Notes toward a modular history of design...

Update: This story really deserves its own post/book/symposium, but I just read Alistair Gordon's story in the WSJ about the ways in which the murals Le Corbusier painted (uninvited) in Eileen Gray's gorgeous and poetical house in Cap Martin, E:1027 have complicated the desperately needed restoration of the house.  Now THIS is a tale about sexism and architecture...

 

I have been pondering my response to the Le Corbusier exhibition at MoMA since seeing it at the beginning of July.  Being an unreconstructed admirer of Le Corbusier for almost thirty years, I was very excited at the promise of some fresh interpretations of the enigmatic, infuriating and utterly brilliant Swiss architect, whose work has - in my view - been served especially poorly by the discouragingly resilient "lone genius" narrative of modernist architecture.  Le Corbusier's collaborators and colleagues, his interiors, his use of color and material - all of these are subjects crying out for further research and revisionist reinterpretation, and I looked forward to seeing what new arguments the very talented and highly respected curators of this show had to put forward. This week, Aaron Betsky has lit up the design sector of twitter with his article asserting Le Corbusier and indeed architecture as a discipline, as evidenced by the exhibition, are inherently sexist. While I find Betsky's reading of the way Le Corbusier treats the body - he paints it as a variation of the objet-type, a modular unit to abstract and adapt - to be flawed (his analysis strikes me as very dated and sloppy interpretation of feminist critique),  the fundamental structure of the exhibition was so rear guard as to make me wonder if it wasn't intentionally so.  There are any number of arguments to be made in support of Betsky's assertion that there is a lack of equanimity (gender and otherwise) to be found in architecture at large by studying this exhibition, though I found very few of these articulated by Betsky himself.  Nevertheless, I will attempt to pick apart a few of the more salient issues.

In 2013 to have a major exhibition, traveling the world to major museums, about such an influential figure (who has been written about to death) and NOT discuss the collaborations that made this work possible is, to me, totally unforgivable. I kept looking for mentions of Charlotte Perriand - one, basically a footnote. More of the same Lone Genius treatment that really needs no rehashing.

 The "landscape" aspect was also a big problem for me - the Chandigarh section was best example of that - Le Corbusier's grand scheme for a complete capitol complex in the newly created, post-partition Indian state of Punjab. The incredible wooden model of the entire complex site, made by local artisans from local woods, and not a word about it - just the usual master plan narrative and received knowledge of that project that seems to emanate directly from the ghosts of LC's studio and towing strict party lines.

Then there is the comically reverential treatment of the recreation of the Cap Martin interior - Le Corbusier's rustic redoubt on the hills directly overlooking the Mediterranean.  It is ten minutes old (though built by Cassina!) and the opposite of fragile - surely it would have withstood visitors entering it to experience this "landscape" from the same perspective of the genius/architect?!?! I don't even think one is allowed to photograph it, so fragile is its aura.

Finally, there was much new and very interesting material, but it was shoved to the margins in order to privilege the standard MoMA plan, drawing, model format of architecture exhibition.  For example, a number of films were projected throughout the exhibition, providing invaluable contemporary context and a fresh means of accessing what makes Le Corbusier's work such a touchstone even today - why were they pushed to the upper register of the walls and casually played on a loop, as a type of kinetic white noise?  Both curators are way smarter than this - what happened?

 

Le Corbusier with his wife, Yvonne Gallis, and Jean Badovici.  Image Fondation Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier with his wife, Yvonne Gallis, and Jean Badovici.  Image Fondation Le Corbusier

"Modern Furniture Creates Space and Light"

Any article on modern domestic design that starts, "With the exception of Michael Frayn and his wife, architects, and people who have married Americans, my husband and I are the only London couple we know who have modern furniture," is sure to get my attention and my admiration.  As the opening salvo in the Observer's Katherine Whitehorn's 1961 article on the paucity of modern furniture in British homes, the sentence advances playwrights, architects and American in-laws as the courageous torch bearers for modern furniture within tradition-bound London decorating circles.   Whitehorn goes on to write, "As our friends wear modern clothes, switch on electric lights, drive cars and give other evidence of living in the 20th century, I find this both odd and sad; I think the reasons for it are interesting, and not quite what they appear to be."  The essay is interesting in that it questions both the sanctity of the patron saints of the well-appointed British home - Wedgewood porcelain, and Georgian antiques to name just two - as a means of questioning just why Britons, in 1961, had such little faith in the abilities of modern British designers:  "Since when did English have so little confidence in their own taste that they could not take a risk on anything new? And where on earth is the sense in buying furniture, not because you want to live with it now, but because you can sell it well in 30 years' time? Talk about marrying for the alimony."  Since when, indeed?

 

 

 "Modern furniture creates space and light"

 "Modern furniture creates space and light"