Thursday, December 23, 2010

Happy Holidays

Christmas card by Bob Wirth depicting LCM Chair as Santa Claus. Sent to Charles and Ray Eames in 1948 (Source)
A quick note to thank everyone for helping make 2010 a great year for this is a456. I could not have done this without your support and enthusiasm.

See you in 2011!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Sartorial Moment

"The unveiling of the Palace of Soviets' model, Paris, 1931" (Source: Jean-Louis Cohen, Le Corbusier et la mystique de l'URSS: Théories et projets pour Moscou, 1928-1936 [Bruxelles: Mardaga, 1987] 165)

We are confronted by a strange image.[1] Taken in 1931, this photograph reveals a surprising episode from one of Le Corbusier's most trying (and defining) moments—the competition for the Palace of Soviets. It captures the very moment when the architect reveals the architectural model for the first time. To the left, we see Pierre Jeanneret and another employee from Le Corbusier's studio in the rue de Sèvres, holding a white sheet they have just pulled away. The Palace of Soviets model sits freshly uncovered, or, to use T.S. Eliot's term, "etherized upon a table"[2], that is, not asleep, but made ethereal. The project's telltale arch and roof-supporting spars are immediately recognizable against the ghostly cloth. And on the right, standing just to the side of the model is Le Corbusier himself, wearing a trim, fitted suit, hands wrapped around a double bass. His left hand cranes the instrument's neck. The right hand strokes the strings above the fingerboard, a position that could be a little too high for proper pizzicato technique, but a show nonetheless. He may be pretending to play the instrument. We are, after all, watching a performance.

Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Palace of Soviets, interior perspective (1931) (Source: Le Corbusier Le Grand [New York: Phaidon Press, 2008]). 
Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Palace of Soviets, axonometric drawing (1931).

Perhaps it is the stark, uncompromising lighting, or even the stage-like composition that drapes the subjects in dark, void-like shadows and brilliant fields of white: there is something about this image that just seems so appropriate. Le Corbusier's competition entry, with its innovative programming, attention to acoustics, emphasis on closed air ventilation (or respiration exacte), and distinctive roof-supporting arch, was many things—skeletal frame of pure functionalism; death-knell for Constructivism; moment of clarity severing relationships between the European and Soviet avant-garde; explanation foreshadowing his support of Marshal Pétain. Yet the proposal remains enigmatic not because of its architectural gestures, but because of its fate. Le Corbusier's proposal, which could have been "perhaps the greatest building ever built"[3], never made it past the second round of the competition. On 28 February1932, a letter announced Ivan Zholtovsky, Boris Iofan, and Hector Hamilton as the winners. It was not Le Corbusier's first loss (he had been disqualified earlier from the Palace for the League of Nations competition). It was, however, his most stinging and significant defeat to date.

The importance that Le Corbusier assigned to his proposal surely explains the ritual-like nature of its unveiling. But what was being veiled? Or, to use use the language of detectives and investigative magistrates, what was being uncovered? The amount of time and labor invested in this project is legendary, but why all the drama?  Le Corbusier's status as a figure in the history of architecture is undisputed. But an opportunity should be taken to examine all possible aspects leading to this claim, and hence the issue of "unveiling" takes an additional significance. The use of sheets as well as the clothes that Le Corbusier wears in the photograph from 1928 to 1931—a period coinciding with his Moscow projects— take on an special significance. A familiar architectural metaphor is in order. Architecture not only constructs, but is constructed. The same applies to the designer: an architect not only creates, but is created. And sometimes an architect's sartorial bent is presented as evidence of his stature. The clothes not only make the man, but they also make the architecture.

It seems as if no meditation or survey of Le Corbusier's life and work, whether intended for popular or scholarly audiences, overlooks the significance of his clothes. Thus in the introductory essay to the most recent omnibus volume of the architect's work, Jean-Louis Cohen writes how "The nearly geometric rigidity of [Le Corbusier's] figure in his corporeal and sartorial frame was evidently an artificial construct, a deliberately prepared camouflage."[4] The description is a nod to the idea of the modern architect as a person with a certain "look" that is not only cultivated in building and writing, but also in external appearances.

This emphasis on appearances follows two separate, but complimentary tracks. One the one hand, the architect's sartorial nature is seen as a legitimizing move, a conscious effort to place himself within a certain historical narrative.[5] On the other, the various material artifacts in an architect's attire (coat, tie, glasses, pipe) contribute to an iconographic portrait that hides as much as it reveals. The architect therefore appears as "a global brand name and embodied logo veiling the reality of a large-scale collaborative practice."[6] Together, these two statements help explain the construction of the modern architect ... and the architect as a modern construct.

Some amount of reexamination is in order. Both observations (rightly) privilege the image of the architect. Yet Cohen's implicit separation of Le Corbusier's figure into "corporeal" and "sartorial" selves  merits further exploration. The image of the architect is still of importance, but the significance of clothing can be instrumentalized in such a way to unveil and reveal more about architecture and its role in the writing the history.

Le Corbusier at the Centrosoyuz site (Source: Cohen, Le Corbusier et la mystique de l'URSS: Théories et projets pour Moscou, 1928-1936, 9)

"A March morning, 1930. Snow still covers the izbas and brick buildings of Moscow. Dressed in a voluminous woolen overcoat and a wide-brimmed, peaked cap (both bought at the GUM[7]), Le Corbusier smiles, notebook in hand."[8] This sentence, the very first from Cohen's landmark study of Le Corbusier's exchanges with Moscow during 1930s, is almost unassuming of its descriptive power. The architect here is revealed both as a consumer and as a writer. Yet the accompanying image reveals very little about his architecture. We are made to understand that this picture was taken on the construction site of the Centrosoyuz, Le Corbusier's first major public building. And though Cohen mentions the scaffolding in the background that would eventually become the building, we see very little of it. In fact, like the expansive adjectives used to describe Le Corbusier's attire (the "voluminous" coat and "wide-brimmed" cap) this photograph calls more attention to clothing than to building. The figure of the architect—exhausted, contemplative, freezing—is caught in a candid and vulnerable moment that seems very far removed from the critical and exalted images of architects we are accustomed to.

Le Corbusier outside the Centrosoyuz site (Source: Le Corbusier Le Grand [2008])

It is only when we see the entire image that a different figure emerges. Here, staging and framing replace candor and vulnerability. The edge of the house that we see behind the architect now becomes a demarcator, separating the photograph into two areas that seem to be in dialogue with each other. On the right, a white apartment building frames the already familiar figure of Le Corbusier.  This side of the image speaks to construction: a completed building foregrounds the constructed architect. To the left we can see the Centrosoyuz scaffolding more clearly. Its skeletal scaffolding foregrounds a singular, stripped wooden utility pole that occupies the same space as the architect in the right hand of the photograph. But whereas this pole is coexistent with the white building behind the architect, Le Corbusier's figure contrasts that of the Centrosoyuz. Whereas the building is the process of being built, the architect is swaddled in layers. The Centrosoyuz is exposed. The architect, protected. In other words, the building is naked, unclothed.

The clothing metaphor here is, of course, wholly intentional. Design historian Adrian Forty observed how architecture thought since antiquity had, in some very notable cases, looked to textiles and clothing as a model for utility. If imitation is indeed more than a sincere form of flattery, then any discussions about architectural form, surface, or even structure benefited from imitating the applied arts: "Just as a person should dress according to their station in life, so architecture should be appropriate to the use and importance of the building."[9] Forty continues his analysis on through to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, looking to Gottfried Semper's analysis of walls as symbolic clothing, John Ruskin's writings on dress to argue for more naturalism in architecture, and Viollet-le-Duc's writings for evidence of the idea that good, well-constructed clothing should serve as a model for architecture.

American girl in tennis costume, from Sigfried Giedion, Befreites Wohnen (1929) (Source: Forty, "Of Cars, Clothes and Carpets: Design Metaphors in Architectural Thought: The First Banham Memorial Lecture," Journal of Design History, Vol. 2, No. 1 [1989], 13).

Turning to the modern movement in architecture, he concludes his analysis with an image of a young girl in an "American tennis costume." Taken from Sigfried Giedion's Befreites Wohnen (Liberated Living) (1929), the image makes an immediate (and perhaps too easy) comparison between the telltale white surfaces of signature modern housing projects like those from the Weissenhofsiedlung in 1927 and the athlete's form-fitting white garments.[10] For Forty, the white tennis outfit "allows good ventilation and freedom of movement for the body, in contrast to its imprisonment by the conventional airless and restrictive dwelling."[11]

This image invites a more nuanced discussion about the idea of clothing as architecture. This equation is not as strange as it seems. After all, clothing and architecture are two kinds of interventions that protect humans from the natural environment. But this direct equation has a historical pedigree that is worth investigating. Consider, for example, Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (1833).  In that work, the English essayist and historian offers a sardonic and cutting jibe at German idealism in the guise of a novel about fashion. The main protagonist, a tailor named Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, offers a "philosophy of fashion" that compares changes in culture with changes in fashion. Yet Carlyle's invocation of an architectural metaphor is worth block-quoting: 
In all his Modes, and habilitory endeavors, an Architectural Idea will be found lurking; his Body and Cloth are the site and materials whereon and whereby his beautiful edifice, of a Person, is to be built. Whether he flow gracefully out in folded mantles, based on light sandals; tower up in high headgear, from amid peaks, spangles and bell-girdles; swell out in starched ruffs, buckram stuffings, and monstrous tuberosities; or girth himself into separate sections, and front the world an Agglomeration of four limbs,—will depend on the nature of such Architectural Idea: whether Grecian, Gothic, Later-Gothic, or altogether modern …[12]
Note how this passage marks a transformation of sorts that mirrors the above analyses and foreshadows what is yet to come: clothing is at first something that constructs the architect, that capitalizes on the metaphoric relationship between dress and building, and that finally reaches its sartorial apotheosis—that clothing has become architecture.

With Carlyle's invocation of various modes of dress now firmly in mind, Le Corbusier's sartorialisms now take on added significance. Here, I want to focus momentarily on a brief observation from Reyner Banham's Age of the Masters: A Personal View of Modern Architecture (1962), namely, that Le Corbusier openly flaunted architectural modernism's uniform-like "white walls":
For twenty years—thirty in the case of some critics—the defence of modern architecture was the defence of the uniform quite as much as the defence of Functionalism, and there are still people today who cannot accept a building as functional unless it wears the uniform gear. But already in the early thirties, Le Corbusier was adjusting his dress, and incorporating sporty or tweedy elements not accepted by the rest of the gang.[13]
This is a provocative quote, an almost too-facile invocation of Le Corbusier's nerdy dress as a critique of functionalism and anti-fashion statement.[14] And indeed, a look at Le Corbusier in the Soviet Union, preparing for the building of the Centrosoyuz (and the competition for the Palace of Soviets), reveals how some of these fashion gaffes did operate as a critique of sorts.

Le Corbusier poses next to a Russian peasant woman. Photograph taken by Sergei Kozhin in 1928 (Source: Starr,  "Le Corbusier and the U.S.S.R.: New Documentation" Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique, Vol. 21, No. 2 [Apr.-Jun., 1980], 218).

Two photographs from 1928, taken by the young architect Sergei Kozhin in the Moscow countryside, show Le Corbusier in a literally different guise. The first is a tight medium composition framing Le Corbusier and an older peasant woman. It is, to say the least, a study in contrasts. The woman, head covered with a baboushka, her body clad in a large, dark overcoat and blanket, appears weatherbeaten. Her pose is natural, unassuming, and yet provides the viewer with a glimpse of hard living only years before forced collectivization would take hold. Le Corbusier, on the other hand, appears as a sartorial emissary wearing a felt bowler instead of a peaked cap, his "overstuffed" coat open revealing the tweedy garments that bemused Banham so much as to call attention to them.

Le Corbusier stands by a peasant hut on the Moscow countryside. Photograph taken by Sergei Kozhin in 1928 (Source: Starr, "Le Corbusier and the U.S.S.R.: New Documentation", 218).

The second photograph shows the architect standing in front of a log house with pitched roof. Following Banham's suggestion, this is a very portrait of anti-fashion. Again, it is Le Corbusier's tweedy, rumpled garments that should call our attention here. But before we follow this tack and claim that his Tati-esque outfit complements or corresponds to the shabby house, it is important to note just how frail and small Le Corbusier appears in the photograph. It is an image where vernacular architecture overpowers the high modernist.

There is more, however, for here are the beginnings of Carlyle's "Architectural idea." Kozhin's photograph of the log house shows Le Corbusier in a manner not unlike that of the elderly peasant woman's: he too is buried under layers of bulky clothing. But, to recall the very "Architectural idea" that introduced this post—unveiling and concealment—what exactly is hiding under all these layers? Is it, as Cohen noted, the architect's geometric figure? When comparing this image with that of the architect sitting in front of the Centrosoyuz scaffolding or during the unveiling of the Palace of Soviets, the lack of definition is notable. The only things that are recognizable are the shape of Le Corbusier's head and his signature black glasses. In other words, is it possible that the process of constructing the self involves a fair degree of concealment?

In her study of C.G. de Clérambault's maligned course on drapery given at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1923, Joan Copjec provides us with a plausible answer to this question. It is an answer that involves, of all things, Le Corbusier's Vers une architecture (also from 1923). Copjec begins with telling quote from a 1928 lecture by Clérambault called "Classification of Draped Costumes": "a draped costume must be defined by the scheme of its construction."[15] She equates this "demand" with utility, and therefore sees a parallel development in the rise of functionalism in modern architecture theory. Citing the importance of Vers une architecture to this equation, Copjec notes that "It is at this point that style and ornament began to be considered precisely as clothing; their connection to the building, in other words, was taken as arbitrary rather than necessary, and they were thus viewed, for the first time, as the wrapping or covering of an otherwise nude building ... Functionalism, in the form of architectural purism, peaked, then, in a rending of clothing."[16] Literal unveiling now becomes a figurative shredding of clothes, a sartorial term describing the advent of a new architecture.  Unveiling, whether through the removal of drapery or rending of clothing, becomes functional and reveals a building underneath.

A Functional Unveiling

This description may seem tacit, but let us get back to the very image that started this discussion—the unveiling (or uncovering) of the Palace of Soviets from 1931—in order to understand its further implications. What this picture makes clear is that the very thing that is being uncovered is a building. And in fact, it was not only a new kind of building for Le Corbusier (it would have been his largest building to date), but also incorporated elements from other building types (separated circulation à la Charles Garnier, a concrete arch perhaps inspired by Eugène Freyssinet's dirigible hangar at Orly, classicist- and Beaux Arts-inspired biaxial symmetry) into an organic whole. Furthermore, the competition program required a spatial response to a new kind of building use—Le Corbusier's monument to the first Five-Year Plan incorporated two auditoria that could house and move 22,000 spectators along a system of sloped floors. The building was, in the architect's estimation, not just big, but bol'shoi (big), a project that envisaged the whole of the Soviet Union.[17]

Unveiling also suggests another kind of architectural valence, one that this post has attempted to utilize. If unveiling amounts to a kind of functionalism, then it follows that in terms of the writing of history, the uncovering of facts and details demonstrates another utility, that of constructing something general from something specific. It is an indirect kind of knowledge, one that not only emphasizes the (sometimes) conjectural value of an inference ("I will build an argument from the following clues"), but that also recognizes the importance of telepresence ("I will have to build an argument from the available information here because I cannot be there to assemble all possible clues"). But then again, we may have come full circle and understand the value of weaving a tapestry in lieu of uncovering it to detect something. The cloth therefore becomes a metaphor for the writing of history.[18]

Inverted Commas

But let us look at the image of the unveiling of the Palace of Soviets even closer. Follow the hands. Specifically, the hands framing this scene. On the left, one of the draughtsmen holds his right hand up in the air, his wrist bent at a downward angle. To the right, Le Corbusier's left hand straddles claw-like to the middle range of the double bass's fingerboard. These are hands that appear as quotes. This calls to mind a brief moment from Colin Rowe's "Mathematics of the Ideal Villa" (1947), his influential study of the value of historical references to Le Corbusier's work. Rowe has this to say about the designer of the Palace of Soviets: "with Le Corbusier there is always an element of wit suggesting that the historical (or contemporary) reference has remained a quotation between inverted commas, possessing always the double value of the quotation, the associations of both old and new context."[19] This is more than an apt description of Le Corbusier's afflictions for history. It is also more than a reference to the Palace of the Soviets sitting there in the middle between these two inverted commas.  It could very well describe the writing of this post.



[1] This image appears only in the original French version of Jean-Louis Cohen's text. The image is attributed to the personal collection of Orestis Maltos.
[2] The quote comes from the third line of Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1917).
[3] Robert Furneaux Jordan, Le Corbusier (London, 1972), 57-58, quoted in Frederick Starr, "Le Corbusier and the U.S.S.R.: New Documentation," Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Apr.-Jun., 1980), 213.
[4] Jean-Louis Cohen, "The Man With a Hundred Faces," in Le Corbusier Le Grand (New York: Phaidon, 2008), x.
[5] Mark Jarzombek, "The Saturations of Self: Stern's (and Scully's) Role in (Stern's) History," Assemblage, No. 33 (Aug., 1997), 13: "[Stern's] monochromatic dark suit, the conservative tie, the silk handkerchief in the vest pocket, the Mona Lisan smile, the coat draped capelike over the shoulders speak of him not only as a successful member of the working bourgeoisie, but also as the holder of important spiritual and aesthetic values. The soft tones of the face and the direct glance imply a tenderness that seems to be pulled out of the reluctant architect by the studied focus of the camera. The hands are interlocked in a calm, meditative pose, while the scrolls project forward out of his coat like Samurai swords at the ready. The endearing qualities of the architect are posited here in reference to the enduring qualities of history."
[6] Jeffrey T. Schnapp, "The Face of the Modern Architect," Grey Room, No. 33 (Fall 2008), 9-10.
[7] ГУМ, or Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin, the main department store in Moscow, designed in 1890-1893 by Alexsander Pomerantsev and Vladimir Shukhov.
[8] Cohen, Le Corbusier and the Mystique of the U.S.S.R.: Theories and Projects for Moscow 1928-1936, xi.
[9] Adrian Forty, "Of Cars, Clothes and Carpets: Design Metaphors in Architectural Thought: The First Banham Memorial Lecture," Journal of Design History, Vol. 2, No. 1(1989), 10.
[10] The relation between fashion and modern architecture has generated a very substantial body of literature. Though a review of this literature could well require many long posts, it is worth acknowledging the many instances in which modern architects not only wrote about, but also designed clothes. These include figures such as Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffman, Henry Van de Velde and Frank Lloyd Wright. Le Corbusier, of course, also fits this bill perfectly, as he featured fashion accessories in his articles for L'Esprit Nouveau as well as in L'Art decoratif d'aujourd'hui (1931) (appearing later as The Decorative Art of Today, James I. Dumont, trans. [Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: MIT Press, 1987]). Any discussion about the role of white clothing and white modernist buildings is indebted to Mark Wigley's White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2001).  It is also important to note most of the historical literature that associated architectural modernism with fashion appeared in the early 1990's. Some notable examples include Deborah Fausch, Paulette Singley, Rodolphe El-Khoury, and Zvi Elfrat, eds. Architecture: In Fashion (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1991); Wigley, "White-Out: Fashioning the Modern," in Fausch, et al., Architecture: In Fashion, 148-268; and Wigley, "White-Out: Fashioning the Modern [Part 2]," Assemblage, No. 22 (Dec., 1993), 6-49 (these last two texts appear later in White Walls, Designer Dresses). The best historiographic and analytical treatment appears in Leila W. Kinney, "Fashion and Fabrication in Modern Architecture," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 48, No. 3, Architectural History 1999/2000 (Sep., 1999), 472-481. This essay is important as it situates the production from the early 1990s within larger art historical, theoretical, and architectural contexts.
[11] Forty, "Of Cars, Clothes and Carpets," 12.
[12] Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinons of Herr Teufelsdrocke (London: 1833), quoted in George Van Ness Dearborn, "The Psychology of Clothing," in James Rowland Angell, ed. The Psychological Monographs, Vol. 26 (1918-1919), vii.
[13] Reyner Banham, Age of the Masters: A Personal View of Modern Architecture (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 39, quoted in Wigley, "White-Out: Fashioning the Modern [Part 2],"7.
[14] It is worth noting that Wigley's "White-Out" is a thorough investigation of this idea of anti-fashion and how it informed the construction of modern architecture, "a close examination of the way in which the white surface emerged out of architectural discourse's prolonged, but largely suppressed engagement with the antifashion movement in fashion design." Ibid., p. 8.
[15] G.G. de Clèrambault, "Classification des costumes drapés," quoted in Joan Copjec, "The Sartorial Superego" October, Vol. 50 (Autumn, 1989), 66.
[16] Copjec, "The Sartorial Superego," 67. I am not doing justice to Copjec's argument: in this piece, she looks at the relationship between drapery and utility in the construction of a postcolonial subject. Her invocation of Le Corbusier and architecture criticism locates Clèrambault's work within a larger cultural context.
[17] Le Corbusier declared that until convinced of the meaning of "big" vis-à-vis the Palace of Soviets, he had understood "Bolshevik" to be "a man with a red beard and a knife between his teeth." Frederick Starr, "Le Corbusier and the U.S.S.R.: New Documentation," Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Apr.-Jun., 1980), 211.
[18] Carlo Ginzburg and Anna Davin, "Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method," History Workshop, No. 9 (Spring, 1980), 23.
[19] Colin Rowe, "Mathematics of the Ideal Villa," in Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1982), 15 (italics added).