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Lost in a maze

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Uncommon Ground: Architecture, Technology, and Topography By David Leatherbarrow.MIT Press, 2000. 297pp. £25.95

Strangely enough, this book's programme seems clearer at the start than it does at the end. David Leatherbarrow begins with the awkward relation between powerful new technology and the subtle peculiarities of sites in Modern architecture. He says he will treat this conflict in the period from 1930-60 by considering three designers working in different cultures - Richard Neutra in the US, Antonin Raymond in Japan and Aris Konstantinidis in Greece. It is an intriguing offbeat set, welcome in its unfamiliarity.

Leatherbarrow does not trouble much to justify the choices, and they quickly become an unquestioned given.

One can see that they are all non-standard Modernists, two of them displaced in interesting ways, and the other exceptionally rooted in his native place. Contrary to the particularist bias of the opening, the author neglects the cultural origins of his architects, almost never mentions a client, and when he refers to particular cultural practices seems unreliable.

Discussing the irrelevance of the dining table in Neutra's California houses, for example, he says that eating in that time and place 'had become a kind of migratory grazing'.

In early sections of the book I was taken with asides on such topics as why nonarchitects have difficulty reading plans or what makes a successful portrait, and pleased to have Rilke on Rodin and Cezanne brought in to illuminate different notions of the plan. As it gets further into its particular subjects, though, the book gets less specific and graspable.

Abstractions fathered by Leatherbarrow become the primary realities and the result is an introverted discourse which takes little account of the reader. Le Corbusier appears as an exponent of the aerial view and is charged with 'the eclipse of the middle ground'. 'The middle ground' is used like an ordinary English word but remains a relatively private construct which obscures more than it explains.

Each of the three designers is more or less aligned with a topic. Thus, Neutra exemplifies the substitution of the platform for the wall and a resulting conception of space as extending outward in slabs rather than enclosed in rectangular solids or rooms. The next concept, represented by Raymond's work, is harder to describe. It has something to do with adapting traditional devices, like the sliding screens and impermanent walls of Japanese houses, to modern methods and materials. Here, in one of the book's most confusing passages, Leatherbarrow gives a minute description of Raymond's elaborate screening devices on the south-facing wall of a holiday villa.

This is one of the strangest features of the book - its way of combining fearsome abstraction with the mind-numbing microscopism of inspection. So, for the last and most interesting section, Leatherbarrow zeroes in on a small project by Konstantinidis, a weekend house by the sea, and even more minutely, on the mantel over the fireplace, and not just on the mantel, but on a few depressions carved on it.

Then follows a contrasting treatment of Neutra's famous Desert House. Here Leatherbarrow restricts himself to textures at the threshold, which have 'escaped the attention of the many historians and critics' who have written about this project. For good reason, because there are more important things to look at. It is characteristic of the author, though, to believe that the deepest truths are to be found by attending to minutiae, a view with which I have some sympathy; but I cannot always see why I should screw up my vision to a pinprick just because Leatherbarrow does.

My most profound complaint about this book arises from its language, which seems wrapt in a dream far from the world I inhabit. 'To absorb nonsaturated objects and systems into settings that possess longstanding configuration and cultural sense involves the redefininition of a setting's capacity to accommodate and adorn typical dwelling practices': is only the beginning of a long paragraph.

I think it is talking about something new (a building) cohabiting with something older (a landscape), but I can't be sure. I can, though, confidently pick out habits of speech, like doubling words and phrases ('objects and systems', 'accommodate and adorn'), which subvert determinate meanings. The great promise of this subject is waylaid in such linguistic mazes.

Robert Harbison is a professor at the University of North London

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