Owen Hatherley reviews Jonathan Meades Museum without Walls, in the LRB:
Jonathan Meades, for the last thirty years Britain’s most consistently surprising and informative writer on the built environment, has finally published a book on the subject. A volume did appear in 1988 – English Extremists, written with Deyan Sudjic and Peter Cook, celebrating the postmodern architects Campbell Zogolovitch Wilson Gough – but since then his medium has been television. Meades has never been a fully paid-up architectural correspondent; he argues in Museum without Walls that taking up such a job helped destroy Ian Nairn, the pugnacious, melancholic writer and broadcaster who is his most obvious precursor. It’s telling that this book doesn’t appear courtesy of the Architectural Association or any of the other publishers you might have expected to show an interest, but as part of a ‘crowdsourced’ endeavour with dozens of benefactors chipping in to pay for publication.
The fact that Meades has been so roundly ignored by the architectural profession and its media is bad news for British architectural culture, which generally veers uninterestingly between lordly technocracy, on the one hand, and guilty talk of ‘active frontages’ and the ‘public realm’ on the other – but it’s happier for television viewers. Starting with The Victorian House in 1986, Meades’s TV is unique. The more patronising arts programmes have become, always spoken verrry slowwlly so that viewers can understand, the more densely packed with barked lists, facts and opinions on labyrinthine, tangential subject matter Meades’s programmes have been. He talks about the suburbs of Brussels, Birmingham’s road system or the churches of the 1960s as if they were the most important, intellectually intricate things around. Which, of course, they often are: what need is there, he asks, for Donald Judd when there’s the Isle of Grain? There are gleefully lowbrow jokes and visual gags too, often at Meades’s expense. Much of Museum without Walls, which is organised into sections on place, memory, blandness, ‘edgelands’ and urban regeneration, derives in one way or another from the TV programmes, but there are no photographs or screenshots. Some of the pieces look like composites, and there is a lot of repetition. No matter: it’s a joy to read.
What Meades does most often is praise things, especially things that are habitually ignored: he is surely our greatest exponent of what the Russian Formalists calledostranenie, ‘making-strange’. Architecture, as an art form, isn’t quite mundane enough to be made strange, and for that reason Meades would seldom recognise his writing as being about ‘architecture’ as such. Rather, it is about Place, somewhere architecture happens, at times in a very dramatic way, but doesn’t necessarily have the leading role.