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By Hilde Heynen, London: The MIT Press. 1999. [pounds]24.95

This is something of an oddity -- a selection of approachable essays on familiar aspects of twentieth-century modernism, flavoured with an idiosyncratic collection of broadly late-Marxist commentaries about the social and political failure of architecture.

Heynen presents her subjects more or less chronologically: Giedion, Loos, Benjamin, Adorno, Tafuri, Libeskind. Her writing is efficient and there are few surprises; the piece on Loos seems to owe much to Beatriz Columbina; her observations on Libeskind are derived from the more lucid of the latter's own explanations. It is in the more esoteric parts of the book that Heynen reveals her own outlook -- a bleak view of modern architecture consistently failing to influence a repressive society. She looks first at the Frankfurt Siedlungen of the 1920s: she implies they failed because they could not alone effect social change, even if they did in fact provide pockets of resistance against Nazism. Later comes Constant's New Babylon: Heynen likes his shapeless sprawling, his trying hopelessly to define an undefinable. She is sympathetic to Tafuri's view of history as a 'project of crisis'; her Walter Benjamin is the protagonist of destruction, and not the Benjamin who wrote of society having left 'one portion of human heritage' at the pawnbroker's for a hundredth of its true value. Adorno's critique of art is applied to architecture: functionalist modernism has neutered itself and cannot be a critique of society. It is unfortunate that the climax of all this is an inadequate summary of something by Koolhaas: Heynen has an ability to transfer ideas about art in general to buildings that is wasted here.

It's a readable and useful book. It's also part of the fashionable world picture which entirely excludes English nineteenth-century thought beyond a dutiful passing reference to 'Morris and Ruskin': that's bizarre in a book about art as a mirror (however distorted or distorting) of society, or as a glass house. Heidegger inevitably crops up, but Heynen is refreshingly dismissive. Quite right, too: this is a book about Jewish thinkers, Jewish thought, Jewish tragedy, uprootedness, destruction. And so it is about the central themes of the last century.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 2000
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