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Modern masters

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Modern Architecture Through Case Studies By Peter Blundell Jones. Architectural Press (Butterworth-Heinemann), 2002. 245pp. £35

Professor Blundell Jones'welcome new book certainly repays the persuasive powers of his many admirers. 'Friends and colleagues have long urged me to write a general book on the Modern Movement, ' he begins.

So at last we now have it: studies of 16 masterworks, tied together at the end with his thinking for today. Nearly the last words of his resonant conclusion state: 'While computer video projections may cost little and allow all kinds of exciting possibilities, such fantasy worlds exist in contrast with a real world in which we eat and sleep, make love, and lead out everyday lives.' For his eloquence to be really clear, Blundell Jones adds: 'I side with Joseph Rykwert on this; see Rykwert 2000.'

This reviewer tends to side with the author both in his enthusiasms (interestingly the different buildings are handled, perhaps unwittingly, with very different degrees of generosity), and also with his method. This is the notion that much of a general nature can be learned by close observation of the particular - as in the AJ's Masters of Building series, which generated more than one chapter here.

Blundell Jones' writing makes no presumptions of knowledge, and this will, therefore, be a brilliant introduction to the Modernist works he has chosen to discuss.

Fifteen usual suspects are offered a chapter each of around 13 pages, after a rather longer scene-setting at Stuttgart's Weissenhof.

Potted biographies introduce some buildings (by Mendelsohn, Taut, etc); others are contextualised by earlier works (or in Häring's case a later work of Scharoun's). In Mussolini's Italy there is not a word of social context for Nervi, while there is lots for Terragni. Many tiny slights, sounding rightly superior and dismissive, are repeated at Le Corbusier; fewer at Mies. This is all rather different from the warm accord to Asplund, Aalto and Scharoun.

One might suspect the author was unaware of this until we read that Le Corbusier, 'in setting up the Purist programme', was seeking 'a final solution in aesthetics'.

Hmmm.He then dismisses Corb's 'supposed rationality', whose failure 'is evident from Philippe Boudon's analysis' of Pessac. Actually, Boudon's analysis (his suggestion that Corb's spatial design might invite active inhabitation) is rather more subtle. The next sentence states simply: 'The Modulor didn't work either.' There is no fuller argument.

Blundell Jones' sensible comments as an architect, natural and unforced, are refreshing.He points out tight stairs and WC widths based on over-generous grids, talks of frames and walls. Importantly, his innocent readers are exhorted to read the plans, 'to inhabit [them] in the imagination for their virtues to be understood'. He focuses on spatial organisation. Typically, at the Viipuri library for example, he explains the section and system of the main stair, never simply allowing the reader just to remember an image.As he says: 'For Taut and others like Scharoun, the essential reality of architecture lay in social relationships rather than aesthetic experience by proxy in drawings or photographs.'

The Scharoun chapter (lit up by words like 'genius' and 'magic') is the highlight, offering a fine story and acute spatial explanation of the Mannheim Theatre. However, this being the only unbuilt masterwork in the book, the experience is limited to lovely models made by the author's Sheffield students.

Actual experience is much less interesting than intellectual understanding. Even with Lewerentz's Klippan church (left), where the author talks lovingly about how it is detailed, he gives no hint of the extraordinary experience of its interior, of the darkness and the undulating floor.With Asplund, he never gets close enough to sit at the perfect little tables on the Gothenburg courtroom balcony.

He concludes this exemplary collection with a speech presumably aimed at UK students. It is pertinent that 'the professor in charge of architectural history and theory at Sheffield' should nail his colours to the mast of his Modernism, dismissing any 'tendency to separate the surface layer that is seen by the eye from the underlying substance, destroying the kind of integrity prized' by his subjects as himself.

Thus, he is hard on practices like Interior Design, which 'leave the real substance' that is structural fabric, marginalised. So, although this book shows the author's 'convincing evidence for suppressed traditions', that is why there is no Loos, far less Plecnik, who learned from that other 'Modern' tradition from Semper and Wagner onwards, which suggested a more nuanced and rich understanding of surface meanings.

The author lucidly explains (I compress his words slightly) that we do not live in a world of pure utility nor one of pure signs.A building is less than a text (the conventions of meaning being less securely established) and more than a text (it gaining meaning in relation to experience of use). Most helpfully for new students, a note at this point adds 'there was a vogue for referring to buildings as texts'.

And what, for a Modernist, could be worse than a vogue?

John McKean is a professor at Brighton School of Architecture

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