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Dry dissertation

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The CIAM Discourse on Urbanism, 1928-1960By Eric Mumford, MIT Press, 2000, 375pp. £27.95

There was a moment just after the Second World War when it seemed that CIAM would be rebuilding the western world. Many of its pre-war members were now advisors or high officials in government planning and reconstruction departments and Le Corbusier was confidently asserting that the organisation's function was 'giving spiritual direction to the shaping of the built environment'.

But it was only a moment. Although hundreds of young architects flocked to CIAM meetings during the 1950s to see, hear and touch their architectural heroes, these were the years when it slowly imploded under the weight of its own selfimportance and the new architectural generation's impatience with its elders. Or their elders' disregard for youngsters who hadn't been through the purifying fire of the 20s and 30s.Or, according to a cynical view, because CIAM had never been much more than a division of the Corb promotional machine written up by that arch publicist Sigfried Giedion.

Originally, according to Aldo van Eyck, one of the young Turks who brought it down, CIAM had been 'a spontaneous gathering of people who wanted to achieve a mutual aim'.He was writing a selective history of the organisation in a long article in the Dutch magazine Forum entitled 'The story of another idea'. It appeared prior to CIAM's final acrimonious meeting at Otterloo in 1959 at which the Smithsons attacked everything they hadn't drawn themselves, and Giancarlo de Carlo concluded that 'CIAM had died long ago', wondering whether it was necessary to 'set up a new kind of international organisation which may keep alive the debate on architectural culture'.

Forty years later, when the first serious study of the organisation has just appeared, the architectural community's judgement seems to have been that it wasn't particularly necessary. Indeed, from Eric Mumford's CIAM Discourse on Urbanism, 1928-1960, it's just as well, for his study demonstrates that what happens at the local gardening club is a universal and architectural experience: squabbling, proceduralism, avoiding the main topic, excluding perceived undesirables, internecine warfare, and, the speciality of architects, grand-scale portentousness.

Don't get the idea that Mumford's book is to do with lifting stones, with revealing the human side of this odd organisation. You have to read really hard to extract the above, for this is a stolid chronicle of what happened at CIAM meetings since the first at La Sarraz in Switzerland. Unsurprisingly, the text started out as a college dissertation.

Its virtue is that it is the first attempt to tell the whole CIAM story and it will thus be an essential reference. It is, however, only rarely a good read because Mumford doesn't provide a proper context or fill out the raw facts. For example, the recitation of the names of all the people who attended a particular meeting is possibly of interest - providing you know who or what they are.

But of course you don't, and you wonder if Mumford does either.And there are pages and pages of attendees' names.

This dry-old-stick approach to architectural history is partly the responsibility of Mumford's publisher. In the old days publishers used editors to turn dull texts into livelier ones, breaking up half-page-long paragraphs, improving infelicitous sentence construction, and demanding explanations of convoluted descriptions. MIT Press has economised heavily here.And there are inexplicable idiocies. Mumford's footnotes are terrific. Had they been with the text they would have livened it up immeasurably; at the back they are effectively inaccessible.Don't tell me that in the design studio MIT can't cope with on-page footnotes.

Sutherland Lyall is a journalist

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