MOOS, Stanisalaus Von
Le Corbusier Symposium 1/3 ARTNET
Date: Monday 1 January 1968
Stanisalaus Von Moos talk at Artnet on Le Corbusier.
Allen Brooks concludes.
Stanislaus von Moos is introduced. He has recently published “Le Corbusier - elements of a synthesis” (1968) and will give three talks in the symposium.
Stan resumes the basic idea that he wants to pursue in the series of three lectures with a quote of Peter Sereni: “during his long creative life, Le Corbusier responded primarily to emerging tendencies rather than to circumstances of a given moment; he gave form to a life pattern in the making, rather than to one already in existence.” Sereni says that the significance and importance of Le Corbusier lies in the invention of new forms, for a society that was not yet born really, that was about to take shape. This image of the genius that emerges out of the shadow, that does not care about day-to-day politics or circumstances, is perhaps not the most relevant one to cultivate nowadays. It is indeed the image more widely spread, and the one that the master promoted himself: in contrast to accepted dogma, in tune with the new realities of the era that has just begun. In this lectures he will talk about the circumstances of a given moment, and to attempt to see Le Corbusier as a man who was much more directly linked to the day to day reality of the epoch. Le Corbusier might emerge as a figure not of anticipation, but as a mediator, a reflector of the cultural realities of his time. The New Spirit, (L'Esprit Nouveau), is the title of a magazine founded by a number of intellectuals in Paris in 1920, among them, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, Amédée Ozenfant and Paul Dermée. The term comes from the title of the talk of Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917: ‘L'Esprit Nouveau et les poetes.’ Stan will give an idea of the context of the Esprit Nouveau, from 1918-1920. With this aim, he looks at the situation of Germany at the time, and the climate that inspired avant-garde art and architecture, right after WWI. Frenetic activity among artists. In Berlin, progressive architects assemble in the November Groupe. Gropius and later Bruno Taut, were head of this groups, promoting the refusal of any form of bourgeois culture as a form of class dominance and traditional institutions. After such a cultural tabula rasa, a new world would emerge. Some of this enthusiasms are mirrored later in the Bauhaus. This is a background of what happens in Paris, which is totally different. The pre-war values in Paris, seem to be strengthened, after the military victory. The cultural climate is of restoration and renovation, not an age of romantic dreams, as in Germany. In the magazine, the first issue brings three reminders to architects, the number one: the volume, with an image of a grain silo. One is encouraged to go back to the good old rules of classical times. Von Moos refers to the brick factory that Le Corbusier started in the outskirts of Paris. The idea of subordinating life or the organic to machinery and technological processes became of a great importance for him. Ozenfant invited him to paint in his own studio and to work together. They wrote “Après le Cubisme,” a book that suggests a continuity with cubism, as reflecting their intention of being understood as a part of the avant garde. The text represents a major attack to the theoretical basis of the movement; they consider it as elitist, made by people not in touch with their own time. Stan shows paintings of Le Corbusier and points out how they are much closer to Georges Seurat than to the revolution of cubism.
The Werkbund has been of increasing interest; founded in 1907 by a group of industrialists, architects, artists and designers, such as Hermann Muthesius, Peter Behrens and others with the declared aim to do something in order to improve the quality of German products. That idea was promoted by a number of exhibitions and publications, such as the one in 1914. Within this movement, those who Muthesius called the class of educated germans, had to take a role in the productive system in order to produce a new purified aesthetic. Karl Scheffler was an art historian, fundamental to the ideological formation of the Werkbund. He wrote the following in its yearbook of 1914 “The struggle of the German Werkbund is first and foremost a campaign aiming at establishing a new, masculine, rationality; an attempt to bring back to our ordinary things the simple human quality that we can call classical.” This is one of the aesthetic basis of the new style. The interest of these texts lies in one of their central issues: the idea of a new interaction between the designer and the public. That is a model, in the productive system, of someone who establishes standards and this is a model that is very different from modern marketing principles, from the accepted way goods are being designed and produced in capitalist society, where the marketing of a product is not based upon some sort of educational effort from the side of an intellectual elite, but the marketing of a project is based on motivated research or systematic insinuation to the sub-rational levels of the potential consumer. That is the real model, and the ideal model, proposed by the German Werkbund is one where the elite, the intellectuals, determine what the needs of the people really are. So the designer assumes a cultural mission. Von Moos shows the building of AEG, calling it the Walhalla of German productivity. In the history of Modern design, it is the first large scale example of a great firm that establishes its corporate identity with the help of a designer: Peter Behrens. In 1910, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret was in Berlin and while he was working for 5 months in Peter Behrens’s office, he was commissioned by the art school of the Chaux-de-Fonds to write an essay on the situation of arts and crafts and industrial design in Germany around 1912. He was an expert on the problems of industrial design in Germany. This essay, that to date has not been translated, is on the role of Peter Behrens as designer and chief of the general electric company. Von Moos argues that Germany was very important for Jeanneret, and that he could have settled there as much as in Paris, indeed he had interesting offers, such as that in 1917 to collaborate on a urban design competition in Frankfurt. Also, Le Corbusier was extremely familiar with the publications of the German Werkbund, (von Moos shows an illustration from an article by Walter Gropius of the Werkbund 1913, where he praises the beauty of this American grain silo. A few years later the same image appears in the Esprit Nouveau, where Le Corbusier has “purified” the scene, so the grain silo is more consistent with the aesthetics of L’Esprit Nouveau. Slightly the same happens in another silo in Montreal. Von Moos shows those pages of the Esprit Nouveau where two automobiles are compared with two Greek temples, commenting Le Corbusier’s argument that there is a process of purification, and standardization in both cases. Banham signals that both cars shown have never been mass-produced. However, they play a role as symbols of the new age. The way of articulating a building as a machine that is made of a number of elements as individual pieces and then put together as a sort of cultural collage is what characterizes the Swiss Pavillion in the Cite Universitaire of Paris. Then he proposes an argument: that industrialism is going to supply the solution for the problem of housing shortage. To show this argument he choses a car and in only in the first print of the article, he includes a rather small mass-produced car that the company ‘voisin’ had designed. In the reprint this image disappears, because it does not make the point of the quality of a car. The iconography of a man standing in front of his car is a strong theme that has been dramatized by merchandising, as providing everybody of the gratifying feeling of being in command of a situation. This is rather explicit in the contemporary popular art scene or commercial trivia and rather implicit in the philosophy of Le Corbusier. The idea of the objectile, so important in Le Corbusier’s theory of painting, has its direct counterpart and direct source on the world of advertising. As Alfred Barr has said in his book cubism and abstract art, the ultimate triumph of purism occurred in the realm of poster design. Objectile: those simple elements of basic life that represent the ethos of the new machine age. Finally, a few words on architecture. The design principles of Le Corbusier have been explained in terms of their non conformity, in terms of their bald departure from current practice. But they come from a new understanding of the anonymous realities of modern civilizations. Images and techniques that come from the realm of industry are now took as the base for the principles of the new spirit. Most of the buildings that exemplify it are indeed factories. It is interesting that the only theoretical base really advanced that was articulated in the twenties is based in the principles of the concrete frame. Concrete frame introduces the piloti in substitution of the traditional bearing walls. The reinforced concrete frame introduces the roof garden, the free plan. The pilotis are removed from the facade. It appears a fifth point, the free facade, the elongated window that it is only understandable under the consideration that Le Corbusier wanted to elevate the number of principles to five, like the five orders of architecture, that he wanted to substitute. I could argue that there are up to 24 points, some argue for 66. Villa Savoye exemplifies this principles. The ramp, for instance, von Moos suspects that reflects Le Corbusier’s interest on the circulation of cars; a fascination reflected on his publication of the Fiat factory in Turin. There is something else to the ramp of Villa Savoye, that has something to do with his fascination with stage sets, around 1900 in Moscow, where the continuing use of ramps as a means of dramatizing appearances and disappearances of people. But the most obvious reference of the villa is in the terrace, on the naval aspect of it: the fact that the terrace is obviously reminiscent of boat. The problem with naval symbolism is that once you accept the principles of purism and new materials, your buildings are likely to look like ships. There is something archetypal to this naval overtones in architecture, that have been noted by many crits. But the boat is not only a symbol of the purity and the simplicity of technical design, it also represents a model of social life, that can be a reference for the problem of collective living. There is a symbolism of the captain in Le Corbusier’s thinking in his mythology, some of the ambiguity in Corb’s imagery of the boat, implies the presence of a captain of the boat, commanding it all. It is not quite clear whether it’s more gratifying to be under the strong command of the captain, responsible for the accomplishment of an important transport operation or more complex social affairs, the life order of a nation, or if the real thing is to stand under the command of oneself. It seems that Le Corbusier had placed the happiness of being safe and conducted in more places than the other, for instance when he talks about the architecture of happiness it is of a kind that comes from above. There are some exceptions where this situation is inverted. However, in the first sense, the artist has a responsibility for the social quality of the world. This is part of the legacy of the Esprit Nouveau, which has been later compromised, first by society’s reluctance to accept that position of command, and more dramatically by those cases when society has accepted the architect’s leadership, the results have been dramatically counterproductive to human and social needs. Like the consequences of the direct adaptation of some of Le Corbusier’s urban renewal principles in the USA. Von Moos finishes, pointing out that he will continue his intervention in the afternoon.
Stanislaus von Moos is introduced again, as a contributing author of the recently released book edited by Russell Walden: “The Open Hand: Essays on Le Corbusier,” and the editor of the international Swiss magazine ‘archithese.’
Von Moos summarizes a previous lecture, where he attempts at discussing the ideological themes that ultimately went into the as the concept of the Unite d’habitation. He mentioned the examples of Russian communal housing as a reference for anyone dealing with collective housing in the 20th century. Then, he shifted to Germany, intrigued by the fact that both Germans and Russians, in a political context that was comparable in many ways, where extremely influenced by the Fourierist tradition of the phalanstery or familistery as a way of life; that would be socialist. He argues that Russian avant garde architects were deeply involved with a form essentially derived from the factory, or the idea of the assembly line, and taylorization of everyday life. Despite the fact that they were considered as extremely rational and utilitarian in spirit, the Germans turned out to be rather romantic, and to focus not so much in their proposals on the idea of the factory as a model of renewal, but in the enthusiasm for the small village situation. It is interesting in that context that an institution like the Bauhaus was starting in Weimar, the city of Goethe, and not at all in Berlin, the great metropolis. These two points for a tentative triangulation will serve to discuss the contribution of Le Corbusier to that idea of communal housing developed during those years. Von Moos argues that his early proposals in the direction of the immeuble Villa, were very much an inspiration and formal basis for the projects of Russian architects. Whereas, as far as the economics of communal life are concerned, it is not a strictly socialist or Leninist model the one for communal housing proposed by some other architects; it had to do with the idea of providing a new social management that enabled the small family housing to survive, minus the crew of servants that belonged to a French bourgeois household in the 19th century tradition. The situation in France was very different from the situation both in Germany and in Russia, because France didn’t have a coordinated government housing policy at that time, the government did subsidize housing but without a board that exerted some sort of control over what sorts of projects were to be realized and which ones were not. Russia was extremely admired by people like Le Corbusier, not so much for the social philosophy that inspired the government, but by the fact that local architects were able to realize their concepts to a much larger degree that it would have been conceivable in France. For the same reason, Le Corbusier also had great respect to what the Germans were doing, although it turned out to evolve into an arrogant criticism. The tragedy of Le Corbusier in France was that he really had no chance to realize any of his ideas; he only built two apartment buildings in the late 1920s. It is significant that one of these clients was the salvation army, who commissioned him in 1926 to build an addition to an existing building, and also in the same year, he was commissioned to create a boat: the ‘Péniche de l'Armée du Salut,’ that was located next to the Louvre, in the Seine. The ship has a strange symbolic, deep rooted mythical meaning in the context of Le Corbusier’s philosophy, and it is also a symbol for salvation. It is a social condenser, a piece of architecture that not only reflects the ongoing changes in society, but tries to bring about further changes, towards an improvement of society. Von Moos shows a catalogue of photographs of the buildings of the Salvation army, where the addition of Le Corbusier is portrayed. Maybe to accommodate to the taste of the potential sponsors, Le Corbusier’s building is accompanied by a caption which prays “this is the curious annex of the Palais du Peuple.” Von Moos shows a newspaper of the salvation army that explains their idea of the 1920s of building a Cité de Refuge, where they will be able to provide help for the unemployed and where to concentrate the bureaucracy of the salvation army. There is a paragraph that explains the purpose of it all: “The glory of the salvation army will be to build the ‘Cité de Refuge;’ a city where the miserable and the vagabond (among others listed) will be able to come and to be sure to be received. There will soon be in Paris, where the unfortunate will find a temporary help, where the poor will be able to restore his wardrobe, to receive the disinterested advice of a lawyer and a doctor (...)”. The building that came out of that program, in terms of its philosophy or ideology, was a kind of a social condenser, in the literal sense, where people were processed towards a better form of life. In terms of symbolism, the project has much more to do with the Russian examples that with anything that the salvation army could put out. It has a number of very strange particularities, such as the digestion apparatus that is separated from the body of the building, as if for the purpose of a clinical demonstration of what the building is about. Von Moos explains the way the building works making use of its section. He argues that ‘Cité de Refuge’ is a very straight demonstration of the idea of the social condenser, and quite literally of the former in the Russian, marxist and neo-fourierist sense as a building that not only reflects change of social realities, but brings a change to social reality. The whole building is therefore a transition station, a transformer. The Salvation Army was considered by Le Corbusier not only as his most important client but he thought that the salvation army might actually, in the context of France, play a comparable role to the Government housing agencies in Germany or in Russia. He actually went to talk to the minister of housing and told him that France needed, as much as Germany or Russia, a board to advise the government as to what standards of housing should be reached. Only one institution in France at the time would have been able to do it, that is the salvation army. All this is an important background in the later development of the unite d’habitation.
Allen Brooks is introduced; he has written several books on Frank Lloyd Wright, the most recent one is “””The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and his Contemporaries”””, he is editing an anthology on Frank Lloyd Wright and recently he has been spending time in Paris, at the Fondation Le Corbusier, studying the early work of Le Corbusier. It is interesting to have a connection between the early work of Wright and Le Corbusier.
Allen explains his main concern has been the first 30-32 years of Le Corbusier’s life, partly because he takes his input from many of the sources that influenced Wright’s life; that is to say the English Arts and Crafts movement and other things of that nature. Allen’s objective has been to try to shed more light on this early years, of which we know mainly two things: the importance of his arts school teacher, L’Eplattenier, and his travels, his education through his various travels around Europe. What we haven't heard is about certain areas that he chose to black out, such as an extended stay in Germany, and so on. Luckily, Allen has found an enormous amount of material, and letters of that period of Le Corbusier’s life, plus totally unknown architectural projects that very few people have seen, some of them from 1904 and 1905, which are perfectly classificated as French-Belgian art nouveau buildings. Of course, this was something he wanted to hide, he had to cover up his youth because everything he stood up for in his those years was what he stood again later on. After reading hundreds and hundreds of these letters from his early years (one of them written when Le Corbusier was six years old), Allen concludes that he is a very warm person, a very human individual -in contrast with what later on has been said of him. He is continuously seeking out friendships, expressing himself through writing, desiring to be a writer: he expends a tremendous amount of time practising writing. Allen proceeds to show some of the built work of the period 1906-1916 in his hometown, La Chaux-de-Fonds, before going to France. Allen refers to the influence of Amédée Ozenfant, which could have had a crucial role in terms of opening Le Corbusier’s eyes. At this early period, December 1912, he remodeled a house to live in, to escape from La Chaux-de-Fonds, where he lived all alone, rather than staying with his parents. His earliest built work dates from 1906, build in the summer of 1907. It was a commision from one of the directors of the arts school and reveals his fascination with arts and crafts. Allen shows some details and motifs, relating them to the Ruskinian tradition and pointing out that the decorations had been painted by Le Corbusier himself and his art school friends. At the time, Le Corbusier was developing two dimensional patterns, that could be appropriate for wall decoration and wall paper design. Allen shows a design of a watch, which Le Corbusier had told it won a prize (the Arts School won a prize for the totality of the exhibition). Two years later, he went to Italy on a trip, he talks later about Joseph Hoffmann and in all the various books one guesses how much time does he spent in Hoffmann’s office.
Transcription by María José Orihuela, Architect, MA HCT at the Architectural Association.
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