Monday, 29 April 2013

Was Le Corbusier a Fascist?

In short, not really, but his mum strongly supported the Vichy government Corbusier spent the war years rather pathetically hovering around, one day in, the next out, severely testing that boundary between co-existence and collaboration and escaping the latter by a whisker, and he did admire Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. But neither of these really count, even if it sounds like you can't really be a real Nazi if you are not good at it, for he certainly had no time for Hitler or what he termed 'the Fritz' in general (despite the fact that La Chaux de Fonds has as much in common with Germany and France as it is Swiss and he was devoted to his mother and her opinion of him). He had also visited Mussolini, but he visited the USSR too. He got disappointed by everybody. His opinions on what is natural and human and pure and harmonious and the biology of urbanism could put him in trouble, especially considering he was in, and then out, with some of the more nasty Vichy French working towards a French master race.
However, having achieved next to nothing but starve through the war he would be re-energized by De Gaulle to build the magnificent Unite d'Habitation, the twentieth century's village, and certainly an object that defies any crass politicization. If there is a system of order there, it's cosmic, it's the modulor.
Photo Paul Davies 1983

Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Working Day 2

Of course the working day seems to have disappeared. Writing about life in the fifties (below) only serves to exacerbate the curious condition we find ourselves in today; where people either seem to work all the time, or hardly at all, or perhaps do both at the same time whilst desperate to get on Come Dine With Me. So much for 'labour saving devices' or the 'leisure society'. So much for 'soft' and 'hard' skills too. So much for high culture, so much for the public house, they've just mutated into Pret a Manger. So much for nature too. Of course this might not be such a bad thing, it's only easy to tell in hindsight, but it does feel rather post-human; all these people trooping around KFC with their laptops. And today I noticed the screen on the cash point suddenly offered just £5 as an option, just £5! That suddenly seems a harbinger of bad things in the offing. But on minimum wage working behind a bar, it would take four hours work just to make what you could spend in that same bar in a couple of minutes, and by the time you've paid the rent, what's left? So all that could make you reasonably nostalgic for the fifties, and especially for some notion of social housing, predicated on straight forward needs, not constructed for profit by the same corporations sucking you dry of everything else.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Working Day

For most of his working life, Le Corbusier rose at six, did some exercises, had breakfast at eight, painted sketched or wrote till lunch, went to the office for two, and was home for evening pastis by five thirty. That means he supervised all that architecture, all eight volumes of it, in just three hours each afternoon, at the end of which, apparently, he'd start to grumble, mutter something about how difficult architecture was, and fuck off home. Mies was even more minimal, rising at noon, with cocktails at six. I imagine this routine is the same for all great figures; Alvaro Siza famously sitting in his cafe sketching this and that- all that sort of thing- it is charming and civilized. The thing to distrust, it would seem, is the work ethic, or rather, the thing to cling to, is charisma; Corbusier could not have motivated his beehive at Rue de Sevres without that. However you need other tools too, things that allow the office to do the Unite at Nantes 'by themselves' or Pierre Jeanneret to be left to do the colossal secretariat in Chandigarh 'by himself'. There was a great deal in LC's thinking to do with making design easier, including I suppose the modulor which I might personally find both unfathomable in use and uncomfortable in result, but which would at least satisfy the proclivities of my boss if I used it. Same of course, with Mies, but with less instructions. Working without method must be just guesswork, in fact, it must be ghastly to have to be original all the time, to expend all that energy; the very enemy of charm and civility and thought. There is an inevitability to 'boring', it's no bad thing.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Art Piece

Here's an advance picture of a piece called Three Broken Big Bikes I hope to show soon- possibly in Margate of all places. Forgive the setting, which appears to presently include student essays, and it's sat on top of a Mordaunt Short speaker, but the Las Vegas ladies in the background are integral. It's one of my first joyfully idiotic moves into sculpture (ROFL).

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Le Corbusier - A Life

This is a terrific book, even though as it only arrived yesterday and I've only browsed it, well not quite just browsed it, but feverishly gone to the section on the Villa Sarabhai to see if I was right about Le Corbusier's toboggan (see early post). When you look at anything from a distance, your observations have a certain measure, but they are accentuated by the addition of more facts, or more gossip, and this book is thankfully full of both. Since I'd never been to Ahmedabad and only had the Ouvre Complet (1952-57) to hand, my speculations were mere speculations.
I didn't know that the Sarabhais were Jains, which means they would be not so much afraid of cobras as at one with them, and I didn't know that Mme Sarabhai's son indeed loved slides and was the inspiration for the toboggan. I was relieved to find out the villa suffered from water penetration, and not surprised to find that architect and client fell out rather spectacularly, and that the Sarabhais were every rich indeed; the kind of client Le Corbusier did best with, even though he rather forced them to pretend otherwise when he presented them with residences. This book is full of people Le Corbusier fell out with and very illuminating on his personal traits, which are hilarious.
Are these traits hilarious because we are at a distance from them? Is empathy with Le Corbusier as difficult as it might be with Brunelleschi? Well probably, but it should stop us trying. I just nearly fell off my chair as I read that on a particular encounter with a female journalist Le Corbusier refused to talk about his work, but remarked instead that they should go out. When it became clear they couldn't, he apparently said 'Pity, you are fat and I like my women fat!'
Now this is the sort of thing I like to read about my heroes.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Lars Iyer - Exodus

This is a good book for thinking and it's an especially a good book when you are not reading it. It encourages thought. Basically it's about thought, or the lack of it, or where thought is going (the ethics of badminton) and where it's been (University of Essex) or the capitalist consumption of everything. It's very darkly funny. As Scott says, 'Capitalism turns everything in to money', and this is the novel to go on the side. In fact, I just find myself staring at the Mies chair and wondering which lamp might go with it, and thinking that thought very profoundly each time I put this book down. For those who enjoyed Terry Eagleton's After Theory, this is a novel (pun intended) equivalent. Very clever, but don't expect fun things, or indeed anything, to happen, this is a book about thinking. You have to wait for thinking to come to you.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Cats from Hell

A whole city is shut.
(Yes the whole thing)
'Stay Indoors!' they cry.
Pure Evil is fought.
And on the other channel:
Cats from Hell!!
Young couples terrorized 
by domestic felines.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Le Corbusier's Toboggan

There are plenty of odd things about the Villa Sarabhai (Ahmedabad, 1952) not least it's toboggan. Le Corbusier called the water slide a toboggan, no doubt with great wit. He was very annoyed when the original pool was no larger than a foot-bath and the picture above shows the corrected version. No doubt Mme Sarabhai, the client, was plagued by guilt. If we scan the relevant pages in Vol 6 of the Ouvre Complet we find Le Corbusier complaining, and not shy of his own genius either. He begins his description with the conditions of the monsoon, and continues to explain one of his 'brilliant solutions' to the problem; the turf roof over catalan vaulting. This represents some curious thinking.
Personally I can't imagine anything worse than a turf roof in monsoon conditions even though I have never experienced such weather. In the monsoon, your roof is going to be the most miserable sodden thing, and whatever earth you had on it would quickly displace straight down the water spouts. The only good thing I can think about the turf roof is that when (what's left of) it was drying out, it would cool the structure. So the toboggan must represent a rather lovely thing then; the idea of water splashing about rather than soaking in, the idea of the joy of the monsoon's long awaited arrival. Or maybe just Mme Sarabhai's kids just loved water slides. Certainly it is about an idea of water and it's pleasures, and surely not about the actuality of water on the roof running down the slide and ruining the pool.
But looking at the picture above, and knowing that the division between inside and outside in this building is very flimsy indeed (bamboo screens) brings a bigger fear than mildew and mould and the consequences, joyful or otherwise, of splashing about in the monsoon. Two years ago they found a king cobra under the immigration desk at Ahmedabad International Airport. Cobras can get anywhere and with the monsoon cobras pop up everywhere; mad cobras, driven mad by the weather just like the humans. I think Le Corbusier would have thought I was a complete ninny for worrying about mad cobras under my day bed, but I tell you that's all I can think of (apart from tobogganing in snow, and drips on my head) in such conditions as I imagine within the Villa Sarabhai each June.
The building is presently full of modern art. I hope they are oil paintings rather than drawings. It would be most distressing to have your Picasso drawing turn pea green in such open ventilation. I also suspect that Mme Sarabhai and family have long since decamped to more five star accommodation in another part of their enormous compound, where closets and air conditioning abound.
Such is often the way with great architecture; it's thoroughly impractical. However, when you think about it, it only came  down to a simple choice. If LC had plumped for the usual solution of a house on piloti, and not gone all barefoot in the park, the snakes would have stayed on the ground where they belong, and the elevated house would catch the breeze. Funnily enough that's exactly what he did with his next commission for a house in India, the Villa Shodan.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Len Deighton

I'm enjoying reading what I can only see as one of Len Deighton's worst books, his fifth, An Expensive Place to Die (1967). It almost makes it more interesting that it appears one of his worst, I mean the guy has written millions of words, and much of them very good, so when it's bad, it's got to be for good reason.
In fact 'Bomber' (and the accompanying 'Fighter' and so on) Berlin Game (plus of course Mexico Set and London Match) and Spy Hook ( followed by Line and Sinker- you are getting the idea here) are all excellent bed time reading. Then there's the cookbooks ('Ou est Le Garlic?') and reportage (London Dossier) which are all staples. The guy is a late twentieth century renaissance man, starting off as an air steward, getting ahead in advertising ('go to work on an egg' was his) then writing all this stuff, none of it heavy at all, just breezing along, making everybody happy with his tales of intrigue, romance, betrayal; just right for people in their trains planes, beds and sun loungers. I mean, respect!
Of course his big and initial hit was The Ipcress File which made Michael Cane and Harry Salzman (co- producer of the Bond films with Cubby Broccoli) and that was followed by the good Horse under Water, excellent Funeral in Berlin, slightly mad Billion Dollar Brain and this one, I guess strange fifth, a kind of spy story meeting bedroom farce where Deighton could be taking the piss, having a laugh, but I'm not sure. That of course shows us the importance of context. If I didn't know all the other stuff, I couldn't be intrigued by the mindset of 'Expensive Place to Die', I wouldn't be able to value it properly.
Proust thought some of Ruskin's writing so bad it was good, and he had a point. However it's a well worn path, that of contrariness, both Owen Hatherley and Jonathan Meades share it, so did Robert Hughes, who I've just read in his book on Rome, enjoys Bernini over Borromini, and has a soft spot for Mussolini! All something to bare in mind when you are writing essays.

Friday, 12 April 2013

The City for Three Million Inhabitants

The city for three million inhabitants is (pretty much) deserted. People would ruin it wouldn't they? Draw them in and you'd have to characterise them, and show them doing things, and then soon enough you haven't got utopia, you've got one of those happy smiling covers of non-conformist religious magazines. That's the funny thing about utopia, it's got to be empty to be ideal or rather, as above, you've got to have it all to yourself, surveying from the rooftop. Le Corbusier was asked to design lamp post or something, he said I'll design you a lamp post if I can draw a city for three million inhabitants behind it. So that's what he did, and he forgot about the lamp post.
Smiling people, especially too many smiling people, would ruin it. Because utopia is not what you want, but what's right. Now there's a brutal thought. Colin Rowe is drawn to this platonic paradox in his essay 'Utopia' but I don't think he goes far enough, not in to the abyss; that architecture is one thing and getting a building made is another, or rather, let me draw you a picture; if we were putting anybody in our drawings today they would just have to be smiling accountants. Draw those smiling accountants and realise why we still need utopia.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

An Art Installation

I haven't shown stuff for years, so it was a pleasure last night to show 'For Doug' a shameless rip off of Joseph Kosuth's One and Three Chairs (1965) that is Julie and my contribution to an exhibition at UEL called Bookworks. It wont be up for long so catch it while you can. Actually I think our interpretation of the old Art and Language riff has some elan, this time the subject is not a chair, but a place, Lake Tahoe. It looked good. Here's the written presentation:

By Julie Cook and Paul Davies
For Christmas December 2004 Julie Cook and Paul Davies went to Reno – a city close to Lake Tahoe. The work ‘For Doug’ plays with their experience of Lake Tahoe, which, for many coherent reasons, they have still never actually seen.
From the trip they produced a small artists book ‘RENO’ in a series of one hundred and sixty. The book, a combination of photographs by Julie Cook and writing by Paul Davies, is dedicated to barman Doug Twist at the Peppermill Hotel Casino where they stayed. He was a significant motivation for the content of this work, since not reaching Lake Tahoe became their regular entertainment each evening and the lake itself a venue of mythological significance.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013


Margaret Thatcher believed that there was 'no such thing as society'. It is one of her finest lines because it sounds fairly compelling in two opposite ways; that (as far as she was concerned) such a thing as 'society' had been invented by a bunch of pinkos AND that family, state, religious, and probably even amateur dramatic societies were jolly good things which didn't count as societies because they simply were. Like Ayn Rand, she revealed something monstrous in her dogmatism.
So I watch the TV and there is an old trade unionist miner from Barnsley in an empty Working Mans Club, describing the fact that families were split asunder for decades by this view of society, and I'm thinking how can a simple thing like a trade union not be as valid as an amateur dramatic society.
And as far as general usage is concerned, the only people who worry about societies are those who are already in them, or want to be. And outside of 'Building Society' the word society is class laden (especially by those interested in classless society). We understand High Society, but the fact that we don't understand Big Society is a problem. No way can we shout Egalite, equalite SOCIETY!!! We don't feel part of it because thirty years ago we were told (by our so called betters) that it didn't exist, that ours was a dead (poets) society, but that this is a new one that we have to join (or else).
Personally I'm not buying any talk of societies, but that does not make me a Thatcherite, it makes me a rationalist.

Monday, 8 April 2013


Even my father, a die hard capitalist, hated Margaret Thatcher. That became news to me when I bought her biography for him one Christmas. His view of her is something I've never quite understood, but I'm sure it's something to do with investment in manufacturing, and the fact that even my father rather disliked his own bosses (the financiers, the elite- like Giles caricatures; puffing cigars and riding in Bentleys) in the board room, and sensed something other than grocer's daughter's economics was required to save British industry. For me, of a rather different disposition (and even as I listen to my father wonder -nearly blind now at ninety- that 'he may be changing his views' and I nearly fall off my chair) perhaps it's the fact she died in her care home of choice; The Ritz, that says it all. The Ritz! Sod the collective then, even in death! In my view she was not a politician, she was not good at that, but she was an ideologue and she was very good at that; she represents something more out of Walter Scott; from nothing to everything via virtue, but it's a phony virtue, just as we might consume in those fifties movies; men in tights. It does not appear rigorous, merely bloody minded. It wasn't virtue, it was Iron Lady as Ivanhoe.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

An Essay on La Tourette

Seeing as my students are busy writing their essays right now, I thought I'd write my own. Here's my own 3,500 word essay on Le Corbusier's La Tourette (1956-60)

La Tourette
Even now it is restored the monastery of La Tourette seems barely habitable. It has the quality of being at once at the limit of architecture and core of it. It is the barest of shelters; it’s cold, it’s loud, and it’s bare, there seems little comfort except in the mind, and its function is to focus the mind. Even at time of completion much of the early work of Le Corbusier already lay in ruins. In 1960, Nicholas Pevsner documented the sorry state of his Parisian work –including a completely derelict Villa Savoye- for the Architectural Review. This was also a time of personal tragedy, Le Corbusier’s wife dying in 1957. Le Corbusier would swim out in to the Mediterranean against doctors’ orders, and ostensibly to suicide, in 1965.
Despite this opportunity I have never read a totally satisfactory essay on La Tourette, so this is an attempt to re-write my own, a elective study I made for Mark Wells and my degree at Bristol University titled ‘Built Form and Setting in the Late Work of Le Corbusier’, submitted in 1983[1]. The aim is to review the sources I used at the time, and evaluate them again in the light of experience. So just as my tutor bade me then, I sat down to re-read Colin Rowe’s ‘La Tourette’, this time (like him) safely at a distance, and in my case high up in a downtown Houston hotel room.
Rowe’s essay written for the Architectural Review in 1961 is nothing if not lush. It is a paradoxically baroque piece. Even the author worries about its lurid qualities. It was written when Rowe was just over forty, and reprinted in the seminal ‘Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays’ in 1976. In the previous five years, Rowe had been working at Cornell with Robert Slutzky on the issue of phenomenal and literal transparency.
At twenty two I’m sure from its first lines I could never have understood it, but my notes show I was sensible enough not to dismiss it. Now I respect it as a piece of writing unto itself [2]. At fifty it reminds me of John Ruskin; taking us by the hand and showing us a building as he wishes it to be, expounding interests of his own, but all the time of course leaving out whole chunks or even getting them wrong (that’s why Proust loved Ruskin- it was so bad it was good). Rowe presents an architectural promenade. His propositions cannot be proved, but they are useful, he exaggerates the all too overwhelming fact that a spade is just a spade because of course it isn’t, except when it’s a shovel.
He sets the scene with a comparison of the site planning with the acropolis and opens a discussion on the nature of north face of the church (that it may be seen as blank, or a dam) making quite a meal of what to call it and what it is doing. He mercurially writes of the famous ‘light cannons’ as ‘entrails’, as if the church were suffering some kind of hernia. It is a vivid scene. Then we are thrown in to an academic game of hunt the façade, or hunt the façade that is not a façade, or hunting the absence of such a thing, or wondering whether we are viewing a profile rather than the portrait, and of rotation and counter rotation. He is interested in the horizon and how we see it. He asserts the primacy of the three quarter view, of the correlation with the acropolis, and makes comparison with the much earlier Villa Schwob.
In 1965, when the 1957-65 volume of the Oeuvre Complete was published, Le Corbusier (or editor Willy Boesiger) included this pointed snippet reminding us that the building had no facades;
‘a visitor declared to the Provincial ‘monsieur I am going to make you a gift of a statue for your façade’ The Provincial answered him ‘but where is the façade?’
While Rowe contemplates the forbidding north side of the church and from there, leads a merry dance, Le Corbusier actually asks us to contemplate the south. We know this because Le Corbusier builds in a special balcony for us to do so, such things being the means at his disposal. It’s the sort of place the tour guides escort visitors to explain the building’s secrets, indeed, they have escorted me, and from here we can contemplate the array of objects set against the church’s south side, or forms in light, and this indeed suggests we might think of that wall as a giant, indefatigable blank canvas (just as Rowe suggests of the other side). Of course this is nit picking, but it sort of matters, because it makes it clear to us that Rowe is not interested in the obvious.
Rowe is right of course, in everything he says; it is clear La Tourette might be considered such a temple worthy of such forensic scrutiny. His text is of course punishingly deterministic and lugubrious in terminology. His light canons, those entrails, undergo dizzying contrapuntal oscillations. We are, in a sense, away with the fairies. For comparison, we could go about things more simply, we could take James Gowan, partner of James Stirling (a student of Rowe and even referred to as Rowe’s draughtsman) for a typically independent and opposite view. What for instance, if we agreed with James Gowan that there were only two types of building, the villa and the castle[3], and we deduced that La Tourette was a castle without three quarters of it’s abutments. Here we are at least confronted with the fact we are dealing with mere figures of speech and understand a certain level of absurdity in the way our limited vocabulary of words might be conjugated to describe things.
That is not to say the critical exercise is absurd. I am merely demonstrating potential extremes. There is an alternative tack; if we take Dave Hickey’s lead, it is the task of the critic to play air guitar. To appreciate the church volume at La Tourette in this vain I would enjoy Rowe’s interpretation, but I would be hoping to get more under Le Corbusier’s skin, I’d start thinking of the metaphorical (word of God) and painterly significance (the enjoyment of one shape against another) of the great ear on the north wall and the practical orientation of the light canons toward available light to measure the time of day. My reading would be less abstract; I would not be trying to go somewhere else, I would be happy to understand just what I’ve got. Meanwhile, when it comes to that inner cruciform armature of circulation that Rowe sees as rotational (perhaps in the manner of the plan of the Gropius Bauhaus) I have myself described it as one of those devices to effectively bake potatoes. In itself that is not as ridiculous an assertion as it might seem, for when I did that I was a student of twenty-two, but more than once I’ve been cheered by the description of the underbelly of the Unite d’Habitation as like a ‘grease trap in a traditional French kitchen’. Usually, it seems with Le Corbusier, things can be seen to be doing more than one thing in more than one way.
The second text I was referred to back in 1983 was by Stanilaus Von Moos. He offers a sturdy guide in his book ‘Le Corbusier; Elements of a Synthesis’. His is an exercise in mix and match; he does not need to sustain the device of the promenade and does not suffer the confines of writing first and foremost a magazine article. Nor does he appear to be floating a theory, for Moos is not afraid to state the obvious. He says that the structure makes sense for the site given the site’s peculiarity, he gives it’s progeny in the town planning proposal for Montevideo, acknowledges the influence of Le Thoronet, and outlines the building as the sum of heterogeneous parts. In his last line on the subject (a mere two pages dedicated solely to La Tourette) he allows us to bask in pathos as he recognises that perhaps ‘the architect wished to speak in ever more desperately forceful images about his vision for social harmony, once it had become clear that society had definitively refused to adopt it[4]’.
The third text was by Vincent Scully. Scully is an extremely erudite scholar on the subject of Ancient Greece and practically everything else, and back then, tackling ‘The Earth the Temple and the Gods’ as a student without any clue of classical cosmology was an uphill task. Therefore I was practically blind to whole areas of both Le Corbusier’s personality and creative method. When young, it would seem you are less likely to ponder successfully on the human condition than you might with experience. The notion that there is inevitable regret and there might be selfless virtue has also yet to be learned. The concept of the hero, that necessary construct between mortal man and immortal god who makes sense of freewill is also hardly apparent, and whilst I could say it, it was unlikely I understood what God is dead meant.
Le Corbusier’s vision of himself as tragic hero was therefore on the edge of my comprehension. My tutor’s view of Charles Jencks’s book ‘Le Corbusier and the Tragic View of Architecture’ was that it should have been called ‘Le Corbusier and the Tragic View of Mankind’. Le Corbusier’s view that it was absolutely necessary to show humanity the way, and with that came inevitable failure, is something that only became clear to me with time. Later in my studies I wrote an essay on the Nietzschian aspects of Le Corbusier’s personality as displayed in the chapter on the building of a dam in the Alps (contained in ‘The City of Tomorrow’) with little understanding of Nietzsche at all.
Also I had not read ‘The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture’ (Hersey) which presents the origin of architectural form in the complex troping of what things look like, what they sound like, and what they mean. Whilst this is obviously complex, the concept is easily illustrated in Le Corbusier’s mature work and certainly at La Tourette. Take for instance the planometric nodules that mark the interface between the monks and their visitors at the entrance. They are shaped like kidneys, and in the body kidneys purify the blood, and so symbolically they illustrate the coming together of sacred and profane. Similarly the great ‘ear’ of concrete in which the monks listen to god beneath the light canons, and similarly the linguistic punning of ‘light machine guns’ on the other side.
Given all this, it is not surprising then that my first experience of this building was arranged to be first hand. I was having a tutorial, clearly the babble of words was not making a great deal of sense to me, and my tutor suddenly picked up the phone and dialled the monastery. ‘Are you free next week?’ he asked me, ‘Do you have means?’ he added, and suddenly I had to be there for Saturday 8th January 1983. This was a remarkable event in many ways. In general we no longer send students gallivanting around Europe on a whim, but I still treasure my sketchbook of that trip, especially all the crude exclamations made across the double page spreads in felt pen for ‘Besancon!’ or ‘Belfort  S’il vous plait!’ made as I hitchhiked down to Marseilles and back via La Tourette and Ronchamp.
Here’s what I wrote when I finally arrived at La Tourette:
‘… a hell of a walk up the hill from the town, but a fantastic thing to see when you arrive . It looks better than I ever expected. When I arrived there was no one around so I had to sit outside messing around for half an hour before getting in. The room is lovely!’
So it was not so forbidding for me, and after days of hitching and nights in 50Fr hotel rooms the monastery was very much a sanctuary. Once I’d settled in I started walk around and see for myself, my sketchbook to hand. As I read it now, I can sense the threads of comprehension. Much of it seems to represent a battle in my own mind between what things look like and what they are. Much centres on the conception of the objet type.
In a tutorial following my trip on the 17th January, Mark put me straight:
1.     Cells are objet types for living (but like any refined object they can be manipulated for function)
2.     Kitchen/dining block is domino objet types (i.e. rooms on each level independent of the ones below)
3.     Church is one of a number of church objet types
4.     Cloisters are movement objet types
5.     Windows are ‘seeing the world’ objet types (modulated via the modulor)
6.     The Modulor is itself an objet type generator
The emphasis here is not on what we see. We are in an idealized formal composition that is hardly picturesque. However all the components are manipulated as necessary to adapt to both site and function. Further, this procedure inherently makes design easier. Words like easier are not in the critical lexicon these days. Meanwhile the object type is not seen as some kind of universal leveller, but as basic equipment for application, that’s why, as Mark explained enthusiastically, there are thirty two flat types in the Unite d’Habitation.
We live in an era where this simplicity and there is ‘simplicity’. We have an idea of simple things, but more often we are consuming a highly mediated version; a synthetic compound rather than the synthesis of ideas. We can think of eternity, but we are more likely to spray it on in the morning.
It is clear to me that Le Corbusier found consumerism abhorrent. For him it was a distraction and disaster, a distraction which first diverted us from those ‘objet types’ he enjoyed as a ‘purist’ in the twenties, those objects such as wine bottles and guitars which had already established their perfect form by the early part of the twentieth century and where it seemed there was no need to go any further, and secondly dissuaded us from the pursuit of utopia, that ideal as might become real in city form or dwelling as the result of the rational, moral and empirical application of principle to those things not yet achieved but necessary in prospect; the development and application of new objet types. The idea that there might be no difference between what was wanted and what was needed, as espoused by JK Galbraith in The Affluent Society of 1958 would be ridiculous to him. Le Corbusier certainly did not collect adds like the Smithsons. The elements of America he liked (as evidenced in ‘When the Cathedrals were White’) such as the primal energy of jazz, were not commodious. He was not interested in the supine level playing field of the marketplace. He took a more elevated position altogether. Indeed, he defined man as upright on two legs, surveying the horizon, otherwise, you might as well be dead.
Right from the beginning Achilles spends a vast portion of the IIiad sitting on the beach wondering what to do. Before decisive action, he thinks. He thinks a great deal. He is not caught up in what is going on around him. He refuses to take part, for now at least. The Iliad is both a snuff movie, or a war memorial to heroic action, and a treatise on ethics. By 1956 Le Corbusier knew it was all over, that his heroic work was done. He had created and proselytized, and precious few had understood. He had perhaps reached his summit of worldview with his Poem de l’angle doit completed in 1953, his evocation of enduring values about to be overwhelmed by consumer capitalism. Within that consumerism, it would be hard for him to see the wood for the trees, unless transported to Chandigarh or Ahmedabad.
Everything Le Corbusier did in architecture could be represented in chalk on a blackboard. That is to say, it could be reduced to visual equations. He always demonstrated the elemental idea as if it were mathematical, whilst there was always room for the ineffable too. In Jencks, this is brought down to his elemental understanding of harmony as coming from the reconciliation of opposites, the Dionysian with the Apollonian perhaps, or (as presented in the Poem de l’angle doit) between man and woman, or between painting and architecture.
For those who have since experienced the iniquities (and comforts) of the late capitalist environment his expositions can be astringent and invigorating. For those drowning within it, they can only be savoured nostalgically.  Such was the fate of his apologists and apostles as time passed. It was all very well but you could not do Corbusier anymore; times had changed. Of course, you could do Corb, but maybe you could also do Otto Wagner! Why not? He might be more useful for those corporate interiors! We should remember that for Le Corbusier, nothing had changed, and nothing would ever change, at all. That we were all still, whatever the period, characters in the Iliad equipped with new armour.
Le Corbusier liked ships. Their self-contained humanity, their precision, appealed to him, and we can easily see the Unite d’Habitation as a ship, with its deck the rooftop cloister. Indeed, the Ancient Greeks are famous for being pirates, and one of the constant refrains in the Iliad is Achilles and his army’s relation to their ‘long black ships’ beached on the shoreline beneath which Achilles worries, and which they must defend to the last. It is clear also that La Tourette has many of the qualities of a beached ship, and when you prowl around it’s under croft, you find that some of the concrete piloti have been shaped like angled props.
His masterful rendition of the church at La Tourette as a ‘box of miracles’ is more deadpan. Of course, god is dead, but not for the Dominicans, for whom he is life. Look how Le Corbusier does it; most obviously we troop down the armature of the interior cloister to the door of the church, a huge steel swivel door, and set within it we see a hatch such as that we might see on a submarine or a ship, more convenient for individual access. It states semiotically; I’m airtight! Whatever is considered sacred, however phoney, shall be kept safely within. He used the same device in his own cabanon, as the door between it and the restaurant on the other side. Here of course, it refers both perhaps to the exclusion of both cooking odours and sociality, which no matter how pleasant, must be satisfactorily quarantined.
Once inside the church we see a great horizontal slot that splits to top of the west wall from the roof. When the sun goes down, the sunset falls directly across the underside of the flat concrete roof, making it appear to take off; an aesthetic revelation of scientific law. The cosmos turns, and Le Corbusier brings it to special effect, just as the Romans did with the Pantheon, or the ancient Athenians in the entablature of the Parthenon, where figurative horses drag up the sun, and drag it down again. And in the midst of all this, we will have the light canons and the light machine guns, these puns on the hell of modernity, provided within great earpieces of concrete to allow the monks to listen properly to god. And all this, ostensibly, in a huge blank box, a box, indeed, of miracles, if you are so inclined.
What we have at La Tourette is more than a tombstone in the landscape to be discovered by each generation of inquisitive rustics, although certainly it is precisely that. What we have at La Tourette is more a tombstone to a way of thinking about the built environment, and a fitting and complete exposition, in the extreme, of the synthesis of ideas Le Corbusier brought to it. This, I hope I have shown, is how to empathise with a masterpiece.
In conclusion Colin Rowe introduced a series of speculations that could not, in the end, be substantiated in the actual object but would lead to something else. His daring consumption of La Tourette would seem to be a pivotal moment in its own slow transformation to consumer object. There is something of the value added in his commentary, and this predates the post-modern sensibility. It is where good design became ‘good design’, where eternity became ‘eternity’. It’s also when we began not understanding what some architects and theorists of architecture were talking about.
There are more spiritual retreats in California than ever before. Unsurprisingly, spiritual peace is a growth industry.  The Dominicans are an urban church, with urban motivations and internet connections. When they get together these days, they need bigger arenas than La Tourette. On the other hand it is quite easy to see La Tourette as a retreat and cash cow. I suspect this is how La Tourette will be sold one day (given a few added consumer friendly accessories such as fluffy towels) like a retreat in California, for the very fact that it embodies all the signs of forbidding will make it very attractive indeed.
PD March 2013.

[1] The essay has long since been lost.
[2] In fact, I didn’t. In my notebook against my notes from Rowe on La Tourette  I write ‘JESUS!’ ‘Oh Dear’, ‘What?’ and ‘Christ!’
[3] Thinking about this, I would personally add sheds and tents to his lexicon.
[4] Moos, MIT 1982 (1979) Pg 166

Monday, 1 April 2013

Very Odd Indeed

Either we build bubbles or we bury ourselves underground, that description of the world of contemporary architecture by Zizek was ringing in my ears as I watched this Grand Designs. This is the sort of house that really worries me for all sorts of reasons, most of which I pretty much guarantee don't bother the owner/creators at all. It is an inadvertent statement of our times. First of all it's white, whiter than white, metaphorically white (the architects fetishize their cable trays) and it's underground, which call me old fashioned, is not where white things want to be, if they want anything, and if you, in your right mind want them at all. On top, at great expense, is a ruin and an old barn which is the architects office. How peculiar is that !?! The new things are created in an old thing, the thing that should celebrate air and sunlight is underground, the cable trays are fetish objects. Of course the whole thing consumes no energy at all. No one must consume any energy at all, just consume perfect whiteness,virginal fetish whiteness with mud smeared over it. How weird is that?
Of course there is great faith that this thing won't leak and won't flood, no matter the hubris it represents, and the architect herself, was totally jovial all the time about everything, she loved her cable trays without the slightest hint of irony or for that matter explanation! This building should put it's authors on the couch (if they've got one).