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Judging by appearances.


By Andrew Benjamin. North Western University Press. 2006. Hardback $54.95, paperback $23.95

Readers should pay careful attention to the subtitle. This book collects together a series of essays, three on Walter Benjamin (no relation), one concerned with geography, another about refugees, one around Georges Bataille's art appreciation and essay 5 sometimes discusses architecture. Style, a category produced during the cataloguing mania of the nineteenth century, connotes at least three meanings. The first has to do with Connoisseurship; how can the buyer be sure that this is an actual Canaletto? The second, which Benjamin discusses, arises from the confusion of styles in architecture during the nineteenth century--that debate which prefigured the emergence of what architects recognise as modern architecture. And the third surrounds the idea of comportment, good behaviour, manners and taste. Recently style and connoisseurship have been dismissed as a reactionary fetishism of origins. Benjamin's choice of title is at least provocative, engaging this reader with the thought that he might reconvene theoretical issues which Dutch journalists have consigned to the dustbin of history Revenge will be sweet.

The second term, Time, in this conjunction Style and Time, cannot help but refer to Heidegger's Being and Time. Benjamin's line is ontological, the condition of existence as exemplified by ... well here we would have expected some material reference--to buildings, cities, specifics of the world around us. Time can be chronological, historical or memorial which clumsily leads into a not specially useful discussion of the Shoah. How many more Holocaust monuments need we discuss? Cosmopolitan, the term of abuse used to ghettoise refugees from the Middle East before Lebanon, supplies the answer, not perhaps unconnected to the eulogy for refugees that extends the discussion of the unheimlich which so neatly avoided the real problems of the actually homeless, those too poor to have shelter, in favour of a Manhattanism by which professors of history and theory could alert us to their agony from the comfort of their Ambasz-designed leather study chairs. Certainly in seeking a definition of cosmopolitan architecture, the author senses the dilemma posed by the forces of globalisation and the inevitable and immediate demands of the particular site. But here an ambiguity arises, advertised in his introduction. When Benjamin says site he means both the placing of a concept within an argument, the site of the idea of place, for example, and in a later discussion of Federation Square Melbourne the specific site. Indeed in this latter example we find the sole illustration of some somewhat spurious lines drawn upon the gallery plan. Benjamin has certainly swallowed whole the Decon dictum that if we seek long enough we will find lines, the exact word Benjamin uses, on any site whose re-presentation as walls, volumes or strange non-Cartesian angles appears for him to be some guarantee of avant-garde-ness.

What can we learn? That philosophers deal with words not images, and indeed always assume that words precede images? That the quarry known as Walter Benjamin is far from exhausted? That Australia does strange things to a philosopher's mind? Or finally, that architecture can only be saved from this sort of writing by architects thinking about architecture and writing about it as clearly as they can. Oh, and no manifestos.
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Author:Dunster, David
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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