Cultural Constructions

LOOKING AROUND: A JOURNEY THROUGH ARCHITECTURE By Witold Rybczynski, Viking, 301 pp., $22.


IF we concede that ideas determine the course of our actions and much of the world we make for ourselves, then a look at current architectural criticism should give us some idea why we live in what we do and what we are likely to live in next.

Probably no two books concerned with the criticism of the same subject could be more different than Witold Rybczynski's "Looking Around: A Journey Through Architecture" and Anthony Vidler's "The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely."

Rybczynski writes for architects and for any interested reader. Vidler writes exclusively for architects and only for those architects familiar with the sampling of projects and theoreticians cited within his book. Both authors attempt to unveil the underlying cultural conditions that determine the form of architecture. Yet they differ dramatically in what each ultimately expects of architecture.

In his series of essays, Rybczynski considers all scales of architectural effort - from furniture to city planning. As is implied by his book's title, he bases his criticism on observation and then proceeds to weave an unusually well-presented historical context around them.

One essay, "Art Inside the Walls," is a cogent look at the contemporary art museum and its evolution from the Victorian picture gallery 100 years ago. He frames the contradiction between the consideration of art as an act of private contemplation and the overwhelmingly public and commercial context within which we have come to view it.

Ultimately, what makes this book valuable is his insistent requirement that architecture fulfill its complete role as beautiful, lasting, and appropriate public work. Rybczynski develops an appreciation for the delicate balance that a fully successful work requires. Architects will think him quaint as he closes by suggesting that architecture might profit from a return to the criteria of "Commodity, Firmness, and Delight" first stated by the Roman architect Vitruvius.

This is not to say that "Looking Around" is uniformly good. Occasionally one wonders why a particular subject is taken up only to be suspended without meaningful conclusion. Even so, one has to appreciate, when he is at his best, how relevant Rybczynski is in the way he connects architecture to our lives and culture.

By contrast, Vidler does not so much criticize as analyze in "The Architectural Uncanny," albeit in an ingenious if difficult manner. His technique is to find common conceptual threads between architecture and contemporary literature, psychology, and cultural theory. He considers contemporary building projects commonly referenced within current academic circles together with such figures as Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes.

Vidler's approach suggests the possibility of uncovering the sociopsychological forces that result in certain tangible forms and perceptions of architecture. This might be called an attempt to find the cultural equivalent of the physicists' grand unification theory. It produces curious moments, such as when the use of glass in modern architecture is seen to induce a kind of paranoia borne of its impenetrable nature.

It is unfortunate that despite the high level of thought and scholarship here, Vidler does not take the task of communication more seriously. The reader is left with a series of essays that are largely incomprehensible without an intimate knowledge of the buildings and references given. Barely an illustration is provided, and the book is organized as a collage wherein the reader is required to perceive the connection between thoughts through their adjacency on the page.

Just as psychoanalysis can degenerate into a useless, exhaustive examination of self, Vidler's book describes much without the reader necessarily feeling enlightened. This is because the subject matter is so narrowly focused that it eliminates many of the issues that architecture must confront to be judged adequately.

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