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Little map of horrors

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A new book by Albena Yaneva attempts to map the controversies, scandal and intrigue that shape our buildings with laudable aims but flawed methods

I was introduced to Albena Yaneva’s Mapping Controversieswork at the University of Manchester by a public relations advisor. Before this book was published I was introduced to members of the research and development department at Aedas, which had helped to build the visualisation software for the projects.

Christian Derix and his team had been involved in creating a model and animation of the relationships between various actors in the development of the Olympic Stadium in Stratford with material gleaned by Yaneva and her students.

The models were intriguing, showing how a simple matrix of relationships between legacy, design cost and community of the stadium grew into a tight web of interesting associations with a steadily increasing number of actors: Ken Livingstone, LOCOG, Alejandrao Zaera-Polo.

It was then explained to me that Yaneva’s team at Manchester had used Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory to map the complex factors operating around the design and construction of the stadium. Yaneva who has a PhD in Sociology from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure, Paris is now head of architecture at the Manchester Architecture Research Centre.

Her team there had trawled newspapers and online news sources, noting the mention of various agencies in the controversy around the stadium, including non-human ones such as the concept of legacy, and had mapped it out. As she makes clear in her book, this was done as a means of escaping the reductive focus on the purely technological or symbolic focus on architecture in academia.

As we watched the animation of the map, the name of a certain editor of a rival architectural journal emerged to join the debate just at the point that the network got much more complicated. A very timely intervention.

As I sat next to Aedas’s PR advisor, and again as I read Yaneva’s description of the process of constructing this computer model, it struck me that ‘the datasets’ used were problematic – they were made up of a huge range of press stories, some of which will have come directly from LOCOG. With the BBC, acting as official Olympic broadcaster and the LOCOG press office defining new levels of bullying and coercion in the pursuit of their chosen narrative of how the Games are being delivered. Although much of the truth about the Olympics does get out, it is according to a timescale that LOCOG controls. Indeed, it could even be said that the word ‘legacy’ represents an attempt by the Olympic Delivery Authority to create a non-human agency, when it is not one. It’s meaning as ‘future’ could be added to the timeline as easily as the map of connectors.

When academics such as Michael Callon, an economist, use Actor Network Theory for sociological studies of markets, they usually go directly to the study group for their data. Yaneva, however, has gone to a highly problematic set of media outputs to analyse the processes behind the Olympic Stadium and the Senedd in Cardiff. At key stages, the coverage reveals not the nature of the controversy, but a performance of controversy – the very staged debate in the design process around the issue of community for example. This doesn’t mean that this book or this approach is invalid at all. Her criticism of the hero status of the architect is as welcome as her scotching of the idea that he is simply a channel of dominant social forces.

Yaneva makes a heartfelt attempt to address the very real problem currently threatening the academic understanding of architectural history; namely, the reading of buildings as the crystallised effects of the political and economic world that produced them. It’s the type of view that sees the Dome as Tony Blair’s ideas incarnate, utterly negates not just the technological aspect of architectural production but its complexity. It ignores the way buildings emerge from a set of social concerns, as much as they address them. Yaneva should be praised for raising concerns about this trend even if she adopts a strategy that devolves into a series of endless associations that illuminate little.

Indeed, her reading of the controversy of the Sydney Opera House, one of the three main case studies here, shows how academics often overlook what is going on. Not all stories in the press are of equal credence and those who work in the media know this better than most. Basing her reading of the event pre-eminently on Peter Murray’s excellent book The Saga of the Sydney Opera House, she gives little credit to the work of journalists and writers, who have not just been arguing for an understanding of architecture emerging from within society rather than in opposition to it but have been happily critiquing buildings in that way for years. The titan of this approach was of course Reyner Banham, but I would argue that writers such as Robert Hughes and Michael Sorkin have also operated in this mode.

There is a tradition of architectural journalism outwith academia that argues for an understanding of architecture emerging from within society, rather than in opposition to it in the way Yaneva wants. Furthermore, there is another strain within academia, common in the US, which looks to the architectural drawing as a means of understanding the borrowing and transferring of ideas between societies. It develops a narrative of subtlety in which the architect, the building and social forces all operate in unique, nuanced ways. As entrancing as a complex mapping structure is, it would be better to analyse the veracity of the stories we are told and give the good ones greater credence than the bad.

*Tim Abrahams blogs at cosmopolitanscum.com His extended essay on the Olympic Park is published next month

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Just read Yaneva's book - I think Tim Abrahams has failed to grasp that this is a book about new methodology in architectural research, not an exercise on architectural journalism. The Olympics, the Sydney Opera House are merely used to illustrate the method, while the book is not a "quest to find the truth" about any of these examples.
    Abrahams' review does not do justice to a truly new way of understanding architecture in the making and I am slightly concerned of a possible conflict of interest, keeping in mind his forthcoming publication on the Olympic Park.

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