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Flight from reason

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review - Surrealism and Architecture Edited by Thomas Mical. Routledge, 2005. 362pp. £29.99

Thomas Mical's project is interesting and timely. It is interesting in that, prima facie, it seems so untenable. It is timely in that it cleverly replaces the high theory that ground to a halt in Post-Structuralism, with a more intuitive and, importantly, an aesthetic account of Modernity and its more recent developments.

Surrealism has been largely overlooked by architectural theory, and so architectural Modernism is seen to be rational in a way that some aspects of Modern painting and writing were not. Indeed, in these other realms, Surrealism might be thought to re-aestheticise art after the ground had been swept clear by the anti-aesthetic of Dada.

Wittgenstein's student, the late Elizabeth Anscombe, pointed up the difference in 'the direction of fit' between belief and the world on the one hand, and desire and the world on the other. It is a feature of the human mind that it shapes belief to fit the world. By contrast, desire acts upon us, so that we change the shape of the world to fit our requirements.

Belief and knowledge are the central planks on which science is constructed - that most rational edifice that dispenses with our personal perspective. Desire returns us from that rational world to the human realm, where we make our lives among the glorious and the disappointing. Belief imposes the world on us; desire imposes us on the world. While it's incumbent on us to make our beliefs consistent with each other, no such requirement can be placed on desire. Which means that an architectural world seen as expressive of desire is freed from rational constraint.

It is within the realm of desire that Mical places the human perspective upon architecture; so that architecture becomes a metaphorical space in which our human lives make sense within a created cultural world.

That is, instead of architecture being a pseudo-scientific solution to a social problem (as some Modernists would have had it), it's seen as the creation of a fictive world, in which we shape and impose our values.

This is a varied collection containing some excellent contributions, notably the introduction by Mical and the chapters by Krzysztof Fijalkowski, Alexander Gorlin and Raymond Spiteri. These chapters are by established academics, while others are by younger writers, including research students, which makes for a lively mix. There is much reassessment in the book, as one might imagine, with a project to look at familiar places from a new perspective.

Some contributors cite Le Corbusier as the focus of Modernist rationality, while others are prepared to see his work in light of his documented Surrealist sympathies. So there is a welcome breadth of opinion, rather than the solidity of the usual received and trotted-out doctrine. The book is entertaining reading, even leading you to readjust your views.

Those papers that cross the divide between architecture and depiction tread dangerous ground. It is interesting to review painters like Magritte and De Chirico and to consider them within the framework of representation, but it is questionable whether reflection on two-dimensional works can really be transposed into the three dimensions of architecture.

This, however, is a small quibble and one that is again the source of enjoyable thought about architecture. Given that the whole collection encourages new and varied thought on the subject, I hope that it will be taken up as reading within architecture schools. It has the potential to influence architectural practice, and so provides a rare occasion when history and theory might be at home in the studio. It is a pleasure to read.

Dr Edward Winters is senior lecturer and research fellow at West Dean College

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