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Too quick on the draw

The Anaesthetics of Architecture by Neil Leach. MIT Press, 1999. 101pp. £10.50

Sooner or later, most people who labour in the world of ideas admit that life is more complicated than they had realised. Such epiphanies tend to provoke two reactions: either a hard struggle to come to terms with the world as it now appears, or a metaphorical reaching for the revolver to force the world to conform to its previous mode. In The Anaesthetics of Architecture, Neil Leach, who in the past has produced some highly intelligent writings, firmly aligns himself with the gunslingers.

The 'argument' of this 'polemic', as Leach insists on calling it, can be simply put. Architecture has become over-concerned with producing images, and the resultant constant repetition of aesthetic stimulation leads to our being de-sensitised. 'Architectural design,' he writes, 'is reduced to the superficial play of empty, seductive forms, and philosophy is appropriated as an intellectual veneer to justify these forms.'

Sloppy thinking and writing often come from an over-reliance on received wisdom, and here Leach indulges in what is probably a subconscious nostalgia for a time when academic disciplines knew their place. Philosophy was philosophy and design was a programmatic extrapolation of whatever template was fashionable - Renaissance proportions, Parker Morris space standards or Essex design guides. Challenging this cosy little world with ideas from philosophy or wherever has been very fruitful. But only a failure in philosophy would allow it to justify or condemn forms; if applied robustly it would explain, explore and develop them.

Leach wades into the saloon of contemporary thought with a revolver on each thigh: one called Benjamin, the other called Baudrillard. And here his book is actually an example of the phenomenon he tries to diagnose. Constant repetition of Benjamin's and Baudrillard's analyses of aestheticisation actually numbs the senses to the points they make. Benjamin's essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' might seem naive to anyone who works in the contemporary media, but it is presented as the most insightful piece of writing. Baudrillard's assumption that the image is all goes unchallenged, which belies the huge interest in the work of architects like Peter Zumthor, where tangible, real objects far outweigh their images in importance.

In adding yet more to the plethora of writings which start with Benjamin and end with Baudrillard, Leach merely intensifies the process by which they, warts and all, are becoming the only respectable filters to interpret contemporary architecture. But this contradiction at the heart of his thesis perhaps points a way forward. Despite arguing that architecture has succumbed to a process of aestheticisation, he clearly believes that it still has a separate, what one can only call a moral, role.

This becomes explicit at the end of the book in the course of a discussion of the architecture of seduction - Las Vegas, capitalism, Venturi and Scott Brown, the usual suspects. 'The process of fetishisation ... allows the authors of Learning from Las Vegas ... to abstract the forms of Las Vegas and overlook their social significance,' writes Leach. So these forms have a social significance outside their appearance. If Leach had read Hegel and Ruskin, he would be aware that aesthetics and ethics are inseparable; that the process of intensifying aesthetics need not and cannot sever this, and that his concerns, if not groundless, are misdirected.

Far more important than tilting at the windmill of 'aesthetisication' is to question the tools by which that process is being analysed, to return to the origin of aesthetics as a way of directing but not suppressing emotions. There is much to be done to challenge the uncritical assumptions about architecture that suit the media, but Leach merely piles a few more corpses onto the doorstep which will have to be taken away before that process can start.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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