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Twilight time

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aj review

Architecture of the Night: The Illuminated Building By Dietrich Neumann. Prestel, 2002. 240pp. £42

By page 25 or so you start developing a fantasy about how this book came about. It goes like this. Somebody dredged up memories of that potentially ravishing architecture-aslight stuff from the early history of Modernism. Imagine architecture composed of light, architecture as light, architecture crossing boundaries with art and movies - all at least on a par with that Victorian architecture-as-frozen-music stuff.

Anyway, a successful book proposal emerged and then some academic funding.

At least you hope that is how it happened.

Because then, as the visual material came in, it became clear that there weren't really many serious examples of the pure, raw stuff.

Gradually, what started off as an idea about amazing visions of architecture turned into an academic exercise along the lines of 100 buildings with quite a lot of their lights on, photographed at night. Thus the book's drab subtitle, The Illuminated Building.

These photographs and the occasional illustration are interspersed with essays, half of them by the author, Dietrich Neumann. Among them are 'Architectural illumination before the 20th century', 'Lichtarchitektur and the avantgarde', and 'Photography of the night:

skyscraper nocturne and the skyscraper noir in New York' (by Mary Woods). I don't know when the word 'academic', as applied to the act of writing, segued into its current meaning of stuffy, lumpy and anti-interesting. But it did, and it is what best describes the texts here.

It is true that there is one amusing little vignette - of terminally grumpy old Gottfried Semper musing approvingly on the introduction of gaslight, and then twining himself into one of his double half-Nelsons of uncertainty and disagreeableness. This is not presented as an amusement but to underpin a serious point - er, that lighting changes the way we see architecture.

It is always unfair to criticise a book for not being what the reviewer has read into the cover picture, or hoped it might be about.

But as this subject has such limited intellectual and visual boundaries, it is surely reasonable to complain about the omission of that seminal New York architectural illustrator of the night, Hugh Ferris - and about the poky few pages devoted to Las Vegas, surely the metropolis of architectural light incarnate.

You get the feeling that the latter's grudging coverage and - with the exception of a picture credit - the silence about the former (who must surely be a major inspiration for the book itself ), is because they are deemed insufficiently serious, too sensuous, too popular, too far below the threshold of footnotableness. Academics perennially complain about how difficult it is to get 'serious' books published these days. I would like to see a moratorium for, say, a year on 'serious' books that are not very interestingly written.

Sutherland Lyall is a freelance journalist

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