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Critical outsider

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The Uses of Decoration: Essays in the Architectural Everyday By Malcolm Miles John Wiley, 2000. 256pp. £17.99

As recently as 10 years ago, the literature of architecture had hardly felt the influence of critical theory, despite its dominance of virtually every other discipline. Today however, architectural theory is experiencing a growth rate of 'big bang' proportions. Funnily enough, though, this publishing frenzy has done little to create a sustained engagement between architectural discourse and architectural practice - indeed, if anything, it has pushed the two further apart.

This need not always be a problem; but one could certainly argue that there are now legitimate grounds for questioning the inroads being made into architectural culture by theorists from outside who don't, or can't, strive to link their ideas to the business of designing.

This text, which describes itself as a contribution to the emerging literature of the architectural everyday, certainly avoids any direct relationship with practice, and is quite happy to tell us so. On the very first page the reader is informed that 'in keeping with its emphasis on the everyday, [this book] is not a guide to urban policy or a handbook on urban design, and makes no prediction for urban futures'; and that it is 'critical rather than practical'. So do we accept this position and judge the book on its own terms, or is it fair to take issue with such disciplinary insularity? The best answer is to do one and then the other.

In the first instance this is certainly an interesting and challenging text, and represents a significant British addition to an often US-dominated discourse on architecture and the everyday. Its strengths include giving global examples of different spatial practices while using the everyday to champion the cause of local perspectives, and the way it links a wide range of practices into the business of making architecture and urban space. It also usefully sums up many of the current theoretical ideas concerning seeing, thinking about, and operating in the city.

But in doing this it creates another problem that is closely linked to the important question of intended audience.For to anyone who has followed debates around urbanism, much of this is familiar stuff.

Moreover, the need to accommodate such a broad range of ideas in a single book, coupled with the desire to reach a wide readership, means that it is pitched at a level of architectural knowledge that anyone within the discipline will probably find limiting (the extremely sketchy treatment of Thamesmead for instance).

Also, the laudable desire to be polemical occasionally leads to a real crudity in presenting lines of thought.One instance is the argument about how we frame our view of the city. The author uses picture postcards as examples of how dominant points of view, those of 'heritage, tourism and urban development', are promoted and normalised, and then asks whether such widely produced images might possibly be subverted to celebrate other perspectives that are more concerned with everyday life.

My objection to this is not about the general drift of the argument; it is that I don't find it helpful or accurate to build an argument on the basis of sweeping characterisations. Postcards don't universally depict the privileged viewpoint, as Martin Parr's recent book of Boring Postcards clearly demonstrates.

None of the above represents a damning criticism; and even the most practised of architectural theoreticians will benefit from the book's wide range of sources and its provocative commentary on key debates. It will certainly be used widely in teaching these ideas to new audiences.

But I believe that it is legitimate to challenge from within architectural culture the influx of ideologues from other critical fields, who often don't seem to care about (or even like) much of what architects do.Perhaps this is a wake-up call to architecture, to contribute more itself to current theoretical debates about making and living in cities.

Joe Kerr is professor at the Royal College of Art

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