|My first contact with Maria Papadimitriou's work was in 1993 when I saw her Project for Two Towers - The White Tower of Pisa and the Leaning Tower of Thessaloniki. When the laser beams emanating from the top of the White Tower of Thessaloniki outlined the shape of a Vertical White Tower of Pisa on the ground I remember feeling somehow dislocated and displaced. This feeling of dislocation and displacement also accompanied me when I visited Maria Papadimitriou's CORBU exhibition at Zina Athanassiadou Gallery. This time it had to do with the colouring of celebrated white monuments of modern architecture.
I was literally struck by the colourful images of Le Corbusier's buildings. As an architect, I find that the Whiteness of the heroic era of modern movement is "unnegotiable". The Whiteness of modern architecture is inseparable from its identity and its ideology. It is a hegemony that has been established by the writings of specific architects, critics and historians, and by the very powerful medium of black and white photography that favours an all-encompassing Whiteness. Or as Mark Wigley writes in his White Walls, Designer Dresses "the whole moral, ethical, functional and even technical superiority of modern architecture is seen to hang on the whiteness of its surfaces".1
The immediate question that arose for me, was why this fairly simple act of colouring can bring about such a dislocation? What is hidden behind the Whiteness of Le Corbusier's buildings?
In 1925, Le Corbusier published a polemical article on Whiteness in his journal L'Esprit Nouveau. The article entitled A Coat of Whitewash, The Law of Ripolin2 juxtaposes two totally different realities, i.e. the seasonal Whitewash of the houses in the Mediterranean and the White Enamel Paint of the newly built Ocean-liners (Ripolin is a brand of paint), and lifts them to the status of a universal purifier for modern habitation.
Le Corbusier, from the beginning of his article on Whiteness, embarks on a conscious attack against the "new Surrealists" in which he disregards the "sublime quality" of the irrational and the affective in favour of the "beauty" of rationalism and functionalism. This article sparks an opposition that will last till the late 40s. Le Corbusier right away disapproves of the "exaltation of emotions" by the Surrealists, and their undermining of rationalism as well as their attempts "to lift themselves above the brute nature of the object and.recognize only relationships which belong to the invisible and subconscious world of the dream". He stresses what he believes to be a misjudgement on the part of the Surrealists since for him "these emotive relationships" are based on "objects, and the only possible objects are the ones with a function". Le Corbusier argues that the simple product of the machine age is on its own "capable of high poetry.The realist object of utility is beautiful".
Then Le Corbusier goes on to yearn for a new "Solon" that will come to impose a new rule, with the same archaic strictness: "THE LAW OF RIPOLIN - A COAT OF WHITEWASH". This new rule, according to Le Corbusier, will "perform a moral act: to love purity!" but also it will "improve our condition:to have the power of judgement!" As a result, this act will lead "to the joy of life: the pursuit of perfection". Le Corbusier envisions the following imaginary scenario: "Every citizen is required to replace his hangings, his damasks, his wall-papers, his stencils, with a plain coat of white Ripolin. His home is made clean". If these hangings, damasks, etc, signify for Le Corbusier everything that belongs to the past, then the Law of Ripolin becomes the cleansing agent capable of erasing all traces of history and tradition from architecture.
Of course, the analogy of the cleansing of history with the purifying Coat of Whitewash is not haphazard. Le Corbusier consciously wears the doctor's white coat in order to combine the task of the eradication of history and tradition with the therapeutic call for an opening up to air, light and cleanliness of what he believes to be an "unhealthy" city. At the scale of the house this surgical opening, a year later (1926) takes the form of Les 5 Points d' une Architecture Nouvelle i.e. the opening up of the interior of the house to the ceaseless flow of light and air through horizontal sliding windows and terraces; the removal of "dirty" cellars and the eradication of the ground floor by the use of Pilotis, so that nature can pass under the house; and the replacement of sloped roofs with their "dusty" attics, by flat gardens. In this way, the satiated interiors of the house are cleansed both of any remnants of past architecture and of the unhealthy living conditions of past times.
Yet, Le Corbusier's argument is not just about historical eradication and physical hygiene. He is mostly referring to an inner purification or more precisely to a "cleansing of the look, a hygiene of vision itself". The Coat of Whitewash aims at purifying the eye as well as the house. In direct contradiction with the Surrealists and their fondness of the corporal, the dark, and the dirty as uncanny instigators of the unconscious, -remember Man Ray's photograph of Duchamp's Large Glass gathering dust- Le Corbusier proposes an empty, transparent, clean and bright house where "there are no dirty, dark corners" and "everything is shown as it is". The result of such a house is, according to Le Corbusier, "inner cleanness": "Once you have put Ripolin on your walls you will be master of yourself. And you will want to be precise, to be accurate, to think clearly".
Le Corbusier's rejection of Surrealism's practices becomes even more evident in the subsequent part of the article where he argues that "without the Law of Ripolin we accumulate.turning our mind into a concierge or custodian.for instead of leaving our mind free to explore the vast continent before us, we confine it in manacles, in the traps, dungeons and ditches of memory". I believe that the choice of words here is not accidental. Manacles, traps, dungeons and ditches of memory are to be found both in the repertoire of signs of the Surrealists and in the discourse on the subconscious and the uncanny formulated by Freud. As Anthony Vidler says: "If houses were no longer haunted by the weight of tradition and the imbrications of generations of family drama, then memory would be released from its unhealthy preoccupations to live in the present"3. The cleansing coat of Whitewash in a tour-de-force comes to eliminate all those troubles and desires.
But within Le Corbusier's obsession with Whiteness lies his most important contrast with the Surrealists: in the article Le Corbusier presents an evolutionary theory of culture that declares an ongoing propensity from the sensual to the rational and from the corporeal to the visual. For Le Corbusier architecture must be a thing of the mind, a rational discipline of morphological and geometric variations where the hegemony of vision is absolute. The abandonment of decoration that Whitewash brings about guarantees a form of purification that will "liberate visuality". One just needs to remember Surrealism's antipathy to the visual and their anti-retinal attitude, as famously portrayed in the famous image where all Surrealists have their "useless" eyes shut in praise of interiority, to understand the fundamental conflict between the "universally transparent exteriority" of Le Corbusier and the idiosyncratic translucent interiority of Breton.
For Breton, modern functionalism signifies "the most unhappy dream of the collective unconscious", a "solidification of desire in a most violent and cruel automatism". For Tzara, modern architecture "is the complete negation of the image of dwelling". In direct contrast with Purism, Surrealism chooses to concentrate on the sensual experience of space as well as on the relationship of space with sensations, desires and psychological needs. Against the model of geometric, bright, ethereal, cerebral, cool and transparent living, the Surrealists crave for labyrinthine, nocturnal, earthly, "uterine", warm and all-enclosing constructions that signify a return to primal forms of human habitation. Duchamp's 1200 Coal Sacks, Frederick Kiesler's Endless House, Tristan Tzara's Intrauterine Architecture, Artaud's warehouses and slaughterhouses, and Breton's Nadja, as well as their countless explorations of the labyrinthine metro tunnels of Paris, the dark parks and the numerous arcades that cut through the city's deepest historical layers to expose its urban unconscious, all come to enhance such predilections. In a complete rejection of Le Corbusier views, Tzara famously argues that the modern house «as hygienic and stripped of ornaments as it wants to appear, it has no chance of living»4.
It is my view though, that Le Corbusier -untill the 40s when he changed his views on habitation- had no intention to live in his houses. Caught up in the thrust of a thriving modernisation that called for continuous mobility and nomadic existence, Le Corbusier designed houses as transitional spaces for a dweller in constant departure. His affection for cars, airplanes but most importantly, for ships and oceanliners, is well-known. Images of transport accompany all his early texts. His insistence on mobility and nomadism becomes even more evident in the names of his designs: He designs and builds houses as tents (Maison Dominno), houses as cars (Maison Citrohan), houses as airplanes (Maison Voisin), houses as promenades (Villa Stein, Villa Savoye), houses that nearly do not touch the ground (Pilotis). For Le Corbusier the traditional view of the house as deeply founded on the earth, rooted in its place and territorialized, is not the model of modern habitation. In accordance, its dweller is supposed to change many houses during his lifetime. In the works of Le Corbusier the deeply-rooted bond between house-dwelling-inhabitant is consciously broken.
This is why Le Corbusier's houses in their numerous publications are presented without occupants, untouched by time, super-clean, luminous and totally empty. Any trace of domesticity and any ravages of time are totally absent. The houses are depicted without any furnishings or any suggestions of habitation. They are photographed as objects to be looked at, inhabited by a viewer who is detached from them, like a visitor, and in continuous flux. In the film L' Architecture d' aujourd' hui of 1929 as Beatriz Colomina describes in The Split Wall: Domestic Voyeurism, the protagonist, Le Corbusier himself, "drives his own car to the entrance of Villa Garches, descends, and enters the house in an energetic manner. He is wearing a dark suit with bow tie, his hair is glued down with brilliantine, every hair in place, he is holding a cigarette in his mouth. The camera pans through the exterior of the house and arrives at the roof garden.At this point Le Corbusier appears again...very athletically climbs up the spiral staircase which leads to the high est point of the house...he pauses to contemplate the view from that point. He looks out"5. Le Corbusier enters the house only to pass through it in order to come out of it again, untouched by any notions of domesticity.
Le Corbusier's houses mark a new reality of habitation, one which Walter Benjamin will very clearly describe in The Arcades Project: «The work of Le Corbusier seems to arise when the house as mythological configuration approaches its end».6 It is a new reality that since the early 30s starts to become evident in the writings of both progressive and conservative critics and philosophers such as Theodor Adorno and Martin Heidegger respectively. Heidegger in Building Dwelling, Thinking of 1951 once more counters the modernist utopias of the nomad yearning for the lost hearth and homeliness of the house of yesterdays. On the contrary, Adorno has long spoken for the universal homelessness of the modern man and has argued since 1944 that «dwelling in the proper sense, is now impossible». As Anthony Vidler argues, in contrast to Heidegger, "Adorno despaired of retrieving the house of yesterday in the city of tomorrow. Reduced to sleeping «close to the ground like an animal», modern man would soon be forced into a new nomadic primitivism, living in the bidonvilles, bungalows, and no doubt the garden huts, caravans, or even cars of the near future»7.
It is this «universal homelessness» that is dealt with some years later, in Alberto Moravia's novel Il Disprezzo of 1954, on which Jean Luc Godard based his film Le Mepris of 1963. For Godard Le Mepris is a film about the "survivors of the shipwreck of modernity". If the Ocean-liner is the desired alter ego of modern architecture then the various failings of modern architecture can only be expressed by a shipwreck.
There are three reasons that I believe make the seemingly remote association among Le Corbusier's houses, the film Le Mepris and Maria's Papadimitriou work appropriate:
-The first reason is the half-hour scene in Paul's (Michel Piccoli) and Camille's (Brigitte Bardot) residence. In this scene we find ourselves in a modern apartment that is consciously presented as new, clean, bright, perfect and still uncompleted. We are witnessing a series of "apparently" intimate habitual moments: both of them take baths, dress and undress, talk with each other continuously, and move around endlessly in their apartment but, not unlike Le Corbusier's photos of his houses, the characters constantly feel disconnected, dissociated and self-distant from themselves, from each other and from their habitual environment, only to leave after a while. We are located in "house that is not a home". A house that describes but also enhances the "homelessness" of its inhabitants and their total inaccessibility to one another.
-The second reason is Godard's colour-coding. In Le Mepris colouring is turned into an act of quotation. Godard's hard-edge colouring against a white background comes to signify a series of emotions in the film. It adds psychological depth to the disinterested actors of the film. It appears in the different clothing of the main characters, in the furniture in their new apartment, and in the walls of specific buildings, always against a white background, in order to signify alliances, associations and disconnections. But most significant here, is Godard's colouring of the eyes and therefore the gaze of the most acknowledged Whiteness of all: the Whiteness of white marble Greek statues (photo 2). It is a colouring that aims at introducing an interior quality in the exteriority of the polished white faces of the non-expressive statues.
-The third reason is the fact that Le Mepris is about the making of a film about homecoming, in fact about Odysseus' homecoming. Mark Cousins in his extensive analysis of homecoming provides a very interesting insight in the architectural and theoretical question of "home", that we might find suitable here. He bases his analysis on his reading of The Odyssey8. In direct opposition to Heidegger's association -via the Ancient Greeks- of Building, Dwelling and Thinking and his privileging of Settlement, Territoriality, Location, Place and Fixity, Cousins by using the same etymological tools as Heidegger, proves that Thinking is not just linked with Building but mostly with Wandering. Wandering becomes a paradigm for thought. For Heidegger the relation to settlement defines the capacity to dwell, and any kind of nomadic existence is dismissed. For Cousins, Odysseus is characterized as Polymichanos (cunning) exactly because of his cleverness and of his wandering. The question that arises then is what happens to Odysseus when he returns home, especially when homecoming marks the end of wandering? In Le Mepris Paul argues that "it takes Odysseus ten years to return home because deep down he does not want to return". In the last scene of the movie Paul asks Fritz Lang which scene is he shooting. Lang replies: «The first look of Odysseus when he sees his homeland». Then, the eyes of Odysseus are substituted by the shooting of the camera only to reveal that there is no Ithaca on the horizon; only the broad sea as to affirm Paul's view that Odysseus' home is to be found in his wanderings.
In her multiple homecomings, Maria Papadimitriou has dealt with the issues of domesticity and identity. I believe that her continual interest in the nomadic existence (very different of that dreamt by Le Corbusier) of gypsies as shown in her projects T.A.M.A., Luv Car -her version, one might say, of Maison Citrohan-and My Yurt, can be seen as an ongoing process of what she recently called a "correction to the Machine a Habiter".
In her last project, as she says, this correction takes the form of a conscious effort to humanize her mother's modern house that in contrast to her likings, i.e. a house in the countryside, with a garden and red roof tiles, was designed and built by a modern architect who "misread" Le Corbusier. For Maria Papadimitriou this humanizing took the form of a "spatial psychoanalytic experience" since for her "the space that we live in, is ourselves". Her belief that the problem of domesticity lies "between the idealization of the house and the house that we live in", as expressed in the text that accompanies the exhibition, seems to me to raise the same issues that structured the opposition on the notion of domesticity between Le Corbusier and Breton, Purism and Surrealism, Whiteness and Colour.
I don't know, but maybe it is her search to humanize or to add, as Godard did, psychological depth, to Le Corbusier's houses and together her own house, that prompts her to colour them (photo 3,4). Maybe it is an unconscious attack on Whiteness and what Whiteness comes to signify for the modern movement, that impels her to invert the photos of famous modern buildings into black, grainy images that look dirty, old, and in decay (photo 5). Maybe it is a conscious attempt to introduce to these overtly rational constructions something of the sensual quality of Surrealism in her personal labyrinthine wanderings inside her house. Maybe it is her conscious effort to introduce the personal and the idiosyncratic in her house (photo 6), in direct opposition to Le Corbusier's preferred disinterested habitation, that makes her call her house Unite de mon Habitation in contrast with Le Corbusier's impersonal Unite de Habitation.
In 1975, the architect Bernard Tschumi, issued his Advertisements of Architecture. On his take on Le Corbusier he presented two images of the Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier being in a complete state of decay (as favoured by the Surrealists), to illustrate his statement that "Sensuality has been known to overcome even the most rational of buildings. Architecture is the ultimate erotic art".
In the opening scene of Le Mepris Godard passes various colour filters before Camille's (Bardot's) bare white body while Paul asserts that he loves her "totally, tenderly, tragically". I believe that in her various colourings of Le Corbusier's white houses, Maria Papadimitriou makes something of the same assertion.
Maria's Papadimitriou CORBU exhibition was presented at Zina Athanassiadou Gallery in Thessaloniki from the 14th November till the 8th of December 2008.
Apostolos Kalfopoulos is an Architect and Independent Curator. He teaches at the School of Architecture of the University of Thessaly.
1 Mark Wigley White Walls, Designer Dresses, The Fashioning of Modern Architecture, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1995.
2 Le Corbusier, A Coat of Whitewash, The Law of Ripolin, 1925, L'Esprit Nouveau Articles, Architectural Press, Oxford, 1998.
3 Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny, Nostalgia, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1996.
4 Tristan Tzara, D'un certain automatisme du Gout, Minotaure 3-4 December 1933, p.84, as cited in Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny, Homes for Cyborgs, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1996.
5 Beatriz Colomina, The Split Wall: Domestic Voyeurism,p.102.
6 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans H. Eland and K. McLaughlin, The Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass, London England, 1999, p.407.
7 same as note 3.
8 All the notes on Mark Cousins' analysis of the Odyssey and the notion of Homecoming are from my personal attendance at his seminars on the subject at Columbia University during 2001-2002.