Robert Mallet-Stevens and Fernand Léger, modernist set designs for L’Inhumaine (1924)

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Some remarks by Italian architecture critics on the architectural significance of the movie.

The elegant and refined works of Mallet-Stevens, beginning with the De Noailles villa of 1923 in Hyères, were yet another product of an intimate converse with the Cubist vanguard that nonetheless kept its eye on the latest modes and fashions, as in the house on Rue Balzac in Ville d’Avray (1926) or the apartment block of the next year on the street in Paris named for the architect himself. In the sophisticated world of the avant-garde, Mallet-Stevens moved at his eclectic ease: his villa for the Vicomte de Noailles was used as the setting for Man Ray’s film Les Mystères du Chateau du Dé. Already in 1923-24, Mallet-Stevens had collaborated with Léger, Chareau, and Alberto Cavalcanti on a film by Marcel L’Herbier, L’Inhumaine, in which the house of the leading character is one of the finest examples of that scenographic and eclectic synthesis of Cubist, Neo-Plasticist, and Art Deco details of which Mallet-Stevens’ architecture is compounded. (Pg. 233)

— Manfredo Tafuri
& Frencesco Dal Co
Modern Architecture

The human being as inventor and as machine was even transferred to the stage in ballets such as Parade (1917), Alexander Exeter’s L’homme Sandwich (1922), and the Triadische Ballet of Oskar Schlemmer and plays an obvious role in the rhythmic sequencing and montage used as compositional techniques in films such as Fernand Léger’s Ballet mécanique and Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine. Photography and the cinema are in fact the two new and popular mechanical figurative arts. If photography offers an alternative to the pictorial representation of nature, cinema provides art with new materials in a new harmony of space and time in movement and a new simultaneity. These were themes that Walter Benjamin was to treat in the 1930s. (Pg. 20)

— Vittorio Gregotti
The Architecture of
Means and Ends

And now for an article by Mallet-Stevens.
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Architecture and Geometry (1924)

Robert Mallet-Stevens

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Architecture is an art which is basically geometrical. The cube is the basis of architecture because the right angle is necessary. In practice, walls are generally vertical, floors are horizontal, columns, pillars and posts are vertical, terraces and the ground are horizontal, stone blocks are parallelepipeds, windows and doors are rectangular, the steps of a staircase consist of vertical and horizontal planes and the corners of rooms are nearly always right angles. We need right angles.

A house, a palace, is composed of a set of cubes. At all stages in the history of art the house has been cubical. Each country, each century, each fashion has made its impression on the cube, with sculptures, moldings, pediments, capitals, ornamental foliage, scrolls — so many decorative details which are often of no use to the structure but which give the charm of the play of light and shade. Building in stone, in fact, only allowed a block to be made, composed of various elements, to which the decoration was related as if glued on.

Robert Mallet-Stevens in 1924

Robert Mallet-Stevens in 1924

Nowadays reinforced concrete has completely transformed the problems which the builder has to solve. A thousand shapes are possible, unexpected silhouettes spring up, often strange, but rational and sincere. Reinforced concrete allows overhangs, the elimination of numerous points of support, and the reduction of the various structural elements to a minimum. So the proportions are profoundly modified and the aesthetic becomes different.

The modern architect can make something other than a compact block of stone, wood, iron, zinc, cast iron, staff, marble, stucco, bricks or lead; he can “play” with a series of monolithic cubes. Applied decoration is no longer called for. The architect does not need to carve moldings on to a façade. The material the architect is sculpting is the house itself; the projections and and the rectilinear setbacks will form great planes of light and shade. Instead of scrolls or garlands of leaves, there will be smooth surfaces butting up against other smooth surfaces. Architecture has become monumental.

The plans of houses, too, will be transformed. There is no need to place walls directly over each other (for structural reasons). Central heating allows you to glaze huge expanses of window. Reinforced concrete allows you to use very small piers and projecting porch roofs to protect the exterior, with terraces laid out as open-air rooms. Every detail of construction is altered. There are new needs, there are new techniques. The aesthetic is new.

Moreover, ornaments are expensive and these days economy is an important factor for builders. “Poverty will save architecture,” the excellent Belgian architect Victor Bourgeois said recently. It is true, the high cost of living has dealt a very hard blow to useless decoration.

Finally, the reason which must bring the new architecture about is our absolute need to have an aesthetic corresponding to modern life. The machine triumphs. The eye understands the accuracy, the simplicity of machines. We are accustomed to the lines of motor cars, locomotives, airplanes, telephones, electric radiators, radio aerials, and we like them. Smooth surfaces, crisp articulation, clean curves, polished materials, right angles; clarity, order. This is the logical and geometrical house of tomorrow.

7 thoughts on “Robert Mallet-Stevens and Fernand Léger, modernist set designs for L’Inhumaine (1924)

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