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Worlds apart

American Architecture By David P Handlin. Thames & Hudson, 2004. 304pp. £9.95

Scottish Architecture By Miles Glendinning and Aonghus MacKechnie. Thames & Hudson, 2004. 224pp. £9.95

These two volumes in the famous 'World of Art' series, American Architecture (a new edition) and Scottish Architecture (brand new), make an interesting pair, reflecting two very different cultures.

American starts with colonisation and without apology. It makes no excuse for centuries of derivative and often crudely provincial colonial architecture, but debates its worth and tries to understand its sanctification by later generations. Scottish starts in prehistoric mists with 'monuments of earth, stone and sky' (to its north and west) and presumed vanished work in 'more ephemeral timber and wood' - whatever that tautology means (to its south and east).

American starts from scratch (forget native plainsmen). Scottish is desperate to sense primordial continuity (we have the oldest stone houses in north-west Europe, it opens). From the outset, American gets on with it, enjoys its European influences, is self-critical and positive. From the outset, Scottish gets into special pleading - it even has a Roman fort with a full-scale bathhouse, plastered walls and glazed windows.

'Scotland's aspiration to special status was a constant concern' of the 19th century, we are told. But this inferiority complex of parochial nationalism cannot be easily shaken off. Even the jacket blurb tells us that 'Scotland is almost unique among smaller European nations in the distinctiveness and richness of its architectural heritage' and that Scottish identity is the book's central theme.

So we see Scots designing the 17th-century Spassky tower in the Kremlin; we meet the works of William Chambers and James ('Athenian') Stuart because they are 'second generation Scots' (surely the authors mean the opposite: second-generation Englishmen? ); there are pages and pages on 18th-century London, from Robert Adam to ('Aberdonian') James Gibbs, and then to the Palladians led by Colen Campbell; next back in Russia there is Catherine the Great's architect Charles Cameron.

A century later, English images fill the book again: from 'Burn-trained R N Shaw', 'Dunblane-born' J M Brydon and Glaswegian J J Stevenson designing Queen Anne London. A further generation and Glaswegian J J Burnet leads the British Empire's architecture, his partner Thomas Tait's imprimatur being his apprenticeship to 'Greek' Thomson's assistant. But again, almost all images are of London and Silver End, Essex.

Now there are important tales, of course, in Anglo-Scots cultural exchange in architecture in the late-18th and late-19th centuries (and more recently) - but they are not teased out or debated here.

James Adam's vastly grandiose scheme for parliament and law courts - in London, of course - from 1763 is illustrated and, we learn, 'helped shape the US Capitol'; a building designed by Thornton, 'a Scottish-educated architect'. Thus is Scottish architectural identity set out.

Rather than enlist all comers in a tartan army, a more subtle American identity arises very clearly through Handlin's very different text, with his close focus on, rather than flaunting of, the architecture. American, written as a series of coherent essays, makes its subject matter alive and current, its scholarship handled with a light touch. It is a pleasure to read. Scottish never seems to get under the skin of the architecture, its viewpoint remaining antiquarian. Moreover (despite the cover blurb) it is not incorporated into the wider culture - when Ossian, Poussin and Claude appear on page 113, it is virtually the first cultural reference beyond architecture.

At least by the 18th century, Glendinning and MacKechnie see the work more through personalities, and the writing becomes more engaging. A central hinge of their text is 'improvement', and to typify that they illustrate the Scottish rational farms published by J C Loudon of Cambuslang (though for once the authors remarkably forget to note the man's Scottish origins! ).

How the last half-century is treated tells us much about each book under discussion.

Handlin, first published nearly 20 years ago, deserved reissuing. His earlier chapters on the 20th century are very well balanced and thoughtful, particularly as he interweaves the long career of Wright and then comes up via Kahn to Venturi. But the new one focusing on 1975-2000, perhaps inevitably, showed the original to be too good an act to follow.

His opinions are as strong as ever, but somehow they don't all have the same rightness to them. The ending, in multitudes of unpublicised little honest, regionalist designers of 2002 and finally the fascinating Rural Studio, coming after the focus on megastars Meier and Gehry, sounds too like a whimper. Handlin should have addressed the questions raised by that final juxtaposition.

Glendinning and MacKechnie, clearly unenthused by the past century - which they describe as 'the planned social reconstructions of the years of retrenchment' - offer most of their space to Basil Spence and Robert Matthew; and indeed by page 202 their whole authorial tone is quite changed with inappropriate descriptions of Matthew's role as international architectural ambassador. Their only adjective for Glasgow's Red Road flats, symbolic of the worst architecture of the 20th century, is 'boldest', while the Burrell gallery, one of the tiny handful of genuinely first-rate buildings in 20th-century Scotland, is just 'self-effacing in the extreme'.

I had the highest hopes for Scottish Architecture. It has many fine period photographs and good new aerial ones;

unlike American Architecture, many are in colour. It has also introduced me to some fine buildings - like St Columba's, Burntisland, a wonderful 16th-century centralised Presbyterian preaching hall (older than anything in the American book).

I would recommend Handlin to architects and students as worth reading - because they would enjoy it; it argues and offers explanations, it engages and elucidates. I would recommend Glendinning and MacKechnie to anyone needing a handy encyclopaedic reference; it seems light on prejudice (before the 20th century), it contains neither mistakes nor enthusiasm for what architecture is about. Yet sometimes its parochialism is pathetic: Robert Matthew, we learn, 'was shocked to discover that Alvar Aalto had never heard of Lorimer'. Well, in case anyone else is as ignorant as Aalto, here's your book - with its 'wha's like us?' tone.

John McKean is a professor at Brighton School of Architecture

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