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Lost in space

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The Language of Space By Bryan Lawson. Butterworth-Heinemann, 2001, 263 pp. £22.99

Chapter two of Bryan Lawson's The Language of Space starts: 'In the previous chapter, we established the idea that there is a global language of space.' Excuse me. We did what? What I remembered most about chapter one was a lot of patronising exclamation marks, maybe two per page, and possibly the most pretentious way of describing the poor old Canary Islands as, wait for it, the 'islands of the Spanish Atlantic archipelago'. Global language of pomp, more accurately. Anyway I went back and re-read chapter one.What Lawson actually does is reiterate his basic proposition several times over, as if the repetitions plus a few references in brackets were evidence enough.

It may be a McLuhanist point of view, but I think it is something to do with the abandonment of the old literary mode of footnoting in favour of referencing the author of a book in brackets among the text. The old system was quite boring and limited: it was used to give precise information about page numbers and publication details for direct quotations - and sometimes for factual elaborations of issues which would not sit easily in the text. The bracket system allows you to be wildly imprecise with references.

More importantly, because you use the bracket system to give authority to your text (rather than to provide a transparent system so readers can check you have got it right), it gives writers the feeling that they have somehow proved a point merely by adducing in brackets the name of a writer - who, of course, may actually be saying something quite different. It is a bit like case law (but badly referenced) - conceivably useful in moribund or, especially, theological and legal environments, but no substitute for boring old reasoned argument.

Lawson talks about language but it is difficult to know what he is really trying to say because of his way of writing the English language - plus his apparent belief that anecdotes make his text more accessible. That is part of the exclamation mark thing which is extended in later chapters to captions as well as the text. It is like reading a Pinky and Perky book in that funny voice used by TV and radio presenters of yore. Then there is the profuse deployment of that hideous word, 'whilst' - banned by all the publishers' style books I have ever come across. And quotes at the beginning of chapters. Far from inculcating respect for the breadth of the author's reading, they just show that he owns a dictionary of quotations.

I lay most of the blame at the door of Lawson's publisher. Even the most sublime writers need editing - especially authors of technical texts. You can only wonder if the raw manuscript was not simply handed over to the printer. If not, Butterworth needs to look at its editing procedures. As for the photographs, this was plainly a standard architectural book contract in which the author was made responsible for providing them.

Does the profound irritation aroused by the author's way of writing blind the reader to the virtues of the content? Well, not necessarily, because the text is both discursive and obscure. I dare say it is interesting for the lay reader to hear about concepts such as verticality, symmetry, colour, number, context and 'the good and the bad side of being redundant'. But an assemblage of the issues involved in space, including some doubtful stuff about semantic differentials and some cautious stuff about Bill Hillier's space syntax, does not add up to enlightenment about the nature of space.

If I read Lawson's quasi-conclusion correctly, that is what he is also saying: 'We all understand and use the language of space in our daily lives, and architects- and their ilk need to reconnect with this ordinary knowledge by whatever means they can.' So nothing much new there then.

Sutherland Lyall is a journalist

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