August 6, 2007

beauty is utility

I've been crazy about the Swiss architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, famously known as Le Corbusier, ever since I saw a documentary about him a couple of months ago. So I was very very excited when I found out that Mori Museum in Roppongi Hills was doing a huge exhibition dedicated to his work. Once summer vacation hit, I headed straight to the museum and spent hours nerding it out, looking at the stuff. It was nice to see that besides his architectural work, they were also displaying many of Le Corbusier's paintings which is something of a rarity given their lack of recognition.

Pictured above is Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation (49-52) which was built in Marseilles, France to help alleviate the severe postwar housing shortage. Like most of his architecture, the beauty of it lies in its simple and honest structure. The highlight of the exhibition was probably the replica of a two-storey room from this building. I'd seen its interior before in a documentary, and I don't think it would be an understatement to say that I had the image engraved in my mind. I suspect that to most, it would look like just any old room from an old mass housing project--and don't get me wrong, I don't mean that in a snobby way--it's just that there's really nothing particularly special about the room itself. But what struck me when I saw it was that Le Corbusier had an uncanny way of creating comfortable spaces with just the bare human necessities and I found that beautiful beyond words. So although it was just a replica, it was an amazing experience to be able to walk through it, climb the stairs, see each room and feel Le Corbusier's sense of space with my body. Looking back, I'm reminded of a recurring theme in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead:

"Every piece of it is there because the house needs it—and for no other reason. You see it from here as it is inside. The rooms in which you’ll live made the shape. The relation of masses was determined by the distribution of space within. The ornament was determined by the method of construction, an emphasis of the principle that makes it stand. You can see each stress, each support that meets it. Your own eyes go through a structural process when you look at the house, you can follow each step, you see it rise, you know what made it and why it stands. But you’ve seen buildings with columns that support nothing, with purposeless cornices, with pilasters, moldings, false arches, false windows... Do you understand the difference? Your house is made by its own needs. Those others are made by the need to impress. The determining motive of your house is in the house. The determining motive of the others is in the audience."

While I'm admittedly not much of a fan of Rand's objectivism philosophy—it's charming if not very unrealistic—I can definitely agree with the protagonist Howard Roark's idea of beauty being utility. It's very appealing to a minimalist like myself. I think similar things can be said of Le Corbusier's early work since he was well known to value function over form.

P.S Doesn't this girl snapped by thesartorialist look like Le Corbusier?


shadowplay said...

Great post. If I know one thing about myself it's that I'm a total dunce when it comes to architecture. So I've always admired people who understand it and I try to listen and get it through my skull. lol

On the topic of simple "mass housing" style, you might have heard about the "Ostel Hotel" in Germany. I saw a little reportage on it sometime ago. Although, I'm not sure if you'll consider the idea more kitsch than simplicity. Anyway, here are links that I managed to find.

PS: Really enjoying your blog. :)

cc said...

ostel hotel is awesome--you're right, it's quite retro kitsch (esp the wallpaper!) but very cute nonetheless. it celebrates communism or so i read. haha i'm not quite sure i see that...
thanks for the link, shadowplay.