Seeing as my students are busy writing their essays right now, I thought I'd write my own. Here's my own 3,500 word essay on Le Corbusier's La Tourette (1956-60)
Even now it is restored the monastery of La Tourette seems barely habitable. It has the quality of being at once at the limit of architecture and core of it. It is the barest of shelters; it’s cold, it’s loud, and it’s bare, there seems little comfort except in the mind, and its function is to focus the mind. Even at time of completion much of the early work of Le Corbusier already lay in ruins. In 1960, Nicholas Pevsner documented the sorry state of his Parisian work –including a completely derelict Villa Savoye- for the Architectural Review. This was also a time of personal tragedy, Le Corbusier’s wife dying in 1957. Le Corbusier would swim out in to the Mediterranean against doctors’ orders, and ostensibly to suicide, in 1965.
Despite this opportunity I have never read a totally satisfactory essay on La Tourette, so this is an attempt to re-write my own, a elective study I made for Mark Wells and my degree at Bristol University titled ‘Built Form and Setting in the Late Work of Le Corbusier’, submitted in 1983. The aim is to review the sources I used at the time, and evaluate them again in the light of experience. So just as my tutor bade me then, I sat down to re-read Colin Rowe’s ‘La Tourette’, this time (like him) safely at a distance, and in my case high up in a downtown Houston hotel room.
Rowe’s essay written for the Architectural Review in 1961 is nothing if not lush. It is a paradoxically baroque piece. Even the author worries about its lurid qualities. It was written when Rowe was just over forty, and reprinted in the seminal ‘Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays’ in 1976. In the previous five years, Rowe had been working at Cornell with Robert Slutzky on the issue of phenomenal and literal transparency.
At twenty two I’m sure from its first lines I could never have understood it, but my notes show I was sensible enough not to dismiss it. Now I respect it as a piece of writing unto itself . At fifty it reminds me of John Ruskin; taking us by the hand and showing us a building as he wishes it to be, expounding interests of his own, but all the time of course leaving out whole chunks or even getting them wrong (that’s why Proust loved Ruskin- it was so bad it was good). Rowe presents an architectural promenade. His propositions cannot be proved, but they are useful, he exaggerates the all too overwhelming fact that a spade is just a spade because of course it isn’t, except when it’s a shovel.
He sets the scene with a comparison of the site planning with the acropolis and opens a discussion on the nature of north face of the church (that it may be seen as blank, or a dam) making quite a meal of what to call it and what it is doing. He mercurially writes of the famous ‘light cannons’ as ‘entrails’, as if the church were suffering some kind of hernia. It is a vivid scene. Then we are thrown in to an academic game of hunt the façade, or hunt the façade that is not a façade, or hunting the absence of such a thing, or wondering whether we are viewing a profile rather than the portrait, and of rotation and counter rotation. He is interested in the horizon and how we see it. He asserts the primacy of the three quarter view, of the correlation with the acropolis, and makes comparison with the much earlier Villa Schwob.
In 1965, when the 1957-65 volume of the Oeuvre Complete was published, Le Corbusier (or editor Willy Boesiger) included this pointed snippet reminding us that the building had no facades;
‘a visitor declared to the Provincial ‘monsieur I am going to make you a gift of a statue for your façade’ The Provincial answered him ‘but where is the façade?’
While Rowe contemplates the forbidding north side of the church and from there, leads a merry dance, Le Corbusier actually asks us to contemplate the south. We know this because Le Corbusier builds in a special balcony for us to do so, such things being the means at his disposal. It’s the sort of place the tour guides escort visitors to explain the building’s secrets, indeed, they have escorted me, and from here we can contemplate the array of objects set against the church’s south side, or forms in light, and this indeed suggests we might think of that wall as a giant, indefatigable blank canvas (just as Rowe suggests of the other side). Of course this is nit picking, but it sort of matters, because it makes it clear to us that Rowe is not interested in the obvious.
Rowe is right of course, in everything he says; it is clear La Tourette might be considered such a temple worthy of such forensic scrutiny. His text is of course punishingly deterministic and lugubrious in terminology. His light canons, those entrails, undergo dizzying contrapuntal oscillations. We are, in a sense, away with the fairies. For comparison, we could go about things more simply, we could take James Gowan, partner of James Stirling (a student of Rowe and even referred to as Rowe’s draughtsman) for a typically independent and opposite view. What for instance, if we agreed with James Gowan that there were only two types of building, the villa and the castle, and we deduced that La Tourette was a castle without three quarters of it’s abutments. Here we are at least confronted with the fact we are dealing with mere figures of speech and understand a certain level of absurdity in the way our limited vocabulary of words might be conjugated to describe things.
That is not to say the critical exercise is absurd. I am merely demonstrating potential extremes. There is an alternative tack; if we take Dave Hickey’s lead, it is the task of the critic to play air guitar. To appreciate the church volume at La Tourette in this vain I would enjoy Rowe’s interpretation, but I would be hoping to get more under Le Corbusier’s skin, I’d start thinking of the metaphorical (word of God) and painterly significance (the enjoyment of one shape against another) of the great ear on the north wall and the practical orientation of the light canons toward available light to measure the time of day. My reading would be less abstract; I would not be trying to go somewhere else, I would be happy to understand just what I’ve got. Meanwhile, when it comes to that inner cruciform armature of circulation that Rowe sees as rotational (perhaps in the manner of the plan of the Gropius Bauhaus) I have myself described it as one of those devices to effectively bake potatoes. In itself that is not as ridiculous an assertion as it might seem, for when I did that I was a student of twenty-two, but more than once I’ve been cheered by the description of the underbelly of the Unite d’Habitation as like a ‘grease trap in a traditional French kitchen’. Usually, it seems with Le Corbusier, things can be seen to be doing more than one thing in more than one way.
The second text I was referred to back in 1983 was by Stanilaus Von Moos. He offers a sturdy guide in his book ‘Le Corbusier; Elements of a Synthesis’. His is an exercise in mix and match; he does not need to sustain the device of the promenade and does not suffer the confines of writing first and foremost a magazine article. Nor does he appear to be floating a theory, for Moos is not afraid to state the obvious. He says that the structure makes sense for the site given the site’s peculiarity, he gives it’s progeny in the town planning proposal for Montevideo, acknowledges the influence of Le Thoronet, and outlines the building as the sum of heterogeneous parts. In his last line on the subject (a mere two pages dedicated solely to La Tourette) he allows us to bask in pathos as he recognises that perhaps ‘the architect wished to speak in ever more desperately forceful images about his vision for social harmony, once it had become clear that society had definitively refused to adopt it’.
The third text was by Vincent Scully. Scully is an extremely erudite scholar on the subject of Ancient Greece and practically everything else, and back then, tackling ‘The Earth the Temple and the Gods’ as a student without any clue of classical cosmology was an uphill task. Therefore I was practically blind to whole areas of both Le Corbusier’s personality and creative method. When young, it would seem you are less likely to ponder successfully on the human condition than you might with experience. The notion that there is inevitable regret and there might be selfless virtue has also yet to be learned. The concept of the hero, that necessary construct between mortal man and immortal god who makes sense of freewill is also hardly apparent, and whilst I could say it, it was unlikely I understood what God is dead meant.
Le Corbusier’s vision of himself as tragic hero was therefore on the edge of my comprehension. My tutor’s view of Charles Jencks’s book ‘Le Corbusier and the Tragic View of Architecture’ was that it should have been called ‘Le Corbusier and the Tragic View of Mankind’. Le Corbusier’s view that it was absolutely necessary to show humanity the way, and with that came inevitable failure, is something that only became clear to me with time. Later in my studies I wrote an essay on the Nietzschian aspects of Le Corbusier’s personality as displayed in the chapter on the building of a dam in the Alps (contained in ‘The City of Tomorrow’) with little understanding of Nietzsche at all.
Also I had not read ‘The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture’ (Hersey) which presents the origin of architectural form in the complex troping of what things look like, what they sound like, and what they mean. Whilst this is obviously complex, the concept is easily illustrated in Le Corbusier’s mature work and certainly at La Tourette. Take for instance the planometric nodules that mark the interface between the monks and their visitors at the entrance. They are shaped like kidneys, and in the body kidneys purify the blood, and so symbolically they illustrate the coming together of sacred and profane. Similarly the great ‘ear’ of concrete in which the monks listen to god beneath the light canons, and similarly the linguistic punning of ‘light machine guns’ on the other side.
Given all this, it is not surprising then that my first experience of this building was arranged to be first hand. I was having a tutorial, clearly the babble of words was not making a great deal of sense to me, and my tutor suddenly picked up the phone and dialled the monastery. ‘Are you free next week?’ he asked me, ‘Do you have means?’ he added, and suddenly I had to be there for Saturday 8th January 1983. This was a remarkable event in many ways. In general we no longer send students gallivanting around Europe on a whim, but I still treasure my sketchbook of that trip, especially all the crude exclamations made across the double page spreads in felt pen for ‘Besancon!’ or ‘Belfort S’il vous plait!’ made as I hitchhiked down to Marseilles and back via La Tourette and Ronchamp.
Here’s what I wrote when I finally arrived at La Tourette:
‘… a hell of a walk up the hill from the town, but a fantastic thing to see when you arrive . It looks better than I ever expected. When I arrived there was no one around so I had to sit outside messing around for half an hour before getting in. The room is lovely!’
So it was not so forbidding for me, and after days of hitching and nights in 50Fr hotel rooms the monastery was very much a sanctuary. Once I’d settled in I started walk around and see for myself, my sketchbook to hand. As I read it now, I can sense the threads of comprehension. Much of it seems to represent a battle in my own mind between what things look like and what they are. Much centres on the conception of the objet type.
In a tutorial following my trip on the 17th January, Mark put me straight:
1. Cells are objet types for living (but like any refined object they can be manipulated for function)
2. Kitchen/dining block is domino objet types (i.e. rooms on each level independent of the ones below)
3. Church is one of a number of church objet types
4. Cloisters are movement objet types
5. Windows are ‘seeing the world’ objet types (modulated via the modulor)
6. The Modulor is itself an objet type generator
The emphasis here is not on what we see. We are in an idealized formal composition that is hardly picturesque. However all the components are manipulated as necessary to adapt to both site and function. Further, this procedure inherently makes design easier. Words like easier are not in the critical lexicon these days. Meanwhile the object type is not seen as some kind of universal leveller, but as basic equipment for application, that’s why, as Mark explained enthusiastically, there are thirty two flat types in the Unite d’Habitation.
We live in an era where this simplicity and there is ‘simplicity’. We have an idea of simple things, but more often we are consuming a highly mediated version; a synthetic compound rather than the synthesis of ideas. We can think of eternity, but we are more likely to spray it on in the morning.
It is clear to me that Le Corbusier found consumerism abhorrent. For him it was a distraction and disaster, a distraction which first diverted us from those ‘objet types’ he enjoyed as a ‘purist’ in the twenties, those objects such as wine bottles and guitars which had already established their perfect form by the early part of the twentieth century and where it seemed there was no need to go any further, and secondly dissuaded us from the pursuit of utopia, that ideal as might become real in city form or dwelling as the result of the rational, moral and empirical application of principle to those things not yet achieved but necessary in prospect; the development and application of new objet types. The idea that there might be no difference between what was wanted and what was needed, as espoused by JK Galbraith in The Affluent Society of 1958 would be ridiculous to him. Le Corbusier certainly did not collect adds like the Smithsons. The elements of America he liked (as evidenced in ‘When the Cathedrals were White’) such as the primal energy of jazz, were not commodious. He was not interested in the supine level playing field of the marketplace. He took a more elevated position altogether. Indeed, he defined man as upright on two legs, surveying the horizon, otherwise, you might as well be dead.
Right from the beginning Achilles spends a vast portion of the IIiad sitting on the beach wondering what to do. Before decisive action, he thinks. He thinks a great deal. He is not caught up in what is going on around him. He refuses to take part, for now at least. The Iliad is both a snuff movie, or a war memorial to heroic action, and a treatise on ethics. By 1956 Le Corbusier knew it was all over, that his heroic work was done. He had created and proselytized, and precious few had understood. He had perhaps reached his summit of worldview with his Poem de l’angle doit completed in 1953, his evocation of enduring values about to be overwhelmed by consumer capitalism. Within that consumerism, it would be hard for him to see the wood for the trees, unless transported to Chandigarh or Ahmedabad.
Everything Le Corbusier did in architecture could be represented in chalk on a blackboard. That is to say, it could be reduced to visual equations. He always demonstrated the elemental idea as if it were mathematical, whilst there was always room for the ineffable too. In Jencks, this is brought down to his elemental understanding of harmony as coming from the reconciliation of opposites, the Dionysian with the Apollonian perhaps, or (as presented in the Poem de l’angle doit) between man and woman, or between painting and architecture.
For those who have since experienced the iniquities (and comforts) of the late capitalist environment his expositions can be astringent and invigorating. For those drowning within it, they can only be savoured nostalgically. Such was the fate of his apologists and apostles as time passed. It was all very well but you could not do Corbusier anymore; times had changed. Of course, you could do Corb, but maybe you could also do Otto Wagner! Why not? He might be more useful for those corporate interiors! We should remember that for Le Corbusier, nothing had changed, and nothing would ever change, at all. That we were all still, whatever the period, characters in the Iliad equipped with new armour.
Le Corbusier liked ships. Their self-contained humanity, their precision, appealed to him, and we can easily see the Unite d’Habitation as a ship, with its deck the rooftop cloister. Indeed, the Ancient Greeks are famous for being pirates, and one of the constant refrains in the Iliad is Achilles and his army’s relation to their ‘long black ships’ beached on the shoreline beneath which Achilles worries, and which they must defend to the last. It is clear also that La Tourette has many of the qualities of a beached ship, and when you prowl around it’s under croft, you find that some of the concrete piloti have been shaped like angled props.
His masterful rendition of the church at La Tourette as a ‘box of miracles’ is more deadpan. Of course, god is dead, but not for the Dominicans, for whom he is life. Look how Le Corbusier does it; most obviously we troop down the armature of the interior cloister to the door of the church, a huge steel swivel door, and set within it we see a hatch such as that we might see on a submarine or a ship, more convenient for individual access. It states semiotically; I’m airtight! Whatever is considered sacred, however phoney, shall be kept safely within. He used the same device in his own cabanon, as the door between it and the restaurant on the other side. Here of course, it refers both perhaps to the exclusion of both cooking odours and sociality, which no matter how pleasant, must be satisfactorily quarantined.
Once inside the church we see a great horizontal slot that splits to top of the west wall from the roof. When the sun goes down, the sunset falls directly across the underside of the flat concrete roof, making it appear to take off; an aesthetic revelation of scientific law. The cosmos turns, and Le Corbusier brings it to special effect, just as the Romans did with the Pantheon, or the ancient Athenians in the entablature of the Parthenon, where figurative horses drag up the sun, and drag it down again. And in the midst of all this, we will have the light canons and the light machine guns, these puns on the hell of modernity, provided within great earpieces of concrete to allow the monks to listen properly to god. And all this, ostensibly, in a huge blank box, a box, indeed, of miracles, if you are so inclined.
What we have at La Tourette is more than a tombstone in the landscape to be discovered by each generation of inquisitive rustics, although certainly it is precisely that. What we have at La Tourette is more a tombstone to a way of thinking about the built environment, and a fitting and complete exposition, in the extreme, of the synthesis of ideas Le Corbusier brought to it. This, I hope I have shown, is how to empathise with a masterpiece.
In conclusion Colin Rowe introduced a series of speculations that could not, in the end, be substantiated in the actual object but would lead to something else. His daring consumption of La Tourette would seem to be a pivotal moment in its own slow transformation to consumer object. There is something of the value added in his commentary, and this predates the post-modern sensibility. It is where good design became ‘good design’, where eternity became ‘eternity’. It’s also when we began not understanding what some architects and theorists of architecture were talking about.
There are more spiritual retreats in California than ever before. Unsurprisingly, spiritual peace is a growth industry. The Dominicans are an urban church, with urban motivations and internet connections. When they get together these days, they need bigger arenas than La Tourette. On the other hand it is quite easy to see La Tourette as a retreat and cash cow. I suspect this is how La Tourette will be sold one day (given a few added consumer friendly accessories such as fluffy towels) like a retreat in California, for the very fact that it embodies all the signs of forbidding will make it very attractive indeed.
PD March 2013.