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Seeking solitude

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Le Corbusier and the Concept of Self By Simon Richards. Yale University Press, 2003. 296pp. £27.50

This is a disturbing book but with a compelling central idea: that Le Corbusier turned his back on society in a search for knowledge and an inner self. He spent every morning painting in his studio, although between 1923 and 1938 he exhibited none of this work. His interest in the individual can be seen in these paintings, in his motif of the hand and in the Modulor - a whole proportional system for building based on the individual.

Simon Richards looks at contemporary theorists Georges Bataille and Albert Camus, whose work Le Corbusier knew, and suggests that all three were seeking a spiritual sanctity by means of physical withdrawal from society. For the years in which other commentators have identified a spirituality in his work, circa 1947-53, Richards concentrates on Le PoÞme de l'angle droit - a cycle of poems and lithographs by Le Corbusier (see picture). This was a personal, internal quest based on Pascal and Jung, which Richards likens to the alchemist's reclusive search for gold, both in real terms and in the mind. Jung wrote of a special place for searching the soul, perhaps a tower (like Jung's own at Bollingen) or temenos, which Richards relates to Le Corbusier's city plans.

Le Corbusier's Ville Contemporaine and subsequent plans for new cities were not designed to create a more open, communicative society. They were planned so the individual could be alone, being intellectually creative or in some other way contemplating the spirit. Richards suggests that Le Corbusier felt nightclubs, cafes, restaurants and theatres to be good only for wasting time, swapping germs and fraying nerves. Sport was admitted because its rules were laid out and it was healthy. By reducing commuter time, people had more time to be alone. And the street, the centre of social intercourse, was eliminated in favour of the freeway where one is isolated within the car.

Interplay is necessary only for the economic and physical maintenance of the city, a limited form of civic pride.

Le Corbusier's plans form the basis of so much 20th-century town planning, yet Richards argues that Le Corbusier sought to build the antithesis of what most people wanted. Perhaps he retained something of the Swiss traditions of small-scale canton government and heterodoxy. Or was it just that he wanted a technocracy of one?

Le Corbusier became attracted to the idea of government by small guilds that were beneath capitalism and party politics, and were individual, progressive and violent.

This appears in his critique of American society, When the Cathedrals Were White (1937), and introduced him to the fringes of right-wing syndicalism. These extremists were prepared to overthrow the government by force, and Le Corbusier illustrates the riots of February 1934 as 'an awakening of cleanliness' in La Ville Radieuse (1935). In order to build his solitary city he joined the Vichy government's reconstruction committee, only to irritate everyone around him.

Le Corbusier did create something of the solitude he sought in, of all places, India.

Richards recalls being in Chandigarh for India's Golden Jubilee in 1997 and finding the streets deserted. He had to resort to watching the celebrations elsewhere on television. Now he understands why.

Richards forgets, however, that other architects of the inter-war years moved towards domesticated privacy, including that impeccable socialist, Raymond Unwin.

'We must give the individual a place in which he can live and meditate, retire from the bustle and noise of life, ' he wrote in 1926. And what a relief it must have been to escape one's in-laws, as Young and Wilmot recorded a generation later. It is only now that we are reinventing the gregariousness of the city.

Elain Harwood is an architectural historian with English Heritage

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