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Le Corbusier, The Noble Savage, Toward an Archaeology of Modernism.

By Adolf Max Vogt, translated by Radk Donnell. London: MIT Press. 1998. [pounds]24.95

Since, at least, Picasso's appropriation of African Masks, low-life subjects and radical formalism, at the beginning of the century, Modernism has been explicitly (and paradoxically) fascinated by the primitive. Of course the oxymoron, 'noble/savage' which Rousseau played out in the eighteenth century, is one of the roots of this paradox that still occupies us today. What are the deep reasons for this contradictory formation? It is a virtue of Adolf Max Vogt's brilliant book, subtitled an 'Archaeology of Modernism' that we can now see many reasons for the conjunction: the alienation of the passionate intellectual in Modern Society; the need to go back to origins in order to be 'certain'; reculer pour mieux sauter; the need to outflank the Academy by being 'Future/Past' in a new way. Finally, as with so many conservative revolutionaries this century, such as T.S. Eliot, the need to 'revolve back to a better future' (the original meaning of revolution in the eighteenth century).

Many writers over the last 30 years mined this territory - Wolfgang Hermann, Colin Rowe, Joseph Rykwert - but no one has applied the idea so thoroughly to a single Modern Master. The book, a tour de force of imaginative reconstruction of Le Corbusier's mental landscape, proves its surprising insights beyond any doubt. LC's mind set was formed at five years old by playing with Froebel Blocks (soon we will find that Mies did too); perhaps in adolescence by reading Rousseau and about the primitive lake dwellers of Switzerland; in his twenties by visiting the wooden houses of Turkey; and at the age of 30, translating all these influences, into his Domino scheme, and the box-on-stilts.

The links between these noble and savage elements are criss-crossed with a skill that Sherlock Holmes would envy. Unlikely characters bubble up into the plot, such as Oscar Wilde's father, who brings in the Irish version of the box-on-stilts, the Crannog. The high point of the drama and analysis, is a close reading of LC's League of Nations and the book to go with it, Une Maison - Un Palais, 1928. Every page, like a Corb tract, bristles with insight and passionate questioning. Perhaps this is only possible for a dedicated Swiss, with some of the same hang-ups and background as the Master.

If there are problems they are ones of length and, occasionally, squeezing the evidence too hard. Less on 'The Swiss Lake-Dwelling Fever' would have allowed more on late Corb, about whom the author harbours such opposite passions. His redesign of The League of Nations President's Pavilion, to show why it had to be an example of 'slowed-down perception', while clever, overlooks much more obvious reasons for the ordering of motifs. A big cylinder in front would have blocked the view, and the proposed curve would have embraced the lake.

In spite of a few over-zealous readings, the study is destined to become both a cult-book for LC fanatics, and a departure point for future scholarship.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Jencks, Charles
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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