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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY SEVENTY TWO Estate Planning

Coffee time in Stuttgart - with a brace of Saint Marc from Meister Lampe.

Saint Marc (c)Meister Lampe

The Race Marshal was telling me about her venture into France to the Corbusier Chapel at Ronchamps – which led to the question of which building to have on your desert island. I wouldn't mind having the Ronchamps Chapel; the Race Marshal opted for either one of the extraordinary 'ultimate bungalows' built by the Greene brothers in Pasadena, or perhaps Fallingwater. Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier were in fact known to each other: there is a story - I think I've got this right - of them driving together down an American freeway each competitively counting the buildings that he could claim to have influenced.

On the way back from Ronchamps, the Race Marshal visited another (almost) Corbusier project in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges. In 1945, Corbusier was asked to replace the piles of rubble with a whole new town. He was thrilled at the prospect: “The almost complete destruction of the old city had the effect of clearing and to enhance the surrounding landscape which is pleasant and charming. It’s a revelation for the visitor and even more for the locals. Treasure found!”

I'm not sure the locals agreed: they were destined to live for decades in hastily built log cabins while the authorities searched for the money to build Corbusier's vision. Only one factory in the scheme was ever built.

A new Paris: Le Corbusier's model for Plan Voisin (c)wikicommons

Corbusier was of course used to this kind of frustration. In 1925 he had proposed the Plan Voisin for the centre of Paris: Gabriel Voisin, an aircraft pioneer who had grown wealthy in the First World War, funded the plan having been impressed by an earlier concept of Corbusier's for a new town housing three million people in skyscrapers. The plan for Paris was intended to correct the blight that existed then and persists today with poorer people pushed into banlieues by the cost of housing.

Corbusier did participate in one successful project two years later - the Weissenhof Estate. This collection of modernist buildings was the creation of a stellar group of architects for the very important Deutscher Werkbund exhibition in 1927. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Deutscher Werkbund – the 'German Association of Craftsmen' – was an attempt to connect traditional crafts with mass production. Founded in 1907, the Werkbund brought together architects, designers, artists and industrialists under the banner Vom Sofakissen zum Städtebau (from sofa cushions to cities). If this sounds vaguely William Morris-ish, it was - by way of Hermann Muthesius, the author of the three-volume Das englische Haus, published two years previously and a direct inspiration for the Werkbund.

William Bidlake's Garth House, Edgbaston (c)wikicommons

Hermann Muthesius is little known these days, but he provided a direct bridge to Germany from the creative world of William Morris, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Arts and Crafts architect William Bidlake. The connection came almost by accident: the Kaiser appointed Muthesius, who was an architect and editor of architectural journals, Cultural Attache to England in 1896. Muthesius and his new wife, Anna Trippenbach, fell in love with England and the Arts and Crafts movement:"Today any visitor to Glasgow can rest body and soul in Miss Cranston's Tea Rooms and for a few pence drink tea, have breakfast and dream that he is in fairy land."

Anna Trippenbach by Max Koner, 1895 (c)wikicommons

The Muthesiuses turned down the Embassy's offer of an apartment in Carlton House Terrace, preferring to live in an artists' colony in Hammersmith. While Hermann pursued things English, Anna discovered art nouveau and applied her findings to fashion. The book she published on their return to Germany was anti-fashion - women should wear what they want to wear and not be slaves to the German clothing industry. Her advocacy for beautiful materials and simplicity mirrored her husband's developing architectural aesthetic.

Led by figures like the pioneering architect Peter Behrens and the furniture designer Bruno Paul, the Werkbund turned out to be an important vector in the development of modern architecture. The exhibition houses in Stuttgart prove the point.

The Weissenhof Estate (c)wikicommons

To walk round the Weissenhof Estate is an education in modernism. Architects chosen by the exhibition organiser, Mies van der Rohe, were given plots of land on which to build their exhibition houses: Le Corbusier built two; Mies van de Rohe, one; Peter Behrens, one; Richard Doecker, two; Victor Bourgeois, the great Belgian modernist, one; Josef Frank, who later created the Vienna School of Architecture, two; Hans Scharoun (designer of the Berliner Philharmonie), one; Mart Stam, who later designed cantilevered tubular-steel chairs at the Bauhaus, one; Ludwig Hilberseimer, whom Mies took with him to Chicago when the Bauhaus was closed, one; and, of course, Walter Gropius – respectfully given two plots.

Mart Stam's Weissenhof building (c)wikicommons

There were seventeen architects altogether and they created twenty-one buildings providing 63 apartments designed “for the modern city dweller, from blue-collar workers to the upper middle class” - a socialist alternative to slum housing of the kind that Corbusier had intended with his Plan Voisin.

Mies van der Rohe ensured that the buildings had consistency of style - flat roofs, terraces, simple facades painted white (except for Bruno Taut's multi-coloured house). Because the elements were prefabricated, the whole estate was ready in five months. And even though art nouveau was still very much the fashion, these buildings had no decoration.

Ironically, the leading proponent of architecture without decoration, Adolf Loos, was not represented. His dictum "the more a people are cultivated, the more decor disappears" is a foundation stone of modernism: Corbusier, citing Loos' 1912 book, Ornament and Crime, said “modern decoration has no decoration".

It is a great pity that Loos is not represented. His presence would have provided a clean sweep of European modernism: Mies did initially offer him a plot, but when Loos proved spiky and publicly criticised the Werkbund, the offer was withdrawn. And joining Loos in opposition to the exhibition was the man who inspired the Werkbund - Hermann Muthesius, who felt that the movement was now simply about style.

A six-minute film of Peter Behrens' designs -

An Open University lecture on the Werkbund exhibition -

The Chapel at Ronchamps (the music stops at 1 minute 20 seconds) -

An interview in 2001 with Mies van der Rohe -

The original Goth rock band Bauhaus (from Northampton) in 1982 -

Poème électronique by Edgard Varèse, written at Le Corbusier's request by the 'Father of Electronic Music' for his Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair 1958 -

Frank Zappa introducing an Edgard Varèse tribute in 1981 -

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