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Noting new books at Architext

Philip Drew, Hardie Grant Books, $60.
Philip Drew’s new book is a model of careful detective work produced in the total absence of collaboration and assistance from Jørn Utzon himself. Living up to an ambitious subtitle, ‘Jørn Utzon: A Secret Life’, Drew has ferreted out information and erected scenarios worthy of a novel. The book presents a compelling saga of the Sydney Opera House and its architect, replete with the machinations of politics both on and off the site. Along the way some interesting questions about architecture and biography pop up.
Although buildings can sometimes beam out unambiguous signals about the more obsessive and funny sides of an architect’s personality, they don’t usually make good material for the biographer. While there is a book market of some sort for practically every major figure in architecture, there have been very few attempts to venture outside an architect’s professional life into the private world. Is it possible to use an eminent architect’s career and works to construct a biography in the same way we know is possible with a great novelist or musician whose work is more personal and not so deflected by political, social, technical and contractual concerns? Does the story of a building really offer us direct access to the inner world of its designer, in the way Drew’s subtitle ‘A Secret Life’ would seem to imply? Surely the work of architects and the evidence they leave in job files, letters and texts must be too circumspect and constrained by professional frameworks for conventional biography?
In the face of such obstacles, Philip Drew’s persistence is remarkable. One has the sense that the result is neither biography nor novel but something of both, the hybrid that is so common today. This is a work diligently assembled from a myriad of fragmentary sources and then synthesised with the unmistakable narrative drive of a good novel. Drew’s The Masterpieceis a considerable achievement. It is easily read and weighty enough to prompt a final question: surely now another Opera House book will not be required for some time?

Tony Fry, UNSW Press, $40.
At its core, this is not a book about ecology, sustainability or design – all terms the author rejects and seeks to recast – but an uncompromising, relentless, philosophical treatise. Tony Fry mounts a Derridean deconstruction of commonplace design and environmental precepts in order that we might start afresh with sound, “defutured” ideas unencumbered with preconceptions like progress and the accommodation of capital. He interrogates everyday modes of thinking and doing that most designers – including ESD zealots – would never stop to think about. This book is questioning, challenging, enlightening, rewarding, irritating and borderline incomprehensible. I quickly add that the latter is my problem because, like most designers, I’m not trained in philosophy and you need to be. If the book’s market includes the design community, this will be a major obstacle to the passage of its message. Perhaps we need a ‘Tony Fry for Idiots’ to really catch on. Fry sets out to undermine stable and comfortable world views about the environment and design with a view to reorientating them. Along the way he dismisses anodynes like ESD and urges us to try again. His “think again” challenge begins with language itself, which he declares should also be reconstructed: “plain English negates the dynamic transformative potential of language and thereby subordinates it to the functionality of the status quo”. If this seems obtuse, then the concept of defuturing is enlightening: Fry calls it the “remaking of practical reasoning” and argues for an “ontological theory of design” which would be a branch of applied philosophy. The reward in this book comes from the struggle one has with its difficult concepts couched in difficult language that really exercises the mind

Michael Ostwald and John Moore, Archadia Press, $20.
The body in this book is a metaphor for architecture or rather the humanistic basis of architecture in Western civilisation. Newcastle University academics Ostwald and Moore track and query the current fashion in architectural theory to replace Vitruivian anthropomorphic proportion with a new anti-humanistic aesthetic system. Incidentally the need to do this has not been demonstrated beyond flat claims such as the need to do something new [the teleological argument] or the current system is morally bankrupt.
Today, humanism is the enemy to target in the precisely the same way historicism was for the pioneers of modern architecture. Collaborative efforts like Disjecta Membra are rare in architectural writing and this one is unusual with Moore the historian and Ruskin scholar and Ostwald the student of contemporary theory, computers and exploratory mathematics. Their joint venture began when the former supervised the latter’s PhD.
Architectural theory over the past decade or two can be said to have three indistinct but significant stages: first, architects read philosophy, semiotics and literary theory; second, they tried to write it themselves; and third, we now have buildings that look like built theory. Disjecta Membrabelongs to Stages 2 and 3 and includes some of Ostwald’s projects in a Tschumi tradition that goes back to the Manhattan transcripts of the late 1970s. Coming from a site far removed from Melbourne, this book is a welcome contribution to the meagre field of architectural theory in this country
Notices by Andrew Metcaff. Architext bookshops are at Tusculum, Sydney, ph 02 9356 2022 and 41 Exhibition Street, Melbourne, ph 03 9650 3474



Published online: 1 Nov 1999


Architecture Australia, November 1999

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