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Social programme

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The Minimum Dwelling By Karel Teige. Translated by Eric Dluhosch.MIT Press, 2002. 412pp. £41.50

It has taken 70 years for an English translation of Karel Teige's The Minimum Dwelling to appear, and it is a sobering thought that nothing of equivalent significance in this field has surfaced in the interim. Only the ill-fated Parker Morris report of the 1950s Labour government, 'Space in the Home', attempted to tackle the changing patterns of living, and establish minimum spatial standards for public housing - a minimum abandoned as an impossible maximum during the Thatcher boom years of privatisation.

As the dust jacket points out, this is not just a book on architecture, but a radical rethinking of its role in the design and construction of domestic space. Eric Dluhosch has performed an invaluable service in his painstaking work of translation, and MIT Press has been persuaded to mirror the format of the original, complete with univers typeface.

The question remains: why has it taken so long? Teige's radicalism found him isolated by the Stalinist bureaucracy first, and then the anti-Communist backlash. The introduction explains this double bind, and charts Teige's evolution from Constructivism to Poetism and the 'composed landscape' - a remarkably prescient attempt to reconcile architecture and nature via sustainable technology.

From the outset, Teige's criticism was acute. His famous attack on Le Corbusier's overblown Mundaneum project, calling for 'instruments' not monuments, did not mean this literally, as the following passage explains. 'Constructivism wanted to overcome the dualism between art and technology and simplified its task by simply negating art and reducing architecture to a new technical craft, forgetting that throughout the ages, art always operated on the fluid borders between material and spiritual culture Architecture cannot be restricted to mere technical proficiency and declared to be identical with construction technology.'

On the other hand, he saw the mindless utilitarianism behind the facades of 'socialist realism', which he terms 'Fordist pragmatism', reminding us of the parallel developments of the USSR and US in the later 1930s. 'Monumentality is intrinsically an asocial phenomenon, that is, an expression of exploitation' is picked out in heavy type here.

He further accused the Modernist architects of abandoning the social programme, turning a Modern style into kitsch, 'pandering to the rich with a new version of luxury - a luxury of calculated simplicity posing as Modernistic habitable monumental sculpture.' No change here, then.

Some might feel he was a little unfair to Le Corbusier and his clients, 'who did not mind spending large sums on construction and maintenance, squandering money on the need to heat superfluous glass walls, and paying their servants to polish, clean and mop the glass and chrome that so fascinates the modern snob architect and his clients.'

This could hardly apply to poor Monsieur Fruges, bankrupted by the failure of Le Corbusier's houses for his workers at Pessac.

The detailed studies of the most important housing projects of the day remain unsurpassed, from the reproduced window details of the Zurich Neubuhl in 1930 to the drawingboard projects of the revolutionary Soviet Building Committee. His criticism of the vaunted Karl Marx Hof in Vienna - pretty conventional flats - includes an acute observation of the flawed financing, based on heavy taxation, which eventually devastated municipal budgets.

A larger theme which runs through the occasionally turgid text is the relationship between dwelling and nature - the repeated quotations from the Communist Manifesto on abolishing the antithesis between town and country, with chilling words from Stalin, setting the party line which first 'abolished' an entire class of small farmers (the kulaks) and then millions of peasants in the ensuing famine.

Teige's vision, spelt out in his last years of forced retirement, emerged as a surrealistically tinged, poetic utopia - ideas that flourished in the decades after his early death in 1951.

Of course, the one country that has done the most to speed the dissolution of the city is gasoline alley, the US - the world's first suburban superpower; the place where Modern architecture was first coined as the 'International Style' by Philip Johnson, with his famous single-glazed glass house, poised amid sweet nature's bowers.

Certainly not quite what Teige envisioned.

David Wild is an architect in London

The Lost World of Pompeii By Colin Amery and Brian Currin Jr. Frances Lincoln, 2002. 192pp. £29.99

In 1996, Pompeii was included in the biennial list of the 100 Most Endangered Sites issued by the World Monuments Fund (sponsors of this book), and appeared again in 1998 and 2000. Today, according to the WMF website (www. wmf. org), there is hope that the Italian government and Pompeian authorities 'are working to halt the deterioration'.

The Lost World of Pompeii recounts the city's history of engulfment and rediscovery, surveys its present-day remains (especially the frescoes), and examines its influence upon such visitors as Soane. The colour photographs are adequate, and there is room for such fanciful curiosities as Edouard Alexandre's The Excavations at Pompei (1865), a detail of which is pictured.Not quite Two Men in a Trench?

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