Not Quite Understanding Modernism

Renault unveiled this object (which honours the architect Le Corbusier) a few weeks ago but I have not had time to deal with it until now.

2015 Renault Corbusier concept: Renault.com
2015 Renault Corbusier concept: Renault.com

As luck would have it, I have been reading a lot about Modernism in the meantime…

It’s the 50th anniversary of the death of Le Corbusier and Renault’s designers have decided to mark this by unveiling a car that shows no deep understanding of Le Corbusier or Modernism’s tenets in any way at all. Modernism had a variety of strands. In architecture one of them was social justice where the worthy intention was to provide better housing than was then enjoyed by the working class (as if bad housing caused poverty).

Thus the all-white, bright simplicity of the Modernist apartment complex could be seen as a welcome change from unsanitary, overcrowded slums. If you think of the back to back tenements of 1850s Manchester you’d be thinking of what socially motivated architects were trying to get away from.

2015 Renault Corbusier Concept rear

Another strand was, frankly either racist or elitist. Adolf Loos, the Austrian architect, wrote a seminal lecture in 1908 called “Ornament and Crime” (later written up as an essay). He drew a parallel between ornamentation on buildings and tattoos. First he points out that primitive people have tattoos and are amoral (he was not versed in tribal culture, was he?).

Then Loos continues: “The tattooed who are not in prison are latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If someone who is tattooed dies at liberty, it means he has died a few years before committing murder,” he wrote. And he added this: “No ornament can any longer be made today by anyone who lives on our cultural level … Freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength”. The conclusion he drew was that ornamentation should be banished from buildings. (His Mueller House has little ornament but does use lavishly expensive materials with naturally variegated colours. Decoration by the back door.)

Finally, there is the functionalist strand of Modernism where “form follows function”, a philosophy handily expressed by Louis Sullivan though formulated a lot earlier by various writers too. In this conception a building (or any designed thing) is supposed to express its function and nothing else. Arising from this is the problem that lots of things function very well despite coming in lots of different shapes (cutlery, shoes, chairs for example). How close a fit is there then between form and function? What if a building’s function changes? Is the form now ‘wrong’? And what is the function? What a thing can do or should do?

All three conceptions of Modernism are, in my view, wrong and wrong-headed in the sense that they are not solid enough reasons to banish ornament. You can banish it if you like but don’t think that you are going to capture the Platonic essence of an object by so doing. As Jan Michl writes, the dogma ‘form follows function’ merely gives permission to a designer to do what she or he likes, no more than such people ever did.

Right, Richard, what’s this got to do with the car?

If you take all the stated intentions of modernism on board, and assume that Modernism means rejecting the past, using functional design, rejecting decoration and doing something for the poor then you don’t get a huge, expensive coupe, do you? With plenty of apparent decoration and looking decidedy pricey, the Corbusier concept fails every test of Modernism. It is, in fact, a retro concept. What it is really is incomprehending genuflection to Modernist-style which is to ape the forms but not the aims of Modernism? This car is just so much decoration and, as such, would not be recognised by the monster it aims to salute.

This is a car designed by Le Corbusier (1936):

Le Corbusier´s Voiture Maximum: thealzblog.wordpress.com
Le Corbusier´s Voiture Minimum: thealzblog.wordpress.com

He had no idea about aerodynamics or the possibilities of steel pressing. There is no curvature on any of the panels, which means they’d have wobbled unless rivetted at close spacing to a heavy frame. The wheels protrude from the arches. I could go on.

[Note 1: Le Corbusier wanted cities to have lots of light and space, everything that is not architecture. You can read a critque here, judging him the most damaging architect of all time. I like cars but building cities around them has proved to be a complete failure. Once you’ve cleared a space for cars there’s no city left.
Note 2: I quite like ‘functional’ design in industrial designed goods. I don’t think it works so well for buildings. Or at all. A little is nice, here and there. One of my favourite buildings is a Brutalist library from 1969 by Koralek Partners, the Berkeley in Dublin. It’s wonderful.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

13 thoughts on “Not Quite Understanding Modernism”

  1. I know Le Corbusier’s reputation is not as sacred as it once was, but did he really deserve this?. As Richard points out, there’s nothing Modernist at all here. But, just as the Citroen Picasso’s only connection with the dead artist is the licence fee they pay his estate for the branding, so is Renault’s concept embellished (probably an inappropriate word) by connection with one of the ‘gods’ of modern architecture. All it really does is go to show up the rather banal pretensions of many car designers, and their low opinion of the design literacy of their client base.

    In some ways, Le Corbusier is the Chris Bangle of architecture. His Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles was supposed to be popular with its residents but it spawned a load of lousy social housing projects by less careful architects. Bad architecture tends to put one eyesore in the public eye for a indefinite time. Bad car design puts a plethora of copies in the public eye but, fortunately, their life is not nearly so long. I can look at this Renault, and it will soon become a distant memory. Every time I go near the City of London, I have to see the £200 million weak joke that is Rafael Vinoly’s 20 Fenchurch Street.

  2. Put into the context of its time, and excusing his poor anthropology and the unfortunate prescient use of the language of fascism, Loos’s rail against ornament seems quite reasonable to me. In fact, I think today’s car design world could do with an Adolf Loos. That said, he collected silverware, so I guess he’d think chrome was OK.

    1. Actually, although when I thought of myself as a Modernist many years ago, I used to view the Voiture Minimum as a disappointment, there is a certain attraction now – but not because it is rigorously “modern”!

    2. Nice to see an appearance by the S-Cargo, an all time favourite van, up there with the Citroen C15, originally marketed as “Van Rouge” and “Van Blanc” in the UK, at a time when Citroen knew something of wit and humour, which, as Linda reminds us, has nothing to do with aiming to be fun. Thanks for that, Sean.

  3. The S-Cargo works and probably doesn’t conform to Corb’s iffy geometrical rules.
    The Voisin is inert too. No, no, no. Give me a series 1 Kangoo anytime. Even a series 2, with top spec trim.

  4. Putting aside the poor name association, I like the car. Although only on the assumption that the wheels retract into the exaggerated wheel housings when the car converts to flight mode.

    1. I suspect that Richard’s justified abhorrence of the excesses of Modernism (a phrase that should be an oxymoron, but certainly isn’t) has irretrievably coloured any critique of Le Corbusier. I would be quite happy to cruise around town in Corbu’s garden shed. I particularly like the side bumpers. But then I drive a Cube.

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