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Lessons of 'the look'

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JULIAN HOLDER The Sixties by Lesley Jackson. Phaidon, 1998. 240pp. £39.95

Do we really need another book on the 1960s? That might well be the reaction when picking up this handsome new history by Lesley Jackson. Manchester, where the author is a curator at the City Art Gallery, seems to have started this revivalist ball rolling with the 1989 Whitworth Art Gallery exhibition, '1966 And All That'. More recently the city's Cornerhouse Gallery was home to the Archigram show which subsequently went on to the us.

I remember venturing into 1960s icon Habitat to buy a mug that I still use. Situated at the end of Cheltenham's Regency Promenade, the store's full-height plate-glass windows gave unfettered views of a tactile interior where goods and staff all sang the same lifestyle song. I even look on some products of that decade as classics of 'good design' - a concept so Sixties as to have a Design Council sticker on it the moment it's mentioned.

Jackson's fascinating book is divided into five thematic chapters and deals in a broad cultural sweep with the decorative arts. She takes her starting point as 'the look' which was codified and consumerised by Mary Quant. The phrase was a brilliant piece of journalese which stood as shorthand for the brashness, freshness, and creativity of the decade.

Of course, there are problems to this stylistic approach based on fashion, which assumes a sort of a zeitgeist shedding its benefice on some but not on others. What is it - and what determines those who have it and those who don't? Despite this oh-so-Sixties approach, the book remains an ambitious undertaking which the author has carried off with considerable panache. As a design object in its own right it is great fun, and it shares the values of 'the look', with the page layout reminding us that 'the medium is the message'.

Architecture too is treated as part of 'the look' - as one of the decorative arts. At times the buildings act more like talismans to remind the reader than images to inform, but by uniting them with the furnishings and fashions of the day the author has accomplished something of considerable value. The objects and buildings chosen tend to be from the high-culture and progressive end of the market, thus eliminating many of the decade's contradictions. As such it is a book which feeds many of the myths it describes. We move from the gpo tower and the Bullring Shopping Centre to Tange's megastructural Yamanashi Press and Radio Centre and John Lautner's Chemosphere perched above la. Such examples drawn from across the globe are all situated within the discourse of 'the look'.

In reality, much that passes for 'the look' in terms of style persisted well into the 1970s (if it did not, in some cases, originate there). This might suggest that decadism isn't the best methodology by which to understand or categorise the past. But then the rejoinder to poet Philip Larkin's rhetorical question 'What are days for?' ('Days are where we live') is true also of decades; they do help us make sense of our lives.

This is a book about the 1960s for the Britain of New Labour where, supposedly, the future again looks bright and optimism rules. In Manchester the 1960s hell that was Hulme has given way to New Hulme. Maybe the author has done us all a service by not dwelling on the fallibility of the decade but seeing it in inspirational terms. Who knows, Mancunians may even learn to love the Piccadilly Plaza.

Julian Holder is an architectural historian

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