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Le Corbusier et Jeanneret

Originally published in 1984, this sumptuous new edition expands the text and includes more photographs, but is no easier to read, says Elain Harwood

The Villas of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret 1920-1930. By Tim Benton. Revised & expanded hardback. Birkhäuser 2007. £39.90

In the formative years of the 1920s, Le Corbusier, working with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret (a shadowy assistant often late with the accounts), would tease out a design solution through rough, undated sketches over many months.

Tim Benton, an art history professor at the Open University, assembles these scribbles in The Villas of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret 1920-1930, as well as more finished presentation drawings from the Fondation Le Corbusier, and relates them to the limited surviving correspondence. He also includes Corb’s obfuscating reminiscences and notes on the complexities of extending sites in Paris’s most desirable suburbs.

Drawing from the minutiae of Le Corbusier’s designs, Benton illustrates how the architect created a new form with his villa work, developing the purism of the Modern movement though the creation of houses for the rich, where luxury grew out of the assemblage of space rather than finishes and fittings.

Attention is given to the difficulty of obtaining long windows, which had to be specially made, and of obtaining modern light fittings – this was the cutting edge of new technology. Even where metal Ronéo doors and Baumann roller blinds were bought off the peg, they rarely fitted without expensive adjustment to the apertures receiving them.

The methodology also serves to bring out the importance of landscape to these early houses – something rarely considered. These include efforts to incorporate a copse of trees at the Villa Stein-de Monzie, only to sacrifice them as the design evolved, and the pivoting of the La Roche house and its antecedents around the site’s one mature tree.

Snippets of correspondence, in particular Le Corbusier and Jeanneret’s disputes with their clients over costs, enliven the tome. Benton hints that the architects were ingenious in preparing estimates which could not be met as the designs evolved. Benton ends at the Villa Savoye, the point at which Le Corbusier’s practice began to diversify and he and Jeanneret shook off their dependency on difficult clients.

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