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Skin deep

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Surface Architecture By David Leatherbarrow & Mohsen Mostafavi.MIT Press, 2002. 264pp. £26.50

Surface Architecture tackles one of architecture's most enduring theoretical conundrums. 'Once the skin of the building became independent of its structure, it could just as well hang like a curtain or clothing.

The relationship between structure and skin has preoccupied much architectural production since this period and remains contested today. The site of this contest is the architectural surface.'

Perhaps no other single issue could illuminate so clearly the contortions, contradictions and foibles of architectural thought during the past century and, not surprisingly, it is an area where myth and prejudice often overwhelm serious study. In its directness and range, Surface Architecture opens with the promise of redressing that balance; sadly, it is not quite fulfilled. Even so, it should still be required reading for any architect who wants to 'utilise the opportunities of current industrial production so that the practice of architectural representation is neither independent of nor subjugated to the domination of technology'.

The book slyly splices the traditional view of Modern architecture as originating in the Chicago frame and reaching its denouement in Le Corbusier, with more recent interpretations that have shown up the problems this narrative brings. Notions of production and reproduction à la Beatriz Colomina weave within the frankly Giedion-esque, but, cleverly, David Leatherbarrow and Mohsen Mostafavi locate the nexus between production and reproduction right at the heart of the construction process: the interface between design and industrialisation.

They can justly claim that it is a fraught subject, but it is this very condition that gives it such power as an interpretative prism. As they show, at least implicitly, it offers a way of treating each of the various architectural modes of the period equally; it runs through different guises of Modernism and traditionalism.

In Britain, it has a particular piquancy because the long and malign tentacles of William Morris dictated that function, meaning and structure were one, thus precluding any serious understanding of the potential of surface to carry meaning irrespective of its structure. To some extent this explains the sweeping popularity in the UK of post-war Mies, whose American work seemed to merge wall and structure. Fortunately, Habsburgian and American critics were less squeamish. Rightly, Adolf Loos and Albert Kahn - the prolific architect to US capitalism who theorised a distinction between industrial 'building production' (factories) and 'architectural representation' - receive lavish attention. But - and this is the first point where Leatherbarrow and Mostafavi do not quite capitalise on their extraordinarily fecund opening - the historical origins of this distinction in theory, as opposed to practice, do not.

French Neo-Classicism, as they imply, might have suckled some part of them, but a more explicit (if less fashionable) starting-point is Hegel's perceptive analysis of architecture as irredeemably trapped between the need for functional enclosure and the urge to embody 'spirit'.

That not only encapsulates the dichotomy but also renders it unstable and thus problematic. Semper, whom the authors do treat, brought that perception explicitly into the realm of architecture, both in theory and practice. Ignoring Hegel elides the entire corpus of German Idealism on which his Aesthetics drew. It distorts the emphasis of the book towards practitioners and away from those who were not architects, but who still may have known something whereof they spoke.

This lacuna affects an otherwise fascinating discussion of the mid-20th century Spanish architect Alejandro de la Sota. The authors say that the public nature of his civil government building in Tarragona (pictured) - an arrestingly mute, eroded cuboid - meant that 'the problem of representation could not be neglected'. So de la Sota 'came face to face with one of the main dilemmas of the period - how to achieve monumentality within the 'project' of modern architecture'. That a discussion of Sigurd Lewerentz follows, introduced by the assertion 'the use of brick in some of de la Sota's early work bears a resemblance to the work of [the Swedish master]', reinforces one's unease.

It may be true that Fascist Spain and Social Democratic Sweden both struggled with the issue of monumentality - Jose Luis Sert and Gregor Paulsson were two of the major protagonists in the debate - but they also had rather significant differences, which such inward focus on hermetic architectural issues ignores. Monumentality can hardly have been the same in each country.

If, towards the end, the book loses its historiographical focus as Herzog & de Meuron, Gehry and Jean Nouvel take their bows (as they would in almost any account of contemporary architecture), it does not dilute the power of the original perception. Architecture has to face both the consequences of industrialisation and the challenge of representing ideas. Leatherbarrow and Mostafavi may not have had the last word but they have highlighted this crucial dilemma.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher at South Bank University

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