Jonathan Hill's big idea, one to which most if not all of the contributors to this book subscribe, is that the distinction between architect and building user is a false one. Users, according to Hill, design buildings just as much as architects do. To occupy a building is to alter it, either physically or conceptually, by tearing out walls, installing furniture, using it in ways not predicted by the architect, or just by seeing it (conceiving it) differently.
Despite architects' repeated attempts to claim artistic status for their creations - for example, by photographing them in sunlit, uninhabited splendour - most people don't recognise this status. They don't look at buildings in the way they look at paintings; they use them, and using is a kind of making. The most frequently drawn parallel is with literature, the architect corresponding to the author and the user corresponding to the reader. Readers can be said in some sense to inhabit and use novels. They might be aware of the artistic merits of the writing, but mostly they are interested in the stories, the settings and the characters, which they recreate in their minds. So it is with buildings - the building is recreated by every user.
Thirty years ago Roland Barthes wrote an essay called The Death of the Author (cited by several of the contributors to this book), in which he tried to diminish or even abolish the power of the author and thus to bring down the whole repressive institution of conventional literature. This book sets out to do the same to the repressive institution of conventional architecture.
It is a good idea and a worthy aim, but what is lacking in most of these essays is any notion as to how it might actually be achieved. The discussion maintains a theoretical aloofness. Its supporting examples are mostly references to other theoretical discussions, other 'authorities' - Benjamin, Bordieu, Deleuze, Foucault, Lefebvre, Venturi (surprisingly popular) and almost any other fashionable philosopher you can think of. When buildings or projects illustrate the ideas, they tend to be far removed from the everyday experience of most users: for example, the situationist interventions described by Carlos Villanueva Brandt (a pa system set up on a Glasgow docklands site to 'disseminate views of nostalgia' - nobody turned up), or the dream-like environment of the Mirage casino hotel in Las Vegas, vividly evoked by Paul Davies.
muf, which describes its Shared Ground project for Southwark, is the only contributor that has been brave enough to ask some users what they actually want and try to share the privilege of architectural authorship. The general reluctance to come down (is it down?) to street level is best illustrated by Jeremy Till's essay, which is an attack on the community architecture movement of the 1980s - a comparatively soft target in this context. He is probably right that the movement simply resulted in 'an emasculated version of architecture reduced to the lowest common denominators of style and technique' but why not do the obvious thing? Why not, instead of judging community architecture against the ideas of thinkers like Foucault or Gillian Rose, just go and find out how these 'communities' have fared over the last 10 years?
fat's contribution, like muf's, is a collaborative effort attributed, appropriately enough, to no single author. Shamelessly elitist, the essay dares to question 'the blameless character of the user who is happy to see us go without our daily bread in the pursuit of endeavours which might enlighten him and yet for which he has no stomach'. fat's answer to the authorship problem is to stick up for architecture as high culture and the preserve of experts, even though it will inevitably be 'contaminated' by users. But the controversial ideas in this essay are always expressed in the form of rhetorical questions and it ends up looking like vain posturing.
Only in Lesley Lokko's essay about race and architecture is there any sense of urgency. Esoteric discussions of authorship don't matter much to most white people, but if you are black the binary pair architect/user - the first term active and powerful, the second passive and powerless - is a version of a more pervasive, if equally illusory, white/black binary. As Lokko puts it: 'the terms making and using imply a shared world vision and an endlessly flexible language - what are the implications for the user if the vision is no longer shared and the language intolerable?' Suddenly the true significance of the whole discussion is revealed. Colin Davies teaches at the University of North London
Architecture in Vienna
Edited by August Sarnitz. SpringerWienNewYork, 1998. 389pp. £21. (Available from the riba Bookshop 0171 251 0791)
This very practical guide to all periods of Viennese architecture includes some 500 buildings, with details of access, transportation, and 14 fold- out maps (which identify locations precisely). Black-and-white photographs illustrate each entry; so, usually, does a plan. In addition there is an introductory portfolio of colour photographs by Georg Riha, some of which - for example, multiple reflections in mirrors and polished wood at the Loos House - are excellent. Four essays give an overview of the city's history and its more recent cultural/political climate.
The individual entries are brief, sober and neutral; informative as far as they go, but not with the incisiveness and personal engagement of Ingerid Helsing Almaas' Vienna: a guide to recent architecture (aj 7.12.95). But Almaas deals only with the last decade; this book spans a millennium and, though too bulky for the average pocket, has no real rival as a Viennese architectural guide.