Building with social and culturalconstructions

The Journal of Architecture
February 20, 1998

with the formation of the Architects' Registration Board, which has been given the role of protecting both the architect and the general public, the Royal Institute of British Architects is increasingly able to concentrate on the public's response to architecture. This development has given new life to a long-running debate: is architecture purely a profession or is it an art? What discourse can it sustain? Are architects supposed to know architecture as solicitors know the law, or are they to be more like barristers, advocating causes capable of arousing passions?

Since the beginning of the 20th century, when architecture departments began to be set up in universities, the subject was lodged neither in science nor in the humanities, and it has continued to suffer from mixed expectations. At the beginning of the 1960s, hard questions were asked about architecture's right to a place in the university. From this time forward, a new value was placed on the text, and young architects were expected to write essays and behave in many respects like their fellows in the humanities. It is from this period that architecture schools were expected also to engage in research and to advance their subject by building up a body of objective information that, in theory at any rate, would be accessible to all.

Differences arose as to whether architecture is a discipline in its own right or must divide into the textual and the material. This is still a difficulty, and research in university departments of architecture is still struggling to establish itself. So far as building materials are concerned, most work is directly undertaken by the producers themselves, who alone have the physical plant, and university departments have by and large contributed very little, except perhaps in light and energy studies. On the other hand, if we see architecture in the university as a branch of art history, very little large-scale research has emerged, and the initiative has fallen to individual scholars to emulate the personal research carried out in departments of comparative literature and art.

It is against this background that we must welcome the appearance of a new quarterly review that seeks to provide a forum for the discussion of architectural and urban issues and to stimulate an interest in architectural theory. The Journal of Architecture, sponsored by the RIBA itself, concentrates on individual scholarship and on urban policy. RIBA's sponsorship is important, but equally important is the latitude given to the editors to select their material. The RIBA has long issued a monthly journal that has fluctuated in character over the years but has now settled into a newsy format paid for by advertisements. At various times, attempts were made to bring theory and research into the monthly publication, but these have always succumbed to the pressure of short-term needs.

The Journal of Architecture gives its editors independence on condition that the journal makes a profit for the publisher, and that means finding an audience. That audience evidently starts with the identification of a younger generation of academics, a generation nurtured on cultural studies and enamoured of theory, thus hopefully tapping into an energy that wants to carve out a place for itself in a now tenure-free arena. Most of the contributors write from within university departments, and if some are well-established experts, many are young, fresh and stimulating.

The journal's aims and scope stress a policy that aims to "assemble diverse views that affect the future of architecture and its reception in the world. It brings together views emanating from the profession, the industry, from the human sciences and cultural studies in a way that establishes a counterpoint. The editorial policy is critical rather than oppositional, outspoken and independent of entrenched interests."

All submissions are refereed, and the format -two columns of print a page and illustrations generally limited to the column width - is more that of the learned journal than of the professional organ. However, this format has not ruled out an interesting article by Isabel Allen: "Creating space out of textI", where the columns are divided into boxes that allow the content to be appraised horizontally as well as vertically, providing an alternative reading. The format is handsome and easy to read, and the interest in the future is expressed in the silver cover: silver being the recognised symbol in the building industry for lightweight material and technologically advanced construction. So far so good.

Editor David Dunster, holder of the Roscoe chair of architecture at Liverpool University, has made a reputation as an outspoken critic of the establishment, softened only by his understanding of the continuities that underlie social convention and the vagaries that attend its perennial renewal. No one within architecture is more aware of the continuing debate in cultural studies. His editorial in the first issue is succinct and to the point, but his pretensions are clearly justified by his masterly review of three books of essays byJHarbison, Colquhoun and Vidler in volume one, number two. His treatment of Colquhoun is particularly judicious, mixing respect for his logic with a tactful awareness of his blind spots.

The journal's other editor, Allen Cunningham, contributed in the following issue an excellent review of a new quarterly appearing in Australia -UME at the University of Melbourne -itself a further confirmation of a growing hunger for theoretical exegesis. Both editors are knowledgeable and have the requisite ability to make critical judgements. We must be grateful to them for including Colin Rowe's acceptance speech for the Royal Gold Medal. Rowe has a special significance for his generation. His influence was colossal in architectural schools within the United States, as he enabled students to learn history through design, rather than as a strict academic discipline. The presentation of Rowe is nicely ventilated, however, with a crisp and fearless article by his critic Jeremy Melvin.

Equally favourable for initiating debate is the juxtaposition of two attitudes to urban renewal, setting Vittorio Lampugnani, who orchestrated the first rebuilding projects in Berlin, against Daniel Libeskind, the architect of the Jewish Museum in the city. This argument is the main feature in volume one, number four. One view proclaims the commonplace as the unavoidable basis of city life; the other the exceptional, as the means by which culture is renewed. One can argue, as I did, that both points of view are equally important, yet the juxtaposition is vital for helping us to understand the eternal opposition between the individual initiative and the consensus by which a city lives.

Ian Borden's exemplary analysis of spatiality and the city in the writings of Georg Simmel provides a further theoretical dimension, appropriate in view of the fact that Berlin was Simmel's city. This debate is enlivened and complicated in volume two, number three, which, under the guest editorship of Elefterios Ikonomou, takes us into recent developments in Berlin in much greater and more serious detail.

Volume one, number three contains Anthony Vidler's "Architecture after history: nostalgia and modernity at the end of the century". Vidler rewrites the space of modernism, not as a liberating achievement but in terms of the anxiety engendered by the loss of classical certainty. The project of modernism is the continuation of the Enlightemnent into darker times. He starts with Rachel Whiteread's house, a work of conceptual art much loved by architects because it appears to renovate a monumental mass, whereas it recognises rather the ineffectual imprisonment of space by convention. The uncertainty produced by modern science through the very complexity that it reveals, places new limits on human power and responsibility and defines a postmodern condition that is expressive mainly of anxiety, the opposite of the sensually exploitative one apparent in "deconstructivist" design. Here the editors were able to sound a radical note merely by reproducing a public discourse.

The journal, in short, mixes polemic with scholarship and the timely with the perennial in a way that is interesting without seeking to be sensational. Every issue, of course, is particular; some subjects of research will appear to many to be the equivalent of work in a coal mine. As the coverage builds in successive issues we can see emerging a useful instrument of research and correlation, and a vindication of the editors' policy of critical evaluation.

Robert Maxwell is emeritus professor of architecture, Princeton University.

The Journal of Architecture: Volumes One and Two , 1996-97

Editor - David Dunster and Allen Cunningham
ISBN - ISSN 1360 2365
Publisher - E. & F. N. Spon
Price - £55.00 and £42.00

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