I was familiar with the architectural master, Auguste Perret, through my studies in the history of architecture, but I did not have anything like a proper appreciation of him until I read this new book about him. I recalled him as being praised as a pre-cursor of modernism, and the first to exploit reinforced concrete fully as an aesthetic and structural material. Looking through two histories I have on hand, Pioneers of Modern Design by Hitchcock, and A History of Architecture by Kostoff, I see that he is allotted a few paragraphs, there are pictures of his most famous building (church at Raincy) and then on to the triumphs of the modern movement, particularly Le Corbusier, who studied under Perret, revered him, but also criticized him. It seems that there are few books about him in English, which is why this new Phaidon text is so welcome.
In fact, the criticism went both ways because Perret was not a “modernist,” he was a classicist, and a builder in a very traditional sense. He was a craftsman in concrete, and his buildings are exquisite – I would love to live in one of them. (Perhaps being an engineer, I am closer to his mentality?) He was not at all entranced by Corbu and Mies, and those people – that wasn’t architecture in his eyes. Phillip Johnson relates an annecdote about taking Perret to see his very famous Glass House in Connecticut (…just a chimney over which I draped a thin skin of glass and steel frame…) Shheeesh! Not architecture for Perret! PJ asked if Perret would like to go inside and look around. He replied, “What for? I can see everything from out here?” He was similarly abrupt and caustic about other “modernist masterpieces.” Here was a man who knew what he was about!
Looking through the book I was floored by the sheer beauty of his interiors and facades. I had expected to see intriguing and pleasing designs that were “rational” and “modern,” but his are ravishing, i.e., they are detailed, and lovingly designed – ornament is carefully used to great effect, and the entire impression is one of austere, disciplined, voluptuousness – emphasis on the austere. The tension between the sensual beauty and the intellectual purity of the designs – the spiral stairway shown below is a good example – is a marvel. It reminds me of my favorite authors, Flaubert and Calvino, and their Olympian mastery of tone.