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The I-word.


By Charles Jencks. Frances Lincoln. 2005. [pounds sterling]19.99


By Deyan Sudjic. Penguin/Allen Lane. 2005. [pounds sterling]20


By Miles Glendinning. Graven Images. 2005. [pounds sterling]9.50

In Summer 2004, at the Royal Academy in London, the architect Graham Morrison launched a stinging attack on 'iconitis', the trend to create buildings without meaning or programme beyond the desire to make the maximum visual noise, the equivalent of the classroom show-off: amusing for an instant and thereafter a tiresome irritant. Though Morrison, in a carefully argued speech, made clear that he admired certain buildings which could be described as icons, because of the quality of both programme and design, he was generally reported as attacking anything which could be described using the I-word. Feathers were ruffled, and the debate about what the former editor of this magazine describes as 'gesture architecture' continues to rumble on.

The three titles reviewed here all contribute to the debate, though they were conceived before Morrison's blast. Charles Jencks, often the quickest off the mark to produce a book about what everyone else in architecture is starting to discuss, does not disappoint. His unerring eye for the interesting (and unnerving) is put to good effect, supplemented by excellent analytical drawings by Madelon Vriesendorp. These drawings show metaphorical analyses (by author and artist) of various iconic buildings: thus the Koolhaas CCTV headquarters in Beijing is reinterpreted as a pair of hands/spider's web/cat looking through a hole and so on.

This is all about the latent meaning behind 'enigmatic signifiers', the Jencks synonym for 'icons'. There is nothing enigmatic about the front cover image showing the Foster Gherkin as a space rocket at take-off; nor on the back, where the up-blown dress of Marilyn Monroe, an iconic image from The Seven Year Itch, transmutes into Gehryesque Bilbao titanium facades.

The book has history, media analysis and some good short interviews with players on the iconic architecture scene. It is enjoyable and informative. The only drawback is that the analysis and conclusions are remorselessly related to Jencks' theories about 'cosmogenesis' and the history of the universe. These are interesting, but there is a certain 'here-we-go-again' feeling induced by the absolute certainty of Jencks' arguments: the latest scientific evidence is always taken as being the last word. Nevertheless, a thoroughly stimulating read, excellent production, and a good price.

Equally stimulating is Deyan Sudjic's best book to date, The Edifice Complex, subtitled 'How the Rich and Powerful Shape the World'. This is part history, part anecdote, and part polemic, from a commentator who has recently decided to run a school of architecture after a career as journalist, editor, author, and successful curator/director of both Glasgow's city of Architecture year, and the Venice architecture biennale. His acute eye and ear for bombast, dishonesty, boastfulness and the meretricious wherever it appears, results in a brutally honest description of twentieth-century architects and the way in which, almost invariably, their desire to build outweighs most other considerations. You name the political villain, human rights abuser or vulgarian funder of this or that and you will find their architectural handmaidens, ready to satisfy every whim on projects from the megalomaniac private house right up to entire cities, built by slave labour. The nauseating stories about Speer et al remind us that 'charm', the successful architect's stock-in-trade, is a value-free asset.

Sudjic likes George Orwell's cold analysis of the relationship between culture and power, and cites his comment that 'certain arts or half arts, such as architecture, might even find tyranny beneficial'. The book suggests this is only too true. A series of building types get the Sudjic treatment: museums, airports, towers, libraries and so on, each chapter providing further examples of the intriguing and often fraught relationships between politics, money, power and the desire on the part of so many individuals to leave their mark on the world, in the form of buildings and monuments. His not entirely gloomy conclusion is that an awareness of these relationships may help us avoid their most pernicious consequences. This is a first-rate piece of advanced journalism which should be read by anyone with a more than technical interest in architecture.

Miles Glendinning's blast at the failures of Modernism (no successes acknowledged) is the first in a series of publications promoted by The Lighthouse, Scotland's centre for the promotion of architecture and design. It is a quick read, well illustrated, but not written for a general audience, containing complicated arguments and a range of references which might be described as eclectically Post-Modernist. He has invented a concept called McMoMo which is not entirely satisfactorily explained, and is in fact an example, albeit ironic, of the branding culture against which the book rails. An interesting curiosity, but expensive even at [pounds sterling]9.50.
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Author:Finch, Paul
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 2005
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