Pimlott’s look at interiors and urbanism is a rare joy, says Edwin Heathcote
Without and Within: Essays on Territory and the Interior. By Mark Pimlott. Episode Publishers, 2007. 336pp. 40 euros (£28)
A couple of years ago Mark Pimlott said he was finishing a book about interiors. He was being very modest. Without and Within begins with closely argued essays about the relationship of a handful of pivotal buildings (by Corb, Mies, Rem Koolhaas etc.) to their surroundings. It’s a fascinating series of readings with a clarity rarely seen in architecture books.
Rather than using the Modernist plan or interior as a cue for his investigation, Pimlott examines the nature of North American territoriality, including Jefferson’s utopian ideals, the emergence of the grid to impose order on a wild paradise, and the reappearance of Edenic moments thanks to the City Beautiful movement.
For Pimlott, the US city defines itself through a blend of frontier mentality and an ordering of utopia. Suburbia meanwhile ‘became the caretaker of the image of nature’ and, in a clever twist, Pimlott describes how the post-war city itself became the frontier – a wild place of savages and lurking danger.
So the city, to revive itself after the misfortunes of its decline, was forced to adopt the tropes of the suburb, the fake utopias of the mall and that last vestige of emasculated landscape, the atrium. Here Pimlott argues that the Crystal Palace, Hyde Park’s own proto-mall, was not just a dream factory of desire but the prime model behind new buildings. The ghost of the Crystal Palace, he argues, appears everywhere from New York’s Battery Park City to Koolhaas’ Seattle Library via the suburban mall.
I am simplifying Pimlott’s arguments outrageously. There is also much about the growth and decline of the US city and the emergence of the suburb as a generator of consumption. And there’s an extremely good section about New York’s Rockefeller Center with its subterranean tunnels – a revivified urban arcade - which Pimlott sees as the model for the external (public) realm being replaced by the internal (private) one as the prime place for retail and social interaction.
This segues effortlessly into a discussion of the Viennese architect Victor Gruen’s malls, conceived in a spirit of central European urbanity despite their rapid descent into a suburban space of spectacle. And there is much good stuff on the airport as the other key driver of the contemporary model of space – a place of strange bigness made comforting and familiar through the recognition of well-known brands. This is not a hugely political book, but capital can be glimpsed at every corner, with retail and consumption at the heart of everything.
Interiors reappear, however, as Pimlott analyses the key moves in I M Pei’s Louvre extension, OMA’s Rotterdam Kunsthal and Seattle Library, and in corporate US buildings of the late ’70s which have been otherwise ignored by contemporary commentators. Pimlott refers to the ‘maximisation of interiority’ through these examples: how the outside world is rendered impotent while architectural space becomes omnipotent.
Pimlott is rarely critical, observing rather than dismissing. The result is an absolute joy and that rarest of things – a book on architecture theory which is well-argued, clear and extremely readable. The author is one of the few figures who has successfully blended art and design in his own work and here he proves a formidable commentator as well.
Resume: Pimlott gives the old in-out a thorough going over.
Edwin Heathcote is the architecture critic of the Financial Times