In Search of the Modern City

Writer: Grace Noh

Martin Lewis,  The Glow of the City  (1929). 

Martin Lewis, The Glow of the City (1929). 

The history of art in the turn of the twentieth century cannot be named a single style, but it is understood collectively as a response to the development of modernity. Cosmopolitan cities such as Paris, London, and New York epitomized the idea of modernity and the city dwellers were open to new ideas in art and architectural movements. Eventually, it demanded a new way of living and a new type of architecture based on practical functions and new aesthetic forms, which is rather natural and commonly expected in the present time.

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (1887-1965), better known as Le Corbusier, was one of the pioneers in recognizing and realizing this new idea of architecture as “a machine” for living. His incorporation of modernist movements and new technology attracted not just the architects and historians, but everyone interested in the modern-day issues and movements.

Le Corbusier, surrealist design for Charles de Beitegui's terrace, Champs-Elysées Paris.  

Le Corbusier, surrealist design for Charles de Beitegui's terrace, Champs-Elysées Paris.  

In particular, Le Corbusier’s Beistegui apartment was impacted not only by an individual artist, but also by various movements emerged in the early twentieth century. From Futurism, Surrealism, Dadaism, and Art Nouveau, the new thoughts circulated rapidly with the significant increase of newspapers, magazines, and literary.

In Germany, the School of Bauhaus, lasted from 1919 to 1933 and founded by the architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969), stressed aesthetic fundamentals and strived for geometrically pure forms in architecture. Another powerful school of thought, the Vienna School of Art History was recognized for its attempt to incorporate science in art history by “distancing art historical judgments from questions of aesthetic preference and taste” and by establishing rigorous concepts of analysis through which all works of art could be understood. Similarly, the Beistegui apartment presented Le Corbusier’s definition of the pure form of architecture in white cubes while intentionally stirring confusion between outdoors and indoors and between illusion and reality. These schools of art history shared some common beliefs with Le Corbusier and their ideas on the architectural virtues of the machines and of modernity.

Le Corbusier, surrealist design for Charles de Beitegui's terrace, Champs-Elysées Paris.  

Le Corbusier, surrealist design for Charles de Beitegui's terrace, Champs-Elysées Paris.  

Not only that, the Beistegui apartment dominantly featured decorative and surreal characters of his client’s particular taste in Surrealist art and embellished furniture. The balance between his architectural trademarks and the client’s needs and aesthetic taste demonstrated Le Corbusier’s concept of modern architecture as a new way of interaction between buildings and humans.  

“We have a new vision and a new social life, but we have not adapted the house accordingly.” The world was changing with new technology and modernist movements, but the development of architecture did not progress forward along with the fast changing world. Accordingly, Le Corbusier suggested a need for the new concept of architecture along with the need for modern architects to construct architecture with a new vision in a new social life.

Le Corbusier,  La Ville Radieuse  (1924) conceptual sketch. 

Le Corbusier, La Ville Radieuse (1924) conceptual sketch. 

Although some denounce Le Corbusier’s ideas on the city catastrophic, many agree that Le Corbusier created “a new architecture that corresponds to the abstract representations, stripped of spatial and plastic sense, of modern man.” In particular, the Beistegui apartment, which is one of the least discussed Le Corbusier’s projects, well captured the needs of modern-day man from a new architecture in a different way from Le Corbusier's previous villa projects. Although the physical structure of the Beistegui apartment no longer exists, it demonstrated the combination of his architectural trademarks and his understanding of Beistegui’s personal taste. Le Corbusier searched for common themes of the past buildings in different styles and blended these features together, transforming them to his own purposes.