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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY SEVENTY THREE Le Corbusier and Germany

If you want to see where architecture is going, come to Stuttgart. There are some extraordinary buildings, some built by drones and robots. The one we're in at the moment - the Neue Staatsgalerie, built by James Stirling in 1984 - feels old hat. But it is a good place for coffee and a Swabian pretzel, and being here has brought into the conversation one of the great American advocates of modern art, Alfred Barr.

In 1929, at the age of 27, Barr became the first Director of MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He put on the first Picasso retrospective and the Bauhaus 1919-1928 exhibition. In his way, he was also a Monuments Man – getting artists out of Germany and France, including Marc Chagall, and providing the $3,000 dollars they needed to get visas.

Barr tells a relevant story about Corbusier: slightly lost in Paris before the war, Barr asked directions to a house newly-built by Corbusier - “The Frenchman was puzzled for a moment and then exclaimed: Ah, vous voulez dire la maison dans le style allemand?

The Frenchman had likely been to the 1930 Werkbund exhibition in Paris organised by Walter Gropius. Alfred Barr had arranged to be married in Paris so he could attend. In the catalogue for the Bauhaus show at MoMA in 1938, Barr recalled this aspect of his honeymoon: “There the whole German section was arranged under the direction of Gropius. Consistent in programme, brilliant in installation, it stood like an island of integrity, in a melange of chaotic modernistic caprice, demonstrating (what was not generally recognised at the time) that German industrial design, thanks largely to the Bauhaus, was years ahead of the rest of the world.”

Werkbund Exhibition, Paris 1930: the model of an apartment building by Gropius

In 1930, Le Corbusier - architect of la maison dans le style allemand - was 43 years old and at the take-off point in his career: ahead of him lay Ronchamps, the new city of Chandigarh, the three Unités d'Habitations. Even then, he had on the books: a headquarters building for the Tsentrosoyuz, the Soviet trade unions in Moscow; a grand villa on the Cote d'Azur; an apartment on the Champs-Élysées; the Cité de Refuge for the Salvation Army in Paris; student housing at the Cité Universitaire in Paris; and the Immeuble Clarté in Geneva, an important building where he explored ideas that would become his Unité d'Habitation.

Immeuble Clarté, Geneva - now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (c)wikicommons

A few years ago, I took the Race Marshal to the Unité in Marseilles for her birthday. The building is a little forlorn, totally surrounded by badly-parked cars the communal space beneath the pilotis barren, and the 'high street' floor closed. But people (like Jonathan Meades) like to live there and Corbusier's hotel within the Unité is extremely nice. He also chose a wonderful site – high up on the hill over the harbour: the hotel restaurant has one of the best views in France.

So, at the age of 43, Corbusier had emerged as a central figure in modernism. And he was identified as such through CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne), the conference series that he had first organised in Switzerland in 1928. The delegate list included leading architects from France, Belgium, Austria, Czechoslovakia (Alfred Loos), the Netherlands, and at later conferences, Finland and Spain – but no Americans. German architects were, of course, always a significant presence - Walter Gropius, Erich Mendelsohn, Ernst May and Mies Van der Rohe.

CIAM had an extraordinary impact on what we built in the post-war period. One particularly influential product of their deliberations appeared in 1932. There was meant to be a CIAM get-together in Moscow that year to discuss "The Functional City". When this was cancelled at the last minute, the delegates boarded a cruise ship at Marsailles and set off in the direction of Athens. They seem to have worked hard because the document that emerged - the Athens Charter – became a touchstone for city planners in the decades after 1945.

CIAM's collective opinion was that cities “present an image of chaos. They do not correspond in any way to their ultimate purpose: to satisfy the basic biological and physiological needs of their inhabitants”, a failure that they blamed on “the irresponsibility of private enterprise” and “weak administrative controls and powerless social interests”.

In their view, town planning was “a science based on three dimensions, not on two. This introduces the element of height which offers the possibility of freeing spaces for modern traffic circulation and for recreational purposes.” And in the third dimension, “high-rise apartments [should be] placed at wide distances apart to liberate ground for large open spaces.”

The 1956 Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, St Louis, Missouri - within a decade, the project was infamous for poverty, crime and racial segregation.

(c)US Geological Survey

Ironically, the Americans, who were not part of CIAM, really took to this view of future cities: Eisenhower's 1949 Housing Act gave federal, state, and local governments extraordinary powers to reshape the built environment. "Urban renewal" in 1950s and 1960s America forced more than 300,000 families from their homes. Half were black: as James Baldwin put it, "urban renewal means Negro removal".

My apologies – this was meant to be a short preamble to a discussion of German influences on Le Corbusier. But I have gone on too long and now have to stop abruptly because we have an appointment at the Porsche Test Track. Some thirty years ago, Dr Porsche himself drove the Race Marshal's father around the track in his latest prototype - and we are hoping that this experience might be repeated down a generation. I'll report back tomorrow.

An hour's documentary on MoMA -

(at 20 minutes 43 seconds, there is a tiny clip of Alfred Barr at the Picasso retrospective; he is second in from the right)

Documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright -

An interesting five minute film on Pruitt-Igoe -

Tom Waits House where nobody lives -

Dionne Warwick A house is not a home (1964) -

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