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Cinematic comparisons

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Walls Have Feelings: Architecture, Film and the City By Katherine Shonfield. Routledge, 2000. 204pp. £18.99

This book attempts to use film as a narrative device to explain the trends and technical problems affecting architecture, and is divided into chapters that can be read 'in any order', just like a compilation of film clips.

To argue that there are similarities between the thematic devices used in architecture and cinema is fine but instead of assessing buildings, film, or whatever, in relation to their social and political environment, Katherine Shonfield eliminates the social critique - the all-important middle man. By so doing, there is a sense of unfulfilled promise.

In the first chapter, for example, the period under examination is immediate post-war Britain. The rise of Brutalism versus the Picturesque is equated with filmic New Realism versus Ealing comedy.

Whether or not you think Shonfield's choice of films is representative, what is missing from her analysis is the fact that everything was in a state of flux at that period because of the underlying social dynamics.

For Britain, the end of the war represented, inter alia, an end of empire, reduced geopolitical status in the United Nations, and revocation of racial supremacy - although these ignominies were mediated by its new anti-fascist moral high ground. This is the setting. It is no wonder that the confused national identity played itself out in the arts and sciences, especially between generations. But Shonfield chooses not to see this, marvelling instead in the realisation that trends in one art form were mirrored in another.

There are some interesting snippets, though. She questions the blind faith in Modernist 'isms', which meant architects preferred stylistic purity over function (a timely reminder, given the welter of fawning Lasdun obituaries).

'Did architects know they were building an architecture which literally could not hold water?' she asks. 'Is it possible, in other words, that there was a mindset which made the profession perceive other issues as more pressing and more crucial than water penetration?' Good question. Unfortunately she falls into the trap of blaming 'experimentation' and 'expertise', and criticises 'the era of Modernist certainties now past', reflecting the current precautionary approach to design innovation.

But trivial points sometimes mask her thought-provoking arguments. Unintentional parodies of 1970s feminist slogans (injecting cavity insulation as a symbolic penetrative act) confuse her theoretical premise of architectural 'borders' - those boundaries that define the 'pure' form in opposition to external 'formlessness'. 'Pollution taboos' mystify rather than clarify the debate about social exclusion. Throughout, Shonfield has an annoying habit of using metaphors, or codes, to clarify the codes.

In the end, she explicitly argues for a return to the 'fictional' as a legitimisation of 'the architectural and urban insights and experiences of the non-expert'. This simply feeds the populist viewpoint that the experts have cocked up in the past and now it is time, systematically, to doubt their judgement on all things. That way paranoid, not democratic (or good), architecture lies.

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