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Josef Abram and others for Institut Francais d'Architecture. Paris: Editions Norma. 2000. FF495

During the first half of the twentieth century, Auguste Perret's architecture was even more prestigious in France than Le Corbusier's, Most English-speakers know about him and his brothers from Peter Collins's Concrete, The Vision of A New Architecture. That encomium came out in 1959, the year in which Auguste's widow gave the firm's archive over into public hands. For long it was inaccessible, and only since it came into the hands of IFA in the 1990s has it been properly addressed and inventorized. The result has been 40 years of little better than lipservice to the Perrets by almost everyone except Josef Abram of Nancy.

Now things are changing; a big exhibition is in prospect and monographs loom. But first comes the oeuvre complete -- a useful, beautiful but frustrating book. It might have been better to have saved it until the forthcoming brouhaha has been and gone.

The point about the three Ferrets (photographs of Gustave, Claude and the great Auguste larking about as young men inject some levity into an otherwise ponderous tome) is that they were not just architects but a design-and/or-build firm. They put up buildings to other people's designs and did not always construct their own. This causes havoc to the catalogue-based model of the oeuvre complete. The pragmatism of most of the Ferret drawings and dossiers is at odds with the format, so the editors have had to be very selective. They have however managed to indicate, for instance, the breadth of Auguste's correspondence, and the existence of an unfinished essay of 1940 in homage to Mussolini batisseur.

The book reveals how much of the Perrets' work does not fit the image of it that Auguste promoted and controlled. Things like their contribution to Ballu's Oran Cathedral, or the banal exterior of the famous Ateliers Estiers workshop, correct the old, too orderly picture of their inexorable reformulation of French classicism in terms of a language of trabeated concrete. Yet the show and the books to come seem unlikely to unseat any of the well-known icons of the Ferret oeuvre from their positions of prominence, or promote many of the new discoveries. In that sense, Auguste knew what he was about. Nor does the tone of the catalogue entries intimate, as yet, much new thinking. These too often take refuge in the tired old shadow-world of French 'rationalism', or look upon Auguste as a halfway house to Corb. Even the fine preface by Abram, which quite rightly asserts the pre-eminence of architecture in the Perret firm's priorities, is an old piece of work, rehashing an essay that appeared for English readers in Construction History for 1987. -Against this, there is a harvest of fresh information to be gleaned, if the reader has patience with the volume's rigidities.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2001

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