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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.

(From UrbanPhoto. Follow DeWolf on Twitter.)

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