Ask Le Corbusier: architect of the last century, prophet of this one
In a week that started with heavy doses of the problem of the bouncy bridge - structure too light - and then moved on to the price-busting Royal wardrobes that needed floor reinforcement at Buckingham Palace - structure too heavy - there seemed no alternative for a recusant Modernist but to call for a return to proper box girder bridges, and indulge in a quick re-reading of Le Corbusier, in translation of course.
After nearly 80 years the apocalyptic Vers une Architecture , described by Reyner Banham as the only piece of architectural writing to belong in the essential literature of the twentieth century, seems stranger with each passing page, chiefly because it seems addressed to the present more than the pre-Modern era of the 1920s.
'We are, ' Le Corbusier writes in a typical passage, 'living in a period of reconstruction and of adaptation to new social and economic conditions. In rounding this Cape Horn the new horizons before us will only recover the grand line of tradition by a complete revision of the methods in vogue and by the fixing of a new basis of construction fixed in logic.' Typically of prophetic writing this extract is unclear, except that it is clearly an ultimatum, like the rest of the book. The pictures of aeroplanes, ships and automobiles contributed by Corbusier's collaborator Amedee Ozenfant are clear enough as guides for a future architecture, but what on earth does the author mean by 'recover the grand line of tradition'? The more you study the passage, the more it looks like a literal translation of the figurative French: a bad translation in fact.
None of the sensible things that Le Corbusier demanded, such as underground service roads beneath every city street, have ever come about.
On the other hand, all the deeply unpopular things, such as 'jutting prows of great blocks stretching along arterial avenues' - have happened in abundance, though not to the popular acclaim that he expected. 'Recovering the grand line of tradition' is now being done by reverting to the 'sunless courtyards' and 'puny trees' the master derided.
Another book in Le Corbusier's oeuvre, The Decorative Art of Today , is the most post-Modern of all, glorying in the political ranting of another age and at the same time unable to exclude an awareness of its futility. The master vainly tries to make himself sound forceful instead of hysterical but he fails.
There are pages in the book, laden with italics and exclamation marks that resemble nothing so much as pages from Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf , which was written in the same year.
Corbusier bulked out his pages with more images from Ozenfant's photo-file, the usual collection of bidets, door handles, briar pipes and American filing cabinets, but even for an enthusiast it is impossible to flip through without being reminded of things like the Bermuda Triangle and the writings of New Age philosophers such as Ench von Daniken and Shirley Maclaine.
This is why the endorsement from Paul Valery, like the praise of Albert Einstein that adorns every copy of Le Modulor , doesn't help.
The most immediately relevant readings, however, come from the City of Tomorrow , which was published after Vers une Architecture . This book carries on the same pattern of threat and promise as the others, claiming that, 'In 1925, the 'International Exhibition of Decorative Art in Paris' demonstrated the uselessness of any turning back to the past. Decorative art is dead. Modern town planning comes to birth with a new architecture . . .
We burn our bridges and break with the past.'
But what happens if they are fireproof and they bounce?