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

By Colin Roe and Fred Koetter
MIT Press
192pp PB

Flipping through this book, you could easily get the idea that its subject is urban planning. It’s full of diagrammatic views of cities, of the figure-ground type pioneered by the Nolli plan of 18th century Rome, a vision which lies somewhere behind the present project but is neither mentioned nor shown.

The real subject is competing ideas of the modern city. The approach is both polemical and philosophical, and highly dependent on wit to enforce its views. The two sides in the conflict are science and art, or reason and the imagination, though the book never puts it so crudely.

Le Corbusier is the enemy who bears the brunt of the attack: the ville radieuse is called the architectural equivalent of Woodrow Wilson’s war to end war, another tragically ridiculous phantasm. Corb’s Unité is defeated by comparison with Vasari’s Uffizi, as his Palace of the Soviets is by Perret’s and his Plan Voisin by Asplund’s Royal Chancellery. Much energy goes into thinking up insults; some readers may consider this unworthy, but in an important way it is appropriate.

For this is a passionate defence of the neglected ecstatic component of modernism, exemplified by Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Joyce and (possibly) Proust. The other side, dominant for architecture, includes Zola, HG Wells, Marinetti, Gropius and Hannes Meyer (a particular bugbear).

What is the solution recommended by the book? Collage, an ambiguous and intuitive form of organisation, embodied in the collisions of 17th century Rome, “a highly successful and resilient traffic jam of intentions”. But embodied even more powerfully by Imperial Rome of Constantine’s time, “the bricolage mentality at its most lavish”. The evidence? The famous model of ancient Rome dating from the Fascist period. Is this a final joke at our expense, or inadvertent sign that Rowe and Koetter are flagrant idealists after all?