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A dispensable profession?

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COLIN DAVIES The Favored Circle: The Social Foundations of Architectural Distinction by Gary Stevens. mit Press, 1999. 253pp. £24.50

'Don't get mad, get even' might well be Gary Stevens' motto, but that doesn't prevent the anger from boiling over occasionally in this deceptively harmless-looking sociological study that is in reality a fierce attack on architects and everything they stand for.

In a discussion of the embodied nature of architectural taste, for example, Stevens suddenly comes out with this: 'Perhaps these properties of taste explain one of the great puzzles of the architectural persona: the extraordinary lack of humour and priggish self-righteousness noted in the great architects.' And again, in the chapter on architectural education, the studio system is described as 'a fantasy world in which incompetent professors who are the centre of petty personality cults encourage bizarrely unrealistic expectations in students, while avoiding the teaching of anything actually to do with the hard realities of life'.

The source of all this barely suppressed rage is Stevens' experience teaching in the Department of Architectural and Design Science at the University of Sydney, not to be confused with the Department of Architecture, Planning and Allied Arts at the same university. This curious administrative division caused stresses between the departments that 'were of a different kind from those present at other schools, where the conflict between the humanists and technologists is only a minor eddy amid the vortices generated by the everyday discord among the design staff'. So we know exactly who Stevens is getting even with.

He takes his weapons from the 'toolkit' of the French sociologist Pierre Bordieu. A large section of the book is devoted to an exposition of Bordieu's theories about mechanisms of social domination. The basic idea is that the domination of one social group by another is symbolic and cultural as well as economic. People strive to gain symbolic capital, and the more they accumulate, the more dominant they become.

Before it can be analysed in Bordieu's terms, architecture must be defined not as a profession but as a 'field' that includes architectural education, history, criticism and politics. Conceived in this way, the whole of architectural culture becomes a kind of game in which the aim is to achieve dominance through the deployment of ideas and symbols. These ideas and symbols are essentially arbitrary. A particular architectural style, for example, has no objective value in itself, even though its inventors and adherents may sincerely believe that it does. Like Monopoly money, it only has value inside the game or field.

Stevens uses three examples to illustrate the rules of the game and in particular how it fights off threats from other social fields to preserve its autonomy. He describes how in the 1930s the threat posed by the Modern Movement, with its revolutionary claims to be designing for the lower classes, was neutralised by its transmutation into the International Style; how Tom Wolfe's critical book From Bauhaus to Our House was viciously attacked by writers within the field; and how the style known as Deconstruction succeeded not because of some essential aesthetic superiority, but because certain important individuals and institutions were mobilised to support it.

This is all very plausible. But in the second half of the book, where Stevens tries to model the mechanisms by which symbolic capital is transmitted from one generation to another, the sociological apparatus begins to obscure rather than illuminate the target. Taking as his raw data the contents of the four-volume Macmillan Encyclopaedia of Architects, which contains biographies of 2654 architects, Stevens tries to show how the symbolic capital of architecture has been passed down through the centuries by means of 'master-pupil chains', creating the 'favored circle' of the title.

At first this seems naive in the extreme. Surely such an analysis will tell us more about the limitations of architectural history than about the reality of architectural practice. The method is justified, however, on the grounds that fields are self-defining and that the mea represents the field as it saw itself in the late 1970s. What results is a series of graphs, tables and diagrams to 'prove' what we might have guessed all along: that the important thing is not what you know but who you know. It may well be true that what used to be called 'the old boy network' operates more forcefully in architecture than in most other fields, but analysing the contents of a biographical dictionary seems a clumsy way to demonstrate it.

The book contains many genuine insights, including a perceptive analysis of what really goes on in architecture schools, but architects will find little comfort in it. It is an unrelenting attack on the whole field of architecture. No reforms are proposed and no alternatives offered. The message is simply that architecture as we know it is entirely dispensable. The worrying thing for architects is that the economic, as opposed to the cultural, forces in society seem to be coming to the same conclusion without any help from Pierre Bordieu.

Colin Davies teaches at the University of North London

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