Le Corbusier sought totality or at least compatibility between the modern open space, the design of the pavilion and the furnishings through his own designs. These designs were, like the modular spaces themselves were cubic. In the 1920s, modern furniture was being invented, mostly by architects who, like Le Corbusier, were forced, as it were, to make the kind of furniture that would be aesthetically in harmony with a white cube free of ornamentation. As was the custom with Art Nouveau when the artist and architect always sought a “total work of art,” Echoing the work of Marcel Breuer who was also experimenting with bent steel tubing at the Bauhaus as early as 1925, Le Corbusier finally designed his own line of furniture, leather chairs and sofas regimented into cube shapes which echoed the geography of the rooms or cells in his homes by 1928. These soft cubes with their rigid shapes were further constrained by tubular steel frames, exhibited on the outside as if clutching the organic material to keep them under control. But in 1925, he was already thinking of homes and their furnishings as being a part of a particular way of thinking—standardization. Not only did he think of the Pavillon as part of what he termed a “honeycomb,” that is one unit that could be part of many other identical units, but he also used manufactured and mass produced furnishings in the Pavillon.
Here Le Corbusier used Thornet chairs, a bent wood chair he particularly liked and used in his own home, designed in 1923 and, in the house he designed for the Wiessenhof Estate in 1927. Although in the 1930s, the architect designed his own bentwood chair, he deliberately chose the Thornet chairs, side chairs and dining room table chairs, for the Pavilion in 1925 because they were familiar and famous and ubiquitous. In fact, this chair was an accent piece, reinforcing, not the horizontals and verticals of the interior of the Pavilion but the curves of the still lives of the paintings hanging on the walls. Hanging above a suspended cantilevered shelf was a Purist work by the architect, while nearby were important paintings by close colleagues, Fernand Léger and Juan Gris.
These paintings were part of the conservative post-cubist art that looked beyond the pre-war avant-garde. The architect himself had been a painter, working originally under his “real” name, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret. The movement he began with the painter Amédée Ozenfant was called “Purism,” an indication of a return to classicism and a rejection of Cubism. The still life paintings produced by Jeanneret, who was wise to move on to architecture and become Le Corbusier, were curves, circles and all things round, compared to the angles and shards of Cubism. Ozenfant and Jeanneret made their debut as intellectual and artistic partners, in the fall of 1918 and announced their opposition to Cubism in their catalog essay, “Après le Cubisme.” In contrast to the cubism of Picasso and Braque, who deconstructed ordinary objects, Jeanneret presented each product in full, without complications, in a straightforward perspective.
The objects depicted were “Types” of standard mass manufactured guitars bottles jugs and so on, reflecting the ideas of the artists who sought the purity of universal shapes. These shapes, simple and basic, were those suitable for mass manufacture and industry and the clean and undecorated surfaces, flattened on the canvas by the artist were the only ones proper and fitting for an industrial age. When the artists issued their manifesto for Purism in 1920, they stressed logic and order and the laws that governed form. To publicize the movement, they also published a journal, L’Esprit Nouveau, published from 1920 to 1925, which stressed the historical lineage of contemporary French art. The magazine announced itself by proclaiming that, “L’Esprit Nouveau is the first magazine in the world truly dedicated to living aesthetics.”
The idea of ideal Platonic forms would be a guide to understanding the reasoning found in L’Esprit Nouveau. The artists themselves used the term “primary elements,” or the simple and basic shapes, the circle, the triangle, the square and the three-dimensional shapes that would result, the sphere, the cone, and the cube. In the 1925 Pavilion, the architect had reinvented himself as Le Corbusier, but his thinking was the same, and he applied the ideal form to architecture, and, predictably, to the furnishing of the interior. The lines of the wood may have been bent into curves, but it was the concept of a common chair or an ideal chair based on an idea shape—the circle–that attracted Le Corbusier, who stressed the importance of thinking in terms of “type” for modern building.
As opposed to the decorative art—the theme of the exhibition—which the artist abhorred, he used “real” materials from the real world of modern industry. One of the sponsors of the Pavilion was Ingersoll-Rand, an American company that manufactured a cement gun, crucial in mass housing. This firm advertised in the 1925 issue of the artist’s Almanac d’architecture modern. Standardization was the key to rebuilding France, redefining the city of Paris as modern, through the multiplication of cells—inspired by the living quarters of a monk—an assemblage of geometric shapes, a typical cube, which could be arranged and rearranged in endless variation. The assembly of prefabricated units could be confined to a single dwelling or expanded into an entire city.
The famous Pavillon de l’Esprit by Le Corbusier was prototype for much larger projects. This cellular unit, complete with internalized garden, could be replicated infinitely, staked, 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.” When Le Cobusier was twenty years old, he visited Tuscany and toured a monastery called the Ceertosa d’Ema. The older man and experienced architect had a vision: could the concept of the “cellule” be expanded? Talking to his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, now his design partner, he described the visit to the Charterhouse: “I believe I’ve never encountered such a joyous version of habitation.” The pair sat down and turned the experience into a sketch on the back of a restaurant menu. Out of this collaboration, the “villa apartments” were conceived.
By 1922, Le Corbusier began to plan the new city for the new century. He 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 the reason for redesigning the new city to accommodate the car. In fact, in a play on names, he designed Maison Cirtöhan in 1920, an early model for the ideal affordably home for the masses—a new kind of house that would be as efficient as a car.
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 car, on a production line. The two-story home would be the prototype for the Pavillon: it was two stories with the public area—the living and dining areas and the kitchen on the first floor and the bedrooms on the top floor. The living room, like the one of the Pavillon, was double story, allowing for a balcony un the upper level, looking down. Like most modern homes, this Maison had a roof garden and its many windows provided vistas of nature for those who lived in it.
Exhibited as a model at first, the Maison Citröhan 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 Cirtöhan 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. Searching for sponsors, 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 Jazz Age gems could easily cost $5 million. Built with light-weight materials, aluminum and magnesium, in contrast to the heavier steel used in other cars. But 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” in homage to his sponsor.
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 and he was prescient enough to understand the need for a municipal airport. In the diorama, the theoretical city, Ville Contemporaine faced the Plan Voisin, 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. He complained of the dangers of crossing a street in Paris, where, in a time before hard and fast traffic rules, one’s life was at risk. He said, “It is into this tight network, locked in, infinitely fragmented, that modern speeds, twenty and thirty times increased, are thrust. It’s useless to describe the crisis, the disorder.”
The architect was determined to bring order to this chaos and rather than write new rules for the road, so to speak, he proposed re-inventing the city so that cars could move about logically. 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. He suggested parks instead of narrow and dark alleyways, foresaw the possibilities of freeways devoted to delivering commuters from point to point without passing through the city itself. Le Corbusier’s rigid 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. He envisioned a consequent end to the chronic housing shortage in Paris and the commensurate rise in real estate values. For some this sparking series of towering cruciform rising from a green plain, 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, were 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, many of which were 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. The home he designed for Amédée Ozenfant in 1922, Le Corbusier foresaw the future of suburban living by including a garage, an unheard of innovation for that time. 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 and it would be only after the Second World War that America would make good on his idea of expressways and cities that could accommodate the automobile. In 1925, Le Corbusier wrote about “The Street:”
“The following is a free description of an actual town-planning and architectural project which has been based on concrete statistics, the proved reliability of certain materials, a new form of social and economic organization, and a more rational exploitation of real property.
The definition of the street which has held good up to the present day is “a roadway that is usually bordered by pavements, narrow or wide as the case may be”. Rising straight up from it are walls of houses, which when seen against the sky-line present a grotesquely jagged silhouette of gables, attics, and zinc chimneys. At the very bottom of this scenic railway lies the street, plunged in eternal twilight. The sky is a remote hope far, far above it. The street is no more than a trench, a deep cleft, a narrow passage. And although we have been accustomed to it for more than a thousand years, our hearts are always oppressed by the constriction of its enclosing walls.
The street is full of people : one must take care where one goes. For several years now it has been full of rapidly moving vehicles as well : death threatens us at every step between the twin kerb-stones. But we have been trained to face the peril of being crushed between them.
The street consists of a thousand different buildings, but we have got used to the beauty of ugliness for that has meant making the best of our misfortune. Those thousand houses are dingy and utterly discordant one with another. It is appalling, but we pass on our way. On Sundays, when they are empty, the streets reveal their full horror. But except during those dismal hours men and women are elbowing their way along them, the shops are ablaze, and every aspect of human life pullutates throughout their length. Those who have eyes in their heads can find plenty to amuse them in this sea of lusts and faces. It is better than the theatre, better than what we read in novels.
Nothing of all this exalts us with the joy that architecture provokes. There is neither the pride which results from order, nor the spirit of initiative which is engendered by wide spaces … only pitying compassion born of the shock of encountering the faces of our fellows; and the realization of what the English call the “hard labour” of our own lives.
The street of to-day can sustain its human drama.