architecture can be made of anything and by anyone.' Appetites whetted, we await insights. But they are hard to find, and the logic of the collection is not substantiated.

David Sibley never scratches far below the obvious; Mark Dorrian tries to say too much with his mouth full; Hill's own paper is unexceptional, his point being - as he says near the end - to argue that 'the building that is most suggestive and open to appropriation is the one we do not immediately know how to occupy.' Or, as the old sage said: 'Don't understand me too quickly.'

While some contributors clearly aim their text at colleagues within 'such ongoing theoretical disputes' (Jane Rendell's words), Hill's goal is wider. Unlike 'the obvious aim of architects and architectural historians. . .

to exclude outsiders from the conversation, ' this book 'aims to present ideas in a seductive and accessible manner'.

At least, for the exhausted reader, the final pages are enlivened by their manifesto style: 'We have at last sensed that we are nearly at the end of the tyranny of formal inertia!' shouts Neil Spiller, as he announces 'the battle to make nature ours'. Such archaic Modernism (and its masculinist imperialism) is continued by Armstrong:

'Architects are already starting to redesign the human body as an architectural project!'

Her writing takes the bizarre form of a blurb for Extropia. The goal is 'a technologised change in our species known as post-humanism. . . Extropians use technologies to improve their internal character'.

Comic and darkly surreal as all this appears, I fear that is far from the author's intent - so it lacks the insight, say, of Haruki Murakami's extraordinary novel, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World.

However, unlike the curate's egg, there are some uncontaminated and tasty bites.

These include Iain Borden's pleasant meditation on the inhabitation of his stair, Till & Wigglesworth's perceptive, witty and original musings which question Flaubert's 'Le bon Dieu est dans le detail', and Katerina Ruedi Ray's insightful study of the way Bauhaus education (after the First World War) constructed a new masculine identity.

A bouquet of short and original essays like these is exactly what a book like this could offer the inquisitive reader.

John McKean is a professor at Brighton School of Architecture

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