Rethinking Technology: A Reader in Architectural Theory Ed. William W. Braham and Jonathan Hale, Routledge, 2006, 488pp, £25.00
This compendium of important architectural texts from the 20th century varies from the lucid to the deeply impenetrable, offering scope for the budding enthusiast and the budding cynic alike. The format is similar to Neil Spiller's Cyber Reader (Phaidon 2002). An introduction sets out a conceptual position, followed by 54 extracts, each with an introductory page by the authors. Both the general and the individual introductions are shorter than Spiller's - too short to be read as a parallel text, but informative nonetheless.
The authors argue that - at least for architects - the word 'technology' has become synonymous with 'system' at the start of the 21st century, and that as a result, theories about technology are either utopian or dystopian. This approach is dubious because it leads to a selection of sources that demonstrate a progressive disengagement with the material value of technology when it is employed in the creation of the built environment. It might have been more appropriate to treat technology in the 20th century as a set of interlocking themes. The authors' approach has obliged them to largely ignore the explosion of systems thinking that took place in the mid-to-late '60s. There is no reference, for example, to Nick Negroponte, John Fraser, Cedric Price or Gordon Pask.
The book starts in 1901, with Frank Lloyd Wright's impassioned and visceral description of the world in which he constructed his buildings and ends with the abstractions of Manuel Castells' 'space of ows'. Both the machines that make the stuff of architecture and the stuff of architecture itself are curiously absent in the latter part of the book. This is a pity. There are architectural theoreticians who are hands-on makers of things at the start of the 21st century, for example Nick Callicott (Computer-Aided Manufacture in Architecture - The Pursuit of Novelty (Architectural Press 2001)) and the Australian Mark Bury among others. They also do not fit the critical frame of the book. The result is that today's practitioners will probably find the book less and less helpful, although it does include Rem Koolhaas on working with engineers as the text for 1995 and a reprise of Frank Duffy's argument for long- and short-life constructional elements as the text for 1997.
Academics should look at the index before buying, although only the most erudite will fail to find something or someone they have never read. Many aspects of technology can be best explained visually; there are few illustrations in the book. It is, however, excellently referenced and the inquisitive reader will find the illustrations elsewhere.
For this reviewer, the unexpected pleasure was to find Bruno Latour, whose clear and witty paper 'Mixing Humans and non-Humans Together' is a joy to read. It is worth buying as a sampler for this reason if no other.
Stephen Gage is professor of innovative technology at the Bartlett