Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 8, 1999
Neil Leach The Anaesthetics of Architecture MIT Press, 1999. 101 pp.; 4 color ills.; 30 b/w ills. Cloth $16.50 (0262621266)

Neil Leach’s The Anaesthetics of Architecture proclaims itself a polemical work that aims to challenge the unrigorous thinking that has dominated architecture in recent years. The book stages this challenge as a critique of the image, only making explicit any association between the visual and the textual in its final pages. Leach’s argument is that society has been completely aestheticized through the saturation by, and intoxication with, images, ultimately producing an anaesthetizing effect as manifested in the loss of criticality and the mindless consumption of everything from Coca-Cola to political movements and philosophical constructs. Leach ends by questioning whether “within an architecture culture of depthless, seductive images” which threatens to appropriate philosophy as an “intellectual veneer” or a “surface gloss” can philosophy function as other than a “mere fashion accessory?”

The main problem Leach finds with the over-emphasis on surface is that context—and hence meaning—is eroded, including historical and geographical specificity, thereby allowing forms or ideas or images to be absorbed without regard for any original meaning they may have possessed. Leach describes a process of desemanticization that he calls aestheticization, which operates by robbing objects or concepts of their content by removing them from their context. In this scenario, aestheticization, by separating objects from the world, induces ‘anaesthetics’ as the over-saturation by the image leads to a reduction of socio-political concerns, leading to further uncritical acceptance of the image, and further saturation and more complacency, and so on. In such an aestheticized culture where meaningful discourse is no longer possible, Leach claims that the only effective strategy of production is the logic of seduction that consciously continues this surface emphasis.

This condition, according to Leach, is a mark of late capitalist society—a condition he notes is recognized by Guy Debord in his 1967 Society of the Spectacle—where society itself is understood as spectacle. Leach sees Baudrillard expanding this thesis, explaining that contemporary culture is dominated by simulation and hyperreality, a situation that allows the image to become the new reality in the form of a virtual world that floats above and masks the “real” one. Leach analyzes this situation to show how visual over-stimulation turns the aesthetic (largely characterized by Leach as the visual) into the anaesthetic with its subsequent socio-political apathy and concern only with the demands of fashion. Leach accomplishes this via a combination of Georg Simmel’s early twentieth century analysis of the blasé attitude adopted by the metropolitan individual and Walter Benjamin’s depiction of the changes in sense perception brought about by the new technologies of photography and film.

Leach redeploys Simmel’s demonstration of how the modern metropolis’ accelerated and fragmentary nature produces a continual series of shocks that leave the metropolitan inhabitant needing to develop a defense mechanism to limit this overstimulation. The adoption of a blasé attitude functions by, in effect, diminishing these shocks by blunting or dulling the ability to discriminate. Simmel describes this level of adaptation as essentially a surface one, one he associates with an abstracted, intellectual part of the psyche that functions in the same abstracted, rationalized ways of the metropolis and the market in capitalist society. Leach equates this blasé attitude to the intoxicating or anaesthetizing effects of an aestheticized, image based modern world.

The book’s focus is on the ways that the privileging of the image and the subsequent aestheticizing of politics allows for what Leach sees as the replacement of ethical concerns by aesthetic ones. Building on Benjamin’s characterization of the dangers of the aestheticization of politics in fascism, Leach relates this directly to the architect through Albert Speer’s joint positions as architect and as armaments minister in Nazi Germany whereby he masterminded the 1934 Nuremberg rally. That rally is significant for this discussion, as its success was based on turning a political event into an aesthetic one by employing the masses to produce a spectacle. As such, Leach’s concern is that aestheticization, when it enters the political realm, holds more threat than the loss of meaning, with the anaesthetized apathy that results from an aestheticized world compounding this.

Central to Leach’s argument is the sort of game he plays with Jean Baudrillard’s theories of simulacra which Leach employs, transforms, and ultimately uses to lay the grounds for a critique of Baudrillard’s description of late capitalist society. Leach, however, offers this less as a critique than as a contextualization. But that in itself forms the critique, for whereas Baudrillard would hold that nothing exists beyond the level of simulacra, Leach, in attempting to provide meaningful context still believes in the existence of a series of (sharp) distinctions between: the real and the imaginary, the authentic and the inauthentic, text and context. This, however, is the book’s greatest problem, as despite Leach’s attempt to offer a critical analysis of the pervasiveness and perversity of the image—one that he hopes will suggest methods of non-mindless consumption—his retention of an outmoded and problematic model of meaning as depth and its associated desire for an unmediated reality undermines much of the inroads towards criticality that the book makes.

Architecture enters this argument in a variety of ways, although the focus remains too limited. He does not, for example, take up the explosion of the image that has accompanied the increasingly widespread use of computer technology in the practice of architecture. Recalling the ideas of Henri Lefebvre as well as Henri Bergson, architecture is, according to Leach, particularly sensitive to aestheticization as it understands the world through practices that privilege the image, as in the construction of plans, sections, and perspectives that turn social space into a fetishized abstraction. This process is taken to lead to an impoverished understanding of the built environment and to the world of “lived experience.” Leach also notes that the privileging of the image re-emerges in the glossy pages of architecture magazines that reinforce this understanding of the world. Additionally, Leach implicates the architect’s use of models, finding that they represent the world at such a reduced and abstracted scale that they lend to the architect total authority over the site, rendering all architects, according to Leach, as potential fascists.

Although Leach claims that the risk of aestheticization is at its greatest when architects claim that the work is unaesthetic—as in the discourse of functionalism, he largely focuses his critique on the uncritical celebration of images and forms by Venturi/Scott Brown. Leach contrasts their ideas to the more radical practices employed by the Situationists. Leach particularly focuses on the ideas found in Learning From Las Vegas, in which the authors remove images from their social contexts and reuse them in new places where these decontextualized and desemanticized images are then assigned new meanings.Instead of its claims to being revolutionary, Leach finds that the book largely promotes an architecture of advertising and a fetishization of the image that ignores the content/context of the images it appropriates, thereby advancing the uncritical cult of the commodity.

Leach’s point is that the ‘revolutionary’ nature of Learning from Las Vegas is illusory, based in the appropriation of a term from socio-political thought which lends the term its authority, even as its meaning is emptied and aestheticized. Instead, Leach notes that tactics such as Venturi/Scott Brown’s are, in fact, another form of the aestheticization of politics that allow for, or even promote, a reactionary politics.

Venturi/Scott Brown’s work follows what Leach calls the logic of seduction whereby everything becomes surface, as literally in their buildings where he notes that references to structure and decoration are collapsed. Seduction functions on a purely visual level, acting to prevent any deeper level of meaning, a logic inextricably linked, for Leach, to aestheticization. Leach notes, again following Baudrillard, that contemporary forms of seduction are themselves degraded so that everything—not just the visual—becomes subject to this same logic. This includes both theory and philosophy that, despite their aims at critical thought, have become primary tools of aestheticization.

This conclusion leads Leach to finally question the status of Baudrillard’s thinking, by suggesting that if other philosophy is inevitably caught up in this system, then Baudrillard might, unknowingly, be as well. Leach reveals here an ultimate goal of his work, that of giving context to the conditions Baudrillard has described. This approach is also what Leach hopes will save his own work—from the fate to which he sees Baudrillard’s succumbing. Content is Leach’s way of attempting to provide a foundation for meaning by giving ‘depth’ through historical specificity—here as an overview of critical thinking on the image—something he hopes will provide a further basis for the production of meaning in a culture of surface seduction. The most important question with which Leach leaves the reader is not whether philosophy has become a mere fashion accessory, but rather whether the somewhat outdated model of meaning as depth presented by Leach is, itself, either tenable or meaningful.

Nana Last
Rice University School of Architecture