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On the mat

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Le Corbusier's Venice Hospital Edited by Hashim Sarkis et al. Prestel, 2002. 132pp. £16.95

Le Corbusier's Venice Hospital, in the enterprising Case Series studies of major projects from Harvard Design School, seems to spring from a couple of motives. One is to confirm the important role played by Guillermo Jullian de la Fuente, a young Chilean who led the commission in Corb's atelier and took it over after that fateful Cap Ferrat dip in August 1965; the other is to establish its credentials as a 'mat' building.

While Jullian's contribution emerges beyond doubt - not least because work continued before political upheavals intervened in the early 1970s - the second is rather undermined by a series of interviews where the ageing Jullian vehemently denies it was a mat building at all.

Much of the problem lies in the concept of mat building, but insofar as the book offers a definition, it seems to come from republishing Alison Smithson's paper of the early 1970s, 'How to Recognise and Read Mat Building'. Not the least extraordinary part of that extraordinary woman's output, it reinforces the view that nothing precise came out of Team X, and has that note of lapidary assertion, based on no reasoning whatsoever, which characterised their pronouncements.

But Harvard did not become the western world's pre-eminent academic institution by gagging at the odd paradox, contradiction or false hypothesis. And as 'How to Recognise and Read Mat Building' actually credits Jullian alongside Corb, it is not surprising that these latterday seminarians went into the sort of angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin routines that kept so many of their predecessors out of trouble for centuries.

With help from editor Hashim Sarkis and Timothy Hyde's paper updating Smithson's, we can identify some of the characteristics which might be associated with mat building.

Coming out of revisions of the CIAM orthodoxy, they depend on programme rather than function; they have osmotic relationships with their surroundings; they layer activities on top of each other; they depend on the repetition of a standard though flexible unit.

The urge to mat might be seen in Llewelyn-Davies Weeks' Northwick Park Hospital or van Eyck's orphanage. If Smithson made Candilis Josic Woods' Free University plan in Berlin the ur-mat, Sarkis et al want to make Venice Hospital the uber-mat.

It was certainly an extraordinary project.

Situated close to the railway station and road terminus, it synthesised water, vehicle and pedestrian transport, keeping to the roofline of neighbouring buildings and replicating, to some extent, the patchwork of alleys, courts and canals which make up Venice's urban fabric. Its repeated element was a treelike structure, with a system of clerestories and reflected light in the wards, and its most famous image shows a 'modulor' body lying beneath it - as Pablo Allard points out, rather like Carpaccio's painting of St Ursula which Corbusier sketched in his notes.

It is no coincidence that this form of light has become the orthodoxy in gallery design. At once specific and open-ended, the hospital allows flexibility within a frame, and suggests the interaction of the collective rather than the dogma of an individual.

There is enough documentation in the book to appreciate the project, but the manic urge to claim it as a mat building does militate against a thorough understanding of the hospital within Corb's oeuvre. Certainly, it seems to come from his ambiguity towards Team X, and their assassination of CIAM, but there is virtually nothing on its relationship to other late Corb masterpieces such as La Tourette or the Carpenter Center (which is, after all, on the authors' doorstep).

An explanation might lie in the latent assumption that mat is the concept of the future. And with faculty member Rem Koolhaas and alumni Foreign Office Architects designing projects which are corralled into the same canon, there may be an element of selfserving here. So read it for an insight into the rarified world of the Harvard Design School, rather than its exposition of Le Corbusier or what passed for the ideas of Team X, unless you fancy serious dialectical contortions.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher at South Bank University

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