Monday, 31 December 2018

In defence of Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier, interior of Pavilion de L’Esprit Nouveau (1925)

Witold Rybczynski has two main ideas in his book Home: a short history of an idea (1986). The first suggested that “home” should be equated with “comfort”, and tracked interior design over the last 500 years or so to see how ideas of comfort have evolved.

The second idea is far more contentious. WR suggests that modernism, in the guise of Le Corbusier, is antithetical to comfort, and therefore fundamentally opposed to the idea of “home”. Only one example of modernism is given in his book: Le Corbusier’s pavilion for the Paris Exposition of the Decorative Arts of 1925. The background to this event is significant. Corbusier was making a statement about the whole exhibition:

Despite calls for revolutionary thinking, the Paris Decorative Arts Exposition ended up still valuing artisan production over industrialism in pavilions brimming with furniture and accessories that featured exquisite craftsmanship and expensive materials, including exotic wood imported from the French colonies. This style, named “art deco” for its exposition debut, clearly targeted the haute bourgeoisie, more than broadening the market. The modernist Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau, designed and built by the architect Le Corbusier, stood in stark contrast to the other pavilions on the fairgrounds. Built entirely of industrial materials (concrete, steel, and glass), Le Corbusier’s pavilion exposed the Exposition’s vision as complacent, even timid. His own vision extended far beyond questions of style to encompass everything from the design of chairs to the design of houses to the design of cities. Le Corbusier claimed that his work reflected universal modern values, from which emerged a new aesthetic. Spurning the exposition organizers’ invitation to design “an architect’s home” with the elitism it implied, he famously preferred to present a house for the new, modern “everyman” or “cultivated man” emerging in the age of machines.  [Lynn Palermo, “The 1925 Paris Exposition”]

Despite Corbusier’s deliberately provocative statements, there is some fundamental truth in his argument. He was not creating designs for an elite; his creations were scalable. He was reacting against a world of Art Deco artisan objects with an integrated statement. He was responding to a France that had lost hundreds of thousands of dwellings as a result of the First World War. And notice that Corbusier’s interior includes not one armchair, but two.

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