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Katherine Shonfield

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It is both absurd and fruitless to divide the profession's work in one of the biggest of world industries from its networks of effects on the wider material world. Marco Goldshmied's speech on architecture and politics is a timely reminder of this.

The elusive 'architectural imagination' is made much of as the thing that sets our practice apart. If it means anything this is the quality which allows us to imagine the material consequences of actions. Whether this is the capacity of a good detailer to reduce herself to the size of a raindrop pursuing its way through canyons of building fabric, or a project architect's appreciation of the impact of an energy demand on a local economy, the material imagination is crucial to architectural understanding.

Two of the dominant forces in modern life, television and the computer, frequently rely for their effectiveness on the opposite: an incapacity to imagine the material implications of what they depict.

Last weekend I was on an international train which had come from Yugoslavia. A passenger showed me pictures of his children, and described how they have to go down to the cellar when sirens warn of bombs. I had not materially imagined what happens to international trains in wartime, or that the only available shelters would be cellars, or that a big developed city has well-organised warning systems.

Another passenger had seen satellite TV pictures, supposedly from Bosnia, showing maize crops the height of a man. His material imagination told him that at present it can only be knee high.

The capacity to imagine the material consequences of actions is in short supply. It looks like it might not just be our talent, but also our duty to exercise it.

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