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Nature trail

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Nature and Space: Aalto and Le Corbusier By Sarah Menin and Flora Samuel. Routledge, 2002. 208pp. £27.50

Nowadays, by and large, it is their digressions from the Modern Movement, that we value in Modernist heroes. Something that is catered for both by the simple passage of time, revealing previously obscured connections and suppressed dissonances, and by the privileging of our own contemporary concerns as central issues in their stories.

However, if one thing is consistent in narratives of Modernism both past and present, it is 'nature'; that poor word which can now only exist in the protective clothing of inverted commas. In the preface to Nature & Space: Aalto and Le Corbusier, the authors write: 'The presence of God is felt in the writings of Le Corbusier and Aalto through their use of such words as spirit, harmony, unity and, it will be argued, nature.' In this book nature wears a full metaphysical jacket.

At first glance the book is a conventional exploration of the way constructs of nature have underscored so much of Modernism.

Here, this is the way Aalto and Le Corbusier linked the universality of nature that they experienced as children to the ancient canons of Classicism and, above all, conceived their work as 'participation in nature's ongoing processes'. (And how 'modern' those childhood landscapes of the Jura Mountains and Central Finland are:

extreme, pure and repetitive; how much easier to describe as an abstract essence than the intimacy and variability of the British Isles. ) But the authors see an urgency in Aalto's and Le Corbusier's concepts of nature and, correspondingly, their need to be creative.

They suggest that 'gaps' in both Aalto and Le Corbusier's childhoods, in particular with regard to their maternal relation, led them both to need nature and creativity as 'holding environments' that could stave off their crises and offer 'temporary salvation'. The basis for this is the development theory of Elizabeth Cobb, Anthony Storr and Donald Winnicott, which offers a great deal about the 'creative impulse'.

If the psychological theory is helpful, applying it to two long-dead men, as well as to a selective few of their buildings, is more problematic. 'Seem to', 'feasible', and 'may' pop up repeatedly; a lack of assurance reinforced by the limited and frequently unreferenced biographical instances that are mentioned. The biographies are scanty and their sources often close to the protagonists.

In Aalto's case the argument rests heavily on Göran Schildt, a close friend, briefly recalling a conversation with Aalto's son-in-law:

how reliable can that be? The unease is most marked in the way both the men's wives are reduced to passive ciphers.

Moreover, in not joining up their approach to other issues, the 'wealth of nuances' that the authors identify in Aalto and Le Corbusier is too easily passed over. Le Corbusier may have been fascinated with Orphism, but he was also fascinated by alchemy - and that did not make him an alchemist.

Aalto's childhood in the taiga is critical, but there is more to him, and Finland, than that.

Ironically, it is an all-encompassing zeitgeist that colours this text - despite its rooting in the ambiguities of the implicit and its reluctance to engage with anything explicit. Exaggeration and reduction in a single instance:

the way the grass is presently cut around the church at Vuoksenniska (1955-58) seen as a critical part of the design and which 'may also be seen as a sign of purification'.

Yet the approach does lead to some perceptive and incisive studies; the one of Ronchamp (left) stands out with its precise account of Le Corbusier's interpretation of the cult of Mary(s). Nor should the authors' argument be ignored - as they point out, while we are ready to accept the idea of Aalto and Le Corbusier's anti-rationalism, we still demand a raison d'être for their work.

Harry Charrington teaches at UWE Bristol

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