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By Anthony Vidler, London: MIT Press, 2000, [pound]22.50

The idea that space is the essential ingredient of architecture is so commonplace we forget that it emerged relatively recently, in the nineteenth century. As it emerged, according to this book, it cast a sinister shadow -- the fear of space, taking various pathological forms, most obviously agoraphobia and claustrophobia. Anthony Vidler is not interested in the positive, liberating potential of architectural space; he is interested only in the dark shadow, the 'fear, anxiety and estrangement' associated with the experience of space in the modern world.

The first half of the book traces the path of this shadow through psychiatry, literature, philosophy, film-making and architecture, from Blaise Pascal, who was haunted by an imaginary abyss that appeared from time to time to the left of his chair, through the casebook of Sigmund Freud and the urban meditations of Walter Benjamin, to the sublime imagery of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and Le Corbusier's l'espace indicible -- ineffable space. The emphasis throughout is on written accounts and theories so that spatial experience is presented at one remove. As if aware of this weakness, Vidler devotes the second half of the book to specific examples, all taken from the most elevated and rarefied strata of artistic and architectural production - Rachel Whiteread's 'House', Martha Rosler's urban photographs, Mike Kelley's pseudo-architectural models, and architectural projects by such as Daniel Libeskind, Greg Lynn and Eric Owen Moss.

But the structural shift does nothing to stem the flow of relentlessly abstract theorizing. Vidler is more interested in the words of critics than in direct encounters with works of art, let alone buildings or cities. The paucity of illustrations does not help. Each chapter in Part 2 is provided with just one black and white photograph, which, if the reader is not familiar with the oeuvre in question, renders the text practically useless. But then the text wanders off the subject anyway. Vidler can never resist the temptation to make another oblique theoretical connection, drop another obscure name, construct another convoluted six line sentence. The effect is to obscure the subject matter.

This book should be consumed in small portions, a chapter at a time. Taken as a whole, it is rambling, tedious and repetitive. Vidler himself seems to suffer from a kind of agoraphobia -- an intellectual agoraphobia. There are some original thoughts here and some difficult ideas are clarified, but he really should try to get out more.
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Article Details
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Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 1, 2001

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