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Books by academics reviewed by academics

Book of the week: Architecture Depends

A call for architects to rejoin the messy world delights Flora Samuel

Architectural education is a strange business. Many more students than could ever be needed in an ailing profession are force-fed a diet of design projects in a hermetic system with its own language and history. In emulation of practice, but frequently without any real clients, students are encouraged to define solutions to design problems, producing on the way imagery that is deeply seductive to other architects but very often unintelligible to others.

In the UK, to survive, they are often forced to relinquish their old tastes and trappings to do well at university and become members of a club, the Architects Registration Board, whose main purpose is the protection of the title "architect" while pushing off other pretenders to the throne. But unable to convince others of their value, they are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the construction process in Britain today. Indeed, they seem to enter public consciousness only as temperamental prima donnas on television's Grand Designs or as the designer-clad angry youngish men of the Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize, with virtually nil impact on the Noddy mediocrity and wastefulness of the vast majority of construction, nearly all of which falls beneath the radar of the media. Jeremy Till's Architecture Depends is an attempt to save the profession from itself and a manifesto for an architecture that acknowledges its relationship with the world and its duty to others.

Structured in three parts, the first focuses on the contingent nature of architecture, on the fact that it should never be, as it so often is, considered autonomous. The second part, "Time, space and lo-fi architecture", digs at the modernist conception of space, in which buildings are only ever envisaged as new. Architecture should encapsulate what Till calls "thick time", responsive "to the cyclic rhythms (of life, of the seasons, of the world"), allowing these "to unfold against the linear aspects (of decay, of change)". Lo-fi architecture, as opposed to hi-fi, is architecture that withstands and even celebrates existence, tinny speakers and an inattentive audience.

The final section, "Architecture: a dependent profession", suggests a way forward. Till celebrates messy reality, so the conclusion for this book was never going to be tidy or straightforward. It is, however, full of hope. The architect needs to negotiate a delicate balance between the desires of the client and the needs of users and of the wider community, always placing the interests of others first. Of course, I hear colleagues say with great predictability and, more than likely, without having read the book, we have heard this before, in the 1960s and 1970s, when the public sector and idealism fuelled a flurry of initiatives that burnt out or died a death with the advent of Mrs Thatcher. But the situation now is completely different, not least because Till is playing to an audience for whom the debate is very new, and who entered architecture because they wanted to make the world a better place but often ended up doing something entirely different.

When writing, Till must have had to face up to the unenviable task of making the structure of the book express something of the ideology contained within it. As he is talking about the structuring of knowledge and the framing of arguments, he must have had to give careful consideration to his own argument, which presents a delicate balance between order and disorder. Although its substance doesn't jump out from the purposefully erratic contents page, Till's position becomes very clear upon reading further.

Cherry-picking examples across the architectural spectrum and beyond, he exhibits an appropriate level of humility at that which may have been lost in translation from field to field. Indeed, one of the real strengths of this book is that it revives long-dead connections between architecture and the social sciences, ones that are replete with possibility. Thinkers are introduced "not to show how clever" he is, Till says - and I believe him - but to illustrate very particular points.

I cannot vouch for his forays into other fields - the work of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman being quite central to Till's thesis - but they seem entirely convincing. I can, however, comment on his discussion of Le Corbusier, which is spot on, representing him in all his deep complexity. While Till cites the architect's belief that cleanliness and a tidy environment lead to a good frame of mind as being an unfortunate conflation of aesthetics and ethics, personal experience leads me to agree with Le Corbusier on this one. Of course, however, Till is right - beauty and goodness are not necessarily one and the same thing.

The researcher, like the architect, is entirely contingent on his or her environment. Till makes this clear, with disarming honesty, through his description of the meandering life of an academic acquiring ideas through everyday encounters, synchronicity and the bibliographies of books. In a manner generally unbeknown to architects, for whom a state of artificial objectivity is all-important, Till separates out stories of his life as a teacher of architecture - and sometimes they made me clap my hands with glee. I particularly loved these bits, finding myself turning the pages between them to find out more. But these anecdotal passages also serve a very important purpose, acting as foil and antidote to the potentially dry but tried-and-tested approach of the academic text in which they are embedded. Yet as the main text strays more and more into the realm of the personal, I wonder if there is potential for a fuller degree of integration.

One of Till's more engaging anecdotes involves an unlikely cast: Stewart Brand, author of How Buildings Learn: What Happens after They're Built, the musician Brian Eno (brought in as intermediary) and Lord Rogers, the new Labour "starchitect" who threatened Brand with legal action because of his comments about the way Rogers' buildings suffered over time and needed extensive upkeep. As a commentary on architects' attitudes to time it works well, but it also tells us much about the protected status of such iconic figures. Till concludes, "It is clear that these hi-tech boys (for so they are, almost to a man) have never done the housework."

Indeed, Till is overtly feminist, which is such a refreshing change in a field that lags so far behind the other professions in the gender stakes - even today only 13 per cent of architects are women - that I cannot conceal my delight that such things can be written, and by a member of the male sex.

The cover is extraordinarily apposite: a man in a bear suit, desperately exposed, placed at centre stage in a disorienting continuum of shiny high-tech space - comical and cuddly, yet not without teeth. This is a brave, enjoyable, affirming and important book and I actually felt sad to have finished it. I look forward to even braver sequels that include more examples of those people building within this agenda, who inhabit the interstices of Till's argument but don't really receive an airing in this particular book.

THE AUTHOR

A straw house might seem more appropriate for one of the three little pigs than an architectural expert, but that is what Jeremy Till has built for himself. The sustainable house, which Till lives in with his wife and fellow architect Sarah Wigglesworth, has received a host of awards, including the RIBA Sustainability Prize. It is seen as one of the most influential buildings of the past decade.

They share their London home, which Till calls "a contemporary version of The Good Life", with feathered friends Gwen and Ken; animal lovers will be distraught to hear that hens Len and Ben have been lost to the local foxes.

Till started academic life as an engineer but decided early on to switch to architecture. He changed not because of "a spiritual awakening in a baroque church" but because engineering "bored" him. He is now dean of the School of Architecture and the Built Environment at the University of Westminster, having previously been head of the School of Architecture at the University of Sheffield.

Architecture Depends

By Jeremy Till

The MIT Press, 232pp, £16.95

ISBN 9780262012539

Published 4 March 2009

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