Stone Age Modernist DEAN HAWKES Le Corbusier, the Noble Savage: Toward an Archaeology of Modernism by Adolf Max Vogt. mit Press, 1998. 365pp. £24.95
'If one is asked what distinguishes Le Corbusier from other avant- gardists of his generation,' (writes Adolf Max Vogt) 'one possible answer might be that, while Le Corbusier's house is white and cubical and 'cool' like the houses of the other avant-gardists, only he insisted to the end of his life on lifting his house if possible completely on stilts (pilotis) and making it a boite en l'air (box up in the air). This is what I explore here.'
Many of us first encountered the idea of pilotis when, in the early years of our architectural education, we learned about the 5 points and their systematic comparison of old and new ways of building. There they were part of an apparently objective analysis of the potential of new technology to provide architecture with a new formal repertoire with which to serve the needs of a rapidly changing society. Vogt concludes emphatically that Le Corbusier became 'the most effective spokesman for Modernism'. He sets out, in this densely argued book, to suggest that Modernism, and specifically the fascination with the boite en l'air which runs through Le Corbusier's work, was rooted in his earliest experiences as a child in La Chaux-de- Fonds.
In paraphrase, the argument revolves around the archaeology of primitive lake-dwellings, a subject of increasing interest in the Suisse-Romande in the middle years of the nineteenth century. It was so potent that the study of lake-dwelling culture was firmly established in the curriculum of schools in the region when the young Jeanneret was beginning his formal education. Vogt proposes that in this exposure to the pre-history of his native region, combined with Le Corbusier's earlier attendance at the Froebel kindergarten at La Chaux-de-Fonds and his life-long interest in the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we may discover the true origin of the piloti.
En route to this conclusion Vogt adds numerous sideways glances - among them, a fascinating glimpse of Le Corbusier's father, Edouard Jeanneret- Perret, watchmaker and mountaineer, to set beside the more familiar accounts of the influence of his mother.
Arguments of this kind about the origins of ideas must, inevitably, remain unproven. The method of the book is to assemble a mass of evidence about the context within which Le Corbusier grew up and to allow this to carry its own authority. It would be fatuous to attempt any literal formal comparison between the archaeology of the lake dwelling and the Corbusian villa, and this is wisely avoided. Nonetheless the weakness of the book lies in the absence of extended critical accounts of Le Corbusier's buildings, in the failure to negotiate the gap between the worlds of scholarship and design.
The exception is a fascinating, if necessarily speculative, discussion of the League of Nations project in which textual reference and the genesis of the design are skilfully interwoven. A key text in this is Une Maison - Un Palais, which Vogt argues is a more felicitous commentary on the origins of the new house than the 5 points. The treatment of the Venice hospital project in the last chapter fails to offer any such insights. In neither case is the argument helped by images poor in both scale and clarity.
This is an intriguing and frustrating book. Vogt's weighty scholarship and seriousness of purpose go some way to overcoming one's reservations about parts of the enterprise. Not for the general reader, but an important addition to the ever-growing body of Le Corbusier scholarship.
Dean Hawkes is professor of architectural design at the Welsh School of Architecture