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Reviewed by:
  • The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely
  • R. E. Somol
The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely. Anthony Vidler. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992. Pp. xv + 257. $25.00.

First appearing in often fugitive publications between 1982 and 1992, Anthony Vidler’s diverse yet oddly familiar essays have found a convenient and timely second home in The Architectural Uncanny. While the first part of this collection contains an historical overview of the theme of the uncanny since its emergence in the early nineteenth century (with the haunted houses of the romantics, the archaeological excavations that would reveal the “dark side of classicism,” and the related excursions of philosophy and psychology into the sublime and the unconscious), the second and third parts extend this theme into recent architectural and urban projects by designers such as Coop Himmelblau, James Stirling, Bernard Tschumi, Peter Eisenman, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, Rem Koolhaas and the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, Wiel Arets, and John Hejduk. While the choice of most of these architects seems obvious with regard to an investigation into the unheimlich, in the case of others the uncanny appears to turn up in the strangest of places. [End Page 273]

In The Writing of the Walls, Vidler established a historical ground for his parallel critical exposition of a “third typology” within the then-contemporary practices of the neorationalists almost two decades ago. Consequently, his present book on the uncanny seems to deliver at once the “romantic” follow-up to that seminal study of late Enlightenment French architecture while accounting for the fragmentary and exploded forms of the more recent deconstructivists. To follow Vidler’s historical and theoretical course, then, has always been to map the trajectory of postwar avant-garde production. In both historical and contemporary pairings, Vidler’s continuing interest has been in the confluence of new languages and new institutions, a desire for the realignment of form and politics in the cause of a critical architectural project. In this singular quest, Anthony Vidler has emerged as perhaps the most articulate architectural historian of the modern period and certainly as one of the most sympathetic critics of the postwar avant-gardes. Rather than complementing one another within the same pages of the current volume, however, these twin roles have not reached an entirely comfortable resolution in accommodating his broader project precisely (and perversely) within the elastic concept of the uncanny.

As an historian of the last two hundred years, Vidler suggests that the discourse of the uncanny cuts through such stylistic categories as romanticism, modernism, and postmodernism, and enables a more productive understanding of modernity with its related experiences of estrangement, alienation, nostalgia, etc. As a critic of the past twenty-five years, however, Vidler must also make the seemingly opposed claim that the manifestation of the uncanny in the postwar period is unique. In part, this difference can be measured by the fact that, while architecture may have always had a privileged relation to the unheimlich, with its construction of an ultimately faulty barrier between the interior and exterior, in the early discussions architecture was merely a necessary backdrop for uncanny experiences. In recent years, however, architecture has become a self-conscious and critical endeavor open to the insights of other forms of knowledge. Contemporary design practices such as those represented in the second half of Vidler’s book have attempted to expose and register the repressed, the other that undermines the secure foundations presumably provided by architecture in its traditional guise. Moreover, as a domesticated version of the master category “sublime” (the sensibility that Lyotard has associated with the avant-garde), the uncanny does seem to have a special descriptive potential in situating the “return of the repressed” after 1960 or so. Beginning as early as 1932 in the case of American architecture, the techniques of the historical avant-garde were almost completely repressed with the final institutionalization of high modernism immediately after the war. Vidler’s eloquent historical detours trace in part the uncanny recuperation of these procedures by the neo-avantgarde in recent years.

In his own attempt to advance a criticism and theory that could support neo-avant-garde experimentation and dispute the...

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pp. 273-275
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