Friday, March 20, 2009

A Room With A View

In some ways the most interesting thing about the replica of Le Corbusier's Cabanon currently on show at the RIBA is what it leaves out. It makes no attempt to reconstruct either the cabin's exterior or its original context. Instead it presents us with an internal diorama contained within a blank, black box on which visitors can write comments. We are invited to experience this little building as an interior landscape only, which is convenient as this is the part that fits most easily into the received wisdom of Le Corbusier's work.

The exterior of the real cabin - located on the French coast at Cap Martin - is faux-rustic, a deliberately rough and ready shed clad in half-logs and with a lean-to roof. It sits on a (once) remote rocky outcrop overlooking the sea. The interior though is a finely honed affair, a tiny but exquisitely detailed example of existenz-minimum. Its austere elegance and spatial economy suggests parallels with Le Corbusier's public housing schemes, while its monastic qualities seem to distill architecture down to its essentials.

These are, at least, the qualities picked up by almost all the architects invited by Blueprint magazine to sketch a contemporary version of the cabanon. Almost without exception these responses take the idea of monastic retreat at face value. The new designs sit on hills or perch on cliffs looking out over the landscape, celebrating the simple pleasures of a nice view. The labeling of their interior spaces as basic actions - sleeping, eating, writing - rather than conventional rooms is in keeping with the mood of frugal sensuality.

Unlike Le Corbusier's design though they all avoid the use of traditional construction. Consequently while the cabanon has small punched out openings, its contemporary reinterpretations tend to incorporate large areas of floor to ceiling glazing. In fact, most of the designs hinge around transparency and a dissolution of the boundary between interior and exterior. Here are a selection of descriptions:

"The building indulges in viewing and looks out at the sky and sea." Narinder Sagoo.

"Standing inside the cube, one has the pure, uncluttered perception of the endless moving water, vanishing into the sea’s horizon and the setting sun". Claudio Silvestrin.

"...there is hardly any difference between the exterior and the interior" Eva Jiricina.

At first glance these seem eminently reasonable ambitions. Just the sort of thing in fact that you might employ an architect to do. Site the building where it can take advantage of the view. Remove visual clutter. Dissolve the exterior wall through the use of extensive glazing. This obsession with clear, uncluttered vision has some less benign connotations however, not least in relation to the view commanded by LeCorbusier's original cabanon.

As Beatriz Colomina has noted in her compelling article Battle Lines E1027*, the cabanon was constructed close to a house designed by Eileen Gray. Colomina recounts Le Corbusier’s curious obsession with both Gray and her house - called E1027 - which provided the stimulus for building the cabanon in the first place. Writing of the peculiar, almost violent, relationship between the two Colomina has observed;

"Le Corbusier's obsessive relationship to this house (E1027) was his quasi-occupation of the site after World War II, when he built a small wooden shack (the "Cabanon") for himself at the very limits of the adjacent property, right behind Eileen Gray's house. He occupied and controlled the site by overlooking it, the cabin being little more than an observation platform, a sort of watchdog house".

Gray had built her house on Cap Martin precisely because it wasn't overlooked by any other properties. Le Corbusier's arrival - admittedly after she had sold E1027 - was a provocative intrusion into that sense of isolation. The little windows of the cabanon become highly suggestive as a result of such knowledge, and the view they command far from innocent .

Le Corbusier's sketch of the coast of Cap Martin becomes interesting in light of this partly because it omits Gray's house from the scene. It is also emphatically not the view one would get from inside the cabanon. The smallness of the windows and their seemingly random placement in the facade preclude an expansive uninterrupted panorama. And yet the unlimited panorama is exactly what most of the contemporary interpretations fixate on.

In his book Mythologies Roland Barthes discusses the role of hill climbing in holiday literature, suggesting that walks and leisure pursuits always tend to focus on hills and mountains. Barthes interprets a protestant guilt underlying our enjoyment of such pursuits, with the view as the pay off, the reward, for all the hard work and physical effort involved in getting to it. The panoramic cliff top view is the staple of postcards and holiday brochures, the money shot so to speak, but its enjoyment must be earned.
The leisured enjoyment of landscape is a product of tourism. Holidays are almost always about the view. It follows therefore that the architecture of tourism - holiday homes, hotels and chalets - is usually based around maximising this view.

(photo via)

Consequently the quintessential component of the architect designed holiday home is the vast picture window. The descriptions used by the architects in Blueprint for their imaginary holiday homes are familiar enough cliches; the glass wall dissolves the boundary between inside and outside. The landscape becomes part of the interior. It is as if we are fooled by the pane of glass into thinking that we are out there ourselves, living like noble savages, at one with nature.

References to service walls and triple glazing in this context take on an ironic quality, inadvertently puncturing the illusion of rustic simplicity that has been so carefully set up. Another thing that has been left out of accounts of Le Corbusier's cabin - as Stephen Bayley has dryly noted - is the restaurant at which he ate next door. And, one might add, the holiday villas that now swamp the hillside around it. Not only is this section of the coast built up now, but Le Corbusier's cabanon has become a destination itself.

A recently completed holiday home in the UK is interesting in this respect. Dotted along the coast of Dungeness in Kent are a number of tiny wooden fishing huts. These are sited almost randomly and with no particular orientation. In amongst them are one or two new structures, holiday homes that attempt to ape the scale and construction methods of the older huts. Whilst the older huts have small windows and make no great fuss about the view, the new structures orientate themselves around vast pictures windows facing out to sea. One of them even includes the remains of an older structure within it, cut up and relocated - Gordon Matta Clark style - like an objet trouvé. It is as if it has been collected up by the gaping mouth of the newer structure and displayed like a holiday souvenir.

It is a sensitive gesture that seems to have gone slightly wrong, like an ethical holiday that ends up leaving an even bigger carbon footprint. Tourists are often not conscious of the impact of their desire for a nice view and a bit of peace and quiet. The view, as at Cap Martin, ends up being filled with other people enjoying the view. This is what happened to Eileen Gray's house when Le Corbusier arrived. His modest little hut, tucked away in the trees, seems like another sensitive gesture gone wrong.

Its reconstruction at the RIBA seems oddly appropriate in the end. It makes the cabanon into a kind of souvenir too, a little ornament brought back and displayed within the home of British architecture. It is like a water globe or a miniature diorama. And, following Colomina, Le Corbusier's "optical machine" has become the ultimate object o
f contemplation.

* There is a fabulous flickr set of the house in various states of disrepair here, as well as some interesting additions to its story here.

UPDATE. As Hugh Pearman correctly adds in the comments section, the reconstructed cabanon has its own restaurant at the RIBA. In this sense it does indeed replicate an element of the original context.


Hugh P said...

Er - but the Cabanon reconstruction is set right in the middle of a restaurant at the RIBA. Won't that do? I can imagine living in there and wandering out for meals. Very apt, I thought.

Charles Holland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charles Holland said...

Yes you're right Hugh. It does recreate that aspect of the original oddly and its remiss not to note it. To be honest I read Stephen Bayley's thing at the end of writing that post and the parallel which should have struck me didn't. Oh well.

Nicolas said...

interestingly enough, le corbusier built a studio several meters away from the cabanon a couple of years after moving in. apparently the existenz-minimum of his cabanon was too refined.

in minnesota its very funny to see how ice fishing houses have become more and more decadent in the past decade alone. what once were simple huts with a hole and heater have now become miniaturized homes equiped with microwaves and flat screen televisions. ice fishermen are still known for their excessive drinking. however, today they make the news whenever thieves ransack fishing shanties, stealing expensive gas powered drilling augers and flat screen televisions. so much for the simple pleasure of fishing.