How does something very ordinary and banal, say a rock, become something extraordinary? If that rock were a piece of gold, it would be easy to say that its material properties aid such an advancement. Take for example how gold doesn’t really tarnish; it keeps its luster with a minimum of effort. Yet, beyond its mesmerizing glow, gold has another special property: Not only can it hold its brilliance; it can also be tested with a touchstone for purity.
For these and other reasons, gold became a standard for trade since its grade could always be calculated as a unit measure to facilitate symmetrical exchanges. Thus, gold became the first true commodity. But was this embedded quality its only means for evaluation? Or is there something more to be said about the psychological effect of its glow?
The question of whether objects—artistic or otherwise—are valued for some intrinsic objective reason as opposed to their potential to elicit subjective phenomenological responses is an old one. Plato posed this very quandary in the Euthyphro by asking, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Plato ultimately sided with the idea that the pious was autotelic. As such, he could conclude that values exist outside the individual perceptions of mind as a way to justify the ideal of a universal authority—be it called truth, god, law, or what have you. But for this to be the case, a given object, let’s call it object X, would have to have the same reading in all and every context. It would always manifest as X. A gold filling in a tooth, however, is not the same thing as a golden cross. So while both may rely on various performances of gold as a soft metal that is easily shaped, the setting and placement of that form is paramount. Even the same object, say a cross, has a different life in a church versus in a museum. Placement is a device with which to imbue meaning; only through a contextual demarcation can the everyday be parsed with the extraordinary.
Architecture of course is the art par excellence of ordering materials as a way to invent spatial interrelations. Consider a holy space, a cathedral, wherein basic stones and metals are wrought so as to produce a sacred experience. Although the wealth of materials used in such spaces is by no means simple, it is their juxtaposition that truly provokes feedback from the visitor’s psyche. This test is easy enough to witness with the more concentrated example of a museum vitrine, where artifacts are seldom placed in completely neutral settings. Often they are enhanced through the use of theatrical devices, such as lighting, plinths, or other installation means, which actually signify the import of the object just as much as the object itself may. This pairing of installation and scene provides manifold complex associations in order to mediate their reception. Amplifying these valence lines, architecture—as well as installation art—strings together chains of such presentations so that time and memory come into full play. Normatively, these edits can be called architectural procession, as the designer places one view after the next in a kind of abstract narrative of shapes and forms. And like a good story, such displays are best advanced through foreshadowing, flashback, and the like.
The Swiss-born French architect Le Corbusier was a keen student of such scenarios. And as an apt pupil, the designer turned to history to investigate how to twin time and memory so as to charge space with a supersensory meaning—that is, how to transform raw materials into not only a space but also an emotive place of belonging. To this end, he famously went to Athens.
In his youth, Le Corbusier slowly walked through the Acropolis to watch how his changing views of the Parthenon began to create not a stone temple but a mental composite, which activated his imagination as much as it did his eyes. Key among these vistas was how the building was revealed or concealed with each step so that a kind of time travel could be felt. By taking in the view from various coordinates, noting how, for instance, the steps of the temple looked from below as opposed to how they looked up close, and superimposing such differing perceptions of the same object, he was able to project himself back to various points in time and sensation. In an essay on the architect’s work, the historian Colin Rowe proposed that such a layering of space, time, and memory could be called “phenomenological transparency.”
Unlike literal transparency—such as that of a glass window—a phenomenological perspective tasks a subject to see content relations not across immediately apparent lines but through diverse and discontinuous perceptions that are physically impossible to see. That is, these associations could exist only as a collage of memory and projection. This mechanism can be most easily observed in Le Corbusier’s noted early work, the Villa Savoye, outside of Paris.
At the villa, Le Corbusier found a trick that he would continue to employ throughout his oeuvre: What if you take a simple cube and from the center of it remove another smaller cube, so as to view the resultant four interior planes across this void as a network of actors between one another? A subject might encounter the bedroom by viewing it from the living room as a framed scene through strategically placed windows. Without the viewer’s physically being in the bedroom, a partial image of that space is nevertheless hinted at, but not disclosed in full, leaving the viewer to wonder what is outside this view, what are the atmospheric properties of being in that room itself, and so on. Inversely, when the guest moves from the living room to the bedroom, the image folds back on itself reciprocally as it now sets a new cast of the room she’s just left. More than just causing an aha moment, these slices bring together multiple impressions, as the image of the bedroom through the living room is wed to the experience of the view in the bedroom itself, not to mention the fact that a similar trans-position affects the idea of the living room itself.
This manipulation of image, time, and place could be called Le Corbusier’s kaleidoscope. More than just bringing about a change in the unfolding of the space, this recognition of the importance of position and demarcation within the space is what prompts variation. On the one hand, such calculated plays provide for a notion of order to comfort the guest by telegraphing a movement through an artificially constructed world aesthetically arranged for viewing texture and pleasure. And yet, any succession of images can, of course, provide the material for variation so that a guest need not blend the view of the living room with that of the bedroom, but with another view entirely: The “void” at the villa is in fact a terrace, which can also be occupied to afford a split middle view. It, however, does not act as an epicenter to render the final code with which to anchor all vantages. With such a displacement, no real hierarchy is imposed; instead of a kind of dialectical montage, these jumps and crosscuts elicit a craving in the observer to find new image relations voyeuristically. With such a perverse desire in the visitor to explore more and more perspectives, this simple box of glass and concrete becomes a kind of random scene generator teasing the subject to revel in the discovery of hidden spatial-temporal delights.
While the Villa Savoye is a rather abstract catalogue of perspectives, Le Corbusier’s later masterpiece, the monastery Sainte Marie de La Tourette, in the Rhône-Alpes, near Lyon, takes this idea of a superimposed narrative to its full conclusion by uniting procession with an actual iconographic rebus.
Like Villa Savoye, La Tourette is basically a square complex with a central court. Here, however, the square is fractured, as three sides are slightly set back from the fourth to essentially form two buildings in a pattern similar to a U capped by a straight line. Diagrammatically, this cleft separates the daily functions of the monastery: The U-shaped structure houses the monks’ cells and other domestic activities, while the other volume provides for the holy chapel. Beyond this division of purpose, each building is rendered with different forms and icons, which collapse into the grand conceit of the compound.
When viewing the chapel elevation from the entrance to the monastery, a pilgrim might notice that instead of being inside a tower, the church bell is housed in a concrete frame, essentially a plant box, cantilevered just off the side of the chapel structure. When the visitor scans this façade further, however, its few deviations from a flat plane resolve into a surreal canvas.
In the façade’s center, a large concrete quadrangle bulges forth, while a long rectilinear cut streaks across the upper portion of the building. Just to the side of it all, a smaller annex can be seen jutting off. The plan of this annex follows a deformed D shape, but the arc of the D is subdivided into a wave. Strikingly, this deformed letter looks remarkably like a cartoon ear, which itself becomes a clue with which to make sense of the rest of the various forms.
With the D considered as an ear, the chapel itself becomes a kind of head fashioned with a nose (the triangular bulge) and an eye (the bell tower). With a nod to cubism, the ear has to be rotated from a plane to a section so a viewer can see these details. No ordinary face, the ribbon strip across the top can be envisioned as a monk’s tonsure. Likewise, the larger U-structured building, set on the opposite side of the chapel from the annex, becomes the second ear—requiring a rotation as well. Tellingly, this disguised ear metaphor takes on another character, as Le Corbusier stated he wished “to give the monks what men today need most: silence and peace. … This Monastery does not show off; it is on the inside that it lives.”
Once inside, a monk must first course around the U-shaped building to get to the chapel, the now literal and figurative “head” of the clerics’ activities. It becomes clear, as a second order of revelation, that the noselike bulge on the outside of the chapel’s facade is the housing for the organ, while the tonsure cut affords a clear story, capping the interior of the chapel with a halo of light. This doubling of images can in turn be seen as a kind of fictive double entendre since the outside view presents a mortal monk’s head, while its interior presents the metaphysical realms of the speculative and spiritual mind. Even though this assembly area is set for Mass, participants usually remain in silence. The only time for utterance becomes the climax of this procession of spaces. Sliding through the chapel, a monk comes to the door of the annex ear. He enters, and upon looking up, three private chapels, complete with long drumlike skylights, provide altars from which to whisper privately and speak to the unknown. In the end, privacy and silence might be the truest measure with which to contemplate Le Corbusier’s environments or to gauge any installation that aims for supersensory meaning. When his designs are reconfigured not as mere spaces, but as islands unto themselves, the logics of these worlds foster a special accompaniment, the ability to exist only in the mind of the beholder through the prompts of objects and their orientation.
This article was published in the July 2013 issue of Modern Painters.