The League of Nations competition, 1927: Contemporary architecture comes to the front
Space, Time, and
The 1927 international competition for the League of Nations Palace at Geneva is one of the most illuminating episodes in the history of contemporary architecture. For the first time present-day architects challenged the routine of the Academy in a field which it had dominated for generations, the design of m0numentally impressive state buildings. The Academy won this particular engagement, but its victory injured the prestige of its methods.
The conventional routines showed themselves incapable of producing architectonic solutions to problems of modern organization. The proof of that helplessness did much to break down popular resistance to modern treatments.
It was plain from the start that, among the 337 projects submitted, one — the work of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret — was peculiarly important and significant. Later developments verified this first judgment.
What made it important: It unexpectedly forced high officials from everywhere in Europe to consider seriously a kind of architecture which they had always dismissed as aesthetic trifling. For decades there had been an established style for the stately official building — an international style that hardly varied from country to country. Custom had made its validity seem guaranteed for all time, and the official element automatically turned to it when the matter of their Geneva setting came up. The scheme that came to the forefront, however, shockingly disregarded the stylistic approach in order to tackle specific problems.
The idea of a league of nations is one which we encounter time and again in history. Its realization, however — the actual establishment of a neutral center where representatives of every country might meet to maintain the equilibrium of the world — was a completely new thing and brought a highly complex institution into being. Its varied functions required a division of its headquarters into three main parts: a secretariat, where the daily work of its administration could he carried on; a meeting place for committees of various sorts whose sessions occurred intermittently (the Conseil and the Grandes Commissions); and a hall for the yearly sitting of the Assemblee generale. Besides this, a great library was needed in the whole complex.
The outstanding fact about the scheme submitted by Le Corbusier and Jeanneret is that they found the most compact and best-conceived solution to these needs.
The Secretariat, the great administration building near the entrance to the grounds, was given a slender wing which paralleled the lake. The rows of horizontally sliding windows gave every clerk or typist an unimpeded view over water and mountains. A roof garden was available for rest periods. The building had a ferroconcrete skeleton and seerned to hover above its site on supporting pillars set back of the curtain walls. Le Corbusier had used the same treatment, a short time before and on a smaller scale, in his Villa Cook at Boulogne-sur-Seine.
The great Assembly Building was moved forward to the lake front. Two huge expanses of glass made up its side walls. The Grande Salle des Assemblees, meant for twenty-six hundred auditors, was designed with the needs of a large audience as the determining factors. It had to be possible to hear and see perfectly from every one of its seats. To ensure this, the ceiling was given a nearly parabolic curvature. This was on the advice of the specialist, Gustave Lyon. But the ceiling is not simply introduced into the design as an acoustical aid:
it is taken up into and influences the whole form of the hall. Le Corbusier converts what was offered simply as a technical expedient into aesthetic means. Le Corbusier went a step further in his project for the United Nations building in New York, 1947. There he included the floor in the total curvature of the space. This would have been the most inspiring interior space of our period if its realization had not been made impossible by certain political interests. The later development of the hall by others shows no trace of Le Corbusier’s inspired sketch; it is merely an enormous igloo.
In the treatment of the ceiling Le Corbusier unconsciously followed the example of earlier men. Thus Davioud in the seventies used a parabolic ceiling in a project for a theater of a capacity of five thousand. The Adler and Sullivan Auditorium of 1887 in Chicago — the finest assembly hall of its period — is similarly modeled by considerations of acoustics.
Le Corbusier’s plans show a thoroughly considered treatment of the traffic problem. The problem was acute when the General Assembly was in session, and it had to be possible to move great streams of cars in short order. The rear entrance of the Assembly Building accordingly took its form from an everyday solution to the same difficulty — the sheltered loading platform set between two transit lines. But once again a purely utilitarian development is transmuted into an expressive means. The development of such a means of expression can be seen thirty years later in the transformation of the architectonic articulation of the flat platform roof of the League of Nations project into the upward curving concave shell that rises majestically above the façade of the Secretariat Building at Chandigarh.
In the requirements of the Secretariat simply as an office building, in the need for making it possible to hear front every bench in the Grand Salle, in the traffic problems that arose at general sessions — in the needs of life, that is — Le Corbusier and Jeanneret found incentives to artistic creation.
But it was exactly those requirements which proved stumbling blocks to the architects who adopted the familiar monumental routine. The requirements of a complex new social organism like the League of Nations could not be met by schemes whose general outline was determined in advance by the need for a certain type of impressive external appearance. Everything was smothered by the ostentatious exterior, as unsuitable here as plate armor for a man driving a car. And an architecture which cannot mold itself to the needs of its own time has lost its vital force.
The conventionally monumental schemes broke down in another respect. At Versailles, where a great building complex was frrst juxtaposed to nature, unlimited space was available, and the absolute will behind this endeavor stamped its own imprint upon the surrounding landscape. At Geneva the site was strictly limited. Moreover, in this period we no longer desire to forcer la nature: we seek to preserve it intact and to bring it and our buildings into harmonious unity. This the academic schemes were unable to do; they found no way of avoiding extensive terracing of the site, which destroyed its natural contours and left the huge bulk of the Palace perched upon a ridiculously small pediment of lawn.
The Le Corbusier-Jeanneret project would have preserved the integrity of the plot. The flexibly arranged Assembly Building, the narrow Secretariat, the Library, and the elevated passageways connecting all three achieved a perfect adjustment to the actual site.
Means developed during previous years are here brought together in the solution of a purely contemporary social problem. The plane surfaces which a long period of development had brought to a position of dominance are joined with the new lightness and charm achieved by construction. The result is a kind of informality and flexibility such as had been attained years earlier in the ground plan of the house. A building complex is evolved which goes beyond Renaissance conceptions of space and cannot be grasped by a view from any one standpoint. In its entirety the Palace realizes the new conception of space-time. The projects that were entered in the 1927 international competition permit an exceptionally wide survey of the state of architecture at that time. All the architectural fashions of the late nineteenth century are represented, together with all the experimental developments in contemporary architecture. The adherents of the Academy submitted beautifully executed schemes which treated the Palace as if it were a prix de Rome problem worked out in the quiet of the Villa Medici. From the northern countries and from Germany there came either smooth and placidly decorative projects or Faustian expressionistic sketches in soft charcoal. The work from Italy and eastern Europe featured cupolas or mosque-like edifices — one of which had no fewer than twenty interior light wells. And from various counties the most radical experimentalists sent plans — not always ripe for execution, of structures imbued with Russian constructivism or of dream fantasies in glass.
Although no other designs for the League of Nations building had the clear-sighed rightness of Le Corbusier’s plans, there were other very considerable entries, such as those submitted by Hannes Meyer and Hans Wittwer, R.J. Neutra, Erich Mendelsohn, and the Polish group Prezens. The catalogue of the projects published by the awarders is even more instructive than the catalogue of the competition for the Chicago Tribune building years earlier. It demonstrates that the lowest mass standards guided the judgment of designs. The jury had to thread its way through a confusion of crosscurrents, a confusion that was reflected in its own composition.
A new type of social organization, such as the League of Nations, could not acquire a meaningful physical setting by incorporating elements borrowed from Le Corbusier’s project in a formally academic architectural complex. In consequence the Palace of the League of Nations has proved almost unusable. This principle holds good for architecture, and perhaps also for politics. In 1927 the following comment appeared under my name in the Berlin journal Bauwelt (p. 1096): “A League of Nations building that ties itself to the ghosts of history is likely to become a haunt of ghosts.”
We have paid particular attention to the League of Nations Palace because it served as the general public’s first introduction to contemporary architecture. The same year also marked its introduction to modern solutions of the housing problem. It was in 1927 that the Deutsche Werkbund put Mies van der Rohe in complete charge of the Weissenhof settlement at Stuttgart. Mies van der Rohe entrusted the design of the houses to those architects front all over Europe who had been most active in the new developments. The elimination of Le Corbusier’s project for the League of Nations was one of the reasons for founding the ClAM in 1928.