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The crisis of representation in

contemporary architecture

CLAUS DREYER

Critical modernism

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the crisis of representation


could be taken as the leitmotif for the development of modern archi-
tecture. Even at the end of the nineteenth century, when the use of
historical styles and forms was being questioned more and more and
was proving itself to be increasingly unsuitable for new building projects
and new methods of construction, the departure into modernity had
already begun with a vehement rejection of historical building shapes
and ornaments by the architectural avant-garde (cf. Loos 1964 [1908]; Le
Corbusier 1964 [1920]). Such features were condemned not only because
of their wastage of material, capital, and labor, but also because of their
lack of content and meaning relevant to the social and spiritual reality of
the time. A manifesto typical of this period puts it as follows:

The sharp contrast between the modern and the ancient world originates in the
fact that today, things exist that did not exist then. Elements have surfaced in our
lives that people in those days could not dream of; there are material possibilities
and spiritual directions with enormous consequences: a new ideal of beauty,
still vague and only partially formed, but which is already beginning to fascinate
even the masses. We have actually lost our penchant for the monumental, the
overwhelming and the static, and have instead acquired a taste for the light and
the practical, and for the transitory and the swift. We feel that we are no longer
the people of cathedrals, palaces and imposing courtrooms but a people of
large hotels, train stations, fantastic streets, gigantic harbors, market places,
illuminated archways, reconstructions, and renovations. (Sant’Elia and Marinetti
1964 [1914]: 3)

Renouncing all tradition and representation, this program for a radical


new beginning in architecture, which was supported by many avant-garde
architects and designers, led, in the course of the twentieth century, to
complex and extremely varied creations that always circle around the

Semiotica 143–1/4 (2003), 163–183 0037–1998/03/0143 – 0163


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question of representation: is representation in architecture at all possible?


If so, what should architecture represent, and for whom? And, finally,
how can and should architecture represent something in such a way that
it can be recognized and understood? The theoretical and practical
answers which architecture can give are both simplistic and contradictory:
whenever it radically favors nonrepresentational and abstract architec-
ture, it also immediately brings about the emergence of representational
and ‘symbolic’ architecture. Hence, the populist and propagandistic archi-
tecture of the Nazi era was able to develop in the 1930s as a reaction to
the dominance of the ‘functional’ architecture of the 1920s, and the
worldwide triumph of the ‘talking’ and ‘narrating’ postmodern archi-
tecture was the answer to neo-functional efficiency architecture, which
was again followed by the ‘New Simplicity’ with its ‘deconstructivist’ and
nonrepresentational architecture.
In this area of conflict between simple, ‘mute’ architecture, heavy
‘rhetorical’ architecture (cf. particularly the ‘New Berlin’), and expres-
sively ‘gestural’ architecture, we can currently observe examples of
an architecture which is again representational, and which will be closely
examined. Naturally, this very sketchy outline of the crisis of representa-
tion in the twentieth century cannot be discussed in detail here; I
will simply focus, and very selectively at that, on the development after
postmodernism.

From modernism to postmodernism

Criticism of the lack of language and expression in neo-functional post-


war modernism triggered early attempts to regain the ability to represent.
Elements of this ‘modernist’ architecture that were the typical target of
the critical accusations at the time can be exemplified with I. M. Pei’s
Christian Science Church Center in Boston (Plate 1), where they appear
less in the building complex itself than in its surroundings:

— simple, box-shaped basic forms


— lack of ornamentation
— lack of historical context
— contextuality limited to geometrical patterns
— monofunctionality
— hypertrophied scale
— dissolution of urban space.

This criticism was diverse and concerned the most varied phenomena.
Repeatedly, the loss of formal means and creative imagination was

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Plate 1. I. M. Pei and partner: Christian Science Church Center, Boston, Massachusetts,
1973–1975

deplored, which allegedly made this architecture an empty vessel. Thus, as


early as 1966, Robert Venturi demanded an increase in ‘complexity and
contradiction’ in architectural design in order to increase the commu-
nicative potential of a building, e.g., by mixing abstract with conventional
elements (Venturi 1966: 46ff.).
From a socio-psychological viewpoint, the failure of the neo-
functionalist architecture in urban construction was diagnosed as the
consequence of an ideological fixation. Hence, the reestablishment of
‘meaningful symbolic design’ in the constructed environment was called
for with the goal of social identification and the improvement of commu-
nication between individuals, society, and environment (Lorenzer 1968:
100). This and much other criticism encouraged the development
of ideas within contemporary architecture based upon more open and
flexible means and methods in order to increase both its representational
and its communicative potential.

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The Centre Pompidou still employs all the elements and methods that
were criticized as being inadequate in functional modernism (Plate 2 a, b).
However, there are also new features which can be interpreted as signs
and which emphasize the representational character of the building:
— The steel-glass construction is exposed and exaggerated in such
a way that it evokes memories of historical predecessors (cf., e.g.,
Paxton’s Crystal Palace, London, 1851; the Eiffel Tower, Paris,
1889; and Russian constructivism of the 1920s). Hence, it both joins
a tradition and quotes a typology comprising conventional forms
(industrial and mechanical construction). There is a superimposi-
tion of construction and function, of supporting structures and
fittings, serving and servicing elements, overall form and detail, of
the natural hue of the materials used and powerfully contrasting
colors which results in contradictions of composition and in a
complexity of design that increases both the potential for meaning
and the communicative capacity.
— Finally, there are numerous individual motifs that produce direct
sign relations and inspire both imagination and interpretation:
the funnels, the bridge and the railing borrowed from shipbuilding,
the glass elevator shafts in the subway, the complex pipe systems
from refinery architecture, etc.

Plate 2 a, b. Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers: Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1975–1977

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Plate 2 a, b. Continued

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However, these early representational projects still remain within the


framework of functional modernism and were only fully developed
in the postmodern architecture that began to flourish in the 1970s
and 1980s.
With its liberal use of meaningful architectural elements combined
into a complex and contradictory overall composition, James Stirling’s
masterpiece of the Neue Staatsgalerie (Plate 3 a, b) is one among the many
examples of this style. In this work, Jencks (1977) has seen different
‘codes’ combined with one another, while Welsch (1987) has identified
different ‘languages’ through which an ideological content is represented.
Thus, according to Welsch, the ‘classical language of museum buildings’,
such as in Schinkel’s ‘Altes Museum’ (Berlin), appears in the overall
complex with its central rotunda. The ‘language of modernism’ is appar-
ent in the curved, free-standing glass wall in the lobby and in the façade of
the administrative section. There is the ‘language of pop culture’ in the
multi-colored markings of the ramps and the ‘language of constructivism’
in the roofing of the entrance hall. There are many other ‘associations to
architectural history, from Hadrian over Weinbrenner and Bonatz to Le
Corbusier, Wright, Piano and Rogers’ (Welsch 1987: 117). This multi-
lingualism, with its historical and contextual quotations, embodies the
plurality of design which, to Welsch, is part of the ‘essence of post-
modernism’ (ibid.). To Klotz, it brings ‘narrativity’ and ‘fictionality’ back
to architectural representation (Klotz 1984: 133ff.).
In his interpretation of the Neue Staatsgalerie, Welsch is at pains
to demonstrate that it is not just any story that is being told, but truly
coherent messages combined into a complex overall statement:

A circular building opening towards the sky and a block with a ‘curtain wall’ not
only encompass different aesthetic traditions, but also represent and evoke various
social structures (centrality/equality), psychological dimensions (focused/open),
natural relationships (integrated/distant), or forms of rationality and belief (story,
cyclical nature, meditation, attention/analysis, progression, insight, outlook).
This comprehensive panorama lends a deeper dimension to the apparently merely
aesthetic languages and gives real weight to the problem of their inherent
contradictions and modes of coexistence. (Welsch 1987: 118)

Even if one can discover and interpret this problem of the ‘reseman-
tisation’ (Welsch 1987: 116) of the architectural forms in several other
postmodern works of the 1980s (cf. Klotz 1984), it must be emphasized
that the historical references are often arbitrary. Frequently, the visual
motifs are used rather superficially. Empty clichés appear, and the alleged
‘multilingualism’ really consists only of meaningless talk. What Welsch
says of Charles Moore’s ‘Piazza d’Italia’ in New Orleans applies equally

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Plate 3 a, b. James Stirling: Neue Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, 1977–1984

well to many postmodern architectural structures: ‘The common denom-


inator of the ensemble is the consumer world. Tradition, the native
home, culture, and the ‘‘genius loci’’ are treated as the showpieces of a
department store mentality, and their translatability into predominantly

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consumerist language and appearance forms the happy but cheerfully


cynical message of the whole’ (Welsch 1987: 116).
The crisis of representation thus visible in postmodern architecture at
the end of the 1980s led to a radical countermovement, which dominated
the architectural scene of the 1990s in the guise of ‘deconstructivism’.
Coop Himmelblau’s roof extension of 1988 (Plate 4) embodies this
extremely influential architectural trend, which rejects any representa-
tional ambitions. The brutal gesture with which the roof is ‘deconstructed’
in the very sense of the word presents itself as an authentic act. The formal
elements and the links between them are unique and do not relate to any
other tradition or convention than the one that the creators have founded
themselves. Their power and desire for gestural utterance are to be read
as traces in an almost chaotic composition, which is held together only by
its creator’s intelligent construction. Surprisingly, there is a program for
this kind of architecture in a manifesto published in 1962 by the Viennese
artists and architects Walter Pichler and Hans Hollein, which discusses
the theme of ‘absolute architecture’ and which might have shown Coop
Himmelblau the way:

Architecture. It is born of the most powerful thoughts. For the people, it will be
a compulsion to suffocate from or to live — live in the way I mean it. Architecture
is not the cover for the primitive instincts of the masses. Architecture is the
embodiment of a few people’s power and desires. It is a brutal thing that has long
ceased to have anything to do with art. It disregards both stupidity and weakness.
It never serves anyone. It squashes those it cannot bear. Architecture is the right
of those who do not believe in justice, but create it. It is a weapon. Architecture
uses the strongest means available without constraint. It has already seized
the machines, and the people are now barely tolerated in its realm. (Pichler and
Hollein 1964 [1962]: 174)

Architecture as the weapon of the strong against the weak, as a means


of coercion to live the way the architect wants — the rejection of rep-
resentational architecture committed to a society’s history, traditions,
norms, and ideals could not be more radical. At most, this architecture
could be interpreted as a representation of the violent fantasies of
some radical individuals. Could there, perhaps, be a connection between
the social distortions of the last few years and the fact that the team Coop
Himmelblau, although it began presenting its ideas in the late 1960s, has
only been successful in implementing building projects since the late
1980s? Could the team’s architecture be representing repressed desires in
a ‘socially acceptable’ way through its forms? That would be an additional
contribution to the theme of ‘Violence in Art’ in the twentieth century
(cf. Schuster and Bärnreuther 1999).

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Plate 4. Coop Himmelblau: Roof extension, Vienna, 1988

A second modernism

The present situation in architecture is as complex as it is contradictory:


all the forms considered so far continue to exist and flourish. Even if
the decidedly postmodern one is less talked about, all of them now
manifest an incalculable ‘crisis of representation’. While there seems to

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be, nevertheless, an extended search for a renewal of representational


architecture, all the difficulties and deficiencies involved can, at the same
time, be clearly recognized.
In what follows, I would like to look at some spectacular buildings
of the last few years from this point of view. All of them are ‘solitaires’,
i.e., particularly striking, unique buildings that stand out from their
context and, at best, form a type of ‘relationship’ with it through the
total contrast they present. The question arises as to whether there is
an important component in this kind of ‘relationless relationship’, the
interpretation of which might tell us something about the spiritual
situation of our time.
The new French National Library in Paris (Plate 5 a, b) is composed
of four symmetrically angled towers with a height of 80 meters arranged
around a square, sunken patio. The library’s formal design is one of
extreme geometrical simplicity: completely glazed modular grid facades
cover the main structures; the wooden panels serving to protect and pre-
serve the books only become visible once one is behind the glazing. The
reading rooms are situated on the lower basement level, with an open view
onto the similarly sunken gardens, which are, however, inaccessible.
At first sight, one would consider the building complex a rather abstract
structure reminiscent of the nonrepresentational postmodern tradition
and influenced by the ‘New Simplicity’ or minimal art. Two aspects,
however, point to rather meaningful details in the architectural design:
the right-angled overall layout of the towers, which seem to represent the
form of an open book, and the integrated, sunken gardens reminiscent of
the relationship between mind and nature, origin and result, reality and

Plate 5 a, b. Dominique Perrault: National Library, Paris, 1989–1996

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Plate 5 a, b. Continued

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theory. In this monumental gesture and in the compositional contrast of


elements, representational elements emerge that supplement and stratify
the abstract overall design, turning it into a complex, architectural work
which leaves the monotony of functional modernism behind. Within its
abstract, geometrical basic design, it contains elements communicating
messages that transcend mere function and need interpretation.
Referring to the particular blend of geometrical, functional, expressive,
and pictorial forms, albeit in a different theoretical context, Charles
Jencks (1983: 4ff.) calls this type of architectural arrangement ‘abstract
representation’. To Heinrich Klotz (1994: 169), however, this combina-
tion of formal means reveals an approach to a ‘second modernism’ in
architecture, which supplements the achievements of the first modernism
and unites all of it into a complex whole: ‘The second modernism _ arises
from postmodernism, indeed, it is already contained in it and articulates
the modes of fictionality with the vocabulary of self-established
modernism’ (ibid.).
Gehry’s project for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (Plate 6 a, b)
is a uniquely designed spatial sculpture which eludes any classification
within the canon of architectural form: it only fits into Gehry’s own
tradition, which involves a continuous development of his formal lan-
guage, but which is still immediately recognizable because of its unique-
ness. The dominant formal structuring principle draws upon organic
forms, although it also works with sharp edges and points, combining

Plate 6 a, b. Frank O. Ghery: Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, 1991–1997

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Plate 6 a, b. Continued

with geometrically simple shapes. In contrast to the organic shapes, the


materials used are often very ordinary (cardboard, plywood, corrugated
iron) or, as in this case, very artificial: mock stone and polished aluminium
sheets, giving the building an almost surreal character. This complex and

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contradictory exterior is continued in the interior of the building: rooms


that defy explicit interpretation and appear to be parts of the interior
life of a large organism. Here, too, the materials (steel, glass, mock stone,
concrete) stand in contrast to the fluid and sweeping shapes that gain,
furthermore, a dramatic character through the highly sophisticated
deployment of both natural and artificial lighting.
It is as difficult to recognize this building as a museum as it is to
discern any other significant, easily understandable message (particularly
since it is reminiscent of other Gehry buildings that have completely
different functions). Nevertheless, both critics and visitors feel challenged
to offer immediate interpretations and, indeed, they always reach similar
conclusions (cf. Dreyer 1998: 39ff.). Thus, the building is, above all,
interpreted metaphorically: as a ship, as a fish, or a reptile; as a flower, or
even as a forest reminiscent of a cathedral. One critic writes: ‘He has put
up a cathedral for the ‘‘homelessness’’ of modern man, one whose interior
comes to life through the multiperspectivity of cabinets, niches, caves, and
atriums _ and in which modern art is allowed to occupy its rightful
place’ (cf. Dreyer 1998: 42). Given such interpretations, one might assume
that Gehry’s formal language possessed a representational character
and expressed generally intelligible messages. However, the predominant
impression is that this is a unique and highly subjective system of
expressive forms, through which the architect above all presents and
expresses himself.
The very purpose of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin
(Plate 7 a, b) marks it out as an exceptional project: it sets out to

Plate 7 a, b. Daniel Libeskind: Jewish Museum, Berlin 1989–1998

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Plate 7 a, b. Continued

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document the history of the Jewish culture in Berlin before and after the
Holocaust and, at the same time, to make the inconceivable, the invisible,
and the incomprehensible accessible to the beholder. The outline develops
from two linear motifs, one straight and one jagged, that are combined
and superimposed with a matrix of connecting lines to historical and
imaginary sites of early Jewish culture in Berlin, so that a unique and
expressively spatial structure results, consisting of individual zones, both
crooked and diagonal, canted over and pierced, wide and narrow, pointed
and polygonal. Literary and musical motifs guided the architect in his
design of the individual rooms, in which structured emptiness is con-
sciously employed to create a sense of absence through what is physically
present (cf. Libeskind 1997). This contradiction, which is particularly
articulated in the interior, contrasts with the bizarre but compact exterior
form, whose isolated character is further emphasized by the sheet metal
cladding. Only the completely irregular apertures in the façade point to
the labyrinthine interior, implying the great complexity of the construc-
tion as a whole.
This building, too, defies any conventional reading, reminding only the
expert of Libeskind’s typical formal language: it seems so alien and cold
that this very feature draws attention to it and invites exploration and
interpretation. Here, form is so far divorced from function that it is
not only almost impossible to interpret, but it even almost defies practical
use. This construction is a walk-in sculpture, which aims to shock and
provoke the observer through its expressive spatial gestures (cf. Libeskind
1997). So far, it seems as if the architect would have succeeded in
achieving the effects and interpretations he was aiming for with his unique
design: to link the thus created and designed emptiness and absence with
elementary experiences and patterns of interpretation in order to create
the potential for a better future (cf. ibid.).
With our last example, Richard Rogers’s Millennium Dome in London
(Plate 8), we arrive at the contemporary situation. This building has a
long history, which is connected with Great Britain’s unprecedented
efforts to celebrate the change of the millennium. Backed by a budget
of several billion pounds produced by the National Lottery, some two-
hundred major and minor architectural projects were realized to mark the
occasion. Among the most important of these projects is the design for
the dome, which emerged from a competition among the foremost British
architects. Inaugurated by the Queen on 1 January 2000, it houses a lav-
ishly produced exhibition on the present state of civilization, knowledge,
and culture at the beginning of the third millennium — a much-disputed
display which will not be discussed here (the first director had to resign
after only three months owing to the lack of success; the exhibition was

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Plate 8. Richard Rogers: Millenium Dome, London, 2000

closed at the end of 2001). In our context, with its focus on architectural
representation, we will restrict ourselves to the investigation of the
architecture of the central exhibition hall.
The dome consists of a large, slightly convex circle of flexible membrane
suspended from twelve lattice pylons that rise up diagonally far above the
roof, thus leaving a large area of unstructured space for the exhibition on
the inside; it is surrounded by twelve glass cylinders that are used for
service functions. This design technique derives from tent construction,
as it has been further developed and perfected especially by Frei Otto in
the 1950s and the 1960s. Constructions of this kind are suitable as covers
for large areas. The best-known previous project of this type was for the
roofs over the Munich Olympia Stadium of 1972, although these exhibit
a considerably greater variety and complexity in their formal structure.
What we see in London is thus a traditional major form, a cupola, which
stands in a typological series of sacred and secular buildings with their
roots in classical antiquity and which reached their innovative highpoint
as long as half a century ago.
Hence, it comes as no surprise that professional critics judged the dome
as nondescript, mediocre, and banal, declaring the building devoid of any
architectural content fitting the historical moment or the purpose of the
exhibition (cf. articles in Jencks 1999). Melhuish (1999: 65), for example,

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described it as a ‘perfectly empty icon for rebranching London _ in its


very emptiness of purpose’. Only its exposed technical construction
received some acknowledgement as an expression, however weak and
indistinct, of pragmatic confidence in technical progress and the feasibility
of problem-solving:

The beauty of High-Tech for governments and business is that it provides an


immediate visual expression for the impressive technological aspects of modern
construction of high investment, while also giving every appearance of ‘doing
something’ practical. Whatever the aesthetic potential of metal and glass and line
privileged over plane, the essential victory is that of pragmatism over poetry and
the inexplicable, in line with the values of contemporary society. (ibid.)

It is this victory of pragmatism over poetry that Charles Jencks has also
found to be characteristic of the Millennium Dome architecture. In his
view, this pragmatism is based on a post-Christian consciousness that still
aligns itself with Christian basic values, but only as far as they accommo-
date the need for comfort, prosperity, security, consumption, and enter-
tainment (Jencks 1999: 86ff.). The Millennium Dome represents this
spiritual horizon in an unspectacular way. It demonstrates that the ‘crisis
of representation’ in contemporary architecture has by no means been
solved and must, therefore, be carried forward into the third millennium.

The tower of Babel

Our cursory examination of some spectacular architectural works of


recent years results in a finding that would be easy to supplement and
support on the basis of further examples: the crisis of representation
is evident. There is no common ‘language’ in architecture through which
common experience, ideas, hopes, values, traditions, and conventions
could be expressed, just as there is no common ground in society for these
issues. There are only a few outstanding individuals with a great artistic
potential and almost God-like reputation who have the opportunity
to articulate their ‘private language’ by unique means, and to present it to
the public. The work of translating and interpreting this ‘language’ for the
general public takes place mainly in the professional and popular media,
where it occasionally comes dangerously close to product advertising.
Under these conditions, the communicative correspondence between
employer, architect, user, observer, and society as a whole amounts to
little more than a coincidence or a stroke of luck. In a complex, multi-
cultural, compartmentalized, and media-oriented society, this state of
affairs seems impossible to circumvent: everyone must and can seek the

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Plate 9. MVRDV: The Dutch Expo-Pavilion, Hannover, 2000

representational context in architecture that suits him and is limited only


by lack of information or financial means.
At any rate, this freedom of choice must be understood as an achieve-
ment and an opportunity. Never before in history have so many different
forms of architectural representation been in competition. The monotony

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of classic international modernism is a thing of the past. Today, interested


individuals can put together their own (even potentially virtual) ‘universe
of architectural discourse’. At the same time, there is a possibility for
the emergence of a new architectonic paradigm that may develop from
the close proximity of the different ‘languages’. It could represent a
world culture growing closer, without losing the regional varieties and
‘dialects’. In the meantime, we will have to experiment with such hybrid
blends and superimposed forms as the one realized by the architects
MVRDV in the Dutch Expo-Pavilion (Plate 9): a complex but very
contradictory construction is achieved by superimposing very different
architectural forms which represent various kinds of Dutch landscapes
to create a very delicately balanced whole. However, the result bears a
remote yet unmistakable resemblance to the Tower of Babel: the possible
consequences are known, and their effects noticeable to this very day!

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The crisis of representation in contemporary architecture 183

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Claus Dreyer (b. 1943) is Professor for Architectural Design at the University of Applied
Sciences, Detmold 5claus.dreyer@t-online.de4. His research interests include semiotics,
aesthetics, and logics of architecture. His publications include ‘Semiotische Grundlagen der
Architekturästhetik’ (1979), ‘The performance of space in recent architecture’ (1992),
‘Architecture as a mass medium?’ (1997), and ‘On the poetics of urban space’ (1998).

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Authenticated
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