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Rewriting history

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Intersections: Architectural Histories and Critical Theories Edited by Iain Borden and Jane Rendell. E & FN Spon, 2000. 331pp. £17.99

Ifthis book has a polemical purpose, it is to convince its readers that, when critical theory and architectural history intersect, both disciplines are illuminated in a special way.

Architectural historians, the argument maintains, should therefore make use of critical theory in order to reveal certain social, psychological and philosophical aspects of their subject matter that would otherwise remain hidden. Conversely, critical theorists should pay attention to architectural history, which presents a useful field of operation in which to ground their theories and speculations.

As the editors put it in their introduction: 'It is our contention . . . that some of the best works in architectural history - best that is both for architectural historians and for those who wish to understand and confront the received history in which we live each day - do not in fact have the label 'architectural history' on their back cover.'

This seems a very reasonable proposition, but it is argued only very briefly. The alternative view, that good history does not need methodology (Deborah Howard), and that the subjects of architectural history should be allowed to speak for themselves (Kenneth Frampton), is dismissed in a couple of pages, concluding with the statement: 'The question of whether to use theory or not is an irrelevance. Rather the question must be . . .which theory to use?'

The remainder of the book consists of a collection of essays by 16 architectural theorists teaching in Britain and America, all of whom accept the basic proposition and indeed have based their academic careers on it. This means that any possible methodological disagreement is effectively stifled, which might account for the slightly complacent, rather formulaic character of most of the essays.

The basic formula goes something like this. First choose a godfather figure from the 'A' list of philosophers and critical theorists - someone like Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin or Henri Lefebvre - to set the basic terms of the discussion. Then choose a defenceless architectural historian - Sigfried Giedion, say, or Nikolaus Pevsner - with whom to pick an argument. Finally, choose a canonical building, project or urban phenomenon ripe for reinterpretation, and construct a neat argument to prove that the historians have got it all wrong.

Sometimes the formula works quite well.

Iain Borden's own essay, called 'Thick Edge: Architectural Boundaries in the Postmodern Metropolis', for example, uses Henri Lefebvre's thinking on the negotiable nature of spatial boundaries to illuminate familiar London examples such as the Broadgate office development. Similarly, Joe Kerr and Murray Fraser construct a provocative, if not entirely convincing, argument from the application of Edward Said's anti-colonialist ideas to a comparative analysis of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Getty Centre in Los Angeles.

But sometimes the theory obscures rather than illuminates the subject matter.

Sarah Chaplin's interpretation of Las Vegas in terms of Foucault's heterotopia seems promising at first but is weighed down by an excess of theoretical baggage. No fewer than 13 theorists and historians are cited in just one paragraph. Do we really need to read all those books to understand Las Vegas?

The worst example of theoretical excess, however, is Henry Urbach's essay 'Dark Lights, Contagious Space'. To interpret a rather florid comtemporary description of illuminated advertising in Paris in the 1920s as 'a displacement or projection of anxiety about the aggressiveness and erotic aspects of vision' is just plain silly.

This book demonstrates two things. First, that critical theory can indeed illuminate architectural history, and second, that it is in danger of becoming a cosy, self-referential enclave - just like the kind of architectural history it originally set out to challenge.

Colin Davies is professor at the University of North London

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