California Literary Review

Architecture and Modernism

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March 26th, 2007 at 4:52 pm

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Villa Savoye

[Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Alain de Botton's new book The Architecture of Happiness.]

In the spring of 1928 a Parisian couple named Pierre and Emilie Savoye approached the 41-year-old Swiss architect Le Corbusier and asked him to design a country house for them and their young son Roger on a wooded plot of land they owned overlooking the Seine, in Poissy, west of Paris. Le Corbusier had by this point in his career built fifteen private houses and acquired international renown for his categorical views on architecture.

‘Our engineers are healthy and virile, active and useful, balanced and happy in their work,’ he exclaimed in Towards a New Architecture (1923), while ‘our architects are disillusioned and unemployed, boastful or peevish. This is because there will soon be nothing more for them to do. We no longer have the money to erect historical souvenirs. At the same time, everyone needs to wash! Our engineers provide for these things and so they will be our builders.’

Le Corbusier recommended that the houses of the future be ascetic and clean, disciplined and frugal. His hatred of any kind of decoration extended to a pity for the British Royal Family and the ornate, golden carriage in which they traveled to open Parliament every year. He suggested that they push the carved monstrosity off the cliffs of Dover and instead learn to travel around their realm in a Hispano-Suiza 1911 racing car. He even mocked Rome, the traditional destination for the education and edification of young architects, and renamed it the ‘city of horrors’, ‘the damnation of the half-educated’ and ‘the cancer of French architecture’ – on account of its violation of functional principles through an abundance of Baroque detailing, wall-painting and statuary.

For Le Corbusier, true, great architecture – meaning, architecture motivated by the quest for efficiency – was more likely to be found in a 40,000-kilowatt electricity turbine or a low-pressure ventilating fan. It was to these machines that his books accorded the reverential photographs which previous architectural writers had reserved for cathedrals and opera houses.

Once asked by a magazine editor to name his favourite chair, Le Corbusier cited the seat of a cockpit, and described the first time he ever saw an aeroplane, in the spring of 1909, in the sky above Paris – it was the aviator the Comte de Lambert taking a turn around the Eiffel Tower – as the most significant moment of his life. He observed that the requirements of flight of necessity rid aeroplanes of all superfluous decoration and so unwittingly transformed them into successful pieces of architecture. To place a Classical statue atop a house was as absurd as to add one to a plane, he noted, but at least by crashing in response to this addition, the plane had the advantage of rendering its absurdity starkly manifest. ‘L’avion accuse,’ he concluded.

But if the function of a plane was to fly, what was the function of a house? Le Corbusier arrived (‘scientifically’ he assured his readers) at a simple list of requirements, beyond which all other ambitions were no more than ‘romantic cobwebs’. The function of a house was, he wrote, to provide: ‘1. A shelter against heat, cold, rain, thieves and the inquisitive. 2. A receptacle for light and sun. 3. A certain number of cells appropriated to cooking, work, and personal life.’

Behind a wall on the summit of a hill in Poissy, a gravel path curves through dense trees before opening out into a clearing, in the middle of which stands a thin, white, rectangular box, with ribbon windows running along its sides, supported off the ground on a series of implausibly slender pillars. A structure on the roof of the Villa Savoye resembles a water tower or gas cylinder, but turns out on closer inspection to be a terrace with a semicircular protecting wall. The house looks like a piece of finely tooled precision machinery, some industrial object of unknown purpose, with flawless white surfaces that on a bright day reflect back the sun with the luminescent intensity of fishermen’s cottages on the islands of the Aegean. It seems that the house may be no more than a temporary visitor and that its roof-top equipment could at any point receive a signal that would lead it to fire its concealed engines and rise slowly over the surrounding trees and historically styled villas on the beginning of a long journey home to a remote galaxy.

The influence of science and aeronautics continues inside. A front door made of steel opens onto a hallway as clean, bright and bare as an operating theatre. There are tiles on the floor, naked bulbs on the ceiling and, in the middle of the hall, a basin which invites guests to cleanse themselves of the impurities of the outside world. Dominating the room is a large ramp with a simple tubular rail which leads up to the main living quarters. Here a large kitchen is equipped with all the conveniences of its era. Steel-framed strip windows feed natural light into the principal rooms. The bathrooms are shrines to hygiene and athleticism; the exposed pipe work would do justice to a submarine.

Even in these intimate spaces, the mood remains technical and astringent. There is nothing extraneous or decorative here, no rosettes or mouldings, no flourishes or ornaments. Walls meet ceilings at perfect right angles, without the softening influence of borders. The visual language is drawn exclusively from industry, the artificial light provided by factory lamps. There are few pieces of furniture, for Le Corbusier had recommended to his clients that they keep their belongings to a minimum, reacting with injured alarm when Madame Savoye expressed a desire to fit an armchair and two sofas in the living room. ‘Home life today is being paralysed by the deplorable notion that we must have furniture,’ her architect protested. ‘This notion should be rooted out and replaced by that of equipment.’

‘What [modern man] wants is a monk’s cell, well lit and heated, with a corner from which he can look at the stars,’ Le Corbusier had written. As the builders finished their work, the Savoye family had reason to feel confident that in the house he had designed for them, these aspirations, at least, would be consummately met.

Governed by an ethos conceived by engineers, Modernism claimed to have supplied a definitive answer to the question of beauty in architecture: the point of a house was not to be beautiful but to function well. Yet this neat separation between the vexed matter of appearance and the more straightforward one of performance has always hung on an illusory distinction. Although we may at first glance associate the word ‘function’ with the efficient provision of physical sanctuary, we are in the end unlikely to respect a structure which does no more than keep us dry and warm.

Of almost any building, we ask not only that it do a certain thing but also that it look a certain way, that it contribute to a given mood: of religiosity or scholarship, rusticity or modernity, commerce or domesticity. We may require it to generate a feeling of reassurance or of excitement, of harmony or of containment. We may hope that it will connect us to the past or stand as a symbol of the future, and we would complain, no less than we would about a malfunctioning bathroom, if this second, aesthetic, expressive level of function were left unattended.

In a more encompassing suggestion, John Ruskin proposed that we seek two things of our buildings. We want them to shelter us. And we want them to speak to us – to speak to us of whatever we find important and need to be reminded of.

In reality, the architects of the Modernist movement, just like all their predecessors, wanted their houses to speak. Only not of the nineteenth century. Or of privilege and aristocratic life. Or of the Middle Ages or Ancient Rome. They wanted their houses to speak of the future, with its promise of speed and technology, democracy and science. They wanted their armchairs to evoke racing cars and planes, they wanted their lamps to evoke the power of industry and their coffee pots the dynamism of high-speed trains.

It wasn’t that they ever lost sight of the importance of arousing feelings; their argument was, instead, with the family of feelings that previous architectural styles had generated. With his central staircase in the Villa Savoye, Le Corbusier – just like Ange-Jacques Gabriel at the Classical pavilion of Le Petit Trianon in Versailles, a few miles to the south – was trying to do something other than simply carry people to an upper floor. He was trying to prompt a state of the soul.

Despite their claims to a purely scientific and reasoned approach, the relationship of Modernist architects to their work remained at base a romantic one: they looked to architecture to support a way of life that appealed to them. Their domestic buildings were conceived as stage sets for actors in an idealised drama about contemporary existence.

So strong was the aesthetic interest of the Modernists that it routinely took precedence over considerations of efficiency. The Villa Savoye might have looked like a practically minded machine, but it was in reality an artistically motivated folly. The bare walls were handmade by artisans using costly imported Swiss mortar, they were as delicate as pieces of lace and as devoted to generating feelings as the jewel-encrusted naves of a Counter-Reformation Church.

By Modernism’s own standards, the roof of the villa was equally, and yet more ruinously, dishonest. In spite of initial protests from the Savoyes, Le Corbusier insisted – supposedly on technical and economic grounds alone – that a flat roof would be preferable to a pitched one. It would, he assured his clients, be cheaper to construct, easier to maintain and cooler in summer, and Madame Savoye would be able to do her gymnastic exercises on it without being bothered by damp vapours emanating from the ground floor. But only a week after the family moved in, the roof sprang a leak over Roger’s bedroom, letting in so much water that the boy contracted a chest infection, which turned into pneumonia, which eventually required him to spend a year recuperating in a sanatorium in Chamonix.

In September 1936, six years after the villa’s official completion, Madame Savoye compressed her feelings about the performance of the flat roof into a (rain-splattered) letter: ‘It’s raining in the hall, it’s raining on the ramp, and the wall of the garage is absolutely soaked. What’s more, it’s still raining in my bathroom, which floods in bad weather, as the water comes in through the skylight.’ Le Corbusier promised that the problem would be fixed straightaway, then took the opportunity to remind his client of how enthusiastically his flat-roofed design had been received by architectural critics worldwide: ‘You should place a book on the table in the downstairs hall and ask all your visitors to inscribe their names and addresses in it. You’ll see how many fine autographs you will collect’. But this invitation to philography was of little comfort to the rheumatic Savoye family. ‘After innumerable demands on my part, you have finally accepted that this house which you built in 1929 is uninhabitable,’ admonished Madame Savoye in the autumn of 1937. ‘Your responsibility is at stake and I have no need to foot the bill. Please render it habitable immediately. I sincerely hope that I will not have to take recourse to legal action.’ Only the outbreak of the Second World War and the Savoye family’s consequent flight from Paris saved Le Corbusier from having to answer in a courtroom for the design of his largely uninhabitable, if extraordinarily beautiful, machine-for-living.

If Modernist architects privately designed with beauty in mind, why did they justify their work principally in technological terms? Fear seems to have lain at the heart of their discretion. The end of a belief in a universal standard of beauty had created a climate in which no one style could be immune from criticism. Objections to the appearance of Modernist houses, voiced by adherents of Gothic or Tyrolean architecture, could not be shrugged off without inviting accusations of high-handedness and arrogance. In aesthetics, as in democratic politics, a final arbiter had grown elusive.

Hence the attractions of a scientific language with which to ward off detractors and convince the wavering. Even the God of the Old Testament, faced with the continual querulousness of the tribes of Israel, had occasionally to ignite a piece of desert shrub to awe his audience into reverence. Technology would be the Modernists’ burning bush. To speak of technology in relation to one’s houses was to appeal – now that the influence of Christianity was waning and Classical culture was being ignored – to the most prestigious force in society, responsible for penicillin, telephones and aeroplanes. Science, then, would apparently determine the pitch of the roof.

Yet, in truth, science is rarely so categorical. In 1925 the architect and designer Marcel Breuer unveiled a chair which he touted as the world’s first soberly logical solution to ‘the problem of sitting’. Every part of the B3 chair was the result, he explained, of an intensive effort to banish ‘the whimsical in favour of the rational’. The B3’s seat and back were made of leather for durability; its offset angular shape was the inevitable answer to the needs of the human vertebrae; and its steel frame, because it was a hundred times stronger than wood, would never splinter or chip.

But Breuer’s attempt to make a scientific case for his chair could not breach an impregnable reality: while it may be necessary to resort to specific materials and forms when constructing a bridge, there is no corresponding technical need to limit one’s imagination in designing a piece of living-room furniture, which must merely support the weight of a human body – and so can be built of curved steel but also as happily of oak, bamboo, plastic or fibreglass. A chair can equally well satisfy its modest brief in the guise of a B3, a Queen Anne or a Windsor armchair. Science alone cannot tell us how our seats should look.

Calatrava’s Montjuic Telecommunications Tower, Barcelona 1991[Photograph by Ralf Roletschek]

Even in more complex commissions, the laws of engineering seldom dictate a particular style. The Montjuïc Telecommunications Tower in Barcelona, for example, could have taken on any number of forms while still managing to transmit its signals adequately. The antenna could have been sculpted to look like a pear rather than like a javelin; the base might have been made to resemble a riding boot rather than the prow of a spacecraft. Dozens of options would have each worked well mechanically. But as its architect, Santiago Calatrava, recognised, only a very few designs would have conveyed with appropriate poetry the promises of modernity to the people of Barcelona.

The incoherencies of the Modernist relationship to science return us to the confusing plethora of architectural options that the early Modernists had once hoped to eradicate. We return to the carnival of architecture. Why not carve flowers on our buildings? Why not use concrete panels imprinted with pictures of aeroplanes and insects? Why not coat a skyscraper with Islamic motifs?

If engineering cannot tell us what our houses should look like, nor in a pluralistic and non-deferential world can precedent or tradition, we must be free to pursue all stylistic options. We should acknowledge that the question of what is beautiful is both impossible to elucidate and shameful and even undemocratic to mention.

However, there might be a way to surmount this state of sterile relativism with the help of John Ruskin’s provocative remark about the eloquence of architecture. The remark focuses our minds on the idea that buildings are not simply visual objects without any connection to concepts which we can analyse and then evaluate. Buildings speak – and on topics which can readily be discerned. They speak of democracy or aristocracy, openness or arrogance, welcome or threat, a sympathy for the future or a hankering for the past.

Any object of design will give off an impression of the psychological and moral attitudes it supports. We can, for example, feel two distinct conceptions of fulfillment emanating from a plain Scandinavian crockery set on the one hand and an ornate Sèvres one on the other – an invitation to a democratic graceful sensibility in the former case, to a ceremonial and class-bound disposition in the latter.

In essence, what works of design and architecture talk to us about is the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them. They tell us of certain moods that they seek to encourage and sustain in their inhabitants. While keeping us warm and helping us in mechanical ways, they simultaneously hold out an invitation for us to be specific sorts of people. They speak of visions of happiness.

To describe a building as beautiful therefore suggests more than a mere aesthetic fondness; it implies an attraction to the particular way of life this structure is promoting through its roof, door handles, window frames, staircase and furnishings. A feeling of beauty is a sign that we have come upon a material articulation of certain of our ideas of a good life. Similarly, buildings will strike us as offensive not because they violate a private and mysterious visual preference but because they conflict with our understanding of the rightful sense of existence – which helps to explain the seriousness and viciousness with which disputes about fitting architecture tend to unfold.
The advantage of shifting the focus of discussion away from the strictly visual towards the values promoted by buildings is that we become able to handle talk about the appearance of works of architecture rather as we do wider debates about people, ideas and political agendas. Arguments about what is beautiful emerge as no easier to resolve, but then again no harder, than disputes about what is wise or right. We can learn to defend or attack a concept of beauty in the same way we might defend or attack a legal position or an ethical stance. We can understand, and publicly explain, why we believe a building to be desirable or offensive on the basis of the things it talks to us about. The notion of buildings that speak helps us to place at the very centre of our architectural conundrums the question of the values we want to live by – rather than merely of how we want things to look.

Excerpted from The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton © 2006 reprinted with permission by Pantheon Books, a division on Random House, Inc.

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