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Monday, October 06, 2008

Book Review: Artificial Light

Artificial Light: A Narrative Inquire into the Nature of Abstraction, Immediacy, and other Architectural Fictions by Keith Mitnick
Princeton Architectural Press, 2008

An assistant professor of architecture at the University of Michigan, Keith Mitnick has created an unconventional critique of architectural theory, told as a memoir alongside more typical critical writing. His argument tackles the accepted notions of immediacy, abstraction, authenticity, and other familiar terms, by positing that experience cannot be divorced form interpretation. For one piece of architecture to be more true or authentic than another, because of materiality or the handling of form, for example, is for Mitnick ideology masquerading as the outcome of natural and pragmatic forces. The author's choice of staging the book in shades of fiction and non-fiction complicates matters (is the memoir he presents really true, or just another "architectural fiction"), though it is clear he is not looking to provide the final answer on what he investigates.

Mixing different conventions (critical writing, memoir, screenplay, correspondence) into a book on thinking about architecture achieves a number of things: it explores the various conventions as ways of expressing the main ideas; it draws relationships between these different parts, so the reader gleans different things from each and connects them together; and it becomes much more enjoyable than most architectural theory or criticism. This isn't to say that Mitnick is always successful in exploiting the differences in the different techniques towards his ends (to me the most successful was a letter to his mother, because it intertwines critical writing and storytelling, rather than compartmentalizing each, as the rest of the book tends to do), but it's a ride worth taking.

If by the end of the book one accepts any of Mitnick's arguments -- such as his contention that no material can be more true than another, since no material can be any more or less physical than another -- one wonders if the unconventional aspects of the book aided in this. Given that the memoir, the screenplay, and other parts are not as direct as the critical writing, in many cases these become more diversions than attempts at countering immediacy, authenticity, abstraction, and the like. But I would wager that these parts reinforce Mitnick's belief in the importance of interpretation, which one must undergo to draw their own conclusions beyond his ideas on architecture and its fictions.

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