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Building Ideas

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By Jonathan Hale. John Wiley, 2000. 252pp. £17.99

One problem with textbooks is that they demand conventional categorizations, writes Jeremy Melvin , while dealing with ideas which specifically resist such taxonomy. A book on architectural theory, which Building Ideas sets out to be, has to mention such iconoclasts as Hegel and Derrida, but if it pursued their ideas to the end it could not be a set text.

Covering twentieth-century theory, Jonathan Hale's classifications show the usual lack of originality: architecture as art or engineering, the return of the body, systems of communication and politics, and a concluding attempt to define 'critical hermeneutics'. Judging by his picture credits he is also dependent on his colleagues at Nottingham University.

Frequent references to Neil Leach's anthology (and others) suggest a more sinister subplot - implicitly they discourage students from finding the originals. Reprints, especially of magazine articles with particular layouts, give useful historical context. But Hale, it appears, eschews historical context for a synthetic world where ideas are necessary and sufficient mutual cause and effect.

It follows that Hale is at his best when he can draw clear links between particular thinkers, such as Heidegger and Wittgenstein, or Lukacs, Gramsci and Benjamin. Occasionally there is the glimpse of an original idea, as in his pairing of a picture of the Eiffel Tower with Meier's Athenaeum at New Harmony, Indiana, but elsewhere the over-extended connections raise serious questions about the historical context which generated specific ideas.

In his treatment of Hegel, Hale considers 'science' an adequate translation of Wissenschaft , and in the scant attention he pays to the Aesthetics , he works from the partial, unreliable and 100-year-old Bosanquet translation, despite Malcolm Knox's far more recent and comprehensive version. Such oversights invalidate comments about Hegel and undermine confidence in others.

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