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On Architecture: Melvin Charney, a Critical Anthology ed. by Louis Martin (review)
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On Architecture: Melvin Charney, a Critical Anthology
Edited by Louis Martin
Montreal/Kingston: McGill–Queens University Press, 2013

Only a year following the untimely death of Melvin Charney (1935–2012) comes On Architecture: Melvin Charney, a Critical Anthology. Thoroughly researched and impeccably organized (both in terms of the book’s overall structure and its visual presentation), this new anthology is most welcome, as it offers the first systematic compilation of Charney’s essays, which made significant contributions to architectural culture over the past decades, both in Canada and internationally. On Architecture is divided into six parts, each preceded by a brief introductory essay by architectural historian Louis Martin, and brings together chronologically more than thirty texts written by Charney between 1962 and 1989 (a few are unpublished manuscripts or appear in English translation here for the first time).1 The book also includes two recent interviews, a short biographical entry, as well as three essays by George Baird, Georges Adamczyk, and Réjean Legault. The essays, grouped under the heading “Critical Contexts,” offer fresh, appreciative insights into the work of the artist, architect, and educator. They are particularly useful for anchoring Charney in the cultural scene of his native Montreal, where he resettled after studying in the United States and traveling abroad.

In the early 1960s, the young Charney journeyed to Turkey and rural Italy and recorded his impressions of these places in a series of articles. Along with texts documenting his critical engagement with the nascent pop art scene and the new developments of modernist architecture, these articles are grouped in the section titled “Beginnings.” This section is particularly significant as it shows Charney’s early interest in architecture as “image” and his fascination with the vernacular (in Quebec and abroad)— both of which would thread throughout his lengthy career. For Charney, vernacular buildings such as the rock- cut houses of Göreme or the trulli of Apulia conveyed a valuable sense of identity “at a time when humanity is losing touch with its environment.”2 As Martin points out, Charney’s early interest in the vernacular is no doubt symptomatic of the humanism and the search for an alternative to the orthodox modernism of the architectural scene of this period (one thinks, of course, of Bernard Rudofsky, whose famous Architecture without Architects exhibition to which Charney explicitly refers, but also of Team 10 members Aldo van Eyck and Peter and Alison Smithson). Although Charney professes a genuine [End Page 99]

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Cover of On Architecture: Melvin Charney, a Critical Anthology, 2013.

Courtesy of McGill–Queen’s University Press.

admiration for the buildings and cities he discovered during his trip, some of his statements are nonetheless problematic. For example, his descriptions of Turkish cities, especially of Istanbul’s street life, carry many Orientalist clichés all too reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s Voyage d’Orient diary (published right around the same time).3 This begs various questions about the persistent tendency of architects to project their fantasies and anxieties on what they perceived as Other. Indeed, Charney’s ongoing romance with the vernacular would warrant a more pointed critique than has been thus far offered (in fact, the neo-primitivism and specious psychoanalysis of postwar architectural theory and the cultural stereotyping that comes with a fascination with the “non- pedigreed”, often simplistically [End Page 100] opposed to the “monumental,” is still largely understudied, compared to what has been done in art history in light of postcolonial studies).

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Melvin Charney, view of the principal facade of Marché Bonsecours with grain elevator no. 2 (now demolished) in the background, Montreal, Quebec, 1969. 23.5 x 34.8 cm. Gelatin silver print. Collection of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (PH1987:0622).

Copyright Melvin Charney, SODRAC, 2014.

In the next section, “Beyond Architecture,” Charney adds his insights to the 1960s debates on megastructuralist architecture and environmental design, animated at that time by critics such as Reyner Banham in Britain and Michel Ragon in France. Charney welcomes megastructures, the nadir of technocratic planning, as a way out of the stifling monumentality of the postwar...