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Luxurious look of Corbusian colour

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BOOKS Le Corbusier - Polychromie Architecturale: Le Corbusier's 'Colour Keyboards' from 1931 and 1959 Edited by Arthur Ruegg. Birkhauser, 1997. 3 volumes. £125 approx. (Distributor 0181 542 2465)

This publication consists of a boxed set of three volumes. The first is a straightforward text-and-pictures account of the early development of Le Corbusier's interest in the architectural use of colour, comprising his 1931 essay 'Polychromie Architecturale' and an essay by the editor. The second is a luxurious wallpaper sample book of beautifully dense and even plain colours. The third is made up of the 'colour keyboards', sheet arrangements which Le Corbusier created to guide the customer in the potentially hazardous choice of colour combinations for the home.

Le Corbusier's involvement in what might appear to have been a home decorator's manual requires some explanation. In 1931 the Swiss manufacturer Salubra produced a series of wallpapers designed by him. Up until then, Le Corbusier had made no secret of his aversion to wallpaper as such, regarding a wallpapered room as spatially unsatisfactory, a mere lined box. Upon taking up the offer of a design fee from Salubra, however, he overcame this aesthetic prejudice and took the opportunity to recast wallpaper as a medium for the promotion of a Modernist aesthetic. The justification for his change of mind was that contemporary production techniques for paint finishes, which involved the mixing of pigment with oil or glue on site, led to inconsistencies in the colour and coverage, while Salubra wallpaper offered perfectly flat plain colour, 'a layer of oil paint on rolls'.

The wallpaper should be hung horizontally, said Le Corbusier, demanding a level of craftsmanship among decorators rarely seen then or now. The excuse for using wallpaper to this day, that it will cover shrinkage cracks in plasterwork or in in-situ concrete, is referred to in passing, but only as a collateral benefit - not as, in itself, a justification for the product's use.

Le Corbusier's essay is an interesting curiosity. Stylistically the tone is bombastic but, for Le Corbusier, fairly mutedly so, being less authoritative than that of Le Modulor or Vers une architecture. It is still not modest, though, and branches out beyond the realm of wallcoverings into exhortations to redesign (or at least redecorate) the world with a proper regard to colour combinations.

In terms of content it claims credibility through an association with contemporary 'scientific' theories of universally consistent reactions to colour stimuli. The assumptions are now so discredited that an aesthetic theory based on them seems naive, while arousing the suspicion that bogus research is being quoted to bolster a weak argument. Preferable to this essay would be a bald chronological presentation of the works in which Le Corbusier exercised his theories of colour. It would tantalise with glimpses of a developing aesthetic.

Original copies of the Salubra swatches and of the colour keyboards have long been pursued by collectors. The colour samples in the second volume of this set are perfectly rendered, while the colour keyboards in the third - beautifully assembled sheets of slivers of colour - show the combinations which Le Corbusier thought acceptable and harmonious. To view the keyboards in the prescribed manner, Bristol board cut-out figures are included to isolate groups of colour. The manufacture of the keyboards is exquisite; to ensure perfect fidelity, each colour has been cut from a painted sheet and stuck to a backing board.

The set is very expensive indeed for something which is not a reference work and does not contribute much to any debate - but it is beautiful. The product is esoteric, yet even with a large print run the cost would be high because of the craftsmanship involved. It stands out from the hagiographies of living architects which constitute the bulk of the architectural book trade like a fetish object amid a shelf of pornography.

Whatever the shortcomings in terms of relevance, translation, scholarly depth or most of the normal critical categories, the book is a brilliant object, and far more inspiring than the expensive, banal volumes of photographs with which it will compete for shelf space.

Gerry McLean is an architect in London

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