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Play on words

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Review

The Words Between the Spaces: Buildings and Language By Thomas A Markus and Deborah Cameron. Routledge, 2001. 196pp. £18.99 Given the enormous range of writings and publications about architecture and urbanism, it is surprising that, with one or two notable exceptions, little thought has been given to the nature of those words themselves - their various meanings, authorship, conditions of production and so forth.

Because buildings and designs do not give up their meanings easily, we do indeed need words, whether spoken or written, in order to produce, interpret and communicate those meanings.

In this context, Thomas A Markus and Deborah Cameron's new book, The Words Between the Spaces: Buildings and Language, explores a highly original and important field.

As the authors put it, their central argument is that 'our experience and understanding of buildings are always and inevitably mediated by language and discourse'.

To investigate this, Markus and Cameron take care not to duplicate the work of earlier scholars. Work by JP Bonta and others on semiology is noted for its concentration on either building form or on canon formation, while that by Adrian Forty is appreciated for its treatment of the theoretical potential of language. Where Markus and Cameron make their unique contribution is in excavating the various uses that are made of texts, either in terms of different kinds of material (treatises, briefs, guide books, etc) or in terms of different kinds of purpose (power, value, history, etc).

This strategy provides the main structure to The Words Between the Spaces, which is divided into chapters on treatises, classification, power, value, heritage and imagery.

Some of this ground has already been well covered, whether within general architectural discourse (such as the section on treatises), or by the authors themselves (the section on the classification of buildings and their internal spaces has many similarities with Markus' earlier book Buildings and Power). Nonetheless, for anyone not familiar with this material, these chapters provide an interesting introduction.

Even more valuable are the later ones, which generate an enormous range of issues and buildings for consideration, from the depoliticisation of Wigan Pier to audience identification and Auschwitz, from the commodification of the Royal Naval College to competition assessments of Zaha Hadid's Cardiff Opera, and from image-text relations to 'style'-magazine journalism.

To focus on just a few of these: in the consideration of power, the examples of the Glasgow Lunatic Asylum and the new Scottish Parliament building are explored to show how buildings have complex and often contradictory meanings. In the chapter on value, analysis of writings on AHMM's Walsall Bus Station and Koolhaas' Bordeaux house reveals how the authors use different codes, techniques and standards in order to form judgements on these buildings. And in the section on heritage, the example of the Reichstag is used to disclose how buildings not only have complex meanings but also complex productions of meanings, involving many different kinds of text and language.

Markus and Cameron continually provide a degree of examination, and wealth of detail and interpretation, that can only come from careful scholarly endeavour, and although I might argue with some of their assumptions - in particular, to do with the precise nature of the relation of buildings and texts as intertextual productions - such methodological questions barely impact on the overall ambition and success of the book.

And while their own text is occasionally somewhat procedural, it is succinct and to the point. The reader can quickly divine what it is being said and find highly apposite insights into the production and use of architectural meanings.

Iain Borden is director of the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

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