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Reviews | Documents + Events

Le Corbusier: Toward an Architecture (1924)


Introduction by JEAN-LOUIS COHEN
Translated by JOHN GOODMAN
Texts & Documents, Harry Mallgrave, Series Editor
Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, 2007
347 pages, illustrated
$24.95 (paper)

Le Corbusiers seminal work, first published in


October 1923, has been available in English since
1927, but this is the first scholarly edition of the book
in English, newly translated by John Goodman, with
full academic apparatus and a magisterial seventyeight-page introduction by Jean-Louis Cohen. As
such, it is a noble addition to the groundbreaking
Texts & Documents series, edited by Harry Mallgrave,

which has made a major contribution to our understanding of architectural theory.


Like most editions of Vers une architecture, this
one is based on the second, revised edition of
December 1924, in which Le Corbusier broke with his
associate Amedee Ozenfant, eliminating him from
the authors credit and the books dedication. Le
Corbusier made a number of textual and photographic changes at this time, adding more images of
his own work and removing some of Perrets work,
and these changes are scrupulously noted in this
edition, along with the identification of many of the
illustrations used in the book. Another major
advantage of this edition is that every effort is made
to maintain the original page layout and the juxtaposition of text and image.
Jean-Louis Cohens introduction sets the book
in context, analyzes its arguments, and discusses the
foreign editions and the reception of the book
worldwide. Part of the context involves Cohen usefully explaining the aims and character of the avantgarde journal LEsprit Nouveau, in which all but one
of the chapters of Vers une Architecture were originally published between October 1920 and May
1922. Cohen also demonstrates how Le Corbusier
operated as an archivist in the book, bringing
together images and documents that summed up ten
years of teaching, design, travel, and apprenticeship.
Cohens meticulous research has uncovered much
information about Le Corbusiers process of collection and collage, illustrating many of the manuscript
pages on which changes to the book were made and
layouts planned.
Le Corbusiers rhetorical power depends in part
on shock value, and Cohen takes us into the kitchen of
Le Corbusiers rhetorical cuisine, revealing his process
of selecting and juxtaposing illustrations and the frequently startling relationship of text and image. This
extended to the architects careful editing of the text
as well and Cohen reminds us, for example, that the
formulation for A house is a machine for living in in
the first edition used the word demeurer (reside)
instead of the more democratic habiter (live in).

Journal of Architectural Education,


pp. 7480 2008 ACSA

Cohen also demonstrates how Le Corbusier and


Ozenfant manipulated photographs to suit their
arguments, painting out, eliminating, and cropping
inconvenient elements in images of such iconic
buildings as the Parthenon and St. Peters. He reveals
the importance of Ozenfants contributions to image
choice and aesthetic preferences and documents
their disagreement over the second edition. Cohen
also brings out the importance of the trip
Le Corbusier and Ozenfant made to Rome in August
1921 in converting him to the power of Roman
antique architecture and Michelangelos St. Peters. It
is even possible that the three essays published
between January and May 1922 in LEsprit Nouveau
(numbers 1416), forming the section entitled
Architecture, were an afterthought and not part
of the original plan, although Cohen does not
consider this.
Of equal importance, Cohen explains
how Le Corbusiers arguments are rooted in French
and German theories of the nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries from Auguste Choisy to Hermann
Muthesius. Although he refused to be bound by
the theory of structural rationalism as, in his opinion,
his master Perret was, the importance of this theoretical work on the architects thinking is now fully
evident.
Cohen provides us with a detailed and illuminating history of the various international editions,
as well as an insightful digest of the fortuna critica.
The varied opinions of Frank Lloyd Wright,
Sir Edwin Lutyens, Michel Roux-Spitz, Marie Dormoy,
Walter Gropius, and Marcello Piacentini locate the
book deliciously in the international arena. The
sincerest form of flattery is also documented as
Cohen shows the debts that Andre Lurcxat and
Moisei Ginzburg owe to Vers une architecture in their
own books.
Towards a New Architecture, translated by
Frederick Etchells and published by John Rodker in
London in 1927, is roundly criticized, of course. The
mistranslation of the title, the misleading new
introduction, the omission of certain passages, the

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garbled renderings of certain key words, and the


poetic freedom which Etchells allowed himself are all
correctly taken to task. For example, Etchells renders
the word volume in French as mass, making
nonsense of one of Le Corbusiers most famous slogans: Architecture is the masterful, correct and
magnificent play of volumes brought together in
light. The cumulative effect of these changes was to
contribute to the widespread misunderstanding of Le
Corbusiers work in England and the United States in
the 1930s.
John Goodmans translation is scholarly and
well attuned to Le Corbusiers language and its literary sources. In a fine translators introduction,
Goodman takes us through some of his translators
headaches, such as the words ordonnance and
modenature (he finds reasonable solutions to both
of these).
Those who know the old English edition by
heart will mourn some of the panache of the original.
For example, where Etchells puts: Our modern life,
when we are active and about (leaving out the
moments when we fly to gruel and aspirin) has created its own objects, Goodman has: Our modern
life, that of all our activities except taking chamomile
or linden tea, has created objects. Etchells takes the
liberty of translating lheure du tilleul et de la
camomille in terms of sickness (gruel and aspirin),
whereas any Frenchman would associate drinking
a soporific tisane with going to bed. Or again, where
Goodman makes us struggle with we are rotten from
art confused with respect for decor, Etchells tries to
help the reader out with: we are in a diseased state
because we mix up art with a respectful attitude
towards mere decoration. Goodman is correct, and
there is no substitute for presenting the original text
as closely as possible to how it is written, but if this
edition becomes the English language standard, we
will all have to work a little harder to understand it.
This new edition renders an invaluable
service in bringing renewed and close attention to
the book Reyner Banham described as one of the
most influential, widely read, and least understood

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reviews | documents 1 events

of all the architectural writings of the twentieth


century.
Tim Benton

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