World’s Greatest Architect: Making, Meaning, and Network Culture

November 13, 2008

According to the dust jacket, this book contains “brilliant essays” creating “patterns of possibility that allow the reader to see and design one’s personal connection between each essay”. Human beings have indeed been “makers of things and makers of meaning” – Mitchell draws attention to many of them in this slim volume.

In his first short essay, “Kicking the Bottle”, the author points to the fact that his supermarket “stocks bottled water from Fiji… twelve time zones away across the Pacific Ocean”, and that this “seems unnecessary”. Quite so, for “in modern cities, you’re paying a thousandfold price markup for branding, a little convenience, and maybe a very tiny, imperceptible and unnecessary quality increment. Even worse, this distribution system adds embodied energy, transportation miles and a carbon footprint to a product that’s readily available in bulk”. Mitchell rightly says that we can “recycle all those millions of bottles”, but this “consumes precious space and energy”.

He notes: “The best way to take junk out of circulation is not to put it into circulation in the first place”. Plastic water bottles are “useless, expensive, and bad for the planet”. All this is undeniably true, but there is something else Mitchell misses: plastic is unstable. Who knows what it is doing to all the dreary conformists walking around these days with their plastic bottles, imbibing the liquid through plastic teats?

Mitchell tilts at plenty of targets: modern surveillance; supermarkets, whose begetters may not have counted on the “deadly effects of rising gasoline prices on cars in parking lots”, and which reduce citizens to consumers; “ignorant thugs who… pass off their bigotry as morality” and those who take measures against them, thus inconveniencing everybody; and a great deal more besides.

The “format of Desert Island Discs doesn’t quite work for architecture”, so the US Postal Service has issued 12 stamps commemorating “masterworks of American modernism”. Of course the buildings chosen are predictable, but, Mitchell points out, the Guggenheim Museum in New York “looks considerably crisper in a postage stamp-sized photograph than it does today in actuality – with its spalling concrete and peeling paint”. However, the Postal Service, undeterred, will issue, in addition to the 12 Wonders of Architectural Modernism, 12 Animals of the Chinese New Year, 11 Muppets, 4 American Scientists, 4 Disney Characters, 4 Rio Grande Blankets, 10 Civil Rights Leaders, 4 Holiday Cookies, and Henry Fonda. So we know “what’s in and what’s out”, perhaps.

Greens, we are told, are “sentimental nature lovers” who will “object to solar and wind installations – particularly when these are big enough to make a worthwhile difference”. One can certainly share much of the author’s exasperation with the absurdities of so much that is repulsive in modern life, but he could have made a better fist of it had he bothered to spell Philip Johnson’s first name correctly when pointing out that God (the “Greatest Architect”) is even older, and had he troubled to establish that Jeremy Bentham’s body was not embalmed, but was dissected, and its skeleton wired together and equipped with a wax head.

Even many of God’s projects have not stood the test of time: “Eden… turned out to be a sterile and boring place to live – like… Milton Keynes. Adam and Eve, the original power couple, voted with their feet… ”. And so on.

It is amusing journalism, designed to be read in small doses by those with an attention span of a few seconds. Its profundities, however, are lost in the unrelentingly jocular tone. Humbert Humbert’s nymphet, had she lived, we are reminded, would be 70 this year: “perhaps she would have written a best-selling victim memoir”. Some of us have more telluric tastes.

World’s Greatest Architect: Making, Meaning, and Network Culture

By William J. Mitchell
The MIT Press, 160pp, £10.95
ISBN 9780262633642
Published 30 September 2008

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