Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Vers Une Architecture: From the Bildungsroman to the Manifesto

A pallid sky, above the world that ends from decrepitude, will perhaps depart with the clouds: the tatters of the worn-out purple of sunsets fade in a river sleeping to the horizon submerged in rays and water. The trees are bored and, under their whited leaves (from the dust of time rather than of roadways), rises the canvas house of the Showman of Things Past.

So begins Stephane Mallarmé's prose poem 'The Future Phenomenon', where crowds have gathered in this post-apocalyptic scene, confronted with some anonymous female figure of the past: 
When all have contemplated the noble creature, vestige of some epoch already accursed, some indifferent, for they have not had the strength to comprehend, but others broken and their eyelids moist with resigned tears will look at each other; while the poets of those times, feeling rekindled, their extinguished eyes, will head for their lamp, their brains drunk a moment with a confused glory, haunted by a rhythm and in forgetfulness of existing in an epoch that survives beauty.

This prose poem, according to the renowned Le Corbusier scholar Jean-Louis Cohen, was the inspiration for one of the more oblique references in the Swiss artist/ architect's iconic publication Vers Une Architecture a title that would later be translated, to the detriment of the original, as Towards a New Architecture (An earlier title that Le Corbusier later rejected, was 'Architecture or Revolution').

In a lecture given at the Getty Research Institute in 2008 (entitled 'Vers Une Architecture: From the Bildungsroman to the Manifesto') Cohen explains how the motif of the aeroplane, that appears in the book with the mysterious caption 'Eyes that do not see...airplanes', was inspired by Mallarmé's prose poem, and seems to grasp at the sensation of an old world being confronted with the new.  

This would seem to be an inverse of Mallarmé's prose poem, where the sighting of 'things past' enduces a drunkenness of 'confused glory' in the poets of from a time that has seemingly outlived beauty. What Le Corbuiser is in fact celebrating here is the role of the engineer, as designer and artist. Perhaps the Mallarmé quote also reflects the writer's own feelings at the time, whilst studying the buildings of ancient Rome. Did he too feel like he was looking back at the past from a distant present; from a time that had outlived beauty?

Vers Une Architecture was an opportunity for Le Corbusier to legitimate his own position as aspiring architect by grounding his thoughts in historical narrative. To understand what architecture is, he believed, one must learn from the lessons of Rome (the young Le Corbusier's identification with Michelangelo was profound). All these details and much more are discussed by Jean-Louis Cohen in this lecture. Perhaps most interesting and impressive is Cohen's description of Vers une Architecture as a 'complex printed object', and his page-by-page explanation of Le Corbusier's visual and rhetorical strategies; his choice of images, his manipulation of them (using proto Photoshop techniques), and his sophisticated understanding of page layouts to commuicate ideas. Vers une Architecture is a fine example of what Paul Valery referred to in Le Physique du livre.

Another prolific commentator on Le Corbusier, Charles Correa (who I will return to in a later post) has reflected on the architect's legacy, particularly in India. 'Especially in his buildings in India', writes Correa, 'Corb has become more and more absorbed in his visual language; and however masterful this language may become, it is still only one aspect of any great architecture.' After referring to the Secretariat in Chandigarh as 'a magnificent façade, like a stage set,' Correa asks, 'Did not the earlier Corb promise something less skin-deep, something more conceptual?'
Cohen's presentation at the Getty Institute (itself a summary of his introduction to the new 2007 translation published by Getty, with the 'New' erased from the title) reveals how 'Corb' was in fact absorbed in the formulation of his own visual language even in these early formative years of his career. Vers une Architecture is, Cohen explains, even something of a rumination on his insecurities and failures as an architect and businessman up until this point. The publication of this collection of essays would change Le Corbusier's circumstances dramatically; in effect it would prove to be a unique marketing tool for him.

Cohen concludes with some comments on the book's legacy and the problems of translation. He refers to Edwin Lutyen's response to Towards a New Architecture (another European architect prolific in India's cities, having been responsible for the development of New Delhi). In what was published as 'The Robotism of Architecture', Lutyens remarks that the buildings seemingly promised by Le Corbusier here can only be made for robots: 'robots without eyes – for eyes that have no vision cannot be educated to see.' Cohen chalks this scathing review up to the English translation, which was a 'complete betrayal of Le Corbusier's intentions.' But Lutyen's remarks seem to be also punning on Le Corbusier's description in the book (after Mallarmé) of 'eyes that do not see ... airplanes'

There appear to be two arguments: on the one hand (with Lutyens) the new architecture has lumbered us with eyes that have no vision, whereas on the other (Le Corbusier) our eyes are simply 'not yet able to discern' the style of an era as such that is so fixed in the present moment.