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Great expectations

review - Le Corbusier - Pavillon Suisse: The Biography of a Building By Ivan Zaknic. Birkhäuser, 2004. 416pp. £48

The work of Le Corbusier remains too radical for our times. Whatever advances of technique there have since been, whatever the apparent triumph of Modern design, whatever the shifting pattern of our concerns, his vision of intellectual activity of a specific character - of an intellectual stance and the relationship between man and nature, man and space, that go with it - remains imaginatively beyond the reach of our own society and culture.

The Pavillon Suisse - the Swiss student residence inaugurated in July 1933 in the Cité Universitaire in Paris - was an embodiment of that vision, and there is no more telling image in this book than that of the newly completed pavilion: crystalline, pure, raised on pilotis, intellectually sure of itself and looking to the future, framed by the Swedish and Japanese pavilions on either side built a year or two earlier, earthbound, each reflecting their respective 'regional styles', perhaps more like what might be built today.

The commission for the Swiss Pavilion was, in part, a consolation prize to Le Corbusier for having lost out in the League of Nations competition three years earlier, engineered for him by Karl Moser (professor of architecture at Zurich) and Sigfried Giedion. Indeed, the internationalist agenda of the Cité Universitaire had something in common with the League of Nations and attracted some of the same supporters. As a Swiss citizen (at the start of the project) and resident in Paris, Le Corbusier had natural qualifications for the commission, and he had strong support in the wealthy SwissParisian banker Raoul La Roche, a source of some of the funding.

Le Corbusier had published in Vers une architecture (1923) his design for student housing in 'mat' form - single-storey studio rooms laid side by side along access galleries, with their only light source from a roof terrace above. He had captioned it: 'Attempts are made at enormous cost to build quarters for university students which may reproduce the poetry of the old buildings at Oxford. A costly poetry? The modern student is in any case inclined to protest against an oldworld Oxford: an old-world Oxford is the dream of the modern Maecenas, the donor of such a university quarter.' He may well have had in mind the first phase of the Cité Universitaire, dating from 1923 and with distinctly Oxfordian overtones, funded by the oil magnate Deutsch de la Meurthe.

When seven years later Le Corbusier was himself given the opportunity to design some student housing nearby, he did not follow his earlier idea (here impractical due to its high ground coverage), except in terms of insisting on the maximum self-containment of each student room. Instead, taking advantage of the Garden City ambience of the Cité, inspired (as he himself had been) by English examples, he treated the student housing like a fragment of his cité-jardin verticale (the radiant city), then in the early stages of development. The student rooms were all to face south, raised above ground level on pilotis to allow vehicular circulation, and furnished with services communs on the roof. As the project developed, and in face of pressure from a Hydra-headed client, some of the more idealistic aspects of his design were whittled away (often to be reinstated in the published version), but much he fought successfully to retain.

Writing a 'biography' of so recent and well-documented a building allows the story to be told very fully - perhaps more fully than some readers might require. But it does allow Le Corbusier's working practice to be examined and, since the story is brought right up to date, it allows the problems of use, maintenance and a restoration amounting in parts to reconstruction to be presented.

The pavilion, in addition to its innovative aspirations in social and planning terms, was equally ambitious technically in its exploitation of dry lightweight construction (although in terms of services - not an aspect discussed here - Le Corbusier did not attempt to install his patented murs neutralisants). As Le Corbusier wrote at one point to his client, referring to his largely unpaid student labour force: 'Thanks to the help of many young people who come to me from around the world in the hope of adding something to their university degree, we are able to devote a much greater amount of care to the study of our buildings beyond that possible in an ordinary architectural office.' Just to clinch the commission, the architect also donated the cost of one of the 50 student rooms.

The cost of the technical innovations has been the need for large-scale reconstruction;

one wonders how the costs-in-use figures for the Swedish and Japanese Pavilions over the same years would compare. Without such aspiration nothing would be achieved.

James Dunnett is an architect in London

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