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Jeremy Till et al under the spotlight

Website-turned-book Spatial Agency promotes an unorthodox approach to the production of the built environment

When the writers of this volume express the hope that the tweet that refers to their work as ‘worthy’ is well-intended, they are probably wrong, but so too is the person responsible for that tweet. In focusing on ‘engaging architectural practice with political and social contexts’, this is the right book, at the right time; but made by too limited a combination of people, and in the wrong format. It is an important research project, best suited to a living online presence; well-researched, but poorly presented.

Spatial Agency begins with a horrible subtitle (Other Ways of Doing Architecture) and feeble cover (more apposite would have been a detail of a Bureau d’Etudes illustration, or − even better − an Eames ‘What is Design?’ pluralistic and pragmatic diagram from 1969).

It progresses beyond a brief series of intriguing images (of Rural Studio, Bauhäusle, and Haus-Rucker-Co, for example) to a barely readable and apologetic introduction, wades through too much text and too few images, but concludes with a marvellous and concise compendium of practitioners (doers?), movements and organisations.

Yet all is not as bad as it may seem: the latter and better part of the book constituting two-thirds of the same, and being a generous and genuinely worthy survey of the genre. While including some surprises (Arup Associates and Coop Himmelb(l)au, for example, until one spots the ‘1963-1985’ and ‘1968-1980’ qualifications respectively), there are perhaps a couple of UK omissions (the Agents of Change and Sarah Wigglesworth Architects; with regard to the latter, Till’s wife, one suspects he would have been damned either way).

Not for the first time, here is a book that reads better from back to front. However much of its writers may object to the phrase, this book presents ‘alternative architectural practice’ (the working title that the introduction spends three-and-a-half pages rejecting) and promotes an unorthodox approach to effecting and understanding the production of the built environment.

In that, it is not only laudable but important, but to rephrase the Dictionary of Alternatives’ statement that ‘one person’s alternative is another person’s orthodoxy’, these alternatives in turn create their own orthodoxy, and the writers fall into the trap of the self-reflexive language in which they accuse architecture of having ‘wrapped itself … since the Renaissance’ (‘we wanted our project to be able to engage with projects and practices not through their overt alterity but through the possibilities that they offered’).

Indeed, at times the writing brought to mind Peggy Noonan’s description of Sarah Palin being ‘self-referential to the point of self-reverence’. The voice of the academic, of theory rather than practice, is too insistent for the first third of the work, of which ‘to argue that there is not a direct, causal link, between beauty and happiness, or at a wider level between aesthetics and ethics, is not to argue for the dismissal of the role of aesthetics and tectonics, but to more realistically understand the role they play in the context of the much wider set of social conditions to which architecture contributes’ is but an example.

This is an ironic outcome, as a superficial reading of the compendium might merely reinforce Shaw’s idiom that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach. It is also the insistence on ‘doing’ over ‘practising’ that grates from the start; Till’s own website is peppered with the word, and one may be forgiven for thinking the professor doth protest too much in his inverted academic snobbery.

Ecosistema

Urban voids in Pennsylvania. Ecosistema Urbano’s strategy for the self-reparation of the urban tissue of Philadelphia. The practice defines their field of interest as ‘creative urban sustainability’, achieved through a combination of urbanism, architecture, engineering and sociology

For readers hoping that this book might put into practice what Till’s excellent Architecture Depends urged architects to do, or who expect it to continue on the high that it may well have left them, they will be sorely disappointed. That a publication concerned with inventive and inspiring alternative approaches partly resulting from collaboration should be written by a collective of writers is appropriate, but that those writers should come from so narrow a field (academia) is unfortunate.

As a result, it is over-academic but underwhelming, where the transformational work it showcases demands a different platform and presentation. Research has not translated well into doing, and, while the writers note that ‘much of the “making things visible” is happening online’, and even refer the reader to the Spatial Agency website, because there one can sort the entries like any database, they have not understood that a book of this type undersells so powerful a concept.

Anyone who considers it reasonable to judge a book by its cover, its typography, or the smell of the paper on which it is printed (another reason to go digital), may also be irked to discover that even as an academic publication Spatial Agency is a little sloppy. Where the turgid text is at least cogently and helpfully ordered, there are endnotes that don’t tally with the main text. The graphic design is dominated by the feel of a website (double columns, underlined hyperlinks that don’t work), but without a user-friendly interface.

Look beyond all this, however, and greatness can be found; there are genuinely moving examples of alternative architecture, such as Elemental’s Iquique dwellings, and the social housing at Mulhouse designed by Lacaton & Vassal and its transformation over time, or Malcolm Wells’ Underground Art Gallery.

These sit neatly alongside the better-known work of Hassan Fathy or Walter Segal. Such projects and the intriguing maps of Bureau d’Etudes, which make visible complex relationships, are crying out for better and bigger imagery, and photographs populated by people, particularly given the social nature of the subject-matter.

Significant and timely (the introduction makes suitable reference to the recession), the book falls short of ‘one of the key aims of spatial agency’, that of ‘the uncovering and making visible of hidden structures, be they political, social or economic’. This challenge is yet to be met fully and successfully, as neither this book, nor the website in its current form, does justice to the spatial justice it quite rightly seeks. It works in theory, if not in praxis.

Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture

Authors: Nishat Awan, Tatjana Schneider, Jeremy Till

Publishers: Routledge

Price: £24.99

 

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