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The bigger picture

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Le Corbusier before Le Corbusier: Applied Arts, Architecture, Painting and Photography, 1907-1922 Edited by Stanislaus von Moos and Arthur Rüegg. Yale University Press, 2002. 322pp. £45

The early lives of the masters of Modernism have proved an attraction to scholars and interpreters during the past 20 years or more. Last year saw the exhibition 'Mies in Berlin' at MoMA New York, which will come to the Whitechapel this December, in which Terence Riley, Barry Bergdoll and others uncovered much new information about Mies both before and after Modernism.

The work was revisionist, or it would scarcely have been worth doing, but the result was to enrich understanding of the maturity of a great architect by showing how early he had established some of his themes, and how, because of his and others' later desire to present the work for certain purposes, information had been obscured or altered.

'Le Corbusier before Le Corbusier' was an exhibition staged this summer in Baden, Switzerland; it can be seen at New York's Bard Centre for Studies in Decorative Arts, Design and Culture from 22 November to 23 February. The catalogue, like the Mies book, is a permanent record of another master's beginnings, with thematic essays which illuminate the experiences of Charles-Edouard Jeanneret.

We have long since reintegrated the Swiss houses up to the Villa Schwob and the travel diaries into the bigger picture of Le Corbusier, following his own careful editing of this period.At least he was self-obsessed enough to preserve the documents that allow a detailed reconstruction, as in H Allen Brooks' Le Corbusier's Formative Years (AJ 27.11.97). This new book has the advantage of numerous colour plates showing drawings, paintings and furniture never seen before. Such discoveries in relation to so major a figure are exciting in themselves, and for those interested in the sources of creativity, they deepen understanding of an individual who, while wildly inconsistent, was never, for an instant, dull.

Stanislaus von Moos sets the scene with an opening essay, 'Voyages en Zigzag', taking its title from a light-hearted Swiss travel book of 1844, known to the young Jeanneret, which seems perfectly to describe his irregular movements from one set of extreme ideas to their diametric opposites.

Virtually all the ideas expressed by the Le Corbusier of the 1920s, about building construction, city planning or decorative arts, have their opposites in his ideology during the previous decade and a half. Given our greater awareness now of the extent to which he reverted back to some of these earlier positions in the 1930s, the 'zigzag' pattern is specially relevant.

Other themes run through more consistently. Francesco Passanti explores 'Proportion, Classicism and Other Issues' in ways which are helpful to our understanding of early 20th-century Classicism in France and Germany as a whole. Leo Schubert's essay, 'Jeanneret, the City, and Photography', explores the littleknown corpus of 550 of his own photographs preserved at La Chaux-de-Fonds, through which he explored his understanding of transitional spaces and relationships while travelling, and recreated them in his early buildings.

The focus of the Bard Graduate Centre on decorative art is one that might seem at odds with Le Corbusier's later repudiation of all that is conventionally implied in the term, but this was another form of 'zigzag'.

Arthur Rüegg's essay on one of Jeanneret's early patrons, Marcel Levaillant, is an excellent example of the insight available from detailed history at close range, recreating the atmosphere of cultured folk in La Chaux-de-Fonds.

Many of the items of furniture, light fittings and other one-off objects in the exhibition, were produced for Levaillant and his extended family. Like Jeanneret's buildings of the same period, these pieces are recognisably of their time, but can also be seen as his working models for identifying and resolving a number of different design problems.

City planning is discussed again in Antonio Brucculeri's essay, 'The Challenge of the 'Grand Siècle'', which places Jeanneret/Le Corbusier's interests in a context of historians rediscovering the traditions of French planning in cities and gardens. These are examples that should strengthen arguments in favour of a strong culture of architectural history as a source of contemporary creativity.

Le Corbusier before Le Corbusier is itself an exemplary piece of history in this respect. Teaching Le Corbusier becomes a kind of microcosmic architectural history syllabus in itself.

Alan Powers is an architectural historian

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