Old guard's happiness in an age of confusion

The CIAM Discourse on Urbanism, 1928-1960 - Le Corbusier
December 14, 2001

Kenneth Frampton's book on the life and work of Le Corbusier joins an already-saturated catalogue of books on this subject, none entirely satisfactory. The real strength of this book, which depends mainly on the work of established Le Corbusier scholars rather than new archival sources, is that Frampton has been able to make sense of certain periods of Le Corbusier's life in a way that has eluded some other authors. Of particular interest is his account of the League of Nations competition followed by an analysis of Le Corbusier's connections with the USSR and his other political involvements.

Unlike Frampton's book, The CIAM Discourse on Urbanism by Eric Mumford fills a very important gap in the body of published material on the history of the CIAM, the Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne, which had such a momentous influence on 20th-century architecture. Here is an account of events as documented in the CIAM archives, supplemented by other material revealing the ways in which CIAM members were themselves biased. Mumford's ability to set the development of the CIAM within the entire context of its period is impressive.

The description of the post-war years, Team X and its role in the eventual dissolution of the CIAM, is of special note. According to the mythology of the CIAM espoused by, for example, Frampton in his classic Modern Architecture : A Critical History , Team X reacted against the "modified functionalism of the old guard" - yet, paradoxically, Team X's work continued to be visibly influenced by Le Corbusier, who was the "old guard" personified. Mumford notes that Peter Smithson, one of the founders of Team X, was shocked at the way in which "the wonder" of Le Corbusier's Ville Radieuse plan had ceased to have an impact on the CIAM in its latter years; evidently Smithson still held one particular member of the "old guard" in great esteem. Mumford offers no simple explanation, preferring to preserve the often-messy and contradictory strands of the CIAM "discourse" and allow readers to draw their own conclusions. At such moments, more critical input from Mumford would have been welcome to help make sense of confusing events.

Architectural historians have been slow to pick up on the discussion of methodology that is so central to other fields. Many are very suspicious of anything that smacks of political correctness, preferring ostensibly impartial common-sense history couched in supposedly accessible language. Although Frampton and Mumford fall into this category, reading between the lines it is soon possible to detect certain biases at work.

Frampton evidently feels more comfortable discussing the rational and material sides of Le Corbusier's work than the spiritual and philosophical. These latter receive rather desultory treatment near the end of the book where we suddenly learn of Le Corbusier's interest in alchemy. This misses out some essential steps in explaining and situating Le Corbusier's spiritual viewpoint, for example his reading of Henri Provensal's L'Art de Demain and Edouard Schuré's Les Grands Initiés : two books that were of great importance to the young Le Corbusier. Instead, the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement is emphasised.

Fundamental is the architect's obsession with numerical harmony, a subject inadequately addressed by Frampton. Le Corbusier spent many years developing the Modulor, his system of proportion based upon measurements of natural phenomena, readings of Plato and Pythagoras and their followers and other more contemporary sources of inspiration such as engineering. Ostensibly created to facilitate mass production through the use of standard measures, it had other rather more significant, if obscure uses. For Le Corbusier, places and buildings built to Modulor proportions could influence their environment and help men to regain contact with nature and one another. The Modulor would thus "create happiness in an age of confusion".

Mumford too appears to be uncomfortable with the more arcane side of Le Corbusier's work. He writes: "Throughout the 1920s, the architect maintained that he was a political technocrat." But in his best-known work, Vers une Architecture (1923), Le Corbusier clearly stated that "architecture goes beyond utilitarian needs". Architecture was the use of "inert materials" in the creation of "certain relationships" that "arouse emotions" - clearly not the words of a technocrat. In a similar vein, Mumford's book does not fully acknowledge the place of ancient history and philosophy in the proceedings of the fourth meeting of the CIAM that took place, like a pilgrimage, upon a boat sailing from Marseilles to Athens. For example, it omits to mention a special publication in celebration of this congress, L'Art en Grèce de Temps Prehistoriques au Debut du XVIIIe Siècle (1934), edited by the journalist Christian Zervos with contributions by Le Corbusier, Amedee Ozenfant, Fernand Léger and others, and the stated intention of chronicling "the history of Greek life, and the history of their art, in other words, the secrets of our own lives".

Both of these books are often difficult to read because they contain so many lists of names, places and buildings. Frampton states that his book is aimed at "the informed general reader" and "graduate students in architecture and art who have need of a primer in order to pursue studies in depth". While his style is generally straightforward, he is occasionally guilty of using a complicated word where a simple one might do. He likes "existential", but I suggest the word has no application to either Le Corbusier or his ideas and might easily confuse the average British architectural student who often has a minimum of basic cultural knowledge. Another fault is that he does not seem to have done an up-to-date literature search, since the most recent article cited in the bibliography is dated 1987. In recent years, research into Le Corbusier has opened up considerably with ground-breaking work by Jaime Coll, Peter Carl, Judi Loach and Luisa Martina Colli, none of whom is mentioned. But Frampton's name and the competitive price of this well-illustrated book will ensure its success.

Mumford's book, by contrast, is mainly meticulously researched and an invaluable resource for others working in the field. The seemingly endless lists of names and places will be of real use. The archive photographs of the CIAM discussions are fascinating and evocative; and he is to be particularly commended for providing clear details of the locations of the archives that he uses. My chief regret is that he did not himself interview the people actively involved in the movement whom he quotes. Many of them are still alive and have memories that need recording.

Flora Samuel lectures at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University.

The CIAM Discourse on Urbanism, 1928-1960

Author - Eric Mumford
ISBN - 0 262 13364 4
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £30.95
Pages - 375

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