Tracing links over time
Ploughing through Architecture Theory since 1968 has finally convinced me that some great works are simply better suited to the internet than to the confines of a book. In many ways it is perfectly convincing as a book. Its covers suggest the potent mix of the seriously academic and the casually avant-garde which architectural theorists manage so well. Its contents are impressive: K Michael Hays has undertaken an ambitious project - namely to collate a canon of architectural theory since the 1960s. The material is mainly written (including texts which have been translated into English for the first time), but also includes architectural projects 'that had major repercussions for the period'.
It ranges in vintage from Manfredo Tafuri's Towards a Critique of Architectural Ideology of 1969 to R E Somol's One or Several Masters?, a paper presented in 1993 and published three years later. In a discipline which has difficulty in distinguishing the radical or profound from the irrelevant or plain silly, it comes as a great relief that somebody is finally prepared to stick his neck out and say, simply, 'This is the stuff you need to know.'
Whether or not he has made the right choices seems far less important than the fact that he has made the choices at all. If his masterwork becomes universally adopted by schools of architecture, Hays may yet reverse the current situation where it is rare to find two architects in the same room who have read anything in common at all - other than Learning from Las Vegas and Gridiron. Any consensus about what is worth knowing will lead to a fund of shared knowledge which might sow the seeds for meaningful debate.
But the book's fundamental problem lies in the organisation of material. Hays has opted for the most straightforward option - papers are simply published in chronological order. This way, he argues, the attentive reader can see how different intellectual threads develop over time. While this could be a rewarding exercise for those prone to reading exceedingly lengthy books from cover to cover, it means that any links between the various writings may elude the less diligent. Sadly, there are no short cuts. The conventional index is scarcely sufficient to pick out the pieces of work which are of relevance to any particular school of thought.
Occasionally the positioning works well. Chamber Works, a collection of Daniel Libeskind's drawings which were on show at the aa in 1983, is, logically enough, followed by Robin Evans' review of the exhibition. But if Evans had been a little slower off the mark in his response, the two may well have been separated by Stanford Anderson writing on Architectural Design as a System of Research Programs, or even Jean-Louis Cohen's thoughts on The Italophiles at Work.
The chronological ordering system also has the disadvantage that different types of entries are awarded equal and identical status. Drawn projects are slotted in at the appropriate point in the queue, as though they are simply another piece of text, yet Hays suggests that there is a clear distinction between the two by the fact that he prefaces each written entry with his comments to show the reader what to look out for in the text, but leaves the drawn projects to speak for themselves, simply printing the architect's own explanation of the work.
Conversely, the first and last entries are imbued with disproportionate significance. While it might just be possible to make the argument that contemporary architecture theory kicked off with Tafuri writing in the 1960s, it is clearly not the case that it ended with the paper presented by Somol in 1993. But Somol has the final word, and the conventions of academic books are so well-established that it is difficult not to try and read into it some kind of conclusion.
There is no conclusion, of course, because the book is awaiting the next chapter, namely the next piece of work judged to be worthy of inclusion. But chapters cannot simply be tacked on the end, and the book is destined to be forever incomplete.
With a website (edited by Hays), new texts could be added, and the collection could be permanently up-to-date. Hopefully, Hays' next grand project will be not only to consign his work to cyberspace, but to devise the K Michael Hays Search Engine, which will allow cross-reference according to a whole range of criteria, so that even the terminally lazy can begin to make sense of the tangled web of ideas which architectural theorists have produced over the years.