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Thursday31 July 2014

Building a Library 42: Vers Une Architecture, by Le Corbusier

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Robert Harbison picks 50 books that should feature in any architectural library.

Vers une architecture
By Le Corbusier, 1923
(first English translation 1927).

It’s a curious irony that this iconoclastic tract has become such a fixed monument that it inspires many contemporary readers with the desire to knock it down.

First among its tiresome traits are maddening repetitions. The introduction announces the main themes, which become the chapter heads. It is worse than that, for all the paragraphs of the introduction are saved for re-use. Each of them appears later, alone on the page like a poem. Separated this way, they do read like poems, and against their wills readers find themselves almost memorising them.

Memorising Corb’s best paragraphs would be fine, except that like the rest of the book the slogan-infested sections are an entangled mixture of the absurd and the profound. He is sure that we need to start over from the beginning. “The problem of the house has not yet been stated correctly.” He keeps saying this, making us want to sweep away all that wasted thinking, until we twig that he is happy to leave it like that, at least for now, rather than stating the problem properly himself.

Corb is a problematiser: What is the house? What is the room? What is the chair? He has answers to these questions, and in each case the definition is like stripping the decoration from wall surfaces inside and out: it tells you what each of these entities is not.

The illustrations form a separate narrative. Justly famous are the juxtapositions of details of the Parthenon and the latest airplanes and autos, many of which look antique by now. Le Corbusier is obsessed with this building. His responsiveness to the spaces of the Acropolis, and his beautiful photographs of its stone surfaces are some recompense for sitting through his dictatorial pronouncements on subjects like which room we should get undressed in.

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