Object, Image, Aura

Daniel Naegele

Le Corbusier and the Architecture of Photography

Returning to his studio one evening at dusk, Wassily Kandinsky was enchanted by “an unexpected spectacle.” He suddenly saw “an indescribably beautiful picture, pervaded by an inner glow,” he wrote in his “Reminiscences” of 1913.1 “At first, I stopped short and then quickly approached this mysterious picture, on which I could discern only forms and colors and whose content was incomprehensible. At once, I discovered the key to the puzzle: it was a picture I had painted, standing on its side against the wall.” Kandinsky was deeply affected, and the next day attempted a re-creation of his impression of the picture; but the light was not right, and the objects in the painting obstructed his reverie. “Now I could see that objects harmed my pictures,” he concluded, noting that a “terrifying abyss of all kinds of questions, a wealth of responsibilities stretched before me. And most important of all: What is to replace the missing object?”

What is to replace the missing object? In many ways, the development of art in the 20th century was a search for an answer to Kandinsky’s question. “The object is surely dead,” Paul Klee wrote in his diary in the 1920s, “The sensation of the object is of first importance.”2 The critic Carl Einstein concurred, noting that art is but a constant “wrestling with optical experiments and invented space.” Einstein maintained that to advance art one must transform space; and to transform space one must first “eliminate rigid objects, conventional receptacles” and in so doing, “call into question the view itself.”3 A few years later, Jacques Villon painted Abstraction. A visual manifestation of Einstein’s theory, Abstraction was carefully configured ambiguity, a truncated pyramid that seemed simultaneously to project from and recede into the picture. This oscillation imbued the work with a temporal dimension while it dissipated objectivity. Interrogating both object and view, Abstraction seemed to be about the space of illusion. By the mid-’30s, André Breton could speak without qualification about the crisis of the object.

This crisis was brought on in part by recent discoveries in physics and by the new science of psychology, both of which privileged the subjective and relative over the objective and absolute. Architecture, seemingly of an unquestionable objectivity, was subject to this crisis, too, for more and more, architecture was known through photography, and photography construed architecture as image. Walter Benjamin, writing in the 1930s, maintained that the very invention of photography transformed not only architecture but the “entire nature of art.” In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,”4 he notes that the lens sees that which the unaided eye cannot and makes obvious certain aspects of the original that would otherwise be unknowable; in addition, photography puts “a copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself” and thereby undermines the original’s “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Both processes, Benjamin claims, interfere with the authenticity of the object and severely depreciate its “authority.” This authority he calls the “aura” of the object, and in a now-famous, line he insists “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.”

“Aura” quite obviously is not the object itself, but an individualized atmosphere that envelopes the authentic object, a subtle but distinct sensation received in the presence of the original. An image, even if photographic, might provoke such a sensation; but this would be the aura of the image, not that of the object represented. Benjamin ties aura directly to the “cult value” of the work as opposed to its exhibition value. He explains that in ancient times, artists created ceremonial objects for cult and ritual purposes. Occasionally exposed but often kept hidden, these creations—“art” meant for the spirits and intended for specific places—were mostly instruments of magic, their aura inexorably tied to their ritual functions. Only later, when art practices were emancipated from ritual and art was made more and more fit for exhibition, did such creations come to be recognized as “works of art.” Benjamin believes that photography liberated the work of art from ritual. With photography, exhibition value displaced cult value—but not without resistance. Cult value retires, Benjamin writes, “into an ultimate retrenchment: the human countenance.” The aura emanates “for the last time” in the “fleeting expression of the human face” captured in early photographic portraits.

Benjamin contends that by “reproducing” unique objects, photography extracts the aura, leaving these objects the equivalent of all others. Because the new perception has a “sense of the universal equality of things,” it ultimately serves a political function. By eroding the authority of the object, photography detaches “the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.” The result is nothing less than “the liquidation of the traditional value of cultural heritage.”

And one might surmise that it is largely for this reason that photography proved an ideal medium for Modern architecture, liberating it from the tyranny of academic values and arbitrary tastes. The new architecture was to be truthful, direct, rational construction. Photography, a medium that never lied, illustrated it as such. It was to be serious and uncompromising and imbued with the spirit of the age. Technologically sophisticated, photography’s black-and-white compositions presented an often fragile and uncertain architecture as credible, dignified, even inevitable. Photography freed the new architecture—now international in style and lightweight and mobile in appearance—from its place of origin. It beautified and protected it from the adverse effects of time, weather, and use.

Eventually, however, the image of architecture bred an architecture of image. More and more, as Benjamin put it, “the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.” If at first photography’s perception seemed to align with Modern movement beliefs, ultimately its effect proved, as Benjamin had predicted, corrosive to a sense of origin and authenticity, qualities that became increasingly important to an architecture that reveled in the truths of structure and material. Thus, if initially photography permitted modern architecture to appear to fulfill its own theoretical precepts, eventually it obstructed it from becoming what it truly wanted to be.

This dilemma became more pressing as mechanical reproduction became more prevalent. There were two obvious ways out: architecture could resist representation and cultivate instead the object’s authenticity and attachment to its origin; or, conversely, architecture could become representation, immersing itself in honest exhibitionism by promoting its signlike characteristic as both an artistic and functional response to cultural conditions and market pressures. The first path led initially from the homegrown organic “Usonians” of Frank Lloyd Wright to a raw, elephantine architecture, heavy and inert, an architecture of obvious muscle, a Maison Jaoul, proudly weathered, and abundantly overgrown with nature. The second led to a “cardboard” architecture of surface and ornament and masquerade, its costume either unabashedly modern—Oscar Nitzchke’s Immeuble de Publicité, perhaps—or decidedly a-modern—the house Robert Venturi designed for his mother in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

Still, there was a third way out, a path in which photography’s erosion of the object served not as an obstacle but as a stepping stone to a new architecture. This third way privileged neither artifact nor representation, but joined the two to arrive at a new architecture of illusionist space: a “psychological” and relative architecture compatible with new science yet at the same time curiously secretive and atmospheric, a “seemingly authentic” architecture that found access to cult value in the illusion of exhibition media. Photography was essential in the conception and realization of this architecture. Indeed, as we shall see, in many ways the new architecture seemed a three-dimensional, habitable manifestation of “the architecture of photography.”

It was Le Corbusier, the century’s most influential architect, who traveled both paths only to arrive at the third. This is hardly surprising given his lifelong preoccupation with the “space of painting” and his early vision of architecture not as object but as the “skillful, accurate and magnificent play of volumes seen in light.”5 One need only couple this definition with László Moholy-Nagy’s equally potent definition of photography as “the manipulation of light” to understand, as Le Corbusier certainly did, the tremendous potential that lies in the marriage of the two media. Indeed, Le Corbusier manifests an architecture of photography as early as 1923 in hisVers une architecture, a book that he claims avoids “flowery language, ineffectual descriptions,” relying instead on “facts exploding under the eyes of the reader by force of images.”6

Le Corbusier was cofounder with Amédée Ozenfant of Purism. Purism, like much avant garde painting at the time, was a self-referential art that constantly called attention to the act of seeing. It interrogated the picture plane, an investigation that resulted in highly cultivated ambiguity. Ozenfant had defined the work of art as “a machine for evoking emotions,”7 and Purism devised certain strategies, loosely based on new findings in optics and perceptual psychology, for “arresting” the viewer. In the Purist painting, the physiological effects of color and line combined with a highly ambiguous field—paraline space construction, exaggerated frontality, a “mariage des contours,” figure-ground reversals—to transmit a “resonance” that had a very calculated emotional impact. Such perception was received somatically, the resonant space of the painting expanding into real space to “touch” the viewer. In this sense “resonance,” what Le Corbusier described as a “sounding board that vibrates within us,” was a palpable, quasi-scientific parallel to the aura.

Le Corbusier believed that Purist painting “should lead to the objectification of the entire ‘world.’”8 Like certain De Stijl and Constructivist artists, he wished to aggrandize art into environment. Vers une architecture provided a theoretical framework for this “objectification,” and in it Le Corbusier describes an architecture conceived on Purist principles. He presents the Parthenon—for him, the “apogee” of all architecture—as architecture received by the perceptive viewer as a Purist painting might be received, that is, as “organized phenomena,” harmonious, and “in accord with the axis which lies within us.” At the Parthenon, Le Corbusier writes, “we are riveted by our senses; we are ravished in our minds; we touch the axis of harmony.” All is accomplished “with nothing but pure forms in precise relationships”; religion, symbolism, and “naturalistic representation,” he says, play no part in it.9

Le Corbusier illustrates these facts with “purified” images. He carefully crops photographs from Frédéric Boissonnas’s renowned album, Le Parthénon, into ambiguous compositions in which figure and ground effortlessly reverse themselves. The instability of the image dematerializes the objectivity of its content. The photograph, if only momentarily, is about space and form, not representational content; and the reader who recognizes this must also recognize the illusion of all images. The photograph is didactic. It teaches the “reader” to see.

As photographically illustrated, the Parthenon is easily related to modernity, for Le Corbusier also “purified” images of those objects that epitomized l'esprit nouveau, including his own architecture. On the book’s original cover, for instance, an image of the promenade of the ocean liner Aquitania is construed in truncated pyramid form, anticipating Villon’s aforementioned Abstraction. The image oscillates from a readily perceived receding view (a deep corridor extending into the picture plane) to a less pronounced projecting view, ultimately collapsing into a two-dimensional rectangle comprised of four triangles. Le Corbusier composes images of his own architecture in an identical way. The famous photograph of the Ozenfant studio interior, for instance, though far subtler in execution, clearly assumes the truncated pyramid parti, as do numerous photographs of Le Corbusier’s work executed well after the book’s publication. More curious ambiguities populate the pages of Vers une architecture as well. In “Farman,” for example, careful composition encourages the steering wheels of an airplane to become eyes transforming the plane to a sheet-metal hare. In “A ‘Bugatti’ Engine,” an assembly-line product takes on the visage of an automaton with cylindrical eyes, a box-like nose, and a steel forehead drilled to suggest eyebrows.10

Unlike the fictive medium of painting, photography is an “off strike of reality.” As such, it allowed Le Corbusier to present reality as coded, as a sign of something else. The sign is often hidden, and an act of discovery is required of the reader. The image becomes an experience, and its oscillation evokes a palpable feeling even as it reveals the image as illusion. Secretive and “touching,” such images have within them a trace of aura. Ambiguity facilitates this. By dissipating objectivity, by freeing the image of its apparent “content,” it allows the photograph its spatial nature. Ambiguity’s oscillation makes temporality an essential part of this nature. As a spatiotemporal construct, the ambiguous image becomes a new architecture, one which interrogates its own constitution. In this sense Le Corbusier discovered illusory space in the space of representation. But how to introduce such space to the seemingly nonfictive realm of architecture?

An answer is found initially in certain early houses of Le Corbusier in which “reality” is presented, if only momentarily, as representation. At Villa Savoye, a framed opening in a freestanding wall provides the roof terrace with a “picture” of the natural landscape; while the large, unglazed opening of the south facade, when viewed from outside the house, provides a taut, canvaslike elevation animated by ever-changing natural light, light trapped within the composition. In both instances, architecture corrals nature, reducing it to surface treatment. As flattened representation, it loses its privileged position as reality and becomes a sign of itself.

If, at the Villa Savoye, the intercourse between real and represented is incidental, in Le Corbusier’s exhibition pavilions, representation is enlarged to the scale of architecture itself; indeed, it becomes architecture. The Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau, for example, was a full-scale model, a representation of a living unit to be built as part of a much larger complex. On its side facade, Le Corbusier painted the initials “E N,” enlarged to the size of primary architectural elements. Though flat, they are construed to suggest a dimension of depth and appear to recede into the building itself. This architectural scale and depth illusion is then countered by the much smaller “L’ESPRIT NOUVEAU” on a white field that seems to overlap, but in fact occupies the same plane as, the “E N.” Thus Le Corbusier transforms word to image by underscoring its spatial form. He conceives architecture as a kind of habitable calligram. Like the ambiguous photograph, it is an object, but at the same time it is an image. A decade later, in the Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux tent, Le Corbusier created an interior structure in which the walls were literally words and images. To enter this labyrinth was to walk within the pages of a book. When the pavilion was photographically documented in his Des Canons, des munitions? merci! des logis … SVP, the images of scripted walls served as actual pages in the book, thus returning the word to the printed page.

With such duplicities, Le Corbusier translates both nature and writing into the more immediate pictorial language of the artist. This has the peculiar effect of undermining not only the authority of nature and writing, but that of authenticity itself. One lives within a world of one’s own representations, and these reveal themselves as truthful through a priori faith in formal harmonics. Such reliance on sensation and removal from reality takes on a surreal quality. Appearance and reality are thrown into question by an ambiguity that encourages multiple interpretations. Interpretive faculties are engaged. Viewers become participants, accomplices in the service of the surreal.

The word/image paradox was but one strategy for evoking a sense of the space of representation. A second was realized at the Pavillon Suisse in Paris when Le Corbusier enlarged the photograph to the size of architecture. Le Corbusier was adamantly opposed to decoration in architecture, but when this dormitory neared completion, the brutality of the curved rubble wall that dominated its entrance lobby and library so offended Le Corbusier’s client that he directed the architect to cover it with a mural. Uncomfortable with traditional decorative arts, Le Corbusier employed “the new means” to create a photomural consisting of forty-four photographs and extending the full length and height of the wall. Its images were of geometric, man-made objects combined with abstract microscopic and aerial views of nature, “new vision” views unavailable to the unaided eye. In a lecture in Prague two years later, André Breton dismissed the Pavillon Suisse as cold and rational, “since it is the work of Le Corbusier,” but heartily praised the photomural as an example of “concrete irrationality.” He enthusiastically described it as “irrationally wavy,” compared it favorably to the work of Gaudí, and declared it an indication that architecture was again attempting “to break through all the limits.” His lecture was titled “Surrealist Situation of the Object.”11

The curved wall was hardly an irrational wave, nor had Le Corbusier intended for the mural to invoke the irrational. Yet Breton’s assessment was insightful. He saw the mural as an example of the object in crisis, and recognized in it that which was not evident to Le Corbusier. The mural was representational overlay. Alongside the rational order of architecture, it placed an irrational order, creating a dialectic condition with both psychological and spatial implications. The illusory space of representation interrogated the “real” space of architecture. The photomural dematerialized architecture. And if for Breton this provided evidence of the object in crisis, for Le Corbusier it made manifest in architecture a contradictory space similar to that presented in his ambiguous photography.12

In each of Le Corbusier’s exhibition pavilions that followed, photomurals played an increasingly important role. In the Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux, enormous photo collages filled entire walls. Unlike the Pavillon Suisse’s quilt of flat images, these murals combined images of perspectival architectural space with images of a-perspectival, unreal space. These representations of fantastic space were then placed within the real space of the pavilion. The result, one imagines, was “contradictory space” far more exaggerated and illusionistic than that of the Pavillon Suisse.

Le Corbusier perfected this strategy in the late ’50s, when the machine age gave way to the electronic era and he built at Brussels the ultimate “machine for provoking emotions.” The Philips Pavilion was a tentlike structure that sheltered 500 spectators huddled together in its dark interior. Collectively they experienced the music of Varese and Xenakis, together with a sound recording of “all noises of the universe … that of the cat, mosquito and flooring, those the poet imagines, cries of joy and pain of all nature.”13 Enormous images appeared: the earth and moon, an insect, a flower, a skull, a Buddha, African totems, Holocaust corpses, a newborn baby, a mushroom cloud. The voice of Le Corbusier announced: “Attention! Attention! All is accomplished subtly: a new civilization! a new world! It is urgent that we re-establish the conditions of nature in our bodies and in our minds. Sun, space, greenery… .”14 As if to comment on his earlier architectural calligrams, Le Corbusier dubbed the pavilion “Le Poème électronique.” He later described this event as “that long cry of a rediscovered community, the sense of drama, passion and faith, present in the collective soul… .”15 At Brussels, Le Corbusier had created the ultimate spectacle: an architecture of light and sound, a space of representation composed largely of electronic emissions. More impressively, he had succeeded in evoking cult sensation solely by means of mechanical reproduction.

Brussels was but one of several attempts on the part of Le Corbusier to re-establish cult value in postwar architecture. The devastation of the Second World War and the threat of atomic catastrophe demanded a new humanism. Le Corbusier’s buildings—once sleek, white, and lightweight—became ponderously heavy and gray and rough with the marks of the men who made them. He began to portray himself not as technological sophisticate, but as poet-painter-architect, a mystic philosopher with special powers of perception. Like certain Surrealists, he wrote of “paranoiac visions,” of Ubus that appeared in his painting without his willing it, only to be discovered years later; and for his enigmatic Le Poème de l’Angle Droit, he adopted the Surrealist theme of metamorphosis. Where once he had described the house as “a machine for living in,” he now asserted that “to make architecture is to make a creature.”16 As with the fantastic anthropomorphic architecture imagined by Surrealists Man Ray and André Masson, the human body became for Le Corbusier a metaphor for building. At the center of his Chandigarh complex, he placed a colossal hand skewered on a steel rod and left to wave in the wind. At Brussels, he imagined his Pavilion “a stomach assimilating 500 listener-spectators, and evacuating them automatically at the end of the performance… .”17 And on a hilltop at Ronchamp he built his masterpiece, a chapel that—with its wavy walls and “concrete irrationality,” with its doors and windows wrapped in representation, with its propensity to undermine structural logic and its tendency to appear weightless and immaterial despite an obvious massiveness—consciously eschewed all canons of Modern movement architecture, rules perhaps regarded as detrimental to the building’s sacred nature. And again, Le Corbusier turned to photography—to ambiguous images that reveal the chapel’s east facade as a curious visage, as an apparition that miraculously appears in the light of a bonfire or in the fog of a misty morning—to re-present the aura of his object, to mythicize Modern architecture and imbue the temporal with a transcendent sense of the eternal.

The evaporation of object into sensation and the aura-like atmosphere that resulted from this transformation were recurrent themes in Le Corbusier’s work, and as early as 1946 he labeled it “l’espace indicible”—“ineffable space”—and offered it as a progressive mode of architecture for the postwar, electronic era. Le Corbusier defined ineffable space as a “vibration” between the “action of the work (architecture, statue, or painting)” and the “reaction of the setting: the walls of the room, the public squares … the landscape,” comparing this vibration to “the ‘magnification’ of space” achieved by Cubists around 1910.18 It is, he said, the equivalent of their fourth dimension, the “moment of limitless escape evoked by an exceptionally just consonance of the plastic means employed.” Such evocation results not from the subject but from the proportions of the work, and its reception is dependent on the cultivated intuition—“that miraculous catalyst of acquired, assimilated, even forgotten wisdom”—of those who would receive it. For each work contains within it “hidden masses of implications … a veritable world which reveals itself to those whom it may concern.” Only after couching his treatise in such language did Le Corbusier return to architectural aspects, writing: “Then a boundless depth opens up, effaces the walls, drives away contingent presences, accomplishes the miracle of ineffable space.” Unlike the “terrifying abyss” that confronted Kandinsky with the disappearance of the object, the experience of ineffable space is, for Le Corbusier, a transcendent event. One crosses a threshold, enters a new realm, passes through the looking glass. “I am not conscious of the miracle of faith,” he wrote in conclusion, “but I often live that of ineffable space, the consummation of plastic emotion.” Thus space and the spiritual are equated.

Le Corbusier served photography even as it served him. He enlarged it, made it into architecture, and brought its space—the space of representation—into dialogue with the space of reality. The resulting dialectic condition, though architectural, mirrored the condition of photography itself. The photograph is an “objective image,” both reality and representation. Its essence is illusion, and it was Le Corbusier’s inclination to recognize illusion as truth and to elevate this truth to an ideal. Illusion can be felt; it can be sensed as the distance between appearance and reality, between what is perceived and what is known. Its corporeal equivalent is spirit. Its architectural parallel is space, space that asserts itself as a distinct and psychically invigorating atmosphere. This space is like the aura of an image. To offer it as environment was, for Le Corbusier, the premise of a new architecture.


Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
Issue No. 1