Saturday, February 03, 2007

Hey ... That's MY Modernist Masterpiece

A little tidbit from the intersecting worlds of architecture history and copyright law. In 1935, Czech-born architect Antonin Raymond built one of his most well-regarded domestic projects: the Karuizawa House and Studio in Nagano Prefecture (1933-1935). The building is an example of Raymond's seamless integration of regional Japanese influences as well as straight-up International Style precepts: for example, in addition to it use of cedar, chestnut, and grass straw for its tectonic qualities, the building was basically a ferroconcrete structure with a decidely Corbusian circulation pattern. Further more, the Karuizawa House bore an uncanny resemblance to Le Corbusier's Mattias Errázuris House (1929-1930).

And when Raymond published photographs of the Karuizawa House in a November 1935 issue of Architectural Forum, Le Corbusier noticed. A review of Raymond’s 1935 monograph, Antonin Raymond: His Work in Japan, 1920-1935 in the issue criticized the Karuizawa House for its less-than-subtle nod to the Errázuris House. The negative criticism both stung and bewildered Raymond. In a letter to the editor of Architectural Forum, he countered, “I feel … that you lay too much stress on the question of the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright and Corbusier on my work at the expense of those vital qualities which make it valuable. Even to speak of the Japanese influence in my work is to see the truth only from a superficial angle. There is a strong Japanese influence in my work, but it is one of spirit and not of form … Should we be too afraid of precedent or influence we could do nothing at all. It does not matter from where we take anything but what we do with it.”

Le Corbusier was equally astonished at the Karuizawa House, so much so that (in addition to accusing Raymond of plagiarism) he was inclined to feature a picture of Raymond’s work along side his own in the third edition of the Oeuvre Complet (1935). Le Corbusier makes note of this in a May 1935 letter to Raymond, written shortly before the two architects resolved their differences:

Dear Sir:

I have received your letter of April 8th, which I found upon my return from a trip abroad.

I am pleased to hear from you. Please be assured that there is no bitterness
between us, but – as you yourself say – you made a slight mistake, that is, you neglected to send me a note when you published the images of your Tokyo house, which is very pretty by the way. I do not have time to read the journals that I receive; I just laid eyes on the photographs, and since I have rather quick reactions – and since in addition, I was at that very moment in the process of dictating the captions for the book published by Boesiger – I seized that opportunity and introduced a little dig that would wake up the book’s readers. Incidentally, my note was not mean; on the contrary, it praises Japan for its technical achievements and you for the taste of your intervention. I would even go further, that is, you give such a pretty interpretation of my idea that page 52 of the Boesiger book is perhaps the prettiest of the whole volume. I will even extend my compliment further: if I allow all journals to publish my works, it is not in order for my ideas to remain buried in people’s drawers. On the contrary, it is for them to be of some use. Yet my designs are often copied very badly, very unskillfully, or very stupidly. This is where my compliment comes in: your interpretation of my drawings is quite witty, and this is a sincere compliment. I hope it will please you.

In any case, please be assured, dear Mr. Raymond, that I bear no grudges
and am quite incapable of doing so. You may use as you like the note I am writing to you, for the end of your letter appears to call for some involvement on my part that I do not fully understand. It is now my turn to give you license to use the present letter in whatever manner will appear most pleasant to you.


Le Corbusier
Although the two architects did not resort to any litigation, I find this moment especially poignant. It seems to drive at a very interesting dialectic: the unresolvable tension between original and copy, real and counterfeit, and any other binary opposition between an object and its representation.

Source: Antonin Raymond, “Letter to the Editor,” Architectural Forum 63 (November 1935): 4, quoted in Kurt G.F. Helfrich and Mari Sakamoto Nakahara, “Rediscovering Antonin and Noémi Raymond,” introduction to Kurt G.F. Helfrich and William Whitaker, eds. Crafting a Modern World: The Architecture and Design of Antonin and Noémi Raymond (New York: Princeton, 2006): 26.