|Solarium of Charles de Beistegui’s Penthouse, Le Courbusier, Paris, 1931 (source)
||The Continuous Monument, Superstudio, 1969 (source)
Le Corbusier was not happy about this. When he finished the penthouse on the Champs-Élysées for Charles de Beistegui in 1931, it was a Modern apartment with clean and simple spaces. When the multi-millionaire moved in, he redecorated the space with his favorite Baroque furniture. Against the white walls of the solarium on the roof garden, Le Corbusier allowed a non-working fireplace almost as a joke. But then de Beistegui added a lavishly decorated clock and a pair of ornate candle holders. A mirror with an elaborate oval frame was hung halfway above the wall.
Le Corbusier should have seen this coming – de Beistegui was famous for his extravagant parties and love of the Empire style. Any modern design would be an imposition on his flamboyant client. Despite this, Le Corbusier still took on the project because he felt it was an opportunity to test his ideas for the roofs of Paris and to realize a piece of his Plan Voisin. The solarium illustrated his agenda for the city. Enclosed by high walls on all sides, one can only see the grass, the four walls, and the clouds in the sky. This open room was completely cut off from the Parisian panorama. Le Corbusier announced the Modern invasion of Paris by blocking out the nearby Arc de Triomphe – interestingly, a monument built by Napoleon to celebrate the victory of his invasions.
It is reasonable to accuse de Beistegui of raiding of an ideal design. But it would be equally fair to defend his rebellion against Le Corbusier’s assault on Paris and his client’s lifestyle. A building can be a statement, but it’s never an abstract piece of art. It has context and it contains the layers of life and activity. After all, clients, the city and its history are not architects’ enemies.
As a gridded, material-less superstructure of modernist grandeur, Superstudio’s Continuous Monument represents an angst of over-saturation. This series of photomontages represents a dystopic potential outcome of international banality – an earth engulfed in a surrealist monolith. While beautiful and grand, the visionary imagery was in fact a criticism of Modernism’s global invasion of the built environment. The renderings were never intended as realistic proposals, they simply delivered a warning that without opposition, criticism and/or an alternative, our urban and natural fabric may disappear. Superstudio’s expression is only one premonition of the imprisonment caused by a lack of diversity within our urban environment, reminding us that uniformity is never a tenable outcome.
In the context of today’s design spectrum we face a similar invasion of uninflected design proposals, as urban design projects continue to be rendered in singularity, with design offices imposing their unique aesthetics onto proposals for urban renewal. Projects continue to emphasize re-build over re-use, even in an era where sustainability is emphasized. Perhaps many designers may be inclined to believe that their proposal can improve the environment, but there is no one perfect option.