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A shining light

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Towards Universality: Le Corbusier, Mies and De Stijl By Richard Padovan. Routledge, 2002. 238pp. £28

In 1983, Richard Padovan published his translation of Dom Hans van der Laan's Architectonic Space, bringing that Dutch monk's lifework to English-speaking minds, and in the years that followed he has published his own Dom Hans van der Laan:

Modern Primitive and then Proportion.Each of these books has shown Padovan to be a master of clarity and Towards Universality is no exception.

Instead of the normal frontispiece, the book opens with De Stijl's first manifesto of 1918, signed by Theo van Doesburg, painter;

Robert van't Hoff, architect; Vilmos Huszar, painter; Antony Kok, poet; Piet Mondriaan, painter; G Vantongerloo, sculptor; and Jan Wils, architect. It makes no attempt to put our clock back, as its title might suggest to some, but interprets what went on in the minds of the major players in the heroic period of the European Modern Movement from, at the outside, 1917 to 1931, the year Theo van Doesburg died.

It is only by removing these players momentarily from the wider Modern Movement scene that we properly comprehend the reasoning behind their actions and therefore the nature of Europe's kick-start. This is particularly true of De Stijl, which was not a formalised group and whose membership changed. Rather it was a journal, a loose group of artists, and an idea which nevertheless was as important as either Le Corbusier or Mies in those early days.

The book contains eight essays, which its author tells us we can read in any order.

What I like about that is that one can pick it up at any time for short spells in-between thinking things over. And in terms of what eventually went wrong with a movement that tried to go too fast, there is a lot for young people to think about - more so than in some longer histories. This one, coupled with a full bibliography and an index, makes good use of quotations by the various players. Moreover, we have the benefit of authority stemming from Padovan's lifelong interests.

This is a writer who instinctively knows precisely how to shine his light, not just where.

Two of the book's essays have been published before, 'Mies: The Correspondence of Thing and Intellect' and 'The Pavilion and the Court', both having been expanded and revised for inclusion here. While the Mies study was written for an American exhibition catalogue on that architect, it amounts to a very fresh interpretation of the character of the work. The second, published in The Architectural Review in 1981, is particularly memorable.

Its theme is a comparison of these two opposites as legitimate building forms to which much serious architecture relates - the openness of the pavilion against the closedness of the court. Of course, it is not just open and closed, but the difference between that which is freshly free and the Classical, which is not. It is here, and because he has chosen an analogy free of boring style (the glue that poor historians get stuck in), that Padovan can help us to comprehend how his players were sometimes at cross purposes.

Padovan is crystal clear - this book is a little classic.

Patrick Hodgkinson is emeritus professor at the University of Bath

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