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Essence of Modernity

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Modern Architecture By Alan Colquhoun. Oxford University Press, 2002. 250pp. £11.99

Students, take heed. If this does not appear on your reading list, buy it anyway. And if the rest of us thought we knew all about Modern architecture, this proves us wrong.

Here at last is a concise, readable and cheap introduction to the period 1890-1965.

The choice of years is significant. This is not the story of the 20th century, but of Modern architecture, from Art Nouveau to Louis Kahn. Chapter by chapter, Colquhoun looks at the movements and '-isms' of each country.

There is a commanding logic to the way we are whisked through Expressionism, Futurism, Constructivism, De Stijl, the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier's reaction to all of these. The broadest chapter, that on Art Nouveau, is perhaps the least successful because it fails to look across the international spectrum but concentrates on the movement's best-known centres in Brussels, Nancy, Vienna and Barcelona.

It is not that Colquhoun makes novel leaps between styles or architects, or suggests new interpretations. He does pull together Mies' house designs in a single paragraph that draws parallels in their relationship between indoors and outdoors. He also argues convincingly that Moisei Ginsburg's sectional interlocking apartments and access corridors in his Narkomfin flats were inspired by a design by Le Corbusier, rather than the other way round, as is usually assumed.

These, though, are exceptions. What Colquhoun does well is to summarise the essence of what many architects were about. His account of the importance of the structured, geometric plan underlying all of Kahn's mature works is particularly devastating in its succinctness.

Elsewhere, Colquhoun's success in condensing so much into 250 pages is achieved by looking less at the buildings than at the cultural and philosophical climate that inspired them. This is a history of ideas as much as of architecture. There are footnotes and a lengthy reading list for those who want to explore an area in greater depth, and a shorter time-chart of major exhibitions, buildings and events, significantly ending with the death of Le Corbusier. There is no place for Post-Modernism, High-Tech or their progeny.

The book has grown out of Colquhoun's long teaching experience as professor emeritus at the school of architecture at Princeton University. Certainly it draws heavily on recent American scholarship. There is some overlap between chapters, as with van Doesburg, who appears in both the sections on De Stijl and on Weimar Germany, and few attempts to draw personal conclusions.

It is fascinating to examine the balance of the book for what it may tell us of the training and tastes of Colquhoun and his contemporaries who studied in the 1940s, and the sources for his own work.

As with the Smithsons, the emphasis is on the so-called 'heroic period' of the 1920s, when architecture most firmly belonged within artistic and philosophical movements. There is nothing on Arne Jacobsen or Johannes Duiker, and more on Bruno Taut than on Gunnar Asplund and even Alvar Aalto. Walter Gropius remains a shadowy figure, as though after the breakthrough of the Fagus Factory his own work dissolves in favour of encouraging that of others.

The other missing element in the book is Britain: there is nothing here between William Morris and the Smithsons; Hertfordshire schools but no Stirling and Gowan, and one sketch by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. That is an indictment of our ability to create art movements, if not necessarily of our talent for designing buildings.

Most rewarding are Colquhoun's insights into architects and intellectual movements one has barely heard of, with sections on Hermann Muthesius's Ty p - isierung or belief in creating standard forms of buildings, and on the housing architect Heinrich Tessenow.

Better still for new recruits, the photographs and layout are attractive and helpful, and while I still do not know what Colquhoun means by Platonic in the architectural sense, I feel stirred to find out.

Colquhoun has nobly filled the niche for a student textbook, but for all of us he offers something thoughtful, without ever descending to the deliberately provocative.

Elain Harwood is a historian with English Heritage

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