Temples of Desire: The French Pavilions of Art Deco

Architecture of Commerce

Selling Art Deco

From Spring to Fall of 1925, The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris captured the attention of Europe and visiting dignitaries from America. Like the decade itself, this Fair was both forward looking and backward glancing. After the Great War, there was a general desire to return to normal, to “order,” as Jean Cocteau put it. What the writer, and other commentators who shared his sentiments meant, was a turn towards conservativism and caution. The Twenties was a decade of consolidation in the French art world, a digestion of the troublesome avant-gardes of the pre-war that had to be tamed and recycled as “modern art.” Designers, however, faced more complex challenges. Their bête-noir was Art Nouveau and its now old fashioned elaboration. After a terrible war, such decadence seemed obscene and such exuberance became unbearable in a new age of machines. Kenneth Frampton described Hector Guimard’s famous Métro entrances, which marked the Paris subway stations in these terms: “Constructed like the Crystal Palace out of interchangeable, prefabricated cast iron and glass parts, Guimard created his métro system in opposition to the ruling taste of French classical culture…Guimard’s system flourished, emerging overnight like the manifestation of some organic force, its sinuous green cast-iron tentacles erupting from the subterranean labyrinth to support a variety of barriers, pergolas, maps, hooded light fittings and glazed canopies. These surrealistic ‘dragonfly’s wings’—to quote a contemporary critic—received a mixed, not to say chauvinistic, press, the verdigris colour of their iron supports being regarded as German rather than French.” Frampton was describing one of the three types of entrances designed by the artist–the delightful “dragonfly.”

By the 1920s, the time of such flights of fancy had passed. Art Nouveau and its attachment to nature were simply out of step with the Machine Age. Guimard himself noted, “Nature is a great book from which to draw inspiration..Having myself undertaken this study, I discovered three principles which should have a dominant influence on every architectural work: logic, harmony, and feeling.” When he spoke in 1902, a naturalistic design for the Métro entrances was precisely what the Parisians needed. As Marianne Ström noted in her book, Metro-art in the Metro-polis, “The underground has long been synonymous with anguish, fear, and repulsion. It evokes images of funerals, the dead, and hell-fire, sanctuaries (Lascaux and Altamira) and sorcerers.” She could have added the fact that, in Paris, the underground was an ossuary, the graveyards of millions of unknown city dwellers from hundreds of years. Guimard’s entrances were a welcome touch of beauty that would have welcomed tentative visitors to the new mode of travel. But after the war, such superstitions were stripped away and the public accepted the mechanical and technology, even under the earth. Slowly, one by one, Guimard’s one hundred forty-one lovely passages between light and darkness were removed and it was not until the late 1970s that their artistic value was recognized. Only eighty-six remained after the frenzy of modernizing in the 1960s and 70s.

In Architecture of France, David A. Hanser noted that “..Guimard created a new style in which modern, unconventional materials (iron, steel, brick, glass block, glazed tiles) were used openly and mixed with traditional materials, and in which asymmetry predominated..To some, Guimard’s ‘Metro Style’ was modern; to some it was nightmarish; to others, it represented bad taste..” Also very modern in 1901 was the fact that “Guimard’s entrances were made from a kit of relatively few prefabricated parts of cast iron that could be assembled in a wide number of variations.” Despite the advanced materials and building techniques employed, the entrances, as the author pointed out, caused controversies. Guimard was from Belgium, and the French took a dim view of such a foreign invasion and the architect bowed out of the project by 1902. The Art Nouveau stations themselves continued to be built until 1913, but after the Great War, in ten years, the world had changed and a new style, a rejection of Art Nouveau–Art Deco–arrived.

It should not be assumed, however, that Art Deco was a wholesale rejection of the past. Far from it, Art Deco philosophy rejected its near relative, Art Nouveau, but looked back to a very specific time period for inspiration. As Jared Goss, the historian of French Art Deco noted, the Art Nouveau artists were themselves not particularly good craftspersons and did not understand the relationship between art-for-art’s-sake and mass production. The style became a statement of luxury for the few but could not be easily refitted for broad consumption. According to Goss, “..the commercial failure of Art Nouveau was a national embarrassment, as other nations seemed able to succeed at expanding into a wide consumer based without sacrificing quality. Art Deco Designers rejected the sacrifice of quality for the sake of “art” at the expense of execution and “looked back to the preindustrial past, when guild-trained artisans, with their combined mastery of conception and execution, set international standards for excellence in the applied arts. Because the last generation of artist-craftsmen lived during the reign of Louis-Philippe, many designers chose to relate their own work to that style, although some looked also to the earlier eras of Louis XV, Louis XVI, the Directoire, and the Empire. Indeed historical connection became central to the mission of the Art Deco designers.”

One of the foremost designers was Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann (1879–1933), who, by 1920, shook off the heritage of the past and moved out of Art Nouveau and into Art Deco. While he had been influenced by the arts and crafts movement in general and Art Nouveau in particular, he criticized its mode of production, saying, “A clientele of artists, intellectuals, and connoisseurs of modest means is very congenial, but they are not in a position to pay for all the research, the experimentation, the testing that is needed to develop a new design. Only the very rich can pay for what is new and they alone can make it fashionable. Fashions don’t start among the common people. Along with satisfying a desire for change, fashion’s real purpose is to display wealth.” In other words, despite the apparent luxury of Art Deco objects, each object was designed for mass consumption, or, at least, for educated consumers. In addition, it should be pointed out that Art Deco designs, with their simple lines and geometric aspects, were far better suited to being manufactured than the complex configurations of Art Nouveau. The straightforward shapes of the “moderne” also lent themselves to a “downgrading” of materials used so that the Art Deco “look” could move down the economic chain, so to speak, and attract the vast and lucrative middle-class market. Ruhlmann pointed out that “Whether you want it or not, a style is just a craze. And fashion does not come up from humble backgrounds.” In other words, the designers and the objects in the various French pavilions were intended to educate the public, advertise a new style, and sell merchandise. The Fair was an opportunity to educate the French public–potential customers–on the superiority of Art Deco as modern “taste.”

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The organization and arrangement of the Fair’s shops, holding an extensive range of merchandise, were laid out in vertical lines, suggesting, to the contemporary eye, an outdoor shopping mall. As the Panorama of the Place des Invalides suggests, a magic carpet of shopping meccas, spread out at the feet of the Fair goers, all to tempt them to shop and to be informed and to learn about the latest styles from famous designers. Christopher Green explained, “In 1925, as in 1900, the middle class were the dominant force in French society; it was they, especially the lesser middle classes known in the 1870s and 1880s as the ‘new strata’ who brought back to power the Radicals in the 1924 Left coalition, the ‘cartel des gauches,’ after half-decade of right-wing dominance in the Chamber from 1919, and brought back with them the rationalist libertarian values of 1900-1914. Indeed, the 1925 Exhibition is one testimony to a mid-twenties desire to remake the image of a new modernity the Belle Epoque, imagined as a time of realized ambitions and sated appetites..” The importance of the “lesser middle classes,” who “worked with their hands” and “aspired socially” was the consumer base for the Art Deco artists. In Art in France, 1900-1940, Green explained that the pavilions appealed to “..the lesser middle classes (who lived in) scaled-down versions of the comfortable households of the bourgeoisie rich. It was its lavish appeal to this kind of social emulation that made of the 1925 Exhibition a popular as well as élite success.” The major sites of desire were the pavilions of the leading department stores of Paris–each structure dedicated to the targeted consumer, females with discretionary income, considered the prime customers of these temples of fashion, art, and design.

In their book on Art Deco, Victoria Charles and Klaus H. Carl discussed the extensive layout provided for the French buildings in the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes.“The French section comprised two main areas, almost perpendicular to each other, one of them marked by the Seine between the Pont de la Concorde and the ALms Bridge, the other one, leading alongside he Avenue Nicholas II, the Alexandre III Bridge, and the alley bisecting the section cutting across the Esplanade des Invalides from north to south. On the quays of the right bank of the river and the Cours-la-Reine, the visitor would successively encounter the foreign and the French pavilions, then the French Village and the colonial pavilions. On the left bank, some more pavilions, miniature toys presented in a model village, the transport gallery, and the amusement park. On the Esplanade, symmetry, and variety, order and life, obtained by an extremely considered arrangement of buildings, predominately assigned to France. Lastly, in order to connect the two parts of the Exhibition, separated by the Seine and for fear the public would not be tempted to cross from one bank to the other under the summer sun, the Alexandre III Bridge was transformed, from two lines of shops into a kind of Rialto. It was, like certain bridges of the Middle Ages, a street spanning a river..”

The four pavilions of the four great departments stores of Paris were wedged into four corners of the Esplanade des Invalides. The Pavilion for the Printemps department store celebrated the fame of the establishment which had arisen from the urban renewal project of Baron Georges Haussmann in the 1860s. In 1865, the founder, Jules Jaluzot, surveyed the new terrain of Paris and selected the 9th Arrondissement as the site for his new enterprise. A former employee of Le Bon Marché, Jaluzot understood the importance of foot traffic and recognized the convenience of being near the Gare St. Lazare and the covered “passages” or mini malls of the Grandes Boulevards. From the beginning, one of the characteristics of Printemps would be the huge display windows, reminiscent of the old fashioned markets on the streets. The “store” was really an assortment of buildings, starting with a building on Boulevard Haussmann and expanding to several other adjacent structures, all of which were destroyed by a fire in 1881. The original “stores” were expanded when rebuilt, rebounding to greater elegance. Under Jaluzot, the newest department store in Paris, became the most innovative, initiating the idea of a “sale” (les soldes) of older merchandise. Customers were offered a bouquet of violets on the first day of spring and, in the windows, elegantly dressed mannequins–an art form in and of themselves–wore the latest fashions. With the new owner, Gustave Laguionie, who purchased the store in 1905, came more innovations. Laguionie topped the main building with a stunning dome, complete with a terrace. Today it is still possible to sit on the roof terrace and have a meal while surveying all of Paris. The famous dome of the original Printemps roof was made with reinforced concrete, which incorporated glass creations by the artist Réné Lalique. In 1912, another much-copied innovation for Printemps was begun when René Guilleré, the founder of the Société des Artistes décorateurs, suggested the firm initiate a department dedicated to displaying and selling artisanal objects and unique furniture pieces. These art works would be designed by the most fashionable designers of the day, including Guilleré’s wife, Charlotte Chauchet, who would go on the design the interiors for the Pavilion in 1925. Faced with a second fire in 1923 that destroyed the Art Nouveau façade, spiral staircase, and mosaic tiles with their flower motifs were destroyed, Laguionie rebuilt the famous dome, reconstructing it as a stained glass masterwork, again by Lalique. And the “Printemps Haussmann” had another innovation to present: special displays for Christmas in the windows, which were now thought of as sites for installations of merchandise arranged with the care of a museum curator. The notion of holiday window displays was quickly copied by New York department stores.

The Pavilion for the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925 had to be a celebration of the survival and renewal of Printemps, rising like a phoenix from the fires, an advertisement for the first department store to display furniture and design. The architects were as famous as the store itself: Henri Sauvage (1873-1932) and his collaborator Georges Wybo, was was the chief architect of the store itself. Sauvage had been one of the pioneers of Art Deco architecture but also excelled in functionalist architecture and in decoration. He and the architect of the Le Bon Marché Pavilion used the cast iron support columns of the station at Les Invalides which was under the building to support the structures above. As the book, The Architectural Drawings of Henri Sauvage: Architectural works, c. 1905-1931, reported, “Given the fragility of the Invalides Station roof on top of which the building was erected, its was necessary to bear the load on the existing supports by means of reinforced concrete girders carrying the cantilevered pavilion posts.” The Pavilion was dominated by a remarkable frustoconical “dome” that expanded outward from its clipped-off top, enabling the architects to encompass the entire template allotted to them by the officials of the Fair. In fact, as Victoria Charles and Klaus H. Carl pointed out that the architectural use of “..reinforced concrete dominated the event.” They added that while architects had used concrete in a utilitarian mode, it could “assume, on the contrary, a certain elegance. Even if the Exhibition did not help the new concept of construction progress on a technical level, the date is marked in the history of its diffusion. It accustomed the eyes to its bond spans, its simple shapes, and its large cantilever overhangs. It established its recognition.”

The dome, which quoted the one on the store itself, was built by the Etablissements Perret Company and made of vitreous cement, manufactured by Jean Séailles and his partner Eugène Freyssinet. This kind of cement was a relatively new product, used by Séailles to coat the sides of the Printemps swimming pool in the store’s Salon d’Automne. L’architect magazine of 1925 described the process: “In order to occupy the maximum volume, the architect has ultimately been required to completely fill the imposed template. The result was a very simple envelope which was very richly coated with precious materials. Indeed, all the bases are executed in vitrified cement called “Lap d’Or” of which we have already seen a first application in the Spring Pool. The cement designs are nipped with filaments of gold drowned in the mass and crowned by a cornice with a mosaic of black and gold sandstone. The reinforced concrete roof lined with straw compressed in its lower part, to maintain the freshness of the premises in summer, it is covered with large glass lenses cast, executed by Lalique and giving a little impression of big pebbles with a general tone light chamois. Light hidden concealed fireplaces throw their fires on the facades and the cover.” The magazine elaborated further adding that René Lalique, the artist-decorator, designed “the reinforced concrete roof lined with compressed straw (solomite) with colored glass lenses resembling pebbles.” The effect, as the magazine suggested, was as if colored stones were shining from a journey tumbling down a stream of rushing water. The book on Sauvage described the “gold and black mosaic tiling cornice” made by Gentil and Bourdet and that the wrought iron main door was made by Mozer. The author and editor, Jean-Baptiste Minnaert, noted that “at night the facades of the pavilion were spot-lit.” The book’s section on the Pavilion continued, “The Pavilion did not always get good press. Criticism was leveled at the lack of harmony between the openings requested by the Primavera studios and the interior decoration, decided upon later. The interior layout program, the home of a great artist, was a disconnected suite of juxtaposed rooms. The Pavilion has since been demolished.”

As is evident, the Pavilion was the work of many hands and many designers, all brought together to create a striking and controversial building which, if nothing else, had been created to attract attention. The design or designs were exquisitely elaborate and it is doubtful if any of the artists were familiar with the idea of ornament as a “crime.” Alphonse Gentil and François Bourdet, who designed the elaborate tiles for the cornice were architects, classically trained at the School of Fine Arts in Paris and yet they were also entrepreneurs, who created their own company in 1901, Gentil, Bourdet et Cie, creating exterior embellishments in sandstone and ceramics. Their intention was clearly architectural elaboration and the pair began as Art Nouveau designers, as did many of the other designers, who worked on the Pavilion. Although Gentil was Algerian, Bourdet hailed from Nancy, the capital of Art Nouveau, where both artists were well-known crafters of Art Nouveau vases. With the greatest of ease, after the Great War, they shifted their designs towards Art Deco. The point is that the department store pavilions were all small jewel boxes masquerading as architecture. Given that all the artisans, who collaborated on this and the other structures for les grands magasins were veterans of Art Nouveau, they were not part of the new generation which eschewed ornament. The outsides of these glittering gazabos of shopping promised rooms full of the most fashionable and desirable wonders—a lure that the plain white walls of Le Corbusier were incapable of achieving. Fabrienne Fravalo wrote in 2009 in an article entitled, “Primavera, the Art Shop of the Printemps Stores,” that the theme of the Pavilion was the “house of an artist.” He noted that, in comparison to the contributions of other department stores, this pavilion was very original, so much so, it was disparaged as being a “hut,” because of the cone shaped roof. But this “hut” was encrusted with precious decorative coatings, not to mention the huge planters overflowing with draping flowers. As Fravalo wrote (in translation) for L’historire par l’image:

Evoking a temple, this unusual building houses an interior that is both modern and refined, designed according to the wishes of Spring and that of an artist. Its design made by the different workshops of Primavera contrasts rather strongly with the exterior aspect, as shown by the view of the vast living room. All the furniture in this room meets a spirit of modern comfort: the wide divan, the carpets with geometric motifs, the small coffee table with clean lines, the piano on columns where a large lamp with the shade pleated. Inviting to contemplation and aesthetic reverie, the art objects arranged in this reception room accentuate yet the elegant and refined atmosphere. The interior layout of the Primavera pavilion, a true demonstration of the creative possibilities of the Spring workshops, also clearly reveals the guiding principles of the department store: to offer guests a harmonious, comfortable and designed as a whole. Thought differently according to whether it is addressed to a man or a woman, the decoration also takes into account his profession: the 1925 pavilion thus corresponds to the dwelling of a male artist. The decorators pay as much attention to the furniture as to the accessories: from the wallpaper to the lamps, to the glassware, ceramics and statuettes, all the elements are important.

The conceptual juxtaposition of Le Corbusier’s all white undecorated Pavilion at the Fair and the fully dressed and “clad” department store pavilions pointed to a contradiction in terms within the practice of architecture itself. If one follows the reasoning of Mark Wigley in his famous book, White Walls, Designer Dresses. The Fashioning of Modern Architecture, the color white, which “dressed” the walls of “modern” architecture, was related in concept to the reform dresses and to the simplified designs with sharp edged cuts by radical designers, such as Coco Chanel. But in rejecting ornamentation and decoration and period styles, the radical architects also insisted that they were rejecting changeable fashions. But Wigley, following the trail of references dropped by the architects in their writings, saw a “psychosexual economy of fashion” buried in the subtexts. In addition to refusing to use ornamentation and decoration and references to the past, the modern architects were rejecting color or polychrome exteriors as form of “clothing” or a “cloaking” of the surface. As is known, the unadorned surfaces of the modern buildings of the architect Adolf Loos shocked the Viennese public with their “naked,” meaning unclothed or “undressed” exteriors. For many observers of the older generation, a “naked” building was obscene and scandalous, akin to a nude body walking down the street.

Le Corbusier preached the superior “morality” of white as a chaste and pure color but Wigley commented that the “..whole moral, ethical, functional and technical superiority of architecture is seen to hang on the whiteness of its surfaces.Although white surfaces were put forward by modern architects as superior to decoration and polychromy, Wigley argued that the insistence upon white was a “very particular fantasy. it is the mark of a certain desire, the seemingly innocuous calling card of an unspoken obsession.” If one accepts the notion that white architecture, such as Le Corbusier’s Pavillion L’Espirt Nouveau at the Exposition, was the architectural the equivalent to putting on a plain but beautifully tailored crisp white shirt, then the Pavilion of Printemps was a statement of fashion and decoration and other marvels that appealed to (female) fantasies of accumulation and acquisition of adornment. While the architect dons a white shirt and wears a black suit, the female consumer changes her outfit every day and follows changing styles devotedly. The contrast in attitudes towards fashion is a gender dialectic that was played out in the built environment. Le Corbusier was so disturbed by the excesses of Fair architecture and the unbridled decoration of Art Deco that he wrote L’art décoratif d’aujourd’hui (1925) in protest, putting forward his opposing philosophy. But these four department store pavilions at the Paris Fair had to be “clothed;” it was necessary for them to be wearing the latest styles. In contrast to the wealth of display on the outside–the contributions of many designers and artists–a white building displays a prim hygiene.

As Wigley noted, “The white surfaces that traditionally mark cleanliness do just that, they mark rather than effect it. The whiteness of supposedly hygienic spaces originated with the garments and cosmetic powders that were periodically changed in order to take sweat of the body out of sight but not remove it. Putting on a new shirt was equivalent to taking a bath… Cleanliness was the visual effect that marked one’s membership of a social class rather than the state of one’s body. The look of hygiene was a kind of label that classifies the person who wears it.” The Printemps Pavilion wore its exterior decorations like a collection of metaphors, all signifying the interior contents which collectively were advertising a modern way of life for a very modern and aware individual, the artist who is always on the cutting edge, a denizen of style.

All images courtesy of Wikipedia.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

The Postmodern in Architecture

POSTMODERN ARCHITECTURE

In America, Postmodernism, as an art form, was first manifested in architecture, arriving as a new discourse about architecture as early as the 1960s. It is important to note that this discourse was architectural and not philosophical, although philosophy enters into the precincts of architecture by the 1980s. In the 1960s, it would be more precise to refer to the new thinking in architecture as anti-modernist or anti-International Style. In a very real way, the reaction against the forced invasion of tall glass buildings into traditional neighborhoods was paralleled by Robert Rauschenberg’s exploration of the urban landscape around Pearl Street and his interest in the “vernacular.”

One of the early harbingers of Postmodern thinking was a remarkable book written by Jane Jacobs Death and Life of Great American Cities, written in 1961. Jacobs sounded the death knell of the Utopian dreams of Modernist architecture in which the architect thought s/he could save the world by razing the organically developed city and building a new urban world. The result of such architectural destruction, however well-intentioned, was a ripping away of urban fabrics and the neighborhoods that made cities live. Jacobs recommended an ad hoc, spontaneous approach to a more natural growth in contrast to urban planning that had paid no attention to the human life of cities. Jacobs began her section on “The Need for Aged Buildings” saying,

Cities need old building so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them…A successful city district becomes a kind of ever-normla granary so far as construction is concerned. Some of the old buildings, year after year, are replaced by new ones—or rehabilitated to a degree equivalent to replacement. Over the years there is , therefore, instantly a mixture of buildings of many ages and types, This is of course, a dynamic process, with what was once new in the mixture eventually becoming what is old in the mixture.

A decade later, in 1972, Learning from Las Vegas was published. This work of a trio of architects, Robert Venturi,his wife Denise Scott-Brown,and the late Steven Izenour, called attention to the vernacular landscape and insisted upon the importance of the surrounding environment to architecture. His demand that architecture come down out of its ivory tower and to take note of the ordinary urban experience in the 1960s comes at the same time as Pop Art was dominating the art world. Venturi’s preference for the ordinary and his attention to the world—the environment—surrounding the building stood in stark contrast to the stance of Modernist architecture, also called The International Style. As the couple wrote,

Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect. Not the obvious way, which is to tear down pParis an d begin again, as Le Corbusier suggested in the 1920s, but another way is more tolerant: that is to question how we look at things. The Commercial Strip, the Las Vegas Strip in particular—it is the example par excellent—challenges the architect to take a positive, non-chip-on-the -shoulder view. Architects are out of the habit of looking non judgmentally at the environment because orthodox modernist architecture is progressive, if not revolutionary, utopian and puristic; is dissatisfied with existing conditions. Modern architecture has been anything but permissive: architects have preferred to change the existing environment rather than enhance what is there.

In its quest to develop an architectural style suitable for the new materials and new conditions of the new twentieth century, modernist architecture turned its back on the past. Architecture of the nineteenth century had been an architecture of eclecticism, as exemplified by Charles Garnier’s Paris Opèra, dripping with past styles. It was an article of faith that modern architecture had to eliminate all of the surface ornamentation that crusted over the buildings. Austrian designer Adolf Loos famously characterized ornament as “crime.” Therefore, a building by Mies van der Rohre demonstrated that “less is more,” by stripping architecture to acts of construction/structure and by placing stress on the activity of making/building. “God,” as Mies would say, “is in the details,” in the precision of the angles and in the rightness of the materials. Mies was famously focused on corners of his steel-caged buildings.

Modernist architecture followed the thinking of Modernist painting—truth to materials, a focus on intrinsic properties, and an elimination of extrinsic aspects, such as decoration or ornamentation. Modernist architecture, in its pure whiteness ignores the environment and is independent of its surroundings. A building by Le Corbusier, such as Villa Savoye (1928-29), stood alone, aloof from its surroundings, majestic in its reductive purity. The Villa stood alone, surrounded by a green field rimmed with trees and it took in the environment through its long rectangular windows on its own terms. Like a sculpture the building was lifted, as if being placed on a pedestal, on pilotis, or columns. Modernist architecture was designed to make a statement of modernity, of newness, to dominate the aging landscape, to make a statement of difference. Modernist architecture is avant-garde, new, free of the past.

But the utopian dreams of Modernism had to confront the realities of the human inhabitants of the modern buildings. Modernist architecture before World War II was mostly manifested in private domestic homes, designed for discerning clients, such as the Villa or the homes for the Masters of the Bauhaus. However, after the war, modernist architecture became the International Style and there was enough money to build these very expensive glass and steel skyscrapers, such as the Seagram Building (1958). Awash in post-war profits, the corporations and their architects could realize the grand utopian dream of modernism—reform of the cities. But here is where Modernism theory began to fail in the face of reality.

Le Corbusier’s mass housing project (1949-1952) in Marseilles, unité d’habitation, was a prototype, not just for post-war mass housing but also for the New Brutalism (brut) style, due to its use of raw concrete. Mass housing was an efficient way to house the large numbers of people who lived in worked in major cities. Rather than leave individuals to their own devices or rather than allow the city to grow organically, the modern city and its buildings must be planned for purpose and located conveniently. Corbu, the master was reportedly dismayed when the people who lived in his exemplary work imposed their own needs upon the pristine building, as manifested by their varying uses of the exposed balconies. By and large, people made their peace with the idea of the roof of unité d’habitation being their outdoor landscape but the infamous Pruitt-Igoe Complex (1954) in St. Louis did not have a happy ending.

Conceived of as a place to house lower class populations, the buildings were unloved and were subjected to physical assault on the part of the residents. Remarkably the architects George Hellmuth and Minoru Yamasaki had won awards for their work. Today the buildings remain as a potent memory, standing for the failure of modernist architecture and modernist arrogance that good architecture was good for society. According to architectural theorist, Charles Jencks, the implosion of Pruitt-Igoe was the death-knell of Modernist architecture and its attempt to wipe out human nature and the vestiges of the past and the history of architecture. As Jencks stated, in a famous proclamation,

Modern architecture died in St. Louis, Missouri on July 15, 1972 at 3:32 p.m. (or thereabouts) when the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme, or rather several of its slab blocks, were given the final coup de grâce by dynamite. Previously, it had been vandalized, mutilated and defaced by its inhabitants, and although millions of dollars were pumped back, bring to keep it alive (fixing the broken elevators, repairing smashed windows, repainting), it was finally put of its misery. Boom, boom, boom.

The age of Postmodern architecture was brief one, dating roughly from 1970 to 1990 or from 1980 to 2000, depending on your source. In one of the most ironic and tragic coincidences of the modern era, the total destruction of another set of buildings is said to have closed the postmodern era when the World Trade Center—once again with Minoru Yamasaki as the architect—was destroyed. Precisely why Postmodernism lay beneath the ruins is two-fold. First, the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers ended the sense that the West was the impervious center of the world and ushered in a realization of global conditions. Second, the modernization and rebuilding of Lower Manhattan by city planner Robert Moses and the Rockefeller brothers and the building of the World Trade Center was the quintessential act of Modernist arrogance and disregard for the organic city. As architectural critic, Paul Goldberger pointed out, after the site was rebuilt,

…it was Jacob’s via of the city, not Yamasaki’s or Austin Tobin’s or Robert Moses’s, that eventually prevailed in New York and in much of the rest of the country. It had become common wisdom, long before the towers were destroyed—so ouch so that it is hard to believe that he twin towers could have been built as they were had the project begin only a few years after it did. It is unlikely that all the streets in the sixteen-acre site would have been eliminated; it is unlikely that the efforts to preserve Radio Row would have been so completely ignored by public officials; an fit is unlikely that Yamasaki’s design would have been considered exempt from public reviews.

But whenever Postmodern architecture ended, it did end and today these buildings bear the distinct marks of what Postmodernism refuted—a signature style. In addition to a particular look that emerged over time, which will be discussed in the next post, Postmodernism in architecture was also an attitude or a particular approach to the built environment. Postmodernism always attends to history, unlike Modernism which broke firmly with the past. A building by postmodern architects would be a postmodern ode to history, bringing together architectural styles without regard to time period or consistency.

Postmodernism looks back and accumulates the fragments of the past and recombines the shards, rebuilding out of ruins, and creating an allegory, which is Postmodernism’s major characteristic. Even though the element was re-placed in a postmodern structure, each element of the allegory re-found by the architect retains its historical meaning. The result was not a revival, nor was it eclecticism, nor was this strategy a mere homage to the ghosts of architecture past. Architecture of the Postmodern persuasion was an allegory that constituted a reading of a building which now functioned as a text for a knowledgable audience. Steeped in irony, bereft of idealism, Postmodernist architecture was an insider’s theoretical architecture and it was precisely that ironic attitude that collapsed with the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

See also Charles Jencks. The New Paradigm in Architecture: The Language of Post-Modernism. 2002

Paul Goldberger. Up From Zero: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York. 2005

(Link to Learning from Las Vegas: http://www.tenbyten.net/vegas.html Ironically the Las Vegas that the architects wrote about no longer exists)

 

 

De Stijl Architecture

The Search for the Absolute: The Architecture of De Stijl

Beyond the paintings of Piet Mondrian, the other manifestation of De Stijl that has imprinted the memory of the art world is its distinctive architecture. Indeed, it was architecture that caused the most disagreement among the artists. From 1922 on Theo van Doesburg devoted himself to the cause of a modern architecture appropriate to modern times. With the primary painters, Bart Van Der Leek and Mondrian, drifting away, van Doesburg sought to promote De Stijl primarily in terms of the built environment. In fact it was through architecture that De Stilj finally became known in Europe through exhibitions in Paris and Berlin. Associated with the Bauhaus, van Doesburg made sure that his architects were presented as part of a wider effort in Germany and in Russia to revolutionize architecture. Sadly, the efforts of all of these architects would be halted by the Second World War. Still the De Stijl architects managed to build a few private homes and two notable attempts at small public buildings.

The absolutism inherent in De Stijl could be linked to the practical in architecture, that is, mass-produced elements allowed architecture to achieve a uniform, stripped-down reduced look. The idea of a modern architecture, or what we would call “modernist architecture,” was already in the wind. In his book, Art in Vienna, Peter Vergo stated, “Only in the buildings of Adolf Loos, with his disdain of elaborate ornament, does one find he beginnings of a wholly modern style in architecture…” Loos himself insisted in his famous 1908 manifesto, “Ornament and Crime,”

It is easy to reconcile ourselves to the great damage and depredations the revival of ornament had done to our aesthetic development, since no one and nothing, not even the power of the state, can hold up the evolution of mankind. It can only be slowed down. We can afford to wait. But in economic respects it is a crime, in that it leads to the waste of human labor, money, and materials. That is damage time cannot repair. The speed of cultural development is hampered by the stragglers. I am living, say, in 1912, my neighbor around 1900, and that man over there in 1880.

Loos, as Le Corbusier remarked, “…swept the path before us. It was a Homeric cleansing: precise, philosophical, logical. He has influenced the architectural destiny of us all.” From Vienna to Paris, Loos waged war on architectural eclecticism and the baroque assemblage of meaningless ornamentation torn from its original context and piled into a mass of decoration. Clearly, architecture in the nineteenth century was mired in the past and it was the task of modern architects to define modernist architecture. Van Doesburg had long been concerned with relationship between painting and architecture.

“When everything has been expressed on the present level of painting, new aesthetic potential will emerge therefrom for extending the scope of expressive possibilities,” he stated and continued, “…a monumental cooperative art is what the future holds. In this new form, various spiritual means of expression (architecture, sculpture, painting, music and literature) will be universally realized…”

While Van Der Leek rejected any such connection between painting and architecture, the idea of applying absolutism to both art forms seems logical. In fact, although he insisted that painting had to be an independent medium, Mondrian could envision that with NeoPlasticism “…the abstract real…or picture will disappear as son as we transfer its plastic beauty to the space around us through the organization of the room into color areas…” Van der Leek made the distinction between the powers of NeoPlaticism in painting to dissolve the materiality of “naturalism” and architecture, which was characterized by “the space-restricting flatness…” Without debating whether or not the characteristics of the De Stijl style could be applied to architecture or not, it is more helpful to understand that the artists were trying to create a new form of architecture for a new world.

Like Adolf Loos, who had traveled to New York, the De Stijl architects were impacted by architecture in America, a new country that was erecting new kinds of buildings. Some of the architects associated with De Stijl were followers of Frank Lloyd Wright. Anti-monumental anti-ornamental architecture had to be in keeping with character of city streets and new building materials, both of which were geometric for the sake of efficiency. Architects such as Van’t Hoff were inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright in America. In fact, Robert van’ t Hoff had worked for Wright and his Huis-ter-Heide, in its turn, inspired Gerrit Rietveld. Wright’s Prairie Style of flat roofs over long low structures seemed especially suitable for the flat landscapes of Holland. But, most importantly, Wright opened up the closed spaces of the Victorian structure into what is called today “the open plan.” He also made sure that his early work was responsive to the surroundings and this is where Wright and De Stijl would ultimately separate. De Stijl sought, not the local, but the absolute, and its buildings make no concession to their environment.

As architect J.P.P. Oud said, “Though the importance of a work of art can only be judged from an absolute point of view, the significance of an act can only be appreciated according to a relative standard.” For his part, Oud proposed use of mass production for limited number of standard types that would be a new urban architecture with a “form follows function” philosophy. However, the most famous De Stijl work of architecture was the well-known Schröder House by cabinetmaker Gerrit Rietveld, and this home was thoroughly individual. Still, the Schroder House uses certain elements of mass architecture to its advantage: reinforced concrete over steel. Rietveld collaborated with his client, Madame Truus Schöder-Schrader and completed her Utrecht home in 1924. Thanks to modern construction, this house could fulfill van Doesburg’s 1924 Manifesto on architecture, demanding the “elementary, economic, functional, formless, unmonumental, asymmetry, afrontality, and anti-decorative.” According to van Doesburg,

“The new architecture has broken through the wall and in so doing has completely eliminated the divorce of inside and out. The walls are non-load-bearing; they are reduced to points of support. And as a result there is generated a new open plan, totally different from the classic because inside and outside space interpenetrate.”

Therefore, architecture is anti-cubic, anti-symmetrical and anti-gravitational, the elements float and hover. Despite the connections between van Doesburg and the attempts in Russia and Germany to rebuild the world, De Stijl architecture is uniquely Dutch, ironically, because it translated Mondrian’s principles into architecture. In distinction to the uniformly whiteness of Weisenhofsiedlung, De Stijl buildings were white, with the floating exterior white planes augmented with red, yellow, blue and black trim. The weightlessness of the floating sections is countered by the grey stucco on other segments. The bold use of blocks of color is even clearer inside the Schröder House compared to the all-white interior of its contemporary, the Villa Savoye by Le Corbusiner. Rietveld, the furniture maker, absorbed furniture into the house with built-ins and fashioned sliding panels to close off the open spaces into “rooms.” Walls, floors, furniture—all were dissolved into disconnected sections of red, blue, yellow, or black that mobilized the space. Daringly, in this cold climate, the walls were opened to expanses of glass, making the house seem even lighter weight.

In keeping with the idea of an interior space being a total work of art, Rietveld invented new furniture for his new design. Wright had seen the necessity of such control, if only because of the unsuitability of existing furniture for the modern interior. The most famous of Rietveld’s furniture for the Schröder House is the Red/blue Chair, which had yellow tips, like full stop periods, on the blunt wooden ends. Utterly without padding or comfort, countering Victorian upholstery, this chair is a pair of floating planes, red and blue, held together by black posts and lintels. Inspired by William Morris’s groundbreaking recliner, the bare wood design became the Red/blue Chair of 1918 and fit beautifully into its new home, where it became one of the most famous chairs of all time.

In his article, “The Furniture of Gerrit Rietveld. Manifestoes for a New Revolution,” Martin Filler showed a number of illustrations that showed the designer’s evolution and struggle to keep his furniture simple. His Beachwood Sideboard of 1919 anticipates Art Deco, but it is fussy compared to his Berlin Chair and his Side Table of 1923. Filler made the case that the Red/blue Chair was more sculpture than furniture and one could also add, more painting than chair. Indeed, other examples of De Stijl architecture indicate how tempting it is to devolve into decoration. As seen in Café de Unie of 1925 and Café Aubette of 1927, when the De Stijl colors are used in small planes, rather than for large architectural areas, then the interiors become irritating and betray a certain nostalgia for fin-de-siecle Art nouveau. Destroyed in the Nazi bombing of Rotterdam, Oud’s design (now restored) was far more successful than the collaborative work of van Doesburg and the Arps, Jean and Sophie-Taeuber. Although the Café is considered today (by some) to be a success, van Doesburg’s architectural statement and the artists’ interior was unpopular with the clients and was wiped out in 1928, perhaps because of the rather dizzying array of blocks of bright color. De Stijl architecture would come fully into its own after World War II as a kind of national style of Holland.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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