Mia Gainsford: Utopia or Incubator? Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation as Photographed by Lucien Hervé

La maison du fada, or rather “the madman’s house”, is the colloquial name given to Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation housing project in Marseilles. The name arouses intrigue and renders the project a diversion. It has a childish appeal, like the building itself, which jumps out of its surroundings and sings colour from its windows.

Image in colour of housing project

CON_B04326_F001_010. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

L’Unité d’Habitation was Le Corbusier’s attempt at a utopia. Completed in 1952, it was an architectural project which sought to heal the wounds of post-war Marseilles and incubate the next generation. In photographing Le Corbusier’s housing project, Lucien Hervé made children his focus. However, it is important to stress just how rare human subjects are, of any age, in architectural photography; if people are photographed, they are photographed with a purpose. Thus, in Hervé’s photography it is important to ask whether the focus of children intends to enhance the optimism of Le Corbusier’s architectural utopia, employing them as a symbol of hope, or if instead, they are chosen as subjects susceptible to the “madman’s” diverting.

Young girl pushing on the door

CON_B04326_F001_022. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

In discovering Hervé’s photographs amongst the Courtauld’s Conway archive and participating in the broader volunteering scheme, I could not help but reflect upon the act of labelling and giving something a name. Each image has its own code which refers to its box, folder and then place in a sequence. This act of labelling creates its own narrative; the code tells the wider story of the Courtauld’s efforts to organise and digitise the Conway photographs with the help of hundreds of volunteers, and in this, humanise the archive too.

Although this narrative is of a second order to the narrative of the photographs themselves, the Courtauld’s emphasis on retaining the physicality of the photographs, from the fibre of the brown paper they are mounted upon to the spidery annotations around an image, means that no narrative is prioritised over another. The Courtauld is striving to aggrandise the photograph’s status as object, rather than objectifying an image completely on the institute’s own terms and erasing its history. The Conway digitisation project honours how an image has been objectified in the past, and with this, creates a layering of meaning and proffers a plethora of stories which frustrates the idea that labelling is an industrial process and therefore a reductive or homogenising way to treat the photos.

In the Marseillaises’s nicknaming of Le Corbusier’s work “the madman’s house”, we see a similar supplementing and creation of narrative to that of the Courtauld. However, here the name personifies the housing project, rather than objectifying it by commenting on its physical form, like its other name “the Radiant City” does. This character of the “madman” disrupts Le Corbusier’s naïve, attempted narrative of L’Unité d’Habitation as utopia. The invocation of madness becomes confusingly human. We can imagine this mythologised figure in the same vein as Carroll’s Mad Hatter, dancing with joy and performing his hospitality, but if “madman” is to be taken more literally, he becomes a victim of the trauma of war too, a man haunted by the contemporaneous austerity, as well as the past, and still suffering below his colourful pretence. Le Corbusier saw L’Unité d’Habitation as a remedy to «les maladies de villes» but for the Marseillaises, the project, as a person, was still ill.

Black and white image mounted on card of the building's profile.

CON_B04326_F001_017. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

The two narratives of L’Unité d’Habitation as utopia, as well as a place of great instability and pretence, are in opposition. The full extent of the connotations which derive from naming a housing development “the madman’s house” unsettles Le Corbusier’s idealistic vision. The colloquial label is more understanding of the history before L’Unité d’Habitation; it is an interaction with the past, which acknowledges the preceding trauma rather than reacting to it like Le Corbusier’s project does. It is this idea of interacting over reacting, and subsequently overwriting a narrative, which founds the Courtauld’s sensitive approach to handling the Conway archive too.

Old Man staring out of window

CON_B04326_F001_028. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Moreover, as subjects in Hervé’s photography, the children probe at the dual nature of L’Unité d’Habitation. The child’s indiscriminate and unassuming qualities mean that their interactions with the housing project are not marred by history like the adult’s. In Hervé’s work, adults are clearly preoccupied, turning away from the camera and staring listlessly at that which lies outside of the development. However, the children do not remember that which Le Corbusier is trying to forget with L’Unité d’Habitation. By consequence, they simultaneously complement the utopian idea of starting again, but also offer a vulnerability to the photographs, akin to believing that this so-called “unity of living” is the norm.

Children playing in light

CON_B04326_F001_026. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

Hervé’s photographs which comprise children chasing each other between shafts of light and shadow come to represent the housing project’s competing aspects of the hopeful and the haunted. To the children, contradiction becomes a game, the light and shade facilitate play, they are suspended in L’Unité d’Habitation’s utopian narrative, creating imagined stories of their own, only related to Le Corbusier’s project through location. Through play, the radiance of the housing project with its floor to ceiling windows is equated to shadows created by the sun overhead. Here, the implications of the two names are not in opposition for the children; the children’s presence in the photographs becomes rehabilitative of competition and divisions in all their forms and thus inform the most pertinent of all the post-war reflections to come from the housing project, that unity can be found anywhere.

In July 2016, Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation project in Marseilles and its other iterations in major cities such as Berlin and Nantes were listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. This accolade adds yet another label to Le Corbusier’s work and develops the narrative further. It is Le Corbusier’s utopia which meets the criterion of “providing an outstanding response to certain fundamental architectural and social challenges of the 20th century”, rather than the public’s “madman”. However, again, through Hervé’s photography of children and L’Unité d’Habitation, we see a visual recalibration and simplification of this criterion, as for a child, the project has succeeded if it makes him or her feel safe and content.

Children playing on roof terrace

CON_B04326_F001_050. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.

I was very moved by the happiness captured in this photograph by Hervé. The mother, who stares directly at the camera playing with her child, bypasses the adults’ preoccupation seen elsewhere in Hervé’s work; she is present in the moment, laughing and diverting the children herself. The skyline in the background creates a heavenly quality to the scene, the community of mothers and children are propelled above their surroundings, no longer contained by their apartments. Whilst the climbing frames themselves, with their abstract shapes and sloping angles, suggest another world entirely. The euphoria of this image becomes unearthly. The children and mothers are in a place together which supersedes the tangibility of Le Corbusier’s utopia and the “madman’s house”. They are genuinely happy and bolstered by a new-found sense of safety and longevity in this contentment. In this image, Hervé recognises that happiness alone is unchartered territory in the wake of the war, before we begin to consider the new spatial sensation of housing projects like Le Corbusier’s.

Ultimately then, Hervé’s work is no more about the children propagating an ideology of hope as it is about them being distracted from the outside world by an eccentric figure who himself, is somewhat afraid of the outside. Rather, I want to say that the photographs centre on a notion of individual transportation, a building of a habitat within above slotting oneself into a pre-packaged utopia. Whilst Le Corbusier’s architecture is certainly instrumental, and credited so in Hervé’s photography, to facilitating the contentment of the children, it only does so on a superficial basis. The children care for the light and shadows created by the huge windows and the paddling pool on the roof terrace, they do not care for, nor have need for the ideology behind their way of life. Children can make themselves happy through the living out of their own narratives, in both times of adversity and security. Furthermore, as with the Conway archive, narratives surpass labels in their power to evoke real emotion, and it is Hervé’s subversion of his own label, “architectural photographer”, which gave way to such touching and thought-provoking responses to Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation.

Black and white image of children heading to the roof swimming pool.

CON_B04326_F001_042. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC-BY-NC.


Mia Gainsford
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Stewart Cliff: Soutine’s Portraits Exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery

An urgent, restless group of portraits by Chaïm Soutine comprises the show entitled Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys. Painted in what seems like a flurry of activity, the paint still feels fresh: Soutine paints quickly wet into wet. Against the grain of conventional portraits, Soutine’s sitters were largely unknown, the make-shift titles were added by academics or dealers for practicality. Soutine doesn’t look to preserve a collective impression of a sitter, suggesting they are a vehicle for something more intangible. It is easy to set the scene, models in their uniform would sit for Soutine after their day’s work, brooding with a sense of resignation that is echoed in the way they are melded to the surface by the furious brushwork. Often their shoulders are bowed as the background encroaches, blurring where the paint meets the figure, and giving an overall sense of flatness. With the space collapsing, the weight of brushwork on the drapery and uniforms lends a further sense of claustrophobia, it is hard to imagine the sitters being able to breathe under the weight of their clothing.

Yet, despite the foreboding, the colours and nervous energy of the brushwork give a real sense of life to the portraits. Flesh tones feel tenderly observed and there is a sense of fidelity to the colours Soutine picks out of the surroundings: the yellows and turquoises coming from the whites of the chefs’ uniforms add a uniqueness to the vision. For something painted in such a blurry hurry these paintings are incredibly seductive to look at, we are constantly shifting our gaze from one passage to another; a splash of thinned paint forms some fidgety hands before moving up the furrows of a well-worn smock, and then a jab of the brush forms three opalescent teeth in a mouth, until eventually we are able to take in the painting in as a whole again.

Soutine, Chaim (1894-1943). The Little Pastry Cook; Le petit patissier. c.1927. Christie’s Images.

Surveying the exhibition, I think less about the painters who were Soutine’s contemporaries and instead more of the photographers of his time, especially August Sander, the German documentary photographer who would have worked at around the same time as Soutine. In his series, People of the 20th Century, Sander photographed the working population of the country, from bricklayers to musicians and estate agents all with great faithfulness. Sander often photographed his subjects with the accouterments of their trade, much the same way as Soutine depicts his subjects in their uniform. It is also striking how Soutine uses quite conventional poses such as the full-length portrait in The Little Pastry Cook: with his hands planted firmly on his hips, the subject feels peculiarly photographic. But there is also something more psychologically puncturing about Soutine’s paintings that directs me to think of August Sanders photography, Roland Barthes wrote in his book camera lucida “What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence. In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott’s psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred.” With his subjects posing resolutely with the tools of their trade, Sander seems to take such a specific slice of time it is almost as if he is pointing out that this might be how things are now but they will change. With a different medium and means, Soutine achieves a feeling very similar. Perhaps when we look at a painting, especially a portrait, we should get an impression of studious monumentality, it was traditionally the way monarchs would publicise their image to a nation. Yet, in Soutine’s portraits, faces often feel crestfallen and expressions are indistinct at best, the very antithesis of monumental. It is as if they are sliding off the canvas or slipping back to the anonymity of the city. All we are left with is the knowledge that the sitter sat for the artist at some point, but is now long lost to the past.

Soutine, Chaim (1894-1943). The Little Pastry Cook from Cagnes; Le patissier de Cagnes. c.1922-1923. Christie’s Images.

Pertinently, many of the surrounding paintings in the Courtauld are made by Soutine’s peers and contemporaries who were active in Europe at that time. They envisaged a world emboldened by clean graphic sensibilities, synthesised colour, and sometimes wild abandon. The modernity Soutine presents is one of squalid torment and rather than Europe it would be America that would hail Soutine. Alfred J. Barnes, an American collector, would purchase 60 paintings in one go liberating Soutine from the grinding poverty he had been captured in for much of his life.

In his seminal book, Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas writes of the grand European modernist Le Corbusier’s disgust at visiting New York, where the skyscrapers are too small, there is not enough light streaming into the buildings, and the roads aren’t wide enough. But Koolhaas’ proposition of modernism doesn’t have to be the rational utopian dream Le Corbusier desired, it could be the perverse, decadent vision of Salvador Dalí as well. Perhaps there is something Dali-esque in Soutine’s paintings; a wilful vision in which we are submitted to the artist’s innermost visions and feelings. America would be the heralding of Soutine, and you can largely see his legacy through American art from De Kooning and the abstract expressionists to Philip Guston and later painters such as Alice Neel and Cy Twombly.

– Stewart Cliff

Soutine, Chaim(1894-1943). Head Waiter. c.1927. Private Collection, Berlin.

Meet our volunteers… Francesca and Anne

It’s Volunteers’ Week in the UK this week and we wanted to take this opportunity to celebrate our fantastic Digitisation Volunteers. Every day this week we will be sharing their stories and thoughts in our Meet our volunteers series – we hope you enjoy meeting them!

Francesca and Anne

Why I volunteer…

Francesca: I am pursuing a career in the museum sector and wanted to gain some skills to help me. I also enjoy meeting new people and sharing stories and think that engaging with people over art is a fantastic starting point. Often personal stories are birthed from looking at an old photograph and relating to it, alongside conversations about its historical context which is always interesting. I am currently unemployed so need to fill my time wisely and find that the Courtauld provides me with many inspiring tasks to get on with. I would say I see my volunteering as 60% for career progression and learning skills and 40% as a hobby.

Anne: Having taken early retirement a few years ago I was on the lookout for a volunteering opportunity; I heard about the Courtauld Digitisation Project from a friend who volunteers and it sounded really interesting so I joined up to give it a go!

What I enjoy most about volunteering…

Francesca: I enjoy learning about diverse and precious content in the Conway Library. The Courtauld has the best sense of community that I’ve ever experienced in a volunteer museum setting and I love making new friends who have something in common with myself (love of art). Many of the volunteers are from the older generation and I find it fascinating to spend time with them and hear about their experience and ideas.

Anne: I really enjoy trying my hand at different parts of the process of digitisation, and seeing how it all fits together. I love the randomness of what you come across in the collection – one week it is Le Corbusier architectural drawings, the next Celtic crosses in Cornwall. And it is always exciting to come across photographs of places you know – in my first session we were digitising photos of a church tower in Croatia I had visited on holiday a few years ago.

Celtic crosses in the Conway Library.

Do you have a favourite photo or part of the collection?

Anne: KER_NEG_G03999 – a photo of young people gathered around the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain (“Eros”) in Piccadilly Circus.

AF Kersting, Eros.

What do you do when not volunteering?

Francesca: The skills I learn while volunteering can be transferred to jobs that I will potentially have in the future in the museum sector (currently I am unemployed).  Working in the museum sector can be challenging at times because of the need to be up to date with the art world, so learning more about architecture and photography is always useful. When I’m not volunteering at the Courtauld I am applying for jobs, doing online learning, and volunteering elsewhere.

Anne: I have really got into birdwatching in the last couple of years, so I often go for day trips to local(ish) nature reserves armed with my binoculars and trusty little camera – I particularly like to visit the Thames estuary which has amazing water birds. I dabble in drawing a little, and enjoy making the most of London’s wonderful art galleries, and browsing the regular amazing exhibitions at London’s auction houses.

What would you say to someone who wasn’t sure whether volunteering is for them?

Francesca: I love volunteering here and even if there are things you’re not sure about there is bound to be something that will draw you in because there are a lot of diverse aspects of it that you can enjoy, whether that’s being sociable and making friends, engaging in the interesting art, learning new skills, or going on group museum trips. Another thing I would add is that the staff are very experienced and enjoy sharing and the collections, they are one of a kind, so the experience is very inspiring.

Anne: Give it a go! There are several different parts of the process you can try out which each require different types of skill, so you can find something which suits you or do a bit of everything. You’ll meet a very varied group of people, and be really well looked after by the lovely staff!

Volunteering during lockdown

Francesca: I think it’s important to keep an open mind during this time. The Art Club and general tasks to get on with have been useful for being creative and just filling up my time with something to work towards.  Staying at home all the time can often be demotivating because you lack a schedule, but the tasks from the Courtauld have positively rectified that.

Frncesca’s contribution to Art Club

Art Club prompt, week 4.

Anne: Volunteering at home during COVID19 has been a real surprise – there is a whole new set of tasks we can work on, and I’m really enjoying delving deep into (again) random bits of research in my own time. I worked in IT in my former life, so I am able to make good use of – and update! – my computer skills. The twice-weekly Zoom team calls have really helped give some structure to my weeks, and it has been lovely to gradually get to know other volunteers and the staff over the weeks. I’m also loving the Art Club, where we are given a weekly challenge and encouraged ever so gently to have a go at creating something to share with the group.

Corrina Summers: Contested Spaces – Capturing Modernist Architecture in Postcolonial India

Audio Version

Read by Christopher Williams

Text Version

A sense of “doubleness” pervades the photographs contained within the Conway Library at the Courtauld Institute, the bulk of the collection comprising of photographs of other works of art. While the majority of its million photographs feature architecture as their central focus, some of the most striking images in the collection feature human subjects, thrusting ideas about the relationship between the aesthetics of architecture and its social function into the foreground. This hybridity is especially evident in the photographs of Chandigarh in northern India, taken by both members of the architectural design team and professional photographers in its construction and early existence in the 1950s and 1960s.

Black and white photo of Chandigarh's Royal Assembly building by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F002_010

With construction beginning in 1952, Chandigarh is a city born out of independence and partition. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, ordered the creation of the city as a new capital for the new Haryana and East Punjab states of India that had been formed in the aftermath of independence; the former capital of the old state of Punjab, Lahore, had been lost to the new nation of Pakistan after partition. On a visit to the site of the new city in 1952, Nehru proclaimed “Let this be a new town, symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past, an expression of the nation’s faith in the future”. [1] Early postcolonial India also faced the issue of finding housing for the hundreds of thousands of Hindu and Sikh refugees fleeing the newly formed state of Pakistan; 80% of the original Chandigarh housing was considered “low-cost”. Thus, aesthetics and social issues in Chandigarh were inextricably linked from its inception.

Colour images of Chandigarh's Royal Assembly building by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F002_019

Colour image of Chandigarh's Royal Assembly building by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_014

Interestingly, the architect enlisted appointed to construct Nehru’s architectural symbol of an independent India was a westerner; prolific French modernist, Le Corbusier. With his own plan to reconstruct the central business district of Paris as a landscape of cruciform towers, octagonal street grids, and green spaces having been rejected in the 1920s, he saw the Chandigarh project as a means through which to realise his vision of the modern city. Prior to his death, Le Corbusier was the principal city planner and the architect behind the three main government buildings that occupied the city centre; the Palace of the National Assembly, the High Court of Justice, and the Palace of the Secretariat of Ministers. Indeed, these structures host many of the features outlined in his 1927 publication, Les cinq points de l’archictecture. These include the idea of the “pilotis”, the reinforced concrete pylons that act as the main components of the government buildings and are beautifully captured in Lennart Olson, Pierre Joly and Vera Cardot’s photographs, taken just after their completion.

Black and white interior shot of the Chandigarh's Royal Assembly, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04392_F002_021

Black and white image of Chandigarh's High Court building, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_010

Colour images of Chandigarh's High Court building, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_005

Colour images of Chandigarh's High Court building, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_004

Another Corbusierian motif that forms a central feature of Chandigarh is La Main Ouverte, “the open hand“, which Corbusier considered a symbol of “peace and reconciliation. It is open to give and open to receive”. [2] The sculpture in Chandigarh is one of many built by Corbusier, and arguably encompasses the unification of socio-political ideals with architecture, symbolising an India open to new opportunities. In terms of this adoption of a relatively revolutionary style of architecture and urban planning, the construction of Chandigarh can certainly be seen as a symbol of a dehistoricised, decontextualized space through which society could be transformed.

Black and white image of Chandigarh's High Court building and Open Hand monument, by Le Corbusier.

CON_B04391_F001_015


Corrina Summers
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

 

References

  1. Malhotra, A., Chandigarh Exhibited in New York (2013) <https://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2013/08/17/chandigarh-exhibited-in-new-york/> [accessed 11 December 2019].
  2. Shipman, Gertrude (5 October 2014). Ultimate Handbook Guide to Chandigarh : (India) Travel Guide. MicJames. pp. 7–. GGKEY:32JTRTZ290J.