Autumn 2005

Le Corbusier’s hand in book design

Le Corbusier: Architect of Books

By Catherine de Smet
Lars Müller Publishers, £28

I have a distant cousin, an Australian architect. He called the family dog Corbu after his great hero. If he had known that Le Corbusier’s copy of Don Quixote was bound in the fluffy hide of his own pet hound, he might have found another name. This macabre fact points to the eccentricity of the most celebrated architect of the twentieth century. He produced nearly as many books as he had buildings built: almost 50 between 1912 and 1960.

When he is noticed by graphic designers, it is for the cover of one of these, Des canons, des munitions? Merci! Des logis . . . svp [Guns, ammunition? No thanks! Housing . . . please]. In Le Corbusier: Architect of Books, the cover appears three times. But such an example of Le Corbusier’s graphic work is as peripheral as the dog to his lasting importance. It is the use of type and images in his books which is one of the unnoticed lessons of twentieth-century design. He described it as, ‘This new conception of a book, using the explicit, revelatory argument of the illustrations, [which] enables the author to avoid feeble descriptions: facts leap to the reader’s eye through the power of imagery.’

Le Corbusier: Architect of Books resurrects this aspect of his legacy. In the process it touches on some of the most interesting aspects of European Modernism. Catherine de Smet gives a good account of Le Corbusier’s publications, well summarised by an early crosshead as ‘a sprawling, composite output’. An artist as well as architect, his style moved from the flat colour and crisp contours of Purist still-life paintings in the 1920s to a free draughtsmanship of heavy symbolic forms such as the famous open, uplifted hand repeated in architectural magazines and in vast mural designs.

Swiss by birth and training, Le Corbusier adopted France as his home in the first decade of the twentieth century. His books were published in France, and their Gallic bricolage contrasts with the severe Swiss Modernism of the volumes of his published buildings in the Oeuvre complète, exemplified in the volume designed and edited by Max Bill just before World War II.

De Smet states that Le Corbusier distanced himself from Modernist typography. She makes no mention of his time alongside Walther Gropius in the studio of Peter Behrens, identified by design historians as the ‘inventor of corporate identity’. It could be argued that his graphics are truly in the spirit of Bauhaus functionalism. In common with the German avant-garde, he took not only images but also graphic methods from the popular press, breaking continuous text with small illustrations.

Four spreads from a little-known book, Aircraft, illustrate Le Corbusier’s rare venture into anything looking like modish Design of the mid-1930s, when he was associated with weekly illustrated magazines such as Vu (see Eye no. 26 vol.7).

In contrast to Aircraft, also in 1935, the book-architect published and financed his most substantial achievement, the 350-page La ville radieuse [The Radiant City]. Turning the pages of this book – although the English edition loses much of the original character – is enough to take the reader back to a time before the colour images of current architectural visionaries, when black and white could express the inspiration of an idea.

De Smet illustrates Le Corbusier’s design method with several examples of pasted-up layouts and lists the early books’ ingredients vividly: ‘pell-mell, photographs of animals, buildings, everyday objects, clippings from newspapers and sales catalogues, cartoons, old-master paintings, scientific diagrams and so on.’ How they were so effective is left to the reader to judge, since the words in most of the reproductions are too small to read, and the captions go only as far as identification and date. The reader should surely be told that the famous spread from Vers une architecture (Towards a New Architecture) showing the Fiat factory with its roof-top racetrack opposite a picture of a pipe illustrates the final pages of the book, and ends with the rallying cry, ‘Architecture or revolution’, and the final line, ‘Revolution can be avoided’.

There is a complete inventory of Le Corbusier’s books and illustrations of his work for magazines. Not mentioned is his cover for Graphis in 1957, an issue that marked a turning point for Swiss typography: the long article on the architect was the first in the magazine to be typeset in a grotesque font and the first to be laid out in the ‘Swiss’ style. De Smet points out that Le Corbusier’s books after the 1940s owe their plainly French style to one of his disciples, the country’s leading book designer – and amateur architect – Pierre Faucheux, (see Eye no. 19 vol.5). Indeed, Faucheux laid out the Corbusier issue of Architecture d’aujourd’hui which she illustrates.

The colophon says that Le Corbusier: Architect of Books – 128 pages – is an excerpt from a larger work. This is good news. The functionalist graphic explanations of his Utopian dreams deserve one, and Catherine de Smet has shown that she knows her stuff. In the meantime Lars Müller, in making so many of the key works of Modernist graphic design so elegantly accessible, has put us further in his debt.

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