Order in the house
Alone among Philip Johnson's 'Big Four'of Modern architecture, Le Corbusier continues to resonate, provoking and inspiring from his great studio in the sky. His trademark round glasses, bow ties and natty suits still attract a considerable following; buildings such as Ronchamp, La Tourette and the Marseilles Unite remain high on the 'must- see' list of each successive generation of student architects; and publications explaining this or that aspect of his work still roll regularly off the presses.
Through much of this earnest activity runs a fascination with Le Corbusier's use of proportional systems to order plan, elevation and section of buildings, not only as stated in his initial presentation and subsequent refinement of the Modulor system, but also as deduced from analysis of his major built schemes. Led by the late Colin Rowe in his seminal essay The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa, critics have struck the parallel between the proportional systems used by Andrea Palladio and those which Le Corbusier himself brought to the process of composition. Lines have been drawn over elevations with enthusiasm, if not with entire conviction.
Current scribe-in-chief is Klaus-Peter Gast, who divides his time and his tome between Europe and India. In its format, this new volume resembles his earlier publication on Louis Kahn (AJ 25.6.98). Both books deal with architects at the height of their powers, both building in the sub-continent on a truly monumental scale, and both celebrating fairly basic building technology. But whereas Kahn never explicitly embraced proportional systems in the ordering of his architecture - hence the interpretation of the Indian Institute of Management in these terms is entirely the author's - Chandigarh does offer Gast a more fertile field to deconstruct with the aid of his proportional dividers and a fair dollop of imagination.
His analysis of the plan of Chandigarh's Capitol, for example, attempts to demonstrate how the placement of the key buildings has been consciously determined by a set of geometric relationships based on the double square, the Golden Section and other of its derivatives.Within the cat's cradle of linework a pattern certainly does emerge, but is it one which registers at visitor's eye-level?
Too many other factors, not least the powerful plasticity of Corb's architecture under the sun or the parlous state of many of these buildings, are bound to mask any underlying geometry between them. Indeed, it could be argued that only directly perceivable spatial relationships between buildings, as in the much-maligned Beaux Arts practice of axial composition, stand any chance of being noticed.
With the plans of individual Corb buildings, Gast's quest for geometric order is more convincing.His parade of the usual suspects reveals relationships between the key elements of a plan which appear to have been located on proportional principles, or at least to conform to a clear, organising geometry. These designed relationships may well make themselves known to the perceptive visitor, much as a sense of rightness emerges from many an Aalto interior, without benefit of mathematics.
What most intrigues about this volume could count as a triviality.Gast has chosen to redraw in his own hand a number of those telling Corb vignettes, such as the Citrohan house, rather than reproduce the originals.Whether this decision was taken to avoid the stern attention of the Fondation Le Corbusier, or was simply a whim of the author, the result is irksome for those of us who can recall our first encounter with Towards A New Architecture and Corb's inimitable scratchy pen sketches. You can still sense the pent-up passion and polemic in every line.
Neil Parkyn is an architect and director of consultancy Huntingdon Associates