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A common thread

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JosÚ Luis Sert, 1901-1983 By Josep M Rovira. Electa, 2003. 406pp. £45

Le Corbusier was returning from a lecture trip to Madrid in 1928 when a telegram from a young student asked him to stop and give a talk in Barcelona. Thus J L Sert met his greatest mentor and close friend; the next year he skipped architecture school for a time to work in Le Corbusier's office.

It is initially difficult to extract Sert's personal qualities from those of Le Corbusier and the CongrÞs Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne, of which he was president from 1946 to 1956. Sert helped prepare CIAM's planning manifesto, the Athens Charter, in 1933, and the papers on the Functional City from that meeting formed the basis of his book, Can Our Cities Survive? , in 1942. Le Corbusier's ideal Ville Radieuse directed the series of city plans Sert prepared in the late-'40s and '50s for the governments of Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and Cuba. Their rigidity makes us thankful that little was built save some flats in Pomona, Venezuela.

Yet it is worth looking beyond this familiar image of Sert as Le Corbusier's lieutenant, just as it is worth struggling through the early pages of this exhaustive and exhausting survey. Rovira's work is not a biography but a series of interlinked essays, so there is no strictly chronological thread.

Emphasis is given to ideas rather than the buildings, and it is not an easy read.

Yet it is Sert's architecture that is exciting, from the first Barcelona flats onwards - strongly humane, and marrying local traditions to a desire to emphasise the underlying proportional grid in all his works. Sert worked extensively with artists, fulfilling the ambitions of CIAM's 1947 conference that art and structure should be integrated. Joan Mir¾ was a close friend for whom he built a studio in Mallorca in 1954-57, and the Mir¾ Foundation in Barcelona, finally completed in 1975.A Mir¾ connection also led to the Fondation Maeght, a stunning synthesis of art and sculptural form built in Provence over 20 years.

As a supporter of the republic and coarchitect of its pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exhibition, Sert was forced into exile after Franco's victory. Indeed, with his privileged background - his industrialist father was made a Count in 1903 - Sert would have had problems whoever won the Civil War.

Thanks to Sigfried Giedion and Walter Gropius, Sert found a niche at Harvard, and it was his partnership with Paul Lester Weiner, son-in-law of Roosevelt's treasurer, that led to the Latin American commissions.

Ultimately, it was in providing a link between American and Mediterranean cultures that Sert excelled - not in his city plans, but certainly in his individual buildings. In the 1930s, Sert, like Le Corbusier, was taken with the notion that culture and proportion had originated with the Greeks and had established a common thread across the Mediterranean, embracing Barcelona. This idea was reinforced with his discovery of the local vernacular, particularly on Ibiza, and the high, arched brick roof - whether executed in brick or reinforced concrete - is a distinctive feature, as is his love of the semi-enclosed patio. They dominate his gallery work in Europe, and a series of private developments built in the 1960s on Ibiza in the face of popular tourism.

But the American influence is there too, for Sert shares the idiom of modest scale, natural materials and bright colour found in the early work of all the ÚmigrÚs to Harvard, and his cottage on Long Island from 1949 is strongly redolent of Breuer and Gropius'New England houses. Much larger buildings for Harvard and Boston Universities are less personal, though, and do not quite break the spell between building and setting. But the close links between the old world and the new, between building and setting, are nowhere better seen than in - of all places - the United States Embassy in Baghdad, a series of arched roof pavilions cooled by canals fed from the Tigris. It is shockingly serene in the archive photographs included here.

Elain Harwood is a historian with EH

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