The shock of modern architecture

Paris, France. Imagine coming out of the Metro station of the turn of the last century, which celebrates Belle Epoque design, and seeing the new world of the modernists emerge in Paris. Now, they seem to coexist, but in the 20’s and 30’s, they were in shocking contrast.

Today we had a good look at some of the work of Le Corbusier, who helped set the modern architecture movement alight. He believed that new technology rendered old styles of building obsolete and thought that buildings should function as “machines for living in,” analogous to cars, which he saw as machines for traveling in. Just as cars had replaced the horse, so modernist design should reject the old styles and structures inherited from ancient Greece or from the Middle Ages. Quite a difference from the ornamentation of the architectural styles that preceded him.

Our first stop was the 24 NC apartment building Le Corbusier built in the early 1930’s, and in which he ultimately bought the top two floors as a studio and apartment. It is completely intact and still quite unusual in its functionality and simplicity. There is a second floor which has a cube of glass that allows light to flood much of the space. (There was perhaps a bit too much light, especially on an extremely hot day.) The huge doors that swivel in the middle and separate the public from private areas, the elevated bed that allows for a view of the Bois de Boulogne, the open plan, stark stairs and bold use of color, the sliding doors and Thonet chairs – all spoke of a new era, and one that has not yet left us. We see many of the same touches in the apartment we are renting, designed by a student of Le Corbusier.

There is a slight bit of irony in the view Le Corbusier would have had were he living there today. What we thought was a parking garage from the ground floor turns out to be the major sports arena when viewed from his apartment. Personally, I thought it was hideous, and shudder to think what the residents endure during events. But who knows? Maybe he would have liked it.

We went on to the Fondation Le Corbusier for a taste of more. Maison La Roche and Maison Jeanneret (1923–24), also known as the La Roche-Jeanneret house, is a pair of semi-detached houses that was Corbusier’s third commission in Paris. They are laid out at right angles to each other, with iron, concrete, and blank, white facades setting off a curved two-story gallery space. They both feature what was then totally new ways of looking at living spaces and the links that connect them.

Maison La Roche is now a museum containing about 8,000 original drawings, studies and plans by Le Corbusier, as well as about 450 of his paintings, about 30 enamels, about 200 other works on paper, and a sizable collection of written and photographic archives. It describes itself as the world’s largest collection of Le Corbusier drawings, studies, and plans.

It was interesting to see many young people avidly studying both locations.


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