In September 2008, Deborah Nagan and I got married. It was an extraordinary occasion; my wife does not do ordinary very well. There were two tents erected in our friends’ walled garden in Dorset, one for the guests, and one to house the kitchen. One event at the wedding, which caused much delight was the arrival of the cake. It was a perfect 1:50 scale model of the Villa Savoye, perhaps the most notable of Le Corbusier’s Parisian villas. Our wedding was marred by torrential downpours and the tent leaked. Quite apposite – most of Corb’s roofs leaked. It was a perfect cake for the two of us and; as Mr Bicknell will testify, it was delicious, although heart-breaking to cut.
Deborah and I love the architecture of Le Corbusierm and his influence can be detected in most of naganjohnson’s work, as it is with many modernist architects in current practice. Fashions move on, but but architectural style from the early 20th century retains its appeal. There are famous photos of his Parisian villas with modern (at the time) cars on the drive. Today the cars look quaint and dated – the villas remain staunchly up to the moment.
My wife and I have more than Le Corbusier in common: we both admire mid-century furniture (Eames, Knoll, Nelson), music by the American minimalists (Glass, Reich, Adams) and the abstract expressionist art of Rothko. In the eighties, she went on to like David Sylvain and Scott Walker whilst I was listening to the house music coming out of Chicago and Detroit.
I mention this because there is a thread which runs from the early modernist architecture to the music of the late 20th century techno pioneers. Legend has it that the house music took its giant leap forwards in Chicago and Detroit, when Frankie Knuckles bought a Roland TR-808 drum machine from Derrick May to underscore his tracks. This allowed a rhythm to be the structure, which allowed the form of the music to ‘float’ above it. In the same way, in post WWI domestic architecture, engineering allowed frames of steel and concrete to free up the internal form.
But techno was more than a beat and, whilst the movement seemed to come from out of the blue, there was a social and political background to the sounds. It was more than the shock of the new and the esprit nouveau was felt across the US as well as in Berlin, Paris and London. So it was with the birth of the Modern Movement in architecture, but with structure rather than the beat.
The context in which Le Corbusier, as well as the other architectural pioneers working at the time, was one of environmental pollution in major cities, the desire to lift buildings above the unsavoury ground plane, and more societal shifts following WW1 and later WW2. In her book ‘Women and the Making of the Modern House: A Social and Architectural History’ Alice Friedman makes a good case that the re-thinking of how a modern house could be ordered and look would not have happened without the menfolk being away at war, leaving women to have, for the first time, the chance to brief their architect.
Thus, the over-decorated, status enhancing priorities of pre-war houses gave way to more practical forms where light, air, flow of spaces and the elimination of unnecessary ornamental clutter were given central stage.
Sainte Marie de La Tourette is a Dominican Order priory on a hillside near Lyon, France designed by architects Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis and constructed between 1956 and 1960. Photo: Fondation Le Corbusier gonzález/weissenhofmuseum
There were plenty of architects keen to rise to this challenge, but the most dynamic was Le Corbusier. He recognised that there was an inter-relationship between all the visual and dramatic arts. He colluded with the post-Cubists in his paintings and sculpture, he designed furniture for his houses. With the artist Amedee Ozenfant, he formed the Purist movement which stressed clarity, serenity, and economy of means, typically creating still lives which reduced objects to flat planes of neutral colour within a rigid architectonic framework. In 1919 Ozenfant and Le Corbusier founded the avant-garde review L’Esprit Nouveau in which they explored the sources and directions of contemporary art. And In 1958, the French composer Edgard Varèse, working with Le Corbusier and his assistant, the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, created a music soundscape for the Philips Electronics Pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels.
Église Saint-Pierre, Firminy, 1960 – 2006
Photo : Olivier Martin-Gambier 2008
© “Conception, Le Corbusier architecte, José Oubrerie assistant (1960-65) Réalisation, José Oubrerie architecte (1968-2007)”
His architectural ideas were far-reaching, but at the start of his career, he established the international style, centred around the ‘cinq points de l’architecture modern’:
Pilotis – simple columns lifting building above the ground;
Roof terraces – flat roofs allowed their use as gardens, pools, even childrens’ playgrounds;
Free façade - with the structural frame, external walls were no longer load bearing;
Free plan – with the domestic availability of the use of framed building, plans could become freeform;
Horizontal windows - enabled windows to bring light further, and more evenly, into the interior.
The key was pilotis. The five points are enabled only by the advances in structural design. Corb lived in a Paris which was overcrowded, smog-filled, unhygienic and with scant provision of open space. His dream was to lift buildings above the ground an allow parkland to flow under and between buildings. On a micro scale, he put basins in every room, as he was so obsessed with cleanliness.
He was a prolific designer, and produced such varied masterpieces as the Ronchamp Chapel, the Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles (if you are ever in the area you can stay there) and the new town of Chandigarh in the northern Indian state of Punjab.
Weißenhofmuseum im Haus Le Corbusie Photos Fondation Le Corbusier gonzález/weissenhofmuseum
One of his earliest housing projects was at Pessac in 1920. The village was decaying and the good elders decided that a new broom was necessary. They called upon Le Corbusier, with his bright new International Style, to replace the village houses with a new Quartier Modernes Fruges based upon the cinq points. Gone were the local vernacular trimmings which were reminders of an unsanitary past. In came the DoMiNo house with white stucco walls, large curtainless windows and flat roofs.
The villagers did not understand that they should change their attitudes towards dwellings and embrace the new spirit. Over the following decades, they added to the structures: back can the traditional window boxes and balconies, flat roofs were replaced with pitched tiled roofs. Walls were clad in stone or painted in local colours and terraced enclosed.
In his later years, Corb decided to revisit Pessac, to the chagrin of his office. He was escorted around the adapted estate in silence. At the end of the tour, he stopped, turned to his followers and said: ‘You know, it is always life that is right and the architect who is wrong’.
The lesson of Pessac is that if the structure is strong enough, then the architecture can survive accretions and extensions without losing its basic form. To an extent, the Georgian Terrace has also proved this. Le Corbusier was a great, life affirming artist and architect – a genuine twentieth century renaissance man. It would please him greatly to know that his influence remains valid in the 21st century, not only in cake design.
It is testament to both Modern Architecture and to Techno/ House that are still with us, looking and sounding valid, possibly scarily so. No movements have surpassed them, and they are not seen as out dated. Maybe something will come along to make them less relevant (I sort of hope so). But the structure is strong enough to last.
Michael Johnson naganjohnson.
Le Corbusier’s design of the building began in May, 1953 with sketches drawn at L’Arbresle, France outlining the basic shape of the building and terrain of the site. La Tourette is considered one of the most important buildings of the late Modernist style.Photos Fondation Le Corbusier. Weißenhofmuseum im Haus Le Corbusie 2nd images “gonzález/weissenhofmuseum“