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Comprehensive Corbusier

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Le Corbusier and the Continual Revolution in Architecture By Charles Jencks.Monacelli Press, 2000. 382 pp. £35

Charles Jencks' proposition here is that the young Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, influenced by brilliant masters like Charles L'Eplattenier, became convinced early on that architecture is not just practical building but a powerful symbolic language whose function is to address the highest aspirations of the spirit. Of all the contributions Le Corbusier made to architecture, that one has proved the most enduring, and Jencks is right to make it central.

Wandering around Europe, the youthful Jeanneret realised that to become an architect is to become a kind of priest. He invented a new persona for himself - a crow - and, deeply inspired by the Greek monks on Mount Athos, made himself into a mythical figure set somewhat apart.

It seems to me (though not to Jencks) that to a significant degree this self-transformation was a consequence of Futurism.

Although Le Corbusier denied any such influence, his discovery of the manifesto as a propaganda tool, his decision to assert himself as leader and ideologue of a movement, and his espousal of an aesthetic of the machine, would never have happened had the Futurists not done it first.

Jencks' hazy explanation is that Le Corbusier was caught up in an obscure Nietzschian conflict but the proposition remains undeveloped and is eventually forgotten about - a consequence, I suspect, of the failure to consider Futurism.

What interests Jencks is not so much the technicalities of architecture as the iconography - not how things are made but what they mean when the work is done. That is why this biography adds so much to previous studies of Le Corbusier. Jencks addresses a cultured readership which is not all that interested in plans and sections but does respond to symbols, forms and colours.

For those who accept his approach, this long and quite detailed account will be wholly convincing; it gives us the overview that is lacking in many other analyses. The biography format gives Jencks an opportunity to paint a wide-ranging but coherent picture of Le Corbusier the painter, architect, sculptor, thinker, glassmaker; the designer of the beautiful stove-enamelled doors at Ronchamp, covered in magic signs; the tireless elaborator of completely new symbols like the 'open hand' of Chandigarh.

Jencks divides Le Corbusier's career into four phases: the early years in La Chauxde-Fonds; the 'heroic period' in Paris, an interesting 'back to Nature' phase from 1928-45 and a mature period after 1946, culminating in what he sees as Le Corbusier's flawed masterpiece - the city of Chandigarh.

It was during the 'heroic period' of the famous houses (Villa Savoye, Villa Stein) that Le Corbusier attained international dominance, creating his vast following and becoming (as he planned) the personification of Modern architecture. His radical change of approach after 1945, abandoning the machine aesthetic and embarking on a completely new phase at the Maisons Jaoul, Marseilles, Ronchamp and La Tourette, did not create the crisis of Modernism (that was happening anyway). But his followers - notably, Sir James Stirling in two telling essays of the 1950s - saw it that way, as they tried anxiously to understand what they were supposed to do now.

For Jencks, rightly, that 'heroic period' was not Le Corbusier's highest achievement.

It was a failed experiment.Abandoning it, he moved on, taking architecture away from intellectualism and doctrine into a realm where it would become a living thing, speaking directly to all people.

Although Le Corbusier the demiurge would never acknowledge influences, Jencks shows how he was as much caught up as anyone in the cultural tides of his time and was affected by many people: his early teachers, his Parisian friends like Amedee Ozenfant, his clients, and many women from Josephine Baker to Minnette De Silva.

Alas, halfway through this fascinating exposition the cliches appear: we are told Ronchamp was a harbinger of Post-Modernism. You hope Jencks will forget about this - things were going so well - but it gets worse. Nevertheless, for the critically aware reader this is a far more serious and cogent book than much from the Jencks idea factory, and withstands scrutiny better than his wacky theories about jumping universes. If you can ignore all the 'isms' you'll find yourself in the company of an admirable scholar and an excellent writer.

It's interesting to learn that up to about 1910 Jeanneret the urbanist was in favour of the traditional street, and even made little study-drawings in the manner of Camillo Sitte. It was not until his adoption of the name 'Le Corbusier' - adopting an ideology and manifesto - that we find him expounding his disastrous doctrine of the Ville Radieuse. Jencks reiterates Colin Rowe's devastating critique of this (without crediting Rowe) but is unable to explain why the big change happened. For me this is because he ignores Futurism. Oh well; we all have our own Le Corbusier. For all its faults, this book is a milestone.

Thomas Muirhead is an architect in London

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