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Myopic doyen.


By Kenneth Frampton. Vienna: Springer. 2007, [euro]29.95

Kenneth Frampton wrote the long-awaited Modern Architecture--A Critical History in 1980, an overview of Modernism at the end of its tether, in many ways the best summation of the several movements taking in the important research of the previous decade. The present 'synoptic account' of the last century does not add much to this revisionist view, apparently written for the Chinese market. With a high ratio of plans and line drawings to photos of completed buildings (roughly four to one), it is an ideal Little Blue Book for students to put in their pockets or wave reprovingly at deviants from the party-line, for again it is Comrade (or is it Constable?) Frampton laying down the law.

Forbidden, as usual, are the 'romantic fantasies of the Art Nouveau' and great architects such as Gaudi who he, like Pevsner, considers degenerate. Excluded also, in the name of brevity, are movements that don't fit variants of the main line--Post-Modernists, of course, such as Venturi and Gehry (given only a dismissive reference), Deconstructionists and Eisenman (surprisingly), the emergence of the iconic building as an important genre, the variety of green architectures and the whole complexity paradigm of design. Frampton apologises for these inevitable lacunae, a result of 'the limited space at my disposal', as he concentrates on four 'trajectories'. These do have some breadth of view varying from the Avant-Garde to Organic architects, from National Cultures that resist the universalising tendencies of Modernism to place-making and his notion of 'Reality'. At least we can be thankful for this little pluralism, limited though it is to roughly the Team Ten line. Frampton is a historian whose taste and outlook were frozen at the moment of his first important contribution in much the way that big name architects Rudolph, Graves and Libeskind made their significant breakthroughs and then repeated them. Typically, the last three are not even mentioned. In effect, Frampton's view is not only severely reduced but skewed towards the early part of the last century.

By conducting the argument through the reproduction of line drawings, Frampton does give the impression that some coherence underlies the discontinuities and discord of the twentieth century. Auguste Choisy used to imply the same overall unity, as Banham wrote, by applying the axonometric drawing to historical variety, as if the Great Architect Anon were the main protagonist. Again to his credit and rather like Vincent Scully, Frampton has a well-stocked visual memory and can call up a thousand visual associations. But here also lies the main conceptual problem. Promising 'the evolution' of architecture in his title, he has no theoretical equipment to deal with this fascinating, and under-thought concept, except the single notion of 'influence'. And this leads to strange lines of development and over-emphasis on early rather than later architects. Thus Gehry and Coop Himmelblau are reduced to footnotes of Scharoun's influence; and in the most reductive trimming I know, the whole subcontinent of South Asia, and the post-1970s work in Germany, Switzerland and Canada is squeezed as a footnote to Louis Kahn. Too bad for Kleihues, Ungers, Botta and Aldo van Eyck, no doubt all stemming from the Kahnian source, but now complete victims of associational sourcery. This is an old type of historian's myopia, the treatment of movements and individuals as instances of previous trends rather than semi-autonomous creative actors in their own right.

Frampton is a 'doyen of architecture history', as the back-cover blurb says, a first class thinker when he takes the time and space to develop an argument. More the pity that he hasn't used this synoptic platform to lay out a sketch of what the evolution of architecture might be. Of course 'influence' plays a role, but more than that it is the interplay of many architectural species waxing and waning with some individuals jumping across bloodlines (unlike biological species cultural ones can learn tricks from anywhere). Of course all history writing is the history of the present looking backwards, a highly edited mythic affair either aware of its bias or one pretending to objectivity. Frampton admits the 'subjectivity' but does nothing to guard against it and cavalierly dismissing most of the late twentieth century--not even mentioning Koolhaas, Hadid, Zumthor, Herzog & de Meuron, et al--ends, not surprisingly, on a note of gloom. Self-imposed myopia is bound to make you depressed.
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Title Annotation:The Evolution of Twentieth-Century Architecture, a Synoptic Account
Author:Jencks, Charles
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2008
Previous Article:Devil in the detail.
Next Article:Sienese Chronicles.

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