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Concrete evidence

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Auguste Perret By Karla Britton. Phaidon, 2001. 256pp. £39.95

Auguste Perret (1874-1954) was a seminal figure in the evolution of the Modern Movement but, overshadowed in this country by his one time pupil Le Corbusier, has tended to be forgotten. In France, though, Perret's continuing significance is such that one of the best books of which he is the principal subject - Peter Collins' Concrete (Faber, 1959) - is still available in French translation while the English edition is long out of print.

Perret's oeuvre was largely in reinforced concrete, a material coming to the fore from the mid-19th century. It was originally employed only in engineering structures and Perret was one of the pioneers in its architectural use. His Church of NotreDame at Le Raincy, 1926 (see picture), was a Masters of Building article (AJ 13.2.91).

Karla Britton's book, developed from a study undertaken at Columbia University, has to overcome some significant defects. Its design is gimmicky and offputting; its insistent cleverness is intrusive. And in assessing what one gets for £39.95, it will not escape an intending purchaser that many pages are only half-filled - a 'feature' of the design.

In her preface, Britton sets out her intentions, including the controversial way in which she evaluates Perret's development as an architect. With others (not Collins) she senses a mystery about his work. This 'enigmatic, even impervious, quality' is the spur to her essay. To develop her argument she seeks to link aspects of Perret's principles/philosophy with particular building types.

A few chapter headings will give the flavour: 'The Economy of Construction:

Ecclesiastical Architecture'; 'The Poetic Syntax of Space: Apartment Buildings'.

These oddly chosen qualities are, of course, manifest throughout Perret's work irrespective of building type.What are we supposed to gain from this approach?

Britton, like many fellow historians, seems to be phased by the supposed 'stylistic' switches during Perret's long career. If they looked sideways to other arts, such as music and painting, they would find similar 'darting around' - a joie de vivre particularly evident in the 20th century.

Unfortunately there are other flaws - passages obscure in meaning, invented adjectives, poor translation from the French.

Nevertheless, the text has interest, the illustrations are good, and inclusion of Perret's own writings as an appendix is commendable. But historians not trained as architects should avoid detailed description of construction and technical detail; many have been wrecked on these shoals and Britton is no exception. By the way, Mies van der Rohe was of the same generation as Perret, not the succeeding one as stated in the preface.

Would I recommend the book? Despite the 'warts', and Britton's idiosyncratic approach, the pros outweigh the cons, but, at the price, I hesitate. There is nothing else in English, though, so if that is the criterion. . .

Available in French, however, is a 'must' for any Perret lover - Les Freres Perret: L'Oeuvre Complete (Editions Norma, 2000. £61). It is the complete archives of Auguste and his brother Gustave, architect-entrepreneurs.

Auguste and his brother, two years junior, studied architecture at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Together with the third younger brother, they inherited and carried on the family firm, a contracting business established by their father. Thus they could offer a complete service, which saw through all of Auguste's output.

This magnificent book, bigger in format than Britton's and 509 pages long, was a chance discovery on a visit to the Triangle Bookshop at the Architectural Association - that true Aladdin's Cave.

John Bancroft is the architect of Pimlico School

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