Le Corbusier: Purism as Architecture

The Pavillion de l’Esprit Nouveau (1925)

The House as a Machine

Although the Pavillion de l’Esprit Nouveau met the fate of all exhibition buildings—it was demolished in 1926—the famous dwelling was rebuilt in Bologna Italy in 1977 by the architectural firm Oubrerie e Aujame, which dealt with the technical aspect of replication. The artist Giulianon Gersleri recreated the artistic elements of the home. The white cube, perched on trademark pilotis, which elevated it slightly, was revealed as being opened by a wall of windows, shrouded with white curtains. At the original Exposition, the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925, the sheet of material was parted, draped so that spectators walking by could see inside. Next to the roof-to-ground window was an open courtyard, the roof of which had a circular opening, cut to allow a tree, already on site, to grow out of the atrium and rise above the flat roof. The circular opening was a preview of the unexpected circular form–an attached building or blimp-ish extension–attached to the cubed house. This spherical bulge squared off by a straight wall on the side housed a diorama, tucked away in the back of the Pavillon.

But back to the Pavillion proper, the pure white cube–the atrium itself, the heart of the home, was sheltered from the elements by a partial glass wall, adjacent to the window wall. As the entrance to the home, the atrium signified projection the L shape of the monk’s cell, which had an adjoining garden. The modest unadorned and unassuming entrance to the atrium was reached by a round-about path which allows the visitor to admire the subtleties of the structure. The almost invisible portal was deliberate on the part of the architect who disapproved of over decorated doors. Indeed, the interior doors were simple metal Ronéo doors, used in offices. This entry via atrium arrangement would be copied in many modern homes in the future. The 1960s designs of Joseph Eichler, found in his post-World War II housing developments in northern and southern California, were constructed around an entrance atrium, open to the sky with a garden to be enjoyed by the residents. The open area of the Pavillon was a garden or patio, paved with concrete slabs and edged with planters. The tables were cantilevered from beneath the glass partition, one table was a rectangle and one was a semicircle. The chairs were outdoor versions of the indoor Thronet design. The patio looked out to a white craved sculpture on a pedestal, the work of the Cubist sculptor, Jacques Lipchitz. Incidentally, in the 1920s, carved sculpture was ascendent over the modeled (additive) sculpture of Auguste Rodin who had died at the peak of his fame in 1911. By the early 1920s, his reputation was in decline, and, in a period of Retour à l’ordre, modern artists were returning to tradition. Carving suddenly seemed more historically viable than working in clay and the appearance of carved sculptures, one inside and one outside, was significant of the classical French tradition of directly carved cathedral sculptures.

The other side of the house revealed the fact that the building had two levels: two rows of clerestory windows brought light to the rooms and an exterior staircase, rising in three angles, allowed the owner access to the top floor. The right flank of the house was closed in, save a small window at the end of the ground floor, but the wall carried the logo, the large capitals E and N in yellow against a grey ground, and the name of the exhibit, “Esprit Nouveau,” was spelled out on a small black and white sign, mounted just below the center horizontal of the crossed beams, dividing the words. This house, so clearly a prototype for modern houses to come, was a philosophical statement by Le Corbusier, who believed, as did most modern architects of his time, that architecture should represent the spirit of the age and that, as an artist, he had an important mission to show the public the face of their own era. However, Le Corbusier was swimming against a tide of nostalgia for the lost past of France.

The Great War had brought an enormous loss to France, the nation with the highest casualties. Entire regions of northern France, the site of the battles of the War on the Western Front, were wiped out, turned into moonscapes. For years after the conflict, the nation struggled to resurrect and restore these blighted and wounded regions, but many small towns, the “martyred villages,” simply ceased to exist. After four years of shelling, there was not enough left to rebuild. Today the memory of those martyred is kept by village signs for the extinct streets rising in the lightly wooded forests that have overgrown their sites. During this reconstruction of France, the national identity shifted from Paris, the site of modernity for a hundred years, to the “regions” or the provinces outside urban areas. Here, the last supposedly authentic French people lived, many of them still peasants, who now carried the heritage of national history. This cultural longing for the rural past played out, not only in the sense of an avant-garde returning to a classical order but also as a backward-looking revisionary interpretation of nineteenth-century art. Gustave Courbet, once lauded as a precursor to Cubism, was transformed into the local artist, his provincial origins now prized. Jean-François Millet rose in the public estimation as an eye witness to the golden age of peasant life, as evidenced in his paintings that idealized the piety and the perfect harmony of the lives of those who tilled the soil. After the Great War, the Fauvist enfant terrible, Maurice de Vlaminck left Paris and moved to a village in a rural province. Here he became a modern day Millet, producing dark-hued landscape paintings, honored for their homage to a longed-for past.

Le Corbusier himself was a bit more realistic and pragmatic. In writing The Decorative Art of Today (1925), the architect expressed sympathy for the lost past and for local cultures, but he understood that these societies had either vanished or were on the verge of extinction. As he wrote of his school years in Switzerland, at La Chaux-de-Fonds:

Our childhood was illuminated by the miracles of nature. Our hours of study were spent hunched over a thousand flowers and insects. Trees, clouds and birds were the field of our research; we tried to understand their life-curve, and concluded that only nature was beautiful and that we could be no more than humble imitators of her forms and wonderful materials.

My master was an excellent teacher and a real man of the woods, and he made us men of the woods. Nature was the setting where, with my friends, I spent my childhood. Besides, my father was passionately devoted to the mountains and the river which made up our landscape. We were constantly on the mountain tops: the long horizons were familiar.

Although Le Corbusier said “quite a long time ago I too was a regionalist,” he was never overpowered by nostalgia. Despite the Romanticism of his teaching, there was a Platonic cast to his education that, as Emma Dummett suggested in her article, “Order in Nature: Le Corbusier’s Early Work and his City Plans of the 1920s.” Far from being wild and unruly, nature was the reflection of a machine which imposed order upon the world. The concept of universal forms led him to create his own version of the “type-objects,” a fundament part of the machine age. As he said,

The machine is all geometry. Geometry is our greatest creation and we are enthralled by it. / The machine brings before us shining disks, spheres, and cylinders of polished steel, shaped with a theoretical precision and exactitude which can never be seen in nature itself. Our senses are moved, and at the same time our heart recalls from its stock of memories the disks and spheres of the gods of Egypt and the Congo. Geometry and the gods sit side by side! / Man pauses by the machine, and the beast and the divine in him there eat their fill.

The memories of yesterday could not be the present, much less the future. The architect warned that any art replicating the past could be only decoration, empty of meaning. Instead, he extolled the machine and its geometry, explaining that the purposeful apparatus aroused the desire among artists to create pure forms. However, he was alarmed at the artistic use of the vocabulary of the machine, which, in a simplified form, was easily repurposed into commercial design, becoming a fashionable style. The machine, he was convinced, would awaken what he called “the intense joy of geometry” and “a reformation of the spirit.”

Therefore, rather than speak of the timeless of works of art, Le Corbusier wrote of the objet-type, or typical object, manufactured by industry, expendable and fleeting, like the laboratory flask he used as a vase in the Pavillion. On the other hand, there was a custom-made table in the Pavillion living room: a metal table fashioned by Schmittheisler, a hospital equipment manufacturer, and the club chairs were made to order in special proportions. “Pure forms” were those forms which were manufactured, free of historical baggage, shapes reduced to their most efficient essence. Clearly, Le Corbusier was convinced that the Pavilion was an opportunity to demonstrate to the people the virtue of this kind of modern design, based upon universal timeless “types.” As the attached appendage for the Pavillion, the diorama was a place where he could show his ideas and his creations, for this architect had nothing less in mind than a massive rebuilding project—the remaking of Paris itself. But Le Corbusier and his Pavilion, complete with diorama, was part of one of the great commercial ventures of the 1920s, a place where the modern was packaged and sold to the masses as “Art Moderne.” It is against this background of mordant nostalgia and rampant commercialization, that the architect’s vision of how Paris could be modernized should be viewed.

In fact, in a play on names, he designed “Maison Cirtohan” in 1920, an early model for the ideal affordable home for the masses—a new kind of house that would be as efficient as an automobile. The materials for this dwelling were mass produced and easy to obtain and cost effective, namely concrete. Such a structure could be produced, like a Citröen, on a production line. Exhibited as a model at first, the Maison Citrohan was represented in 1922 at the Salon d”Automne as a theoretical housing development in which the “maison” was replicated some 200 times. Based on the Charterhouse of Galluzzo, where the monks lived in two story cells with gardens, the Maison Cirtohan was manifested as a Pavillon for the fair, but, because it could be endlessly reproduced, its usefulness for solving the housing shortage needed to be demonstrated to the attendees of the exposition. Emerging from the “Maison Cirtohan,” the two-story Pavillon was the next stage of a mass produced model home, laid out with efficiency, keeping in mind that the layout had to be convenient. The kitchen was on the ground floor, tucked away in the back, playing only a small role in the narrative of modernity. The drama lay in the interior which reflected the open atrium on the exterior of the house. The public area—the living and dining area–was open to the second story where the bedrooms were located. Allowing the inhabitants to look down, the living room had a balcony on the upper level. Just beneath this balcony, as if to draw the eye of someone on the ground floor upward, was another sculpture on a ledge. Like most modern homes, this Maison had a roof garden and its many windows provided vistas of nature for those who lived in it.

The famous Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau by Le Corbusier was a prototype for much larger projects. This cellular unit, complete with internalized garden, could be replicated infinitely, stacked unit upon unit, rising to the sky, or spread out along a flat plain. As Le Corbusier stated, what started as a modern version of a monk’s cell could be used for residential needs as a practical, habitable cell” that could be “grouped in large colonies, both in height and breadth.” Le Corbusier imagined a garden city of the future, a building or set of buildings where nature and modern engineering could be combined. Although the original inspiration was a humble monk’s abode, the architect accepted that hateful loud and smelly symbol of all things modern, the automobile, not only as a permeant fixture in the city but also as the reason for redesigning a new city that could accommodate the car. Keep in mind that the complete idea for the Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau included a diorama demonstrating Le Corbusier’s vision for the city of tomorrow. Searching for sponsors for his project for the Fair, Le Corbusier approached automobile manufacturers, such as Peugeot, Citroen, and Michelin, but only Voisin, a maker of cars and airplanes, looking to expand into prefabricated housing, responded.

Gabriel Voisin, an architect in his own right had made a fortune selling airplanes during the Great War. After the War, the need for aircraft diminished, and Voisin turned to designing luxury automobiles that were as forward thinking as the Pavillon. In their day, the 1920s and 1930s, these beautiful cars cost as much as a Bugatti; today one of these Jaz Age gems could easily cost $5 million. Built with lightweight materials, aluminum, and magnesium, in contrast to the heavier steel used in other cars, the Voison was extremely stylish. There was craft in the execution, the taillights were handmade and the dashboard sported gauges in an era when most cars did not have even a gas gauge. Le Corbusier, along with Rudolf Valentino and H. G. Wells drove this car, and named his ideal city the “Plan Voisin.” The Pavillon’s diorama, which had originated in a separate project, was the ideal place to display his long-held vision of the city in a modern age. These maps, drawings, and models of his vision of a new Paris indicated to the viewer that little of the past would be retained.

Unlike the Prefect of Emperor Napoléon III in the 1860s, George Haussmann, who, generally speaking, demolished slums, Le Corbusier was no respecter of history or of favorite tourist sites or of the architectural or urban elements of Paris that gave it a distinctive character. At the very heart of Paris, there was ruthless but rational sweeping away of several square miles of the Right Bank, including the Marais, for a new ground zero, mounted on a grid. Out the grid sprang clusters of skyscrapers, each one a cruciform structure, a towering X, as it were. Gardens and green spaces spread out between the buildings, which were visionary high-rises, a design for “the three million inhabitant’s city.” This city for 3 million people had been on the drawing boards since 1922, as the Ville contemporaine, and, in one iteration, the architect envisioned highways suspended from the towers. Le Corbusier was prescient enough to understand the need for a municipal airport. In the diorama, the theoretical city, Ville Contemporaine was placed so that it faced the Plan Voisin as the actualization of the theory imposed upon an actual city, Paris itself.

Le Corbusier was convinced that the city had to be remade with streets redrawn, not as “donkey’s paths” but as straight lines to relieve congestion and open the city to the modern mode of transportation—the automobile. Le Corbusier could imagine that “the passage of cars” would leave “traces” of “luminous tracks” “like the tails of meteors flashing across the summer heavens,” a sight seen almost nightly in any big city today. The grid, the acceptance of traffic, the skyscrapers, were understood by the visitors at the time as an Americanization of Paris, but with a rational mind working on a blank canvas. Unlike New York, where the skyscrapers crowded each other, standing in the way of light and air, the rebuilding of Paris would be controlled and rationalized. Le Corbusier envisioned a consequent end to the chronic housing shortage in Paris and the commensurate rise in real estate values. For some this

Le Corbusier envisioned a consequent end to the chronic housing shortage in Paris and the commensurate rise in real estate values. For some viewers, this sparkling series of towering cruciform rising from a green plain, seemed like the sapins or evergreen trees that were the distinguishing feature of La Chaux-de-Fonds, the Swiss town where Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris was born. The substitution of tall buildings for tall trees was terrifying. The vision seemed totalitarian and even fascistic in its ordering of daily life, but the Plan Voisin was a modern solution to a modern problem of overcrowding in an old city. It is interesting to note that Le Corbusier’s family in Switzerland had been involved in an artisan enterprise, watchmaking for Longines, and that, by the end of the nineteenth century, their livelihood was threatened by factory-made watches. La Chaux-de-Fonds was the center for over half of the watches and clocks made in Switzerland, manufactured by the beginning of the Great War. As an artist, the young Jeanneret-Gris, would not be a watchmaker, he would place his artistic talent elsewhere. In 1917, after an apprenticeship in Switzerland, Le Corbusier began his career in Paris, aware of the inexorable progress of technology, the changes it wrought, and the necessity to be prepared for the future. It would be many decades before this future would arrive and another war had to be fought before Le Corbusier would have the opportunity to build his ideal city.

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