Figures of luxury
Published by Revista PLOT # 10 December 2012.
What do the champion of modern architecture and an
extravagant millionaire who preferred to throw his dirty
dishes out the window of his palazzo in Venice to putting up
with the racket of the dishwasher have in common?
It would seem that, even if they happened to be in the same place at the same time—a cosmopolitan city like Paris in the 20th century—these opposing figures would have little reason to sit down and talk. But two worlds as represented by two men who rival one another in ambition and arrogance did, in fact, meet. They even agreed to undertake a project together: to remodel a penthouse on the Champs Elyseé.
The millionaire was the client, Charles de Beistegui, and the modernist was the architect, Le Corbusier. And, unlike most relationships between client and architect, in this case the project was actually completed and the client satisfied. The architect even published the design along with his other projects.
A poor rich man
Heir to a formidable fortune, Charles de Beistegui hovered around French social and cultural circles in the period between the wars. He was a worldly man and a passionate lover of art and music. An impulsive collector, he dabbled in writing and music. He was, however, first and foremost a vain individual who loved rubbing elbows with the jet-set in elaborately decorated palaces.
Like Louis XIV, Charli—as his friends called him—had Le Grand goût, a miraculous gift that earned him recognition as an arbiter of decorative elegance. He even theorized a “stacking” aesthetic of overly laden decoration as the only way to create a pleasant environment.
In order to be in the limelight, he would organize sumptuous parties in Biarritz, Paris, Venice, Saint Moritz, and Rome, celebrations enlivened by guests like Josephine Baker, who would offer a song, and Zizi Jeanmaire, who would ride her camel through the rooms, sending greetings down to the favorite children of that exciting era: Raymond Roussel, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and others.
But the name Charles de Beistegui entered into the history of European frivolity when, in 1951, he held Le Bal Oriental at his Palazzo Labia in Venice, a masquerade ball widely known as the celebration of the century. It was a truly unique and marvelous event. The high profile guests included Aga Khan III, Barbara Hutton, Orson Welles, Baron de Chabrol, Desmond Guinness, Alexis von Rosenberg, Baron de Redé, Prince and Princess Chavchavadze, Fulco di Verdura, Princess Natalia Pavlovna Paley, and many others like Christian Dior and Salvador Dalí, who designed their own outfits. Invitations were sent out six months in advance.
In 1929, Charles felt the pressing need to own an apartment in downtown Paris where he could hold parties and receive guests. He had to find some distinction for the spot where his dilettante’s life would ensue, something capable of surprising his circle of friends and acquaintances—avid adventurers and, as such, individuals used to unlikely turns of event. A challenge of this magnitude required a savvy move like, for example, hiring the trendiest architect of the day to remodel his apartment at 136 Champs Elysées.
By this time, Le Corbusier had developed five models for the Citröhan maison (1920-1920-1922-1925-1927), published his “five points towards a new architecture” (1926), designed and built several milestones of modern architecture like the Esprit Nouveau pavilion in Paris(1925), the Nestlé Pavilion at the Paris World Fair (1927), and Villa Stein in Garches (1927). In those same years, he attended the second Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) in Frankfurt whose contentious theme was the minimal dwelling, existenez mínimum, that is, the development of a prototype for the urban habitat.
But none of that prevented Le Corbusier from walking arm in arm with Josephine Baker at the most exclusive parties of the day and, at some of what he called the “Louis A, B, C…” style salons, he undoubtedly ran into Charles de Beistegui. Indeed, this active social life just evidenced the more conciliatory (to say nothing of opportunist) style of the modern architect.
By why would LC to take an interest in working with a client of this sort? For a number of reasons, it would seem. And, significantly, rather than fall into the typical dilemma of architects who strive not to succumb to the whims and needs of their clients as they attempt to uphold the aesthetic ideals of their student days, LC was able to find the motivation that always lies behind an assignment, no matter how stupid it may seem. With an adroit spirit of experimentation and provocation, Le Corbusier used a number of the project’s requirements to test out the furthest extremes of his theory.
And what was the millionaire Beistegui looking for in a purist and rationalist architect? Eager for the tricks that the cutting edge technology of the day had to offer, it is unlikely that Beistegui found any aesthetic-moral dilemma about hiring the architect who was designing Ville Savoye even though Beistegui thought that “big windows like the ones in aquariums [and] bare white walls are alright for hospitals and airports, but in a private house they offer a very limited choice of elements for creating an atmosphere”.
A Gen of a Project
The apartment to be turned into a ballroom was on the top floor of a building in the heart of downtown Paris. It was, in other words, on a terrace, an element fundamental both to the bourgeoisie and to modern architecture. Thanks to the glamour that the bohemia of the twenties had conferred on “attic culture,” it is easy to imagine these spaces peopled by amusing, wealthy, and refined inhabitants who, in keeping with a Baudelairean vision, could take in the city from an alienated and distant perspective.
For Le Corbusier, le toit-terrasse was constitutive of modern architecture. In this case, he intended to recover the ground that the architectural object itself had occupied but from a modernist vantage point, one that mastered the city through its panoramic view.
This was, in no uncertain terms, a gem of a project for LC: a home that was not to serve as a home, which meant that he needn’t think about the question of the domestic habitat, which he found somewhat sentimental. The design also demanded that he come up with an innovative approach to the problem of the roof, an issue that he had been pondering for some fifteen years.
Terrace as conquered space, architecture as spectacle, space as creator of new experiences, thirst for new technologies and for fame, appetite for luxury, and a certain eagerness for power are among the elements that appear—more or less covertly—in this project. Indeed, these concerns—all of which are symptomatic of Le Corbusier’s work—are what explain the meeting of these two characters.
Modern Space is Placeless Space
Let’s begin our visit to the apartment on its first floor. There we find large rooms lit only by candlelight, since Beistegui believed that that was the only form of lighting that resembled natural light. Despite the apartment’s location, its scantly decorated rooms had no windows and hence did not look out on, say, Le Sacré Coeur to the north, Arc de Triomphe to the west, the Tour Eiffel to the south, and Notre Dame to the east.
But a periscope on the terrace that projected the landscape onto a horizontal plane was the way to get a panoramic view of the city. The visitor, as opposed to a viewer of a film, would advance over a fixed image, in a relationship reminiscent of the one between the architect and the miniature version of his design as a model on a table. And here—even though the image of the city rather than the representation of an object was at play—the same sense of mastery of the person standing (architect-visitor) over the projected object (model-city) takes hold.
This relationship of power over the city was intensified by the presence of a non-architectural artifact: the periscope. The associations here are not with domestic architecture but rather with a certain military aesthetic: the submarine, the bunker, the fortress. And from that conceptual place architecture seizes control of the city to observe it without being observed, producing in the visitor the sensation that he occupies an elevated and defensive position and that he beholds a new vision of Paris. The view engenders a sense of estrangement and, hence, astonishment. Here luxury lies in surprise.
Thus, architecture eschews its role as space to be inhabited to become an experience of vision. This is emblematic of Le Corbusierian architecture, which often seems like a journey in time and a dramatic narrative. Insofar as it integrates the third dimension, modern architecture is to be passed through rather than dwelled in.
In its very ubiquity, modern architecture’s negation of being present as contingency of being itself is paradigmatic. Modern architecture can be anywhere. It is wholly autonomous in relation to its context since it is not located anywhere in particular. The site—Paris or Buenos Aires— matters little.
Architectural objects designed on modernist premises are largely immaterial due to an excess of self-referentiality. In them, landscape becomes fixed image, captured object that only emerges when framed by architecture.
In this case, control of the environment is heightened. It is not only a question of domesticating the landscape by means of an architectural device (usually materialized by the fenêtre en longueur suggestive of the proportions of a movie screen where everything is flattened, as opposed to the vertical window associated with the Renaissance perspective), but also of the use of an artifact that mediates between the eye and the object. Like the mass media and their manipulation, this mediation produces a sense of uncertainty about the reality of the image projected: how do we know it is not edited or pre-recorded? This artifact does not remove the visitor from the experience of the city, but rather generates a new experience. What it does is remove architecture from its context and from its existence as part of an urban and historical grid.
Insofar as the architectural object moves away from its space-time context to occupy a position of mastery, it reinforces modern architecture’s idea of itself as redeeming vision greater than the past, one capable of modifying the universe on both moral and aesthetic levels.
The lower level of the apartment served as a boîte à miracles. It not only displayed the city as spectacle, but also featured an array of technological gadgets on four kilometers of electrical wire that did not connect to any outlet but were arranged to create the hallucinatory illusion of an incorporeal servant: doors would open, walls would slide into place, and candelabras would shine more or less brightly on their own.
Here the idea of luxury is displaced. It is no longer materialized or represented in ostentatious or decorative gestures, but rather lies, invisible, in new technologies and their resources. Those technologies are not limited to domestic mechanisms but encompass as well new construction technologies. We are not speaking of an economy of means in the sense of expenditure but rather of an economy of stylistic resources that conceptually binds La Corbusierian architecture to the aesthetic of the machine devoid of any prosaic reference.
This technology is wholly disproportionate to the comfort it affords. It does not save time, just diminishes physical effort. In fact, it takes longer to go through an automatic door that has to detect a human presence before opening than it does to grab onto the doorknob and just walk through. But underlying this onerous trivial technology, with its excess of resources vis-à-vis the solutions it provides, lies an added value: mystery. Here, luxury lies in illusion.
To continue with our tour, the visitor reaches the upper level by means of a snail-shaped staircase. The terrace was going to be a croquet court, an ideal activity for this urban class: not overly demanding, croquet can be played even when large quantities of alcohol have been consumed for the sake of superficial chitchat. In addition, croquet combines elegant dress with a certain sporty nonchalance. We do not know exactly why the plan to build the croquet court was abandoned, but the result is one of the most surrealist spaces in modern architecture. The visitor to the upper floor finds himself before an even more unusual scene: a room with white walls, grass floor, and no roof.
In the middle of this almost mythological space between labyrinth and modern design is an evidently useless object with great symbolic weight: a chimney. What is the aim of this object except to disorient the viewer by referring to the very domestic space that it denies?
It cannot be said for certain who put that somewhat rococo fireplace on the roof. Some sources claim that it was the work of Dalí, though it eventually appears in LC’s sketches, albeit in slightly more rectangular and less ornamental form. Thus, the domestic object par excellence was designed by LC in an act that reinforces his interest in creating a wholly new idea and experience of the home. “When walking around the interior,” he says in Precisions regarding Ville Savoye, “visitors ask themselves what is happening, understanding with difficulty the reason for what they see and feel: they can’t find anything that can be associated with what they call a ‘house.’ They feel something entirely new. And…I do not think that they get bored!”
This jarring outdoor room is also an urban diatribe. In the same place where his Plan Voisin formulated a tabula rasa, he built a room with walls 55 inches high over which the tops of the Torre Eiffel and the Arc de Triomphe could just barely be made out.
Implicit to both the high walls of the terrace and the enclosed space of the lower level is an exercise of power. Like a potlach of interiorism where the prodigious gesture takes the shape of disdain for wealth, this act of altruism is declared by blocking the views of a privileged position.
Here, luxury lies in sacrifice.
The Feat of Modernity
It seems that Charles de Beistegui wanted to impress his friends with unprecedented experiences and transformative wonders. That is probably why he undertook the project: he sought to construct a space like none other previously seen or experienced, a space that would formulate a new vision of something as familiar as Paris.
And who better than Le Corbusier to tackle that architectural and urban challenge? Nobody. Because he was trying to work out the unknown, mainly, modern architecture, which meant instilling the different, the hitherto unseen, that which is not yet fully present, that which in no way resembles or refers to what has come before or what exists, that which renders the present old. If the modern is precisely that which we do not yet know, then how can the new be materialized except through the workings of magic? And that is where architecture—somewhere between poetry and concrete—devises the impossible.
This text contains direct and indirection references to the ideas of Le Corbusier, Charles de Beistegui, Manfredo Tafuri, Beatriz Colomina, George Bataille, Josep Quetglas, Pere Riera, Alexander Cetkovic, Hannah Lewi, and Wally Smith.
Translation: Jane Brodie
This article was published by Revista PLOT # 10 December 2012.