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Mindless manifesto

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Architecture Must Burnby Aaron Betsky & Erik Adigard. Thames & Hudson, 2000. £18.95

The publishers of this book claim that it is 'a manifesto for the future of architecture, ' and one which is 'destined to become a classic'. I have bad news for them; it is neither. As a joint effort between Aaron Betsky, best known for his writings on 'queer space', and Erik Adigard, a freelance designer for Wired magazine, it was doubtless conceived as bringing together the latest in cultural theory and graphic design. It falls far short.

Betsky provides a sprawling, repetitive text that consists of snippets on Las Vegas, cyberspace, blobs, Disney, Lefebvre, cyborgs, as well as other subjects that have been written about extensively for years. Adigard offers some hyperactive typography and overlapping digital collages which try to swamp the viewer through colour and texture. The net result is somewhat dated, and one wonders if either of the two authors have heard of the new design move towards simplicity and monochrome images. It is a bit like those embarrassing kids who always get into a craze just when it is about to end.

And embarrassing is the best word for most of the text. Betsky clearly intends it as a piece of honest reflection and a call to arms for architectural innovation, but it reads more like the self-absorbed, flaky rhetoric of Californian 'New Age' philosophy. We are told at various points that architecture is a crystal, a process of alchemy, a beautiful fire, a hearth, an act of discovery, the poetry of revealing us to ourselves.

The relentless tone of self-analysis, in which even the most banal and obvious is stated, becomes a bit like an American confessional TV show - a kind of Oprah Winfrey take on architecture. Betsky writes stuff like 'Architecture can be sexy', or 'A good building gets in your bones, not in your face', or even 'Architecture must burn down the palaces of pretension and the lairs of laws into the essence of what it means to be human'.

There is plenty more like this.

It is easy to see what prompted the book.

During the 1990s, architectural theory in the USAwas largely inundated by European intellectual ideas with their roots in post-structuralism. Koolhaas is easily the star tutor at Harvard, and Tschumi now runs Columbia, probably the trendiest American school of the moment. Betsky wants to take on the opinionated European avantgarde at their own game, and even nicks the title for his book from a 30-year-old quote by Coop Himmelblau. He shows numerous images of work by Himmelblau, Zaha Hadid, Herzog and De Meuron, and the usual Dutch gang. But what Betsky offers in response to the provocative essays in Koolhaas' S, M, L, XL is pallid stuff indeed, lacking the humourous insights or the ability to identify and explore the most pertinent issues.

It could be argued that one should just enjoy the sheer energy and spectacle of this book, and regard its ideas as extemporised riffs which create a different ambience for architectural theory. That might be fine were it not that, underneath all the gloss, Betsky's argument is so dangerous. His great revelation for architecture is that it should enjoy environmental sprawl, and should focus on creating 'slow spaces' within the fast flows of modern digital culture. In other words, it should honour suburbia.

Betsky is clearly a great admirer of Robert Venturi's writings, but this book has none of the rigorous analysis carried out in the late-1960s by Venturi and Scott Brown. What Betsky does instead is to facilely reverse the arguments for densification given by Koolhaas and MVRDV, claiming that maybe dense cities are really not so socially efficient after all, and that 'sprawl might work'. Betsky provides absolutely no arguments or evidence to even begin to back up such a claim, and hence it comes over as mindless rhetoric from an economy where petrol sells at only 70p a gallon.

Betsky uses the term 'Retro-Futurism' to describe contemporary architects who design using old-fashioned (1960s) images of what the future would be like; one supposes that Future Systems would be an example. But what Betsky does himself is to return to European avant-garde texts of the 1970s, blend them with Venturi, and then try to tell us what the future of architecture should be. What he is producing is in fact 'Retro-Theory', delving backwards in a misguided attempt to describe our own world to us. The problem for him is that we already know that suburbanisation creates enormous social problems, and offers us no solution to the very real problems of global population growth and energy scarcity.

Dr Murray Fraser teaches at Oxford Brookes University

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