Modernism Debauched

Villa Besnus in 1922 and 2010.
Photo compilation by Laurent David Ruamps

In 1922, Le Corbusier was hired by a man named George Besnus to build a new house in the Paris suburb of Vaucresson. It was the architect’s first chance to put the Purist ideals he had been toying with to practice: an architecture stripped of its excesses, made as clean, clear and efficient as possible. The house was meant as a statement, from the gracefully rounded edges of its balcony to the bathroom, which was placed in the centre of the building, allowing for an uninterrupted flow of interior space.

As you can see in the photo compilation above, though, Le Corbusier’s original design has been altered beyond recognition. Gone are the carefully-considered proportions, the clean contrast with scrubby surroundings. A four-sided roof replaced the original flat one and shops were built in the house’s front garden. It now looks like a slightly more modern version of the petit bourgeois houses that surround it, which is ironic, considering that Le Corbusier’s Modernist villa predates them by at least several years. In a way, knowing that those fuddy-duddy traditional houses were built during the emergence of Modernism makes you all the more sympathetic to Le Corbusier’s ideals. You can see very clearly what he was working against.

Because of the alterations, the Besnus house is one of the few buildings designed by Le Corbusier that has not been declared a monument. The comments posted on Flickr in response to the above then-and-now photo are scathing: “De la banalisation au sens propre du terme!” fumes one. It’s certainly tempting to see the transformed house as a bastardization of Le Corbusier’s principles, perhaps committed by someone ignorant of their value or importance.

But the house was actually altered shortly after its construction. For all the ingenuity of its design, it proved practically unlivable. One year after the house was finished, in 1924, Besnus’ wife wrote a letter complaining about “the incredible dampness in the stairs and in the living room,” according a study of Le Corbusier’s relationship with his clients. By 1927, cracks had appeared in the ground floor walls and water began to leak in. Besnus asked Le Corbusier to fix the problems. He was ignored. That was when the house was finally modified.

For all the nasty words written about Le Corbusier’s legacy, he was indeed a great architect, which is why his oeuvre remains cherished and protected. But no architectural critique is more scathing than that of George Besnus, who consciously rejected Le Corbusier’s design after several years of living with it. It’s hard to blame him. In practical terms, Le Corbusier’s design was a failure; what good is a house if the walls crack and the roof leaks?

The fate of the Besnus house is a lesson in other ways, too: bad architecture sometimes makes for good urbanism. The house as it exists today is petty and vulgar, but it is perfectly appropriate to its surroundings. As cities evolve, so do their component parts, including buildings that were designed for one purpose and are now used for another. Like all revolutions, Modernism ran into the small-mindedness of human ambition. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It reinforced a lesson that all architects need to accept: there are no clean breaks.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday December 09 2010at 10:12 pm , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Europe, Heritage and Preservation, History, Interior Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

4 Responses to “Modernism Debauched”

  • Très content que mon lien t’ai plu, Christopher. Belle contribution!

  • Zvi says:

    There are many examples of similar era Bauhaus style apartment buildings in Israel. An impressive number have been well preserved, but many have also been ‘adjusted’ to be more functional.

  • Des says:

    Two observations:

    The roof retrofit suggests ‘leaky condo’, at least to a Vancouver resident; I wonder if the adjoining commercial buildings have similar issues, or if improvements in construction technologies and techniques have intervened to reduce dampness, etc…

    I’d argue that the added commercial spaces aren’t really indicative of a design failure on Corb’s part; the ‘before’ picture suggests a pretty low-density environment, in which there likely wouldn’t’ve been sufficient demand for shops; the ‘after’ shot looks pretty populated; this seems like a normal process of densification in response to population increase. Had the shop spaces been added from the start, they probably would’ve sat empty for at least some years (not sure of the age of the adjacent apartments) and been ‘inappropriate’. Stylistically, they’re probably the most ‘in-keeping’ part of the retrofit.

    Great piece, and excellent link, too…

  • MB says:

    Learning about the Radiant City makes me very loath to have any sympathy for Le Corbusier. He was a great architect in the sense of his influence, perhaps, but this example shows how time and time again his designs were flawed to the brink of failure. That the original intent of his design is lost as a result of these organic modifications is more of a testament to the inflexibility of his models than wrongdoing on the owner’s part.