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A Blob on the literary landscape

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The world of vanity publishing has been allowed to intrude into the production of a book on the potential of virtual architecture

Asymptote is the New York architectural firm started in 1989 by Lisa Anne Couture and Hani Rashid. The practice is this year's architectural darling, an effortless exponent of the ultrasleek freeform architecture which has been so brilliantly developed by Future Systems and which is sometimes known in, sort-of, the manner of Fauvism or DaDa as Blob Architecture. Out of Frank Gehry by The Silver Surfer, it is shiny smooth and inevitable, eschewing the old master's quirks, concavities, sharp corners and rough-diamond cussednesses.

Asymptote is the subject of a new book, Asymptote: Flux, which is especially interesting because much of its work (architecture, environments, graphic and product design), is terrific - and computer-generated.

Quite a lot of it is virtual, in the sense that it has not been, and probably never will be, constructed. How about an alternative reading: Blur Architecture.

There is, incidentally, a widely held belief that this kind of architecture is the direct outcome of the emergence of cutting-edge threedimensional computer software.

That may be true for the fashionable practices currently climbing on the bandwagon. But the dates do not work, and the fallacy is apparent even if you are only vaguely aware of Jan Kaplicky's extreme nervousness in the proximity of anything resembling a beige box - or know of the published Future Systems hand-reared preliminary sketches for its work during the past dozen or so years.

It may, of course, be that engineers have only recently been able to calculate non-orthogonal structures easily. For example, SOM engineers devised the cladding system for Gehry's Bilbao using adapted elderly software for designing Mirage aircraft, and one current computerised net-and-fabric design application is based on an existing groundwater topology program. But now it seems dedicated CAD - and, importantly, CAM software is on the market.

So what software does Asymptote use? Oddly, unless it is squirrelled away in some nook I could not find, we are not told. And it at this point that you realise that the book is intended to impress, rather than to explain. The publisher, Phaidon, has allowed Asymptote to select, write, illustrate, edit and design the entire book. This is still, I think, known as vanity publishing - although there is no suggestion that the firm gave Phaidon any dosh.

I am aware that the fact that architects and designers own the copyright to their work means that very few illustrated books about them can be anything but admiring and can never be taken entirely seriously.

But straight vanity books are about as useful as an office brochure: probably handy for the pictures, interesting in revealing how the practice wants other to see it, wholly without merit as a review of the work.

So, as an office brochure, what can be said about this book? The first observation is that a feeble attempt has been made to bring in independent writing - in the form of several interviews. One is an online interview (over the phone? ), another took place at the practice studio and another somewhere else unstated.

Whatever, the interviews are only with Rashid and contain such memorable passages as:

'Q: Is digital work more relevant to conceptual architecture or to built architecture?

A: Simultaneously both.'

As elsewhere in the text where one word would do fine, two are apparently better. Take this seemingly defining statement: 'Virtual architecture is perhaps best understood as spatially based on the alteration of reality, on mapping flux, and on the transformable possibility of geometry within such realms.' Er, isn't virtual architecture actually the 3D imagery which Asymptote does on screen courtesy of applications like Photoshop, maybe Maya, maybe 3D Studio and the like?

If I mention that one of the drawings comes with the creative spelling 'orthagonal elevations' it is simply to underline that the practice's great strength is in the visual realm and that hiring in a professional editor might have introduced basic skills from a world virtually unknown to it.

The Asymptote gang are whizzes on the screen but they come across as merely pompous, pretentious and prolix when they write - they even look prolix in the end papers where they are depicted staring mid-sentence into the screens of enormous laptops open on their knees in the first-class seats in some airliner.

Finally, you really want to take them to task for a fashionable elision between the real and the virtual world, between built architecture and virtual architecture. This wobbly notion underpins the whole text and, providing you do not think too hard about it, sounds faintly spacy and right on.

Before some wild-eyed particle physicist writes in to say that this is entirely reasonable, it is not what we perceive in real life, and we are not William Gibson characters jacking into cyberspace. This is not to dismiss computer-generated imagery from the great architectural arcana. It is simply to say that a bit of hired-in intellectual rigour might not have gone amiss.

But hey, this is just a brochure.

Asymptote: Flux, by Hani Rashid + Lise Anne Couture.Phaidon, London,2002, 240pp,350 colour illustrations, £35.00

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