Ornaments of the Metropolis

‘Ornaments of the Metropolis: Siegfried Kracauer and Modern Urban Culture’ by Henrik Reeh; MIT Press, 2006. 264pp

Reviewed by Austin Williams | 28 November 2006

Siegfried Kracauer is less well-known in this country than his friend and fellow critical theorist, Walter Benjamin. Even though they both wrote on the subject of urbanism, Kracauer effectively moved on from a critique of architecture to specialise in the sociology of cinema. While Benjamin maintained his interest in the city, Kracauer only intermittently indulged the subject, although the defence of realism that became associated with their colleague Adorno and the Frankfurt School, permeates their work.

Kracauer is acknowledged as the first person to treat cinema to a serious study. In his important analysis on cinematic truth, it was Kracauer’s belief in ‘the redemption of physical reality’ that, it could be argued, laid the foundation for ‘film studies’ courses, cinema verite and Dogma schools that have blossomed all across the western world. If that sentence failed to endear you to him, this book – which reads, in places, like a translator’s obscurantist party piece – won’t change your mind.

Benjamin and Kracauer worked with Ernst Bloch on the Frankfurter Zeitung in Berlin in the early 20s. After building up a formidable repertoire of cultural critiques, on subjects as diverse as the detective novel, dance and the emerging marketing industry, Kracauer emigrated to America during the war and became something of a feted academic and theoretician. Benjamin, on the other hand, killed himself in desperation to escape wartime Europe, taking his treasured manuscripts with him. In so doing, it is Benjamin who claimed a mythic place for himself in European post-postmodern thought, whereas Kracauer has been relatively ignored in the UK.

Reeh’s proclaimed purpose is to revive Kracauer’s ‘relatively neglected’ writings on the urban condition. Unfortunately, because there are such slim pickings in this subject area, Reeh is forced to admit that this thesis (whatever the dust jacket says) is predominantly developed from a single chapter in Kracauer’s book ‘Das Ornament der Masse’ written three years before his death. Reeh’s book then was obviously a labour of love for the author, but simply a labour for this reader. Even so, there is much to commend Kracauer’s social perspective and analytical ambition, which is why it is a shame that Reeh has chosen to obfuscate the object of his enquiry, rather than treating the subject to renewed intellectual rigour. Kracauer’s theses on the tensions between rationality and reason, for example, merit a detailed exposition.

The ‘ornament’ in the book’s title refers to more than just the decorative treatment of buildings, and includes all of the ‘surface phenomena of society’, nowadays celebrated in the burgeoning urban memory industry. It is Kracauer’s investigative proposition that such manifestations either mask or expose the real social relations of that society. This is not as radical a proposition today as it was then, but it is a pleasure to remember that there once was a desire for such a critique. Nowadays, there is absolutely no intellectual foundation to architectural design and practice and this would have been worth commenting on, and maybe even applying some of Kracauer’s methods to.

Reeh’s interpretive voice, however, pushes a more contemporary civic agenda onto Kracauer’s urban critique. His vulgar reworking simply endorses Kracauer’s belief that Enlightenment rationality should be transcended by ‘many levels of subjective experience’. Such a relativised celebration of places and objets trouves is nowadays used by policy wonks to generate an intangible urban feelgood factor instead of trying to improve the physical environment in an objective, tangible way.

This book reflects the tendency to over-academicise the study of architecture, whereby urbanism simply becomes a subject for rareified debate and the practical, political and social implications are lost (or left to others to determine). While analysing the minutiae of a tangential urban theorist, Reeh misses the irony of cultural theorists; interpreting social relations through artefacts while ignoring a critique of the social relations that give rise to them, means that they are constantly chasing their tails. Nice work if you can get it.

Reeh’s book was written in 1991 and was only translated in 2004, ten years after M Christine Boyer’s far superior and much more accessible book ‘The City of Collective Memory’. Even though both books chime with the millennial urban zeitgeist, this work is too turgid to find a ready market.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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