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Good news for architects

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STEPHEN GREENBERG Monument Builders: Modern Architecture and Death by Edwin Heathcote. Academy Editions (John Wiley), 1998. £50

Death becomes architects. With a fixed programme, determined and repetitive, excluding the minutiae and detritus of life, it offers the ideal brief for a building. No need for in-built flexibility, no long- life loose fit; there is no churn rate with stiffs. Architects do death rather well: crematoria, monuments, funerary chapels - a standard format virtually unchanged.

Edwin Heathcote's Monument Builders takes us on an ambitious tour d'horizon through twentieth-century funerary architecture and the problem of commemoration. We take in Asplund, Plecnik, Scarpa; Thiepval, the Menin Gate and Auschwitz. But we fall between two stools: a serious Post-Modern investigation into architecture and death, and an Academy glossy. I'm not sure the two mix.

Firstly, the essay needs more space to explore such a complex subject, with the buildings integrated into the text rather than in sections devoted to each of the chosen architects. Taxonomy and categorisation seem imposed on the material. As Heathcote observes, there is no longer any necessary connection between typology and meaning: 'the functional architecture of death, the buildings of a killing complex are the most faceless and banal of all monuments, and it is partly from their inauspicious nature that their true power derives'.

The buildings and memorials are all photographed when empty, which emphasises the contemporary disengagement from death and perpetuates an architectural discourse detached from use. Yet all these buildings are the backdrop to human drama - a drama that is now changing as people bring ghetto blasters into the crematoria and make their own funerals. (After Diana, expect video walls and burial web sites.)

This book is spot-on in its observations about the spaces associated with death and memory: in an era of cyberspace, 'physical dimensional space is charged with an extra force'. At the same time, it is totally lacking in black humour. Forest Lawn is a serious omission, and so too is the ordinary death, not orchestrated by a great architect, that befalls most of us.

That said, there are some great buildings here. Among the most impressive are by Fumihiko Maki, Enric Miralles and Aldo Rossi, who manages to make an architecture of 'intellectual' deconstruction but by using right angles - the rational and the Classical - rather than fractured geometry. And one of the simplest and most eloquent pieces is by Herman Hertzberger: a memorial to the victims of the Bijlmermeer plane disaster.

Stephen Greenberg is director of architecture at degw

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