JJP Oud, Café de Unie in Rotterdam (1925)

8 (2)14788-ImagesCafedeUnie

A few remarks:

Very little has been written in the way of in-depth analysis of the Dutch functionalist architect JJP Oud’s Café de Unie in Rotterdam. The building caused a bit of a stir when it was first unveiled to the public in 1925. Some critics pointed out the utter contempt in which Oud seemed to hold the urban context of the building, especially given his official appointment as the city’s Chief Municipal Architect. Its bright blue and red coloring, unswerving horizontal and vertical lines, as well as its total lack of decoration, contrasted sharply with the gentle curves and ornamentation of the surrounding structures.

JJP Oud, View of the principal façade of Café de Unie, Rotterdam, Netherlands 1925 or later JJP Oud, exterior view of Café de Unie from the street, Rotterdam, Netherlands 1925 or later View of Cafe de Unie in Rotterdam, designed by the architect J.J.P Oud. Several groups stand at sides of image looking towards the photographer, 1933OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Few theoretical texts paid much attention to the building, despite its clear attempt to translate Mondrian’s principles of neoplasticism in painting into an architectural medium. More focus was given to Gerrit Rietveld’s (admittedly brilliant) Schröderhuis, built the year prior, in 1924.

Sigfried Giedion mentioned it in passing in Building in France, Building in Ferroconcrete (1928), as a counterpoint to the arts and crafts tradition represented by the French builder Robert Mallet-Stevens.

JJP Oud Cafe de Unie 1923Oud unieee4F31276_full

Alfred Barr, chief curator and organizer of the MoMA in New York, devoted a couple polite lines to its consideration:

Oud’s Café de Unie façade of 1925, done between more serious designs for Rotterdam civic housing blocks, is a frank and amusing adaptation of such paintings as Mondrian’s Composition of 1920. The lettering on this façade follows de Stijl principles of typographical layout which are classically represented by the cover of the magazine, De Stijl. This asymmetrical arrangement of letters blocked into rectangles was designed by van Doesburg early in 1921.

Despite the measured tone of these remarks, Barr apparently didn’t think much of the café. Continue reading

Walter Benjamin reads Sigfried Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich (1928)

From The Arcades Project, pg. 40:

Old name for department stores: docks à bon marché that is, “discount docks.” <Sigfried> Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich <Leipzig and Berlin, 1928>, p. 31.

Evolution of the department store from the shop that was housed in arcades. Principle of the department store: “The floors form a single space. They can be taken in, so to speak, ‘at a glance’.” Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich, p. 34.

Giedion shows (in Bauen in Frankreich, p. 35) how the axiom, “Welcome the crowd and keep it seduced” (Science et l’industrie, 143 [1925], p. 6), leads to corrupt architectural practices in the construction of the department store Au Printemps (1881-1889). Function of commodity capital!

Cover to Giedion's Bauen in Frankreich (1928)

Cover to Giedion’s Bauen in Frankreich (1928)

Pg. 153.

The first act of Offenbach’s Vie parisienne takes place in a railroad station. “The industrial movement seems to run in the blood of this generation — to such an extent that, for example, Flachat has built his house on a plot. of land where, on either side, trains are always whistling by.” Sigfried Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich (Leipzig and Berlin <1928>), p. 13. Eugène Flachat (1802-1873), builder of rail-roads, designer.

On the Galerie d’Orléans in the Palais-Royal (1829-1831): “Even Fontaine, one of’ the originators of the Empire style, is converted in later years to the new material. In 1835-1836, moreover, he replaced the wooden flooring of the Galerie des Batailes in Versailles with an iron assembly. These galleries, like those in the Palais-Royal, were subsequently perfected in Italy. For us, they are a point of departure for new architectural problems: train stations, and the like.” Sigfried Giedion, Bauen in Frankreich, p. 21. Continue reading

Walter Benjamin and architectural modernism

Never realized before just how plugged-in Walter Benjamin was with the avant-garde architectural scene in Germany, France, and Austria during his day. Seriously, even just skimming through the convolutes of his unfinished Arcades Projectthe text is teeming with references to Le Corbusier’s Urbanisme (1925), Adolf Behne’s Neues Wohnen — Neues Bauen (1927), Sigfried Giedion’s Bauen in Frankreich, Bauen in Eisen, Bauen in Eisenbeton (1928), and Emil Kaufmann’s Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier, Ursprung und Entwicklung der Autonomen Architektur (1933). An acquaintance pointed out to me that he corresponded with Erich Auerbach, later author of Mimesis, as well.

Surprisingly prescient, too. Corbu was already an established figure by then, but Giedion and Kaufmann were relatively unknown. Auerbach wasn’t even on the radar.

Over the next few posts will be spread out some of Benjamin’s notes quoting and discussing some of these figures.

The “death” of modern architecture?

Giedion reflects, 1963

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Image: Architectural historian Sigfried Giedion
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Responding to my post yesterday on Claude Schnaidt, Nick Axel of the blog Awaking Lucid asked whether I could “recommend a book or some resource that could explain…in greater detail…the ‘sociohistoric mission’ [of architecture]…in relation to style, that you, and Schnaidt, find problematically lacking today?” Furthermore, he wondered: “What does it mean to have a ‘sociohistoric mission’?”

These are the right questions to ask. You see, Nick and I recently entered into dialogue (at my initiation) so as to find some common ground between our concepts and thereby clarify whatever points similarities or dissimilarities might exist in our respective appraisals of the present state of architecture. Currently I’m preparing a response to a brief piece published by Leopold Lambert on his Funambulist platform along with Sammy Medina, and with the invaluable assistance of our colleague and comrade Reid Kane.

Axel’s approach, to be sure, varies from mine greatly. Despite some authors we both invoke, we speak in almost entirely different philosophical-theoretical idioms. Even if we were to understand each other completely, I suspect there would be a great deal that divides us in terms of our assessment of the relationship between architecture and politics. Nevertheless, I am convinced that we can at least attain to this level of mutually intelligible disagreement.

Put simply, the “sociohistoric mission” of modern architecture I sometimes mention is the same to which every modern discipline aspires: the world-historical transformation of society. Generally, this transformation is implicitly linked to, or participates in, a broader project of emancipation. Its task is the self-overcoming of bourgeois society, and as a consequence (eo ipso) the realization of freedom in time. A couple years back I outlined some of the ways this manifested itself in the architecture of the twentieth century. This might be a helpful place to start.

Regarding “style,” this is rather old hat in the propaganda of the classical avant-garde. Yet it is rooted in reality. All the great modernists rejected the idea that they were simply founding a new “style.” “Architecture has nothing to do whatsoever with the styles,” Corbu wrote in Toward an Architecture. Similarly, one can detect in the following passage from Giedion’s 1963 edition of Space, Time, and Architecture the contempt he feels toward theorists like Philip Johnson, who had branded the modern movement with the utterly false and misleading title of being “an international style.” The nineteenth century was, of course, characterized by Muthesius as dominated by Stilarchitektur, and involved a “battle of the styles.”

Here’s Giedion’s reintroduction to his classic work:

Confusion and boredom

In the sixties a certain confusion exists in contemporary architecture, as in painting; a kind of pause, even a kind of exhaustion. Everyone is aware of it. Fatigue is normally accompanied by uncertainty, what to do and where to go. Fatigue is the mother of indecision, opening the door to escapism, to superficialities of all kinds.

A symposium at the Metropolitan Museum of New York in the spring of 1961 discussed the question, “Modern Architecture, Death or Metamorphosis?” As this topic indicates, contemporary architecture is regarded by some as a fashion and — as an American architect expressed it — many designers who had adopted the fashionable aspects of the “International Style,” now found the fashion had worn thin and were engaged in a romantic orgy. This fashion, with its historical fragments picked at random, unfortunately infected many gifted architects. By the sixties its results could be seen everywhere: in small-breasted, gothic-styled colleges, in a lacework of glittering details inside and outside, in the toothpick stilts and assembly of isolated buildings of the largest cultural center. Continue reading

Ross Wolfe and Sammy Medina, "Corbu's Corpus" Le Corbusier at the MoMA

Corbu’s corpus

Ross Wolfe and Sammy Medina
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First published by the University of Bristol’s Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, and is reproduced here with permission.
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Exhibit review
Le Corbusier: An atlas of modern landscapes

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Jean-Louis Cohen with Barry Bergdoll.
15 June-23 September 2013.
Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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The Museum of Modern Art’s Le Corbusier: An atlas of modern landscapes, recently opened to the public, marks the institution’s first exhibit devoted to the archmodernist in over fifty years. As such, it’s already managed to generate a great deal of buzz amongst members of New York’s architectural community. Corbu enthusiasts from up and down the East Coast have thus flocked to the show, turning out in droves. But its impact extends well beyond just the fanboys and devotees, whose attendance might be taken for granted. Many from the general public with only a passing interest in architecture have also made pilgrimages, hoping to catch a glimpse of what once seemed imaginable. Name recognition alone cannot account for this success, however. Part of it has to do with the timing of the exhibition.

In terms of overall curation, the sheer volume of works amassed at the MoMA show is enough to make it worth a visit. Each phase of Le Corbusier’s legendary career is laid out in incredible detail, with multiple models, sketches, and photographs accompanying individual displays. Breadth finds itself matched by depth, as the architect’s corpus is examined across a variety of media. While the exhibit unfolds chronologically — beginning with his youthful pastoral depictions of the Jura mountainsides up through his post-Cubist collaborations with Ozenfant, then on to his first buildings and forays into urbanism — the astonishing scope of Corbusier’s travels and commissions is conveyed throughout. This was very much the way Jeanneret operated, keeping several fires going at once. At the height of his creative output, while he was writing La Ville Radieuse (1930-33), the book’s subtitle grants a sense of just how far his projects ranged: Algiers, Antwerp, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Geneva, Moscow, Montevideo, Nemours, Paris, Piacé, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo. An atlas of modern landscapes chronicles Corbusier’s journeys through space over time, in a chronotopic manner of which his friend Giedion, the “official historian” of modernism, would no doubt have approved.

Cutaway revealing the interior to Le Corbusier's Villa Cook, 6 Calle Denfert-Rochereau, Boulogne-sur-Seine (1926)

Cutaway revealing the interior to Le Corbusier’s Villa Cook,
6 Calle Denfert-Rochereau, Boulogne-sur-Seine (1926)

Of course, the curatorial intelligence exhibited by the show’s selection and presentation of pieces should not surprise anyone familiar with the process by which it came together. Assembly was carried out under Jean-Louis Cohen’s encyclopedic gaze, with contributions also coming from numerous other scholars and academics. Cohen, whose brilliance has for too long gone now unrecognized in the Anglophone world, has finally begun to enjoy some success of late with the release of his sweeping historical overview, The future of architecture since 1889 (2012), and supervision of MoMA’s blockbuster Corbusier expo. His fingerprints can be seen all over the show. Its contents are not merely exhaustive — they are definitive. For a figure on the order of magnitude of a Le Corbusier, this is an impressive feat. Continue reading

Le Corbusier’s project for the Palace of the Soviets (1928-1931)

The Radiant City: Elements for a doctrine
of urbanism for the machine age 
(1933)

Le Corbusier

The Main Auditorium: an audience of 15,000. Open-air platform: 50,000 people. And perfectly regulated acoustics. Small auditorium: 6,500 people. Huge crowds can move about at their case of the esplanade. Cars are on a lower level; the parking lot is beneath the auditoriums.

General ground-level plan: The natural declivities of the ground are left untouched. Automobiles are assigned a circuit on either side, in the open or underground. The circuit leads to the various entrances: an automatic classification of all visitors. Pedestrians never come into contact with cars. (There can be 25,000 people inside the Palace, and 50,000 more on the open-air platform).

Le Corbusier’s sketches of the Palais des Soviets

1932: Project for the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow

1928-1931 Moscow classified traffic system

The ground is devoted to movement: pedestrians, cars.

Everything above the ground (the buildings) is devoted to stability.

No similarity between the two. The ground beneath the buildings must be freed, for regular streams of cars and lakes of pedestrians. The streams flow directly to certain entrances; the pedestrians are widely scattered. This makes for a new economy of layout.

The streams of cars can flow in sunken beds or along elevated highways. Starting 5 meters above the ground, buildings take on definite shape. Distribution of traffic has been achieved below, on the ground.

Here, the dynamic functions: distribution of sorts of traffic.

(Pilotis on the ground level).

Here, the static function is expressed by offices, club, and auditorium. 1928. Palace of Light Industry (first called the Tsentrosoiuz) in Moscow. Now built.

Le Corbusier at a conference in Moscow, 1928

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Here, the dynamic functions: distribution of sorts of traffic.

(Pilotis on the ground level).

Here, the static function is expressed by offices, club, and auditorium. 1928. Palace of Light Industry (first called the Tsentrosoiuz) in Moscow. Now built.

Tsentrosoiuz: Plans, models, site visits

Master plan for the urbanization of the city of Moscow

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In 1931, Moscow officials sent me a questionnaire, admirably thought out, about the city’s reorganization. If only all cities would send out such questionnaires! Their lot would be improved.

The theoretical drawings of the “Radiant City” were made in order to answer this questionnaire. They form a theory of urbanization for modern times.

My “Answer to Moscow” caused an unexpected reaction: its technical aspects were hailed in flattering terms. But the cornerstone of my work was freedom of the individual, and this was held against me. Doctrinal vehemence prevented any worthwhile discussion. Capitalist? bourgeois? proletarian? My only answer is a term expressing my line of conduct and my ingrained revolutionary attitude: human. My professional duty, as architect and city planner, is to achieve what is human.

Charitable colleagues — Frenchmen, too, and far from being “Reds” — proclaimed to all who would listen or read, “that I wanted to destroy Moscow.” Whereas they themselves, if only they were called upon, would, etc.…

The plate which appears opposite (last in the “Radiant City” series), is not a program for Moscow’s destruction but on the contrary, for its construction. It shows zoning and axes of movement along which the city could gradualIy achieve a position of supple ease, expansion without difficulty, and so forth. This plate shows a specimen of urban biology.

So far, only the International Congress for Modem Architecture, the C.I.A.M. has required its members to seek the lines of vital communication which can bring a city into efficient contact with its surrounding region. (A task which will fall to the 5th Congress).

Corbu’s iconic model of the Palais des Soviets

Palace of the Soviets in Moscow

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The administration building, on the left, is independent of the ground. Not only is the ground freed but, moreover, the expanse of open space beneath the building forms a highly architectural frame for the landscape seen in the background.

On the right, impressive ramps lead the way to the open-air platform for 50,000 people.

By contrast, 15,000 can reach the main auditorium from ground level by means of a continuous inclined plane, becoming concave until it reaches the seats. No stairways, not even a single step can be tolerated in a public building — and certainly not “monumental” stairways!

Corbusier in the USSR
Space, Time, and Architecture (1941)

Sigfried Giedion

Le Corbusier’s Geneva plan remained a project, but the principles embodied in it were partially realized in the Tsentrosoiuz at Moscow (1928-34). The erection of the Tsentrosoiuz — now the Ministry of Light Industry — was retarded partly by the requirements of the Five-Year Plan and partly by the emergence of an architectural reaction. It was one of the last modern structures erected in Russia.

Le Corbusier with Sigfried Giedion and Gabriel Guervekian at La Sarraz for CIAM 1 (1928)

Le Corbusier with Sigfried Giedion and Gabriel Guervekian
at La Sarraz for the founding of CIAM (1928)

Le Corbusier’s design for the Palace of the Soviets (1931) fell within the period of Stalinist reaction. With the ceiling of the great hall suspended on wire cables from a parabolic curve, it was Le Corbusier’s boldest accomplishment up to that time. In 1931 the realization of this project or any of the other contemporary schemes, such as those by Gropius and  Breuer and by the sculptor [Naum] Gabo, was no longer conceivable in the U.S.S.R.

Russian translation of Le Corbusier's 1925 classic, Urbanisme [Планировка города]

Russian translation of Le Corbusier’s 1925
classic, Urbanisme [Планировка города]

Sigfried Giedion’s 1963 introduction to Space, Time, and Architecture

Confusion and Boredom

In the sixties a certain confusion exists in contemporary architecture, as in painting; a kind of pause, even a kind of exhaustion.  Everyone is aware of it.  Fatigue is normally accompanied by uncertainty, what to do and where to go.  Fatigue is the mother of indecision, opening the door to escapism, to superficialities of all kinds.

A symposium at the Metropolitan Museum of New York in the spring of 1961 discussed the question, “Modern Architecture, Death or Metamorphosis?”  As this topic indicates, contemporary architecture is regarded by some as a fashion and — as an American architect expressed it — many designers who had adopted the fashionable aspects of the “International Style,” now found the fashion had worn thin and were engaged in a romantic orgy.  This fashion, with its historical fragments picked at random, unfortunately infected many gifted architects. By the sixties its results could be seen everywhere: in small-breasted, gothic-styled colleges, in a lacework of glittering details inside and outside, in the toothpick stilts and assembly of isolated buildings of the largest cultural center.

A kind of playboy-architecture became en vogue: an architecture treated as playboys treat life, jumping from one sensation to another and quickly bored with everything. I have no doubt that this fashion born out of an inner uncertainty will soon be obsolete; but its effects can be rather dangerous, because of the worldwide influence of the United States.

Красная Москва (1990)

Красная Москва (1990)

We are still in the formation period of a new tradition, still at its beginning. In Architecture, You and Me I pointed out the difference between the nineteenth- and twentieth-century approach to architecture. There is a word we should refrain from using to describe contemporary architecture — “style.”  The moment we fence architecture within a notion of “style,” we open the door to a formalistic approach.  The contemporary movement is not a “style” in the nineteenth-century meaning of form characterization.  It is an approach to the life that slumbers unconsciously within all of us.

In architecture the word “style” has often been combined with the epithet “international,” though this epithet has never been accepted in Europe.  The term “international style” quickly became harmful, implying something hovering in mid-air, with no roots anywhere: cardboard architecture.  Contemporary architecture worthy of the name sees its main task as the interpretation of a way of life valid for our period.  There can be no question of “Death or Metamorphosis,” there can only be the question of evolving a new tradition, and many signs show that this is in the doing.

Lev Rudnev’s “City of the Future” (1925), before his turn to Stalinist neo-Classicism

Modernist architecture archive

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IMAGE: Lev Rudnev’s City of the future (1925),
before his turn to Stalinist neoclassicism

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An update on the Modernist Architecture Archive/Database I discussed a couple posts ago.  I’ve begun work on it, and have uploaded almost half of the documents I intend to include.  Only a few of the Russian ones are up yet, but I’m hoping to post them over the next couple days.  There are many more on the way.

Anyway, anyone interested in taking a look at this archive (arranged as a continuous text) can access it here.

However, this might not be the most convenient way to browse through it all.  For a more manageable overall view of each of the individual articles (detailing the author, title, and year of publication), click here.