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Perpetual revolutions

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Architecture in the Age of Printing: Orality, Writing, Typography and Printed Images in the History of Architectural Theory By Mario Carpo. Translated by Sarah Benson.MIT Press, 2001. 246pp. £23.95

Mario Carpo, associate professor of the school of architecture of Saint Etienne in France, is also a scholar at the J Paul Getty Center in California. He wrote this unusual book in 1995-96 and it first appeared in Italy before being revised and translated into English. However, its original message - that there is a powerful link between architectural theory and the mechanics of drawing - remains unchanged, along with its implicit threat to the conventional view of the chronology and causality of architectural design.

Carpo begins his study with a discussion of the oral and mnemonic methods by which architectural ideas were communicated before mechanical reproduction, and then moves on to the shift from script to print, and from hand-made drawing to mechanically reproduced image, that took place in the 16th century.

This change, which Carpo sees as the substantive beginning of the industrial revolution, had of course a tremendous long-term impact on the whole of European civilisation, but in architecture its effects were particularly dramatic. Graphic reproduction led to a more systematic use of the Classical orders and the increasing adoption of mechanically repeating elements in design.

The bulk of Carpo's book consists of chapter and verse in support of his challenging hypothesis that the printing press was the engine of the architectural Renaissance. But its most fascinating pages deal with the extension of this idea both back in time and forward into the future when - as a result of the digital revolution - he speculates that architecture will have to learn to survive without printing for the first time in 500 years.

In a tour de force of rational argument and illustration, he goes on to show that the most 'modern' consequence of tracing the origin of modern architecture back to Gutenberg and the invention of moveable type, has been the rediscovery of the difference between publishing and printing. There was publishing of architecture before printing, he says, and now, through the digital revolution, we face the prospect of publishing architecture after printing as well.

Carpo uses this unusual insight to open many doors. He claims that, while the whole of modern machine production grew out of the 500-year alliance of publishing and printing that stretches from Gutenberg to ASCII, only a small part of it involved the evolution of a modern architecture of interchangeable parts; but that was enough to stand art history on its head, by making the 'Modernism' of the Crystal Palace not the first but the last flowering of the idea of design through repetition.

The rest of Carpo's analysis confronts us with the huge changes that are coming about because of the growing obsolescence of print.He cites, for example, the vulnerability of the motor industry, another industrial behemoth born out of the development of the printing machine, whose mass-produced vehicles once seemed destined to complete the destruction of the city as the pre-Gutenberg era knew it - but only until the digital revolution (in the shape of the tiny personal computer) began to challenge the automobile itself.

No sooner had the high-rise office building overwhelmed the Renaissance city, than the computer has begun to remove the need for large concentrations of employees in central locations. 'This small thing', as Carpo says of the motor vehicle, 'destroyed the city.' To which he adds that this tiny thing, the computer, will destroy the motor car as well.

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