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Pragmatist with a global view

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BOOKS: Alejandro de la Sota by Inaki Abalos, William Curtis et al. aa Publications, 1997. 112pp. £29.95

This is the second volume of the aa's 'Exemplary Projects' (the first being Peter Zumthor's Thermal Bath at Vals, aj 7.3.96), and curiosity is immediately aroused by the concept of exemplary imperfection. Fortunately this is explained in Mohsen Mostafavi's opening essay: 'For Alejandro de la Sota, who was used to less than perfect standards of construction in Spain after the war, Le Corbusier's call for an architecture of 'imperfection' provided a crucial inspiration. It was this apparent quest for imperfection which gave his work its 'elegance'. Equally, imperfection resisted the ideality of the image as the a priori task of architecture.'

Meeting Le Corbusier at the time of the Berlin Unite d'Habitation in the 1950s, de la Sota was impressed by his renunciation of the German builders' search for perfection: 'It looked as if they had passed their tongues over the concrete before letting it set,' Corb is supposed to have said. This brings to mind the famous remark about an attractive woman, that 'she lacked the tiny flaw that would make her truly beautiful'. And does it awaken the spirit of Brutalism to counter the slickness of High- Tech and stodge of Post-Modernism?

Outside Spain, the first encounter with the work of de la Sota came with its inclusion in William Curtis' Modern Architecture Since 1900, and indeed this aa publication includes a typically perceptive essay by Curtis on just one of the illustrated projects, the Civil Government Building in Tarragona. The links with the tradition of Mediterranean rationalism, particularly Italian, are especially marked in this project, with its balance of symmetry and abstraction. It is pertinent also that, as with Terragni's Casa del Fascio, this building has managed to transcend its political origins and become highly respected today.

Another project covered in some detail, with a searching essay by Jose Manuel Lopez-Pelaez, is the Maravillas Gymnasium. Others, such as the Post Office and Telecommunications Building, and the intriguing Arvesu House with its sinuous stair and dramatic contrast of front and back elevations, are only touched upon lightly. So the interesting facade detail of the Calle Prior apartment block is shown, together with the stairs and landing, but without accompanying plans. In fact, the somewhat erratic design of the book - its fragmentary details, its photographs not always captioned - doesn't help one to understand the whole and its context.

But the quality of the writing more than compensates for this, with an essay by Inaki Abalos as a fitting conclusion. While Spain suffered a lengthy dictatorship, first violent then sad and bureaucratic, de la Sota was (argues Abalos) 'in constant dialogue with the global reality that others failed to perceive'. Both pragmatic and critical, he was neither subsumed nor marginalised by the system: 'he defended the profession's peculiar historical description of itself as a socially desirable, artistic practice while giving it new content and programmes'. And, interested in both theoretical and practical issues and able to synthesise them, his work has additional significance: it stands in opposition to increasing specialisation, to the world that sets apart 'technician, creator, and teacher'.

David Wild is an architect in London

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