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By Charles Jencks. New York: Monacelli. 2000. [pound]35

Books about Le Corbusier arc like Beaujolais Nouveau: they come out every year. But this year's is exceptional: 380 pages amply illustrated with seductive black cover and very attractive size, weight and quality of paper.

Right from the first lines of the introduction we understand the originality of Jencks' book: showing, through the writings of L.C., the importance and the extent of his work, as an architect, a painter, a polemicist and homme de lettres, this last epithet being used by the artist himself on his French passport in 1930. So the conclusion is reached that he was the eighth genius of the twentieth century, after Einstein, Picasso, Freud, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi, according to the classification made by Howard Gardner who also writes that L.C. 'chooses the perfection of work above the perfection of life'.

At the beginning of the '70s, the publisher Delpire printed a small gadget designed as a key-ring titled 'the words of Le Corbusier'. Among these 'words' the one which struck me was the famous aphorism 'etre bien dans le sac de sa peau', Jencks' work reveals implicitly that L.C. always felt at home in his own shoes, in spite of the blows he had to face throughout his life.

Instead of considering L.C. as first and foremost an artist of genius, Jencks is trying to show him, first, as a man with his franc-parler and then continues his story in an intimate manner, showing the influences of his family, the relationship with his parents and more specifically with his father who considered 'Edouard' a rebellious and difficult character.

Those claiming that L.C. was not a visionary artist will reach a different conclusion when reading this book, discovering the richness of the quotations taken from some of the 57 books written by L.C. throughout his own career.

You discover the arrogance of Le Corbusier's resolutions, whom Jencks describes as a young polemicist already in 1914 (at the age of only 27 years old), after he left the new section of the school of art, founded in 1911 in La Chaux-de-Fonds.

L.C. then wrote his first pamphlet 'Un Mouvement d'Art'. According to Jencks, 'L.C. SUPERMAN' was revolutionary in four areas: architecture and planning, painting, furniture design, and theory of aesthetics.

Jencks supports his thesis with the help of the research of Allen Brooks, who rediscovered the manuscript, written in 1910, 'La Construction desVilles (which was illustrated with 150 drawings).

The author proves elsewhere the weaknesses of L.C. as an autodidact. He also explains how L.C. derives his own strength from that, by quoting his famous sentence 'LIFE BELONGS NOT TO THOSE WHO KNOW BUT THOSE WHO DISCOVER'. As a self-taught man, L.C. is deeply influenced by the esoterism of the 600 pages of Edouard Schure's book Les Grands Inilies given to him by his master l'Eplatenier.

But L.C. is also influenced by the reading of Nietzsche (according to Jencks he remained influenced all his life) and especially by his famous statement 'Burn what you love, love what you burn' which is recurrent in L.C.'s writings. We should not forget L.C's. reaction against his own master l'Eplatenier to whom he was to give lessons. (He treats him with absolute contempt.)

Jencks reveals the frantic ambition of L.C., especially after his first trip to Greece, where he discovers the 'terrible machine' of the Parthenon. The difficulty of finding big commissions in La Chaux-de-Fonds pushed him to look elsewhere, in particular towards industry, and from 1922, to realize perfect objects like the machines produced by industry.

Besides the sketches and the drawings, many unknown writings, rare and intimate, giving a deep understanding of L.C.'s thought, are covered by Jencks, giving a real psychoanalytic dimension to his work, as for instance, when he reveals L.C's. discovery of sex and ecstasy on Mount Athos. Jencks believes that after L.C. discovered the Acropolis and Parthenon he started using 'asymmetric' symmetry -- used already in the classicism of the style libre of 1900) for the design of the Favre-Jacot villa in Le Lode; he also thinks that this period of L.C.'s work influenced the Post-Modern Classicism of the '80s, but he does not prove it.

How, almost from one day to the next, did L.C. pass directly from Villa Favre-Jacot to 'Maison-domino' in 1914-1915 and how did he hope to make money from this patent, enough to fend for himself solely as a painter?

One of Jencks's achievements is to show us how L.C., right from the beginning in his La Chaux-de-Fonds period (that is up to the age of 30), has the determination and the will to become the greatest architect of the century. But Jencks does not prove that 'Edouard', as he sometimes calls L.C., reaches the same levels as PHIDIAS or MICHEL-ANGE.

In a few words (see p105), Jencks illustrates the title of his own book by showing how L.C., during more than five years, does not repeat the same ideas, and he compares him to Zarathustra's Superman. Then he shows how L.C. was influenced by Ozenfant who made him discover and accept cubism, and the real origins of the Modern Movement, in October 1920, with the first issue of L'Esprit-Nouveau.

The book also shows how L.C. draws strength from the modern streams, while remaining above the conflicts, and criticizing Russian Constructivism, as well as German Expressionism, accusing them of 'vicious ejaculations'. At this point, his uncompromising character is very sharply expressed by L.C.'s father's letters.

We learn how L.C. wrote, during the five years of L'Esprit-Nouveau, 10 000 words a month, and turned his articles into four major books heralding the International Style: Vers une Architecture, Urbanisme, L'Art Decoratif d'Aujourd'hui, and La Peinture Moderne.

Jencks demonstrates throughout his book the connections between L.C.'s work and his writing, and the influence of his reading and discoveries (like the EMA's Chartreuse). He also shows his intellectual utopias like 'the city of 3 million habitants' born from a joke, as the originality of the cosmic dimension of his architecture but also the witticism of his personality as: the monk and the scholar/the modern man and the naked man/the athlete and the searcher.

Jencks makes an excellent analysis of the Villa at Garches and the Villa Savoye. He even suggests that this work should be considered Expressionist in its rhetorical aspects. He shows too, in L.C.'s period of the '30s, the relation between his sketches of nudes and female bodies with his freedom of form, but also his rather functional perception of sex.

We learn a lot about L.C's love affairs, in particular with Josephine Baker, Marguerite Tjader-Harris and Minette de Silva whom he called the 'petit oiseau des iles', and later on with the journalist Taya Zinkin.

Here, we see him as rather naive and shy, and far from love crazed (probably from lack of time). But further on, his relation of the woman's body with nature and landscape are shown as his sensual inspirations.

Jencks's work naturally deals with the creation of CIAM, called by him 'the Vatican of Modernism', with his own rules, rigid as those of an academy. He also shows the attitude of L.C. during the Second World War, and incidentally his connection with Petain's Government, concerning especially his third plan for Algiers in which he tried to interest Petain.

But in 1942 he came back from Algiers where he narrowly escaped being arrested as a Bolshevik while presenting his masterplan and his famous skyscraper. He then broke for ever his ties with the regime and wrote 'adieux cher merdeux Vichy'. Jencks shows, then, L.C. as an artist who will not compromise his art for political ends.

After the chapter about Marseilles that frankly unveils nothing new, and even omits to mention the role of Claudius Petit, Jencks comes to Ronchamp which he considers an opening to fractal design, and the catalyst of Neo-Expressionism. Then he analyses La Tourette as L.C.'s self-portrait-building and finally comes to Chandigarh.

He makes an excellent criticism of the Open Hand monument, symbolizing L.C.'s return to sources through his influence of Nietzsche. There is also a very good criticism of the high court and its dysfunctions.

Jencks recognizes the presence of monumental space in the Capitol, comparable to a modern reinforced-concrete version of Fatehpur-Sikri. Despite that, the author cannot help showing a certain sympathy with the point of view of the MIT Boys. These strange 'soldiers' came from MIT to Chandigarh, two years ago, for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the city: they wanted to teach the Indians about densification of housing sectors, remodelling of road-systems, public transport and so on.

Finally, this book has the usual taxonomic method used by jencks where, reaching the end of the book, he recapitulates. In this case, he develops a new idea about, not the five points but the five languages of L.C.'s architecture:

naturalism and geometry/Art Nouveau at 18

regional Classicism at 25

purism at 31

heavy Brutalism and metaphoric Post-Modernism at 60

light proto-High-Tech at the end of his life.

All of this is related to one of L.C.'s secrets: painting and sculpture. Then follows a description of Renaissance man, of a dialectic creator, another specimen of Don Quixote, of Panurge and UBU.

The last chapter, in itself, is a remarkable, sharp and objective analysis, showing how the methods of L.C.'s work in his paintings and writings pushed him in a process of continual renewal.

His 57 books put him always in the situation of a prophet of twentieth-century architecture and forced him to reconsider the polemic and philosophical bases of his architecture.

If you want to know more about L.C., you have to read this very interesting book, especially the last chapter titled (modestly) 'Who was Le Corbusier?'.

Georges Maurios worked for Le Corbusier in Chandigarh
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Maurios, George
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2001
Previous Article:GRAND UNION.

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