'All this talk brings the ears so far forward that they make blinkers for the eyes': thus Edwin Lutyens on architectural discourse. In Lutyens's day it was still possible, just, to believe that the good architects got on with designing and building while only the second-raters taught and wrote. Books were chiefly for reference - for illustrations, rules and technicalities. If there had to be criticism, it could be left to professors, rich amateurs and journalists. The sacred route of the architect ran between the drawing board and the building site.
After Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, both as cavalier with language as they were scrupulous with architectural detail, you could scarcely be thought an internationally significant architect unless you not only built but wrote and globetrotted, discoursing as you went. The clamour among competing exegetes today has become deafening. Adrian Forty's enterprise in Words and Buildings is to reap all this architectural verbiage and run it ruthlessly through the logic-mill. Having winnowed his crop, he sorts it into heaps of words, of different sizes and kinds; then he takes 18 of the most promising heaps in lexical succession and grinds them exceeding small. The product at the end is a highly percipient history of modern architectural theory, disconcertingly arranged. It is as if The Seven Lamps of Architecture had pupped, bringing to birth not the 'vulgar row of footlights' into which Ruskin ruefully admitted his own enquiry had degenerated, but 18 penetrating lasers.
LRB 30 November 2000 | PDF Download