What measuring system for the architectural experience?

One of the most obvious contradictions found in recent architectural publications is an excessive exposure of the building façades given as unique evidence for any new architecture. The profusion and quality of images increases – photographs of the new buildings, or proposals rendered realistically – while the knowledge revealed via architectural drawings diminishes. How can an excess of façade exposure compensate for the lack of measurable technical drawing and without scale indication?

The French review “Histoire de l’art” has recently launched a call for papers on the theme: “Art of the façade” as a way to discuss the relation between architecture and visual arts (“L’art de la façade. L’architecture et les arts visuels”[i]). It seems symptomatic today that the possible dialogue between different artistic practices, where architecture holds its place, should be reduced to “the art of the façade”. The initiators of this topic take the precaution of referring to the façade in a broader sense, as an “envelope”, in its “multiple relation with the interior and the exterior spaces”. Yet, this text is founded on several contradictory propositions. For instance, the text starts with the observation of an “increasing porosity between architecture and visual arts taking place in the last fifteen years”. Subsequently, we are invited to send contributions with no “chronological and thematic limitations”, from the Ancient World through the Medieval times or the Renaissance, to Modernism, described as “opposite from the essentially plastic experiences” – “à l’inverse de ces expériences essentiellement plastiques” (sic). If we assume that the fifteen years’ lapse of time is certain, why should we extend the conversation to the entire history of architecture?! Moreover, if Modernism is seen (perhaps unjustly) as the opposite of a “plastic experience” why are we given in the first paragraph, as significant examples, Land Art and Minimalism for illustrating the relation between art and architecture, two art movements that are in direct lineage with the modern language of architecture? Despite the ostensible openness of the proposed topic, this call for papers could bring us back to the vacuous debates of the historicism in architecture and, looking for an ideal envelope, can result in missing what is already there. This danger is underlined by a slight disregard for important achievements of the Modern Movement, like the “synthèse des arts” or “l’œuvre d’art total”. As the term “Synthèse des Arts” was adopted by Le Corbusier[ii], it would be good to clarify this matter revisiting one of his most important works, the Villa Savoye at Poissy. And thus, I shall not tempt to describe the building façade or the “5 points of a new architecture”, but my own experience around and inside the Villa during a performance of contemporary art.

Built between 1928 and 1931, the Villa Savoye is a major work of Le Corbusier’s purist period. Listed as a historic monument in 1965, during the lifetime of its author, it belongs today to the Centre des Monuments Nationaux. Since 1997, when fully opened to the public, its unique space has been rarely associated with cultural events, although the French Ministry of Culture had previously commissioned a study[iii] to explore its possible uses. This year, the initiative of inviting a contemporary art manifestation at the Villa has been honoured by the artist Marie-Ange Guilleminot at the suggestion of Sophie Brossais, art director.

A coherent series of interventions entered thus in a subtle dialogue with the interior and exterior of the Villa. From the entrance we perceive through the trees a light geodesic structure fixed on the square patch of grass in front of the south facade. Under certain atmospheric conditions this structure, made of carbon fibre rods and joints from ceramic pieces, can catch the sunlight emphasizing its triangular geometry, or it may give the impression of vanishing in the surrounding landscape.

Inside the Villa, the artwork can be transformed and thus is able to occupy the space in different ways. The piece significantly called Livre de seuil (a pun between the word threshold and the French publisher Les Editions du Seuil) is made of felt and it is the size of a breeze block. It can be opened like a book of which the pages are pre-cut patterns that can be instantly transformed into slippers. When the “books” are closed and arranged in stacks, they form a mass of felt that can be used as seating (in front of the entrance) and for relaxation (in the bedroom of the Savoye couple). When the “books” become furniture pieces (bench or bed), the visitor might not be aware of their other possible form and meaning and see nothing there! (paraphrase of the Daniel Arasse title “On n’y voit rien“!).

The main piece of the installation – called du meuble spirale au meuble infini… – is a hexagonal assemblage of modules inspired from Le Corbusier’s later sketches, from the proportions system Le Modulor to Le Poème de l’angle droit. When opened, the “spiral” assemblage reveals two reading stools and a series of bookshelves that can be deployed around the fireplace of the living room. When closed, the spiral becomes a sort of altar piece or introverted solid hexagonal table.

When not animated, all these poetic objects (“objets à réaction poétiques” as Le Corbusier might have said) remain silent for most of the visitors; but when they are unfolded, moved around and looked at under a certain angle, they reveal their full meaning. Thus, their significance can hardly be pinned down to the thin border between presence and absence or between visible and invisible.

In a period when spatial experience risks to be substituted by flashy architectural magazine imagery, an installation that questions excessive exposure becomes salutary. Seen in a broader perspective, this transformation of objects at human scale (mainly furniture and clothing) opens the debate toward another aspect developed here for the first time by Le Corbusier – the so called “promenade architecturale”.

This architectural aspect of the Villa can not be experienced from the outside and significantly, it was drawn by Le Corbusier in section. In a preliminary sketch, the drawing of the stair running from the basement to the solarium of the upper terrace is overlaid onto that of the ramp starting at the entrance. Analysing the genealogy of the ramp, Tim Benton observed in the early sketches of the project that “the path traced by the car is echoed by the ramp which rises up through the house as if in a continuous flow of motion. […] The remnants of this idea of a house transfixed by the motorcar are clearly apparent in the building today, where the ceremonial route passes by way of a ramp on the central axis from the ground up through the house, out into the open air, and up to the roof-terrace”[iv]. The visibility of an idea is thus achieved through the architecture of a slow motion, climbing the ramp towards the light and crossing the thin boundary between interior and exterior.

Revisiting the articles published in l’Esprit Nouveau, we recall the provocative title: “Eyes which do not see”[v] associated with: I. Liners, II. Airplanes, III. Automobiles. At the beginning of the 1920’s, they had already generated a new aesthetic – that of the machine, with a design that echoed an increased speed and a faster manufacturing process. This new vision is reflected in Villa Savoye, also called by its author “les Heures claires”. This name illustrates not only the serene atmosphere of this “box in the air” open to the four horizons, but also a clear vision and a state of mind favourable to cast a manifesto into its architectural space. The clarity is achieved here through the sequence of viewpoints in space, a fact that is not visible in the façade.

The relation between the human scale and vehicle speed accompanied Le Corbusier during the second World War, when he conceived  the new system of proportions centred on the Modulor man. Integrating both measuring scales, the Anglo-Saxon and the metric system, he observed “the necessity of a new visual measure, now when the vehicles of greater speed transformed the relations between people and between nations”[vi]. Thus he invented a system based on the golden number, which has the spiral as graphic representation and the Fibonacci series as numeric description.

In an intuitive way, the Modulor proportional system changed the focus from the scale of the object to the ways it can be used and experienced. When we think of a building, we wonder if it can accommodate the unavoidable changes of time, speed and lifestyle so that we can still make sense of it. In a world changing at unprecedented speed, we keep an eye on the transition zone between small and big, old and new, back and front, slow and fast, poor and rich, trying to create links between disconnected elements.

[i] A call for papers announced the 10th of Octobre by the review Histoire de l’art for Spring 2013; http://blog.apahau.org/appel-a-contribution-revue-histoire-de-lart-n72-printemps-2013-lart-de-la-facade/

[ii] Arnoldo Rivkin, “Synthèse des Arts, un double paradoxe”, in Le Corbusier une encyclopédie, Paris, Editions du Centre Pompidou/CCI, 1987, pp. 386-391.

[iii] Ron Kenley, Animation de la Villa Savoye, Ministère de la Culture, 1991.

[iv] Tim Benton, “Villa Savoye” in the Catlogue Le Corbusier, Architect of the Century, Arts Council of Great Britain, London, 1987, p. 63.

[v] Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture (Vers, une architecture, Eds. Crès, Paris, 1923), The Architectural Press, London, 1927, I. Liners, II. Airplanes, III. Automobiles.

[vi] Le Corbusier, Le Modulor, essai sur une mesure harmonique à l’échelle humaine applicable universellement à l’architecture et à la mécanique (1949), Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris, Dénoël, 1977, p. 16, “… le besoin d’une mesure visuelle nouvelle ne s’est révélé vraiment impératif qu’en cette récente période, où les véhicules à grandes vitesses ont transformé les rapports des hommes et des peuples”.

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