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Theoretical sweep.

MODERN ARCHITECTURAL THEORY: A HISTORICAL SURVEY 1673-1968

By Harry Francis Mallgrave. England: Cambridge University Press. 2005 [pounds sterling]70

Mallgrave's achievement in trying to sum up the development of architectural theory from the Enlightenment to the revolutions of 1968 is staggering in its sweep, compass and sheer competence. He starts with Claude Perrault's 1763 edition of Vitruvius, as the first architectural example of the use of theorie. (It was a translation of the Roman author's ratiocinatio, which was one of the two pillars of architecture--the other being fabrica, making.)

Mallgrave stresses that 'a history of theory is different from a history of architecture': the stress is on ideas, 'and some major architects have had only a small effect on the course of theory whereas some minor architects have had a large impact'. He is concerned 'to hold on fast as theory evolves through its many guises until at last it reveals its true identity'. I have reservations about the true identity of any theory ever being revealed, but Mallgrave's effort is worthwhile and heroic.

His badger-like grasp of a set of ideas and their development is exemplary, partly (mainly perhaps) because he refuses to use the arcane and intentionally bizarre language that many (particularly American) academics employ when discussing history and theory. Unusually (for an author writing in English), he explores the development of German theory in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which is set in a weave with already well reported French, British and American strands. He is particularly strong on Semper and his disciples who are often neglected, perhaps because Pevsner intentionally ignored them.

Mallgrave divides history into a narrative of neat and necessarily slightly overlapping chapters, for instance 'The Enlightenment and Neoclassical Theory', 'British Theory in the Eighteenth Century', 'Neoclassicism and Historicism' and so on. Architectural thought is always related to contemporary currents of philosophical thinking, which are explained with concision and clarity. On the whole, Mallgrave is remarkably even-handed, though he gets a bit tetchy with people like Soane, whose 'private feelings are ambivalent and difficult to define'. He loses patience with William Morris, whose recipes for improving life, art and architecture 'are both inadequate and affectedly naive'.

Although Mallgrave says that the book is not a history of architecture, his chapters on Modernism do provide a remarkably succinct and dispassionate overview of the variety and development of the Movement, its main protagonists and the political currents in which they had to swim. For instance, he uncensoriously sums up Corbusier's writhings with the Vichy regime after the Fall of France and his subsequent changes in output and intellectual position. The decay of Modernism and the rise in importance of phenomenology, structuralism and semiotics are carefully woven together, and the penultimate chapter ends with a very sympathetic account of Venturi and Complexity and Contradiction.

The final chapter, an epilogue, looks at 1968, the year of revolutions, Tafuri's dismissal of architectural development since the Enlightenment as 'walking in lock-step with capitalism and thus in an insoluble state of crisis', and with the arguments between Kenneth Frampton and Denise Scott Brown about the nature of culture dominated by capitalist symbols. Mallgrave looks on the year as one of 'exhaustion' after which 'architectural theory would never again be the same. A new (or old) direction had to be found.'

It is a pity that Mallgrave decided to stop so long ago, though the finishing point is doubtless chosen to give historical objectivity. His dispassionate analysis of directions that have been pursued since 1968--critical regionalism, blobismus, Jencks's discovery of essence in the universe and so on--would be extremely welcome. And so would his discussion of responses to the imminent ecological crisis. But he has apparently retreated to Florida, where he 'has returned to architectural practice'. What can his buildings be like? If they are as meticulous and thorough as his book, they must be awesome.

Book reviews from The Architectural Review can now be seen on our website at www.arplus.com and the books can be ordered online, many at special discount.
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Author:Davey, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 2005
Words:672
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