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Jacobsen's journey

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Arne Jacobsen By Carsten Thau and Kjeld Vindum. Arkitektens Forlag, 2001. 560pp. £52 This is more than a story of a big man in architecture, it is also a story about the nature of contemporary architecture itself. Read this, and your suspicions that materialism, minimalism, modern Classicism - all the current '-isms' - are not the Holy Grail, will be confirmed. Old Arne did it years ago.

Jacobsen never claimed to be an inventor, but as a polymath designer and follower of style he has no equal, except perhaps Gio Ponti. They could both turn their hand to anything - fabric design, furniture, door handles, cutlery, typography and photography.

Their parallel careers embraced each sequential phase of Modernism as categorised by the authors: pre-Modern, early Modern (white), monumental Modern, regional Modernism, post-war Modernism, the International Style and finally late-Modern work.

And it is here that this substantial and comprehensive oeuvre complÞte on Jacobsen is most fascinating. His career is a journey through the architecture of the past century;

the vicissitudes of his life and work are presented against this vast canvas of artistic and social history. Above all, the people in Jacobsen's own photographs record Modernism's optimistic wholesomeness: settings for a classless, healthy-looking, humane society where architecture and design were central to social change. How nihilistic and detached aesthetics have become; technics are fetishised and space best savoured empty.

Jacobsen was a larger-than-life character, amazingly successful, who left a lexicon of iconic designs behind. If, as a Jew, he had been deported by the Nazis, or drowned in the small rowing boat as he escaped to Sweden, he would still be remembered for Aarhus Town Hall (1937-42) and his pre-war white stuff.

Now he is recognised for the ubiquitous Ant chair, immortalised in that photo of Christine Keeler; the Swan chair, photographed with so many 'babes'; the Egg chair with Spectre and his white cat - and from all that fumbling with the Vola tap.

His pre- and post-war yellow brick houses and his low-cost housing had a huge impact on housing design in the UK, up until its return to Just William land in the late 1970s.

And he accomplished this astonishing output from the small office in the basement of his house; an impossibility in the structure of contemporary practice.

Jacobsen's friends called him a decorator and a stylist. This may be true, but what a decorator and what a stylist. His oeuvre followed Venturi's aphorism that it is better to be good than original - except when you are that good, you become original anyway. You can see it in how Jacobsen's Aarhus Town Hall emulates Asplund's Law Courts.He takes that beautiful gently-raking staircase and turns it into a wide sweeping spiral, which is quite wonderful. He repeats the same trick 30 years later with his suspended staircase in the National Bank of Denmark (1970).

He had a knack, he was a consummate producer, and he was invariably in the right place at the right time. From 1930-40 he spent a month each year with Gunnar Asplund; he revered his friend Aalto as the best architect in Scandinavia; he was in awe of Le Corbusier after he saw Ronchamp; he followed where Eames and Saarinen led in furniture design;

and in his later phases he adapted and humanised Mies.

Jacobsen's drive for perfectionism was a 'diabolical mania'. He had to control everything within his orbit, which would leave him completely drained. His R&R was to go off to an old-fashioned cafe, not just to satisfy his ravenous appetite for pastries but because 'places of this kind in Denmark were often furnished with silver-embossed wallpaper, flower-pot holders, semi-transparent drapes with decorative bands, cigar vases, hand polished mirrors, sleepy landscapes, cuckoo clocks, violet napkins and robust decorated table services.' He remarked of one of these regular forays into this haunt of kitsch and confectionery that 'this is one place where you can really relax, since everything here is hopeless. Nothing can be changed here.'

Stephen Greenberg is director of Metaphor

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