porte molitor

IMG_2503And then there’s Corbusier.  The UNESCO correspondence includes discussion about Corbusier’s involvement, including the remarks of one anonymous juror who noted–in 1951!–that Corb hadn’t actually built all that much by that point.  That seems incredible, but it wasn’t entirely untrue.  His CV had about sixteen houses (admittedly, some of them being the most important houses of the 1920s), the temporary Pavilion Esprit Nouveau, three apartment buildings, and the Centrosoyuz in Moscow.  He’d consulted on the Brazilian Ministry of Education with Niemeyer, and was working on what would become his most important projects–Ahmedebad, Chandigarh, the Unité d’Habitation, and Ronchamp.  But his reputation at that point, before the flood of acclaim that came with the projects then in progress, was largely as a writer and provocateur.

Still, those apartments.  In 1931 he completed this eight-story block near the Porte Molitor, turning the upper two stories into his own apartment and studio where he lived and painted for the next thirty-four years (the office itself was across the street from Le Bon Marche).  The apartment is open Saturdays from 10:00-1:00 and 1:30-5:00 to anyone brave enough to ring the doorbell and healthy enough to climb seven flights of stairs.  If you’re a complete idiot, you’ll go on the middle Saturday of the French Open and enjoy sharing the trip out with a few thousand tennis fans.

IMG_2446Corbusier, as my students will know, is a problem for me.  He was an ideas person, his philosophy really the Beaux-Arts in modern guise.  Once the form and space were worked out, he seemed to lose interest in what those forms were made of, and a lot of his buildings show the results of truly thoughtless execution.    Mies believed God was in the details; Corbusier was an atheist.

Still, the problem for me is that when he got it right, even I have to admit that I’m less interested in the crummy cladding junctions and more just blown away by what he could do with light and space and texture.  That’s his painting studio; the neighboring party wall became the interior surface that he looked at every day.  It’s easy to imagine him writing “space and light and order: people need these as much as bread and a place to sleep” while looking at this morning shaft of sunlight on his wall.

On his youthful “Journey to the East” Corbusier divided what he saw into three categories: “industrial,” “classical,” and “vernacular,” and you can see these three themes playing out in his dwellings.  They may have been “machines for living in,” but in this one, in particular, you can see him presenting industrial objects (that’s his bathroom sink–you can also see Corbusier’s shower, toilet, and bidet if you’re a completist), classical references (look at that ceiling vault, e.g.) and vernacular surfaces like the party wall in equal measure.  The dialogue between them defined what it meant to ‘dwell’ in the 20th century; to be comforted in three distinct ways that related to the physical, spiritual, and intellectual realms.  To stand in his studio is to feel this in a direct, tangible way.  Worth the morning, and even worth the tennis traffic.