Modernist master

Despite the carping of anti-modernist reactionaries, Le Corbusier remains the greatest architect of

Le Corbusier Le Grand is doubly well named. First, the book is the size of two breeze blocks and notably heavier. It is, according to Jean-Louis Cohen, not a coffee-table book but the coffee table itself: all you need do is fit legs to it. Ho ho. But he has a point. It is the least wieldy book I have ever been propelled across a room by - it is 0.67m wide when opened, and demands a physical as much as an aesthetic will if it is to be appreciated. This is peculiarly apt, for Le Corbusier's buildings themselves require the attention of every sense you can think of and then some: they need to be swooned through. They are not comprehensible by intellect alone.

Second, this was a great artist, among the greatest of his century. And one who must evidently be judged by what he himself achieved rather than by the "influence" he supposedly exerted upon two or three generations of keen plagiarists, groupies who gave great forelock and dimwit thieves who, characteristically, stole everything but the gift. Why are architects so dismally and blatantly derivative? They are obviously unfamiliar with Montaigne's counsel that the copyist should disguise his sources by following the example of horse rustlers who "paint the tail and the mane and sometimes put the eyes out". It is, of course, at third or fourth hand, by way of these slavishly dependent and creatively stunted apes, that such thinkers as Simon Jenkins and the Prince of Wales, Tom Wolfe and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen have gained both their knowledge of Le Corbusier and the confidence to vilify him as though he were a genocidal despot.

He remains, more than 40 years after his death, the hate figure of tectonically blind anti-modernists, though one wonders whether they had eyes to put out in the first place: Le Corbusier was merely blind in one eye. And given that he was protean, a multitude of men, which one is it that is so abhorrent? It is, needless to say, one who didn't exist, the "Corbusian" architect of mass housing.

Despite what he himself claimed, he was not a utilitarian, not a functionalist, not a rationalist, not an anti-Romantic. The prescription that form should be determined by function is a nonsense that he toyed with in his writing but didn't practise: should form actually follow function, we would have Lequeu's dairy in the form of a cow or a brothel in the form of labia. Nor was he notably adherent to the contradictory shibboleth of form as an expression of structure. Many of his works betray no sign of his "five points". Further, he is hardly more "true to materials" than, say, the inveterate stuccoist John Nash was.

The problem is that both his detractors and his acolytes want to believe that his written manifestos, urbanistic visions, utopian ideologies and theories are compatible with his buildings. But as a writer he is hectoring, prone to crass slogans, naive, pompous and often resentful - a chippy Jura peasant who senses himself endlessly conspired against. His most direly celebrated epithet, that a house is a habitable machine, has been captiously held in evidence against him because it lends itself to being taken literally, though in sentiment it is unexceptionally Rus kinian and novel only in its bald expression. His monomaniacal 1925 Plan Voisin, which entailed the destruction of the Right Bank in Paris and its replacement with ranks of cruciform skyscrapers, was properly greeted with derision; perhaps not enough derision, for 25 years later its example would be coarsely followed by such architects as Boileau and Labourdette in such places as the all too "Corbusian" northern suburb of Sarcelles.

Le Corbusier, writer, has little in common with Le Corbusier, maker of the century's most profoundly sensuous, most moving architecture. They are different people working in different media. The one was a self-advertising propagandist whose schemes, Cohen astutely notes, were confected in the hope of becoming causes céèbres rather than as realisable projects. The other was an artist-craftsman of peerless originality. Still, the reflective genius and the brassy charlatan were probably needily dependent on each other.

His domestic buildings are nothing like machines. On the contrary, due to his instinct and sheer capacity for invention, they are bespoke one-offs. The overwhelming impression they leave is of sedulously fastidious workmanship: they are hand-made. The "machine aesthetic" is often cosmetic. Over and again the appearance of machine-production is achieved by hand and, further, with an apparent spontaneity - no doubt well rehearsed. What pretends to be dashed off is as much a process of trial and error as, say, Roger Excoffon's seemingly casual typefaces of the 1950s. Le Corbusier's art was an art of illusion and legerdemain. This, astonishingly, is as true of the then revolutionary, large-scale, raw concrete Unités d'Habitation of the late 1940s and 1950s, which housed more than 1,500 people, as it is of the individual villas of the 1920s - expensive, "purist", white and built for a clientele of what would now be styled "bobos". The jolt to the collective senses of these early works can best be understood by appreciating that the mainstream of France's architecture in the years after the First World War was even more retardataire than England's, trapped in an eternal belle époque.

This vast book is neither a biography nor a critical exegesis. Cohen's thematically ordered introductory notes are dry, brief and bereft of interpretative speculation which, given his subject's lavish gamut of eccentricities, religio-sexual peculiarities, hygienic obsessions and political improbity, indicates a laudable restraint. Tim Benton contributes even more cursory prefaces to the chronologically arranged album or scrapbook that occupies all but 30 of the book's 768 pages.

There is method in their terseness and lack of mediation. This is a sort of archive between hard covers. The browser can immerse himself in photographs (of buildings, fancy-dress parties, studios, lectures, scaffolding, travels, maquettes etc), subscription lists, paintings, diary pages, Malraux's eulogy, business cards, drawings and scribbles, exhibition posters, travel permits, cartoons, tapestries, postcards, illegible letters, plans and sections, advertisements, newspaper cuttings, pornographic sketches, perspectives, colour charts, sculptures and so on. It is formi dably wide-ranging - more than 2,000 items. Even so, it is obviously far from comprehensive. The editing is partial and programmatic. Its bias is gauged in such a manner to persuade us that Le Corbusier was a plastic artist rather than a theoretician, a dandiacal exquisite rather than a retentive Calvinist, a painter and sculptor whose practice of those disciplines fed his architecture. He was a considerable painter, if often reliant on the examples of his friend Fernand éger and on Picasso of the "neoclassical" period (fubsy women joyfully working out).

The sculptures he created in collaboration with the cabinet-maker Joseph Savina are formal experiments of the greatest beauty, which though made for their own sake informed much of his later building at Chandigarh and at the churches of Ronchamp and Firminy (which was only recently completed: it was duly and proudly exhibited on a postage stamp). It is also made apparent here that the natural and "primitive" forms - of humans, insects, caves, trees - that preoccupied him were incorporated into his work at a much earlier stage of his career than is conventionally acknowledged. The seeds of the postwar masterpieces were planted years before. He was making small-scale essays in what would, 20 years later, come to be known as brutalism from about 1934.

Le Corbusier Le Grand is a feast. A homage to a giant and a reproach to the midgets who decry him. Every page is dense with ideas. It is also a source book for the modern world. Buildings, of course. And the germs of things one would never have considered: the Colibri cigarette lighter, the Mitchell gyroscopic reel, the decor of 1950s coffee bars . . . Beyond them is all that is yet to come, all that will be born from this posthumously fertile compost.

A three-DVD box set of 13 of Jonathan Meades's television documentaries from the past 20 years will be available next month

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession