Friday, January 07, 2011

Book Review: Architecture Depends

Architecture Depends by Jeremy Till
MIT Press, 2009
Hardcover, 232 pages

The economic crisis's considerable impact on architectural jobs and billings in the United States illuminates the fragility of a profession responsible for less than 5% of buildings in this country. Long relying on the Vitruvian triad of firmness, commodity and delight for guidance, architects here and elsewhere are hoping for an effective way forward in the recent green building trend, pushing primarily technological solutions to that other crisis. Dean of Architecture and Built Environment at the University of Westminster, Jeremy Till eschews the traditional concerns of aesthetics and tectonics and the newfound embrace of sustainability, calling for a reorientation of the profession towards an ethical stance rooted in the social and political. He believes a preoccupation with form and technique isolates architects from their fellow citizens, discounting Henri Lefebvre's aphorism that "(social) space is a (social) product."

Influenced primarily by the social theories of Zygmunt Bauman, contingency is the prevailing term in Till's convincing argument, the uncertain that architects – and modernism's project – remove from consideration by placing order above all else. Till embraces contingency and labors to reverse the long held orderings of abstraction over reality, space over time, client over use. He does so for most of the book, making one yearn for more solution and less argument, a deficit the author acknowledges at book's end. Before that, Till details a few key suggestions: seeing professional knowledge as a network with the architect as a "citizen sense-maker" weaving together normally divergent concerns; reinvigorating the architect's role in shaping the building program; and approaching sustainability as a social/ethical problem instead of a technical one.

Frustratingly for visually-minded architects, Till refuses to illustrate the book with examples of what fits his ethical architecture mold, merely naming a few who embody his principles. Nonetheless this jibes with an open argument bent on moving beyond appearances and into architecture's potential social and political embodiments. Till's anti-aesthetic views will surely receive their fair share of resistance from practicing architects, though as more professionals are pushed into unemployment lines his calls for an alternative future may look more promising and tenable.

Note: The above review was written in early 2009 for a print magazine...but it was never published. So I'm posting my unedited first draft here.


  1. Nicely written. It makes me want to look at the book, but not buy it. Lots of good pictures would really be essential to convince visually-inclined readers.

    It's funny that the first association I had when I looked at the title was a William Carlos Williams poem.

    The Red Wheelbarrow

    so much depends

    a red wheel

    glazed with rain

    beside the white

  2. Seems very interesting!

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  4. I think this was one of the most interesting books I read on architecture in 2009. I'm glad to see it appear over here. I kind of bought it on an impulse ("customers who bought that book bought this book as well"...)

    and I agree with most of the thinking till exposes. most of all, I agree that people don't really understand the concept of ethics when it relates to architecture, even though they enjoy using the word.

    nice and concise review, and even if there're not a lot of illustrations and people like bawa or hertzberger (or lacaton & vassal, I would add) are mentioned "en passant", it is worth reading.


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