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Why is construction so backward? - reviewed by Lisbeth Svengren

We are grateful to Lisbeth Svengren, Stockholm University School of Business, Sweden, for her review of Why is construction so backward? If you wish to contribute your review please email Ian Abley. We welcome a discussion.

Why is construction so backward? James Woudhuysen, Ian Abley, Stefan Muthesius and Miles Glendinning

Why is construction so backward? is worthwhile reading - very interesting indeed. The thesis that the authors have is an important and urgent topic within the field of architecture and design, with relevance for the marketing field as well. Especially when one thinks about how the corporate world uses different design elements - as buildings - to build their brands.

The book kills some darlings within the field of architecture, especially that the world of design is immune to the business reality.

Chapter one gives the general frame of the problems. For instance the fragmentation of the architectural profession due to the differentiation of the building process, such as façade engineering. Thus, architecture has bifurcated into an aesthetic avant-garde, jealously guarding abstractions of philosophy and, on the other hand, a design proletariat occupied with drawing other peoples' ideas.

Architects, at least in Sweden, are trying to win back some of the status and leadership they had before the era of functionalism and rationalization that started in the 1930s, and fully introduced in the decades after WWII. This led to an industrialization of the architectural process based on the same idea of specialization and differentiation that characterize industrial processes. This development was very much supported by the development of design theories in the 1950s and 1960s.

What we see today is the need and the ambition to achieve a more integrated process, where also the aesthetic approach is a considerable factor.

The value of Chapter two is its categorization of three main issues contributing to the complexity of the overarching problem of backwardness. These issues are the reduction of strategy to measurement, the issue of the "goodness" of architecture as therapy, and the environmentally driven politics defined as naturalism.

The problem of measurement stifling progress is an old and never ending story, shared with all innovation processes. The contribution of this book on this topic is that it highlights the consequences of measurement frenzy to the specific area of construction.

The new perspectives given in this book are the darker sides to the otherwise benign movements of social responsibility and environmental concern.

The critical question is whether architecture and construction does society any good by addressing general issues outside of their specific realm, instead of developing competence for their own strategic innovation. It really is a moot point, but needs to be addressed in an unprejudiced fashion, though this is a rather unforgiving task given the powerful bias of social responsibility and environmental rhetoric.

Chapter 3 is interesting in the urban context, connecting to writers such as Saskia Sassen and Rem Koolhaas. The chapter is however focused on the British arena, and should be commented from a British perspective for in depth analysis.

Chapter four is interesting in giving the historical background, but is old hat for us.

From a marketing perspective the first part of chapter five (5:1) is very interesting. It brings up the profound problem of the branding perspective smothering innovation. The refreshing part is that looking at the problem when architecture meets marketing practice one realizes that this is a big problem for business in general. How can great new products be created when all efforts go into building monuments of the existing identity, and the glory of present achievements?

The rest of chapter five delves into practical solutions to the problems described earlier in the text. We feel that this is more for people in the business, and we have no particular comments.

The summarizing Chapter 6, with its commentary on the World Trade Center and David Liebeskind, gives a proper ending to the book on a more philosophical level, and puts the finger on the real issue to be resolved - namely that the first obstacle to be torn down is a mental one.

No amount of IT or prefabrication initiatives will work unless minds are turned from petty ego-enhancement to real world complexities, and the solutions that come from meaningful communication between committed professionals.

Lisbeth Svengren, Stockholm University School of Business, Sweden

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