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Dissertation Medal Winner 1999

Statement of Commendation for Helen Woodcraft on “The Popularity of Populism”

Part 1 Dissertation 1999
Helen Woodcraft
University of Edinburgh Edinburgh | UK
Within the architectural profession, there is frequently a general sense towards populist design that concentrates on stylistic expression rather than being supported by a strong theory. Outwith the professional body
however, it is often this form of expression that gains the highest public approval. Why do people like the buildings that are regarded as the antithesis of 'good' architecture within the profession surely where the 'experts' are to be found? Is the widespread approval of this style a cause for concern?

This text examines the reasons for the mass appeal of the populist approach and the problems that the architectural body identifies with those same features. The investigation follows three lines of enquiry. The first chapter follows a semiotic approach, using langusge thoery to examine the processes of carrying and interpreting meaning in architecture, to determine whether this communication is culturally specific, and to analyse the nature and importance of our sign-reading. The second chapter concentrates on a phenomenological perspective to explore ideas of authenticity and investigates the distinction we make between creative works and mass-produced objects. The final chapter focuses on the social propensity for commodification.

Helen Woodcraft

The pitfalls of the enormous task this dissertation tackles are clear. However, it is to be very highly commeded for never descending into caricature. It succeeds well in giving intellectual depth to an architectural practice which delights in the superficial and is patently anti-intellectual. But as importantly, it shows the limitations of such practice, through well chosen insights offered by specific exponents of the theories of structuralism, phenomenology and critical theory. There is an excellent use of references. The analysis is well structured, not only revealing what each of the positions can offer the question into what makes popular architecture, but, compares and contrasts each position, to present a thorough examination of the concerns. The goals are clear and well directed. The conclusion re-gathers to inter-relate well, the various issues arising from each section.

It is refreshing to have the subject approached without blatant prejudice; a balanced view revealing the concerns to be reasonable. The arguments are well formulated and avoids the temptation to proffer simplistic solutions. The work is superbly well written containing valuable original insights, specifically on the inter-relations between the themes of architectural semiotics, authenticity and commodification.

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