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MOBILE: The Art of Portable Architecture

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Edited by Jennifer Siegal. Princeton Architectural Press, 2002. 127pp. £13.95

The central thesis of this book is difficult to discern, even though it seems to want to say that, these days, society is increasingly fluid but architecture can be more responsive than ever before. Given the improvements in materials, production techniques, experience and technology, Jennifer Siegal says that architectural form can cope more than adequately with the variety of different stylistic, contextual and political demands placed upon it. Fair enough, and fairly anodyne, if that is all, or even an accurate reflection of what, the book is saying.

The opening premise is an interesting one.

Discussing the 'Age of Nomadism', it looks at the tendency for 'increasingly frequent social shifts', flexible work/life patterns, more acceptability in longer commuting journeys and, most interestingly, the perception that 'rootlessness' is increasing. There is something peculiarly American in the experience, although the author tries to draw global and ahistorical lessons from it.

Noah's ark, for example, Siegal argues, may have been 'the first portable and relocatable structure whose purpose was self-sufficient housing'.

We are then taken on a whirlwind history tour, fortunately not beginning in Biblical times but journeying through the past century, covering product design, architecture, engineering and a few other topics that have been hastily thrown together in an essay, which in approximately 5,000 words cannot do the subject justice. In a rushed thesis, portable, demountable and prefabricated structures are lumped together, history is a continuum to be toyed with, and analysis is evidently a bourgeois preoccupation.

Le Corbusier in L'Esprit Nouveau said traditional construction practices were too laborious and 'houses must go up all of a piece, made by machine tools in a factory, assembled as Ford assembles cars, on moving conveyor belts'. It is always nice to compare and contrast with Egan, three generations later, to see the irony in the proposition that society has become so much more fluid.

Unfortunately, then, Siegal's opening editorial is all over the place, which is sad because there are some thoughtful questions lying unanswered and fascinating propositions awaiting analysis.

It is not enough to say: 'With the introduction of the transit shed and soon after the highway, the loading dock became an integral part of building design, and the tractor-trailer truck evolved.' This is flippancy, in extremis.

Switching her attention to architecture, she says the joy of quickly erected, relocatable structures, facilitated by new materials, 'play on the ur-American concepts of progress through technology and the right to infinite mobility'.

Do they? Surely, what is missing in this critique is any understanding of the changing nature of mobility today. Failing to register that 'mobility' (and even the 'concept of progress' itself ) is no longer seen as an unalloyed good, means Siegal simply views human history as an evolutionary process, rather than as a series of shocks - some of which might undermine her thesis.

How she can relate the Modernist narrative with the 'common and primal experience of the Burning Man project in Nevada'; or hint that the dynamism of the 1960s (the 'white heat of technology') could in any way be related to a New Ageism that celebrates 'the mystery of fire', is a tragic disengagement of her critical faculties.

Mobility, as a positive aspiration, is actually under threat - even in America. With the American dream called into question, it is no wonder that rootlessness is on the increase.

Whereas mobility used to be seen as a social, and even universal, good, today it is recognised to have been, in the latter part of the past century, an individual escape, which is viewed with suspicion.

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