For and against the long window

The Perret - Le Corbusier controversy

Introduction

Bruno Reichlin

"Mr Auguste Perret reports on the architectural section of the Salon d'Automne." That was the headline used by the Paris Journaif1 for an interview with Auguste Perret on the section dedicated to "Architecture and Town Planning" at the Salon d'Automne (1 Nov to 16 Dec 1923). According to journalist Guillaume Baderre, this section in particular evoked great curiosity among the visitors: "Some people greeted our young architects' bold designs with great enthusiasm, others were genuinely shocked, but nobody was indifferent... First and foremost, the numerous models2 by Messieurs Le Corbusier and Jeanneret sparked off controversial debate. These architects employ a new and outstanding technique that throws all traditional rules overboard."3

This interview gave Perret the opportunity to launch a direct and quite malicious attack on Loos, Le Corbusier, and Jeanneret. The arguments brought forward by "our avant-garde architects", as Perret mockingly called

Fig. 1: Franz Louis Catel: Schinkel in Naples, 1824

them, were redirected towards themselves. According to Perret they were cultivating a new formal academism that closely resembled the one they pretended to oppose and was likewise totally insensitive to the functional aspects of residential living. Perret contended that "for the benefit of volume and wall surface, these young architects repeat the very mistakes that in the recent past were made in favour of symmetry, the colonnade, or the arcade. They are bewitched by volume, it is the only issue on their minds, and suffering from a regrettable compulsion they insist on devising combinations of lines without paying attention to the rest." Perret continued with his accusation thus: "These faiseurs de volume [creators of volume] reduce chimneys to pathetic fragments that no longer allow the fumes to disperse. They do not even refrain from eliminating the cornices and consequently subject the facades to exposure and rapid decay... This complete denial of all practical principles is simply amazing." And this, Perret furiously concluded, "is especially obvious with Le Corbusier of all people, an architect representing the principle of practicability par excellence - or at least pretending to represent it."

The criticism of Perret that sparked off the most far-reaching consequences was directed, as will soon be revealed, at the form of the openings in the wall surfaces. And it was this criticism that prompted a passionate response from Le Corbusier. In the course of the ensuing controversy between Perret and Le Corbusier, two diametrically opposed positions were defined.

In addition to the purely technical and aesthetic arguments, two contrasting conceptions of residential living came to be established - or even of two cultures, if the term culture is defined in its broadest, almost anthropological sense. But let us look at the contradictions in question - meticulously and chronologically. During the interview, Perret kept referring to the contradiction between form and function within Le Corbusier's architectural framework of ideas: "The function necessitates the form, but the form must not supersede its function... However, we see in Le Corbusier's work a tendency to use clusters of windows to achieve volume, which leaves large wall areas in between completely blank; or, on an artistic whim, he constructs awkward window shapes, windows with an excessive horizontal elongation. From the outside this may make an original impression, but I fear that from the inside the impression is much less original because the result is that at least half of the rooms are without any natural light, and I believe this is taking originality too far."

This criticism cut Le Corbusier to the quick. Deeply insulted, he retaliated twice in the same Paris Journal: "A visit to Le Corbusier-Saugnier", undertaken once more by Baderre ("the other side must also be heard"), published on 14 December 1923, gave him the first opportunity for a riposte:4

Le Corbusier admitted that he was dismayed by Per-ret's lack of loyalty - a colleague after all - and accused him of publishing not only insulting but factually incorrect arguments against him. After cursorily touching on the criticism regarding chimneys and missing cornices, he directly addressed the question of the openings: "And here is the final insult from Mr Perret: my windows don't let in enough light. This accusation really infuriates me as its falseness is more than evident. What does he mean? I strive to create well-lit interiors..., this is my prime objective, and this is exactly why the external appearance of my facades might seem a little bizarre in the eyes of creatures of habit. Mr Perret upholds that I intentionally create bi-zarreness. Exactly -'intentionally'. But this is not for the sake of the bizarre itself, but in order to allow a maximum of light and air into my houses. This so-called whim is nothing else than my wish to comply with the occupants' most elementary needs."

In the Paris Journal of 28 December 1923, there was another contribution from Guillaume Baderre, entitled "Second visit to Le Corbusier".5 This time the journalist voiced his own opinion. He takes Le Corbusier's side and sums up all the arguments in favour of long windows, and anticipates all the papers and lectures that later made it popular. In short, the traditional vertical window is the result of outdated construction standards (stone and brick). These windows were limited in width and required massive walls. The enlargement of the window surfaces in prominent buildings thus necessitated a disproportionate increase in height - both for the openings and the rooms they serve. The use of reinforced concrete, however, allows for greater spans, wider clear openings, a significant reduction in the supporting elements - and thus the I ong window. "This [window] is much more practical," Baderre wrote, "because it admits more light into a room even if its area is the same. In fact, its shape focuses all the incoming light at the occupant's eye level. With windows of the old type, about half of the light is lost. Of course a room's floor should be well-lit, but the greatest amount of light should occur in the middle of the room, in its most vivacious part, i.e. between the heads and feet of its occupants."

Fig. 2: Le Corbusier: La Roche-Jeanneret House, Paris (F), 1923

Fig. 3: Marcel Duchamp: "Fresh window", assemblage, 1920

Fig. 2: Le Corbusier: La Roche-Jeanneret House, Paris (F), 1923

Fig. 3: Marcel Duchamp: "Fresh window", assemblage, 1920

What made Baderre's article particularly significant, however, was the simultaneous publication of the first sketches - floor plans and general views - of the small villa in Corseaux on the banks of Lake Geneva, which Le Corbusier and Jeanneret designed for the architect's parents.6 The plan for this little house was a real challenge for Perret. "Only one side of the house has a real window, but this window occupies the whole width of the facade." Despite its being the only one, Baderre continued, the window sufficiently illuminates the whole living space because "not only its dimensions admit enough light, but at both ends it meets the adjoining side walls at a right-angle. These white walls direct the view straight towards the scenery outside, unobstructed by window reveals. They are truly flooded with light."7 Perret had hardly uttered his verdict - and through him as a mouthpiece the "institution" ("a true authority in the field of architecture", Baderre had written in deferential regard, with Le Corbusier echoing ironically in a biting letter to Perret that "an Olympic god is about to speak"8) - when Le Corbusier reciprocated with a work that virtually lent the disputed object the character of a manifesto. Even in this booklet, published 30 years after the construction of the house on Lake Geneva, Le Corbusier did not hesitate to describe the long window as "the main protagonist of the house", or even "the sole protagonist of the facade".9 Whereas, up until then, the discussion on the pros and cons of the long window seemed to revolve mainly around "technical" aspects - direction of the light, constructional

Introduction

Fig. 4: Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret: small house in Corseaux on Lake Geneva, Vevey (CH), 1923

options, savings in space - something quite different was now cooking in the pot: Le Corbusier's aim was to work the l ong window of the petite maison into his continuing controversy with Perret. And, not surprisingly, the discussion was rekindled six months later when Perret built his "Palais de Bois" art gallery. In the Almanac, Le Corbusier describes the petite maison and then once more returns to the dispute under the title "Brief contribution to the study of the modern window".

On two successive pages Le Corbusier juxtaposes a photograph showing a panoramic view of the lake as it can be enjoyed from the window and a sketch showing Perret seated in an armchair in front of the fenetre en longeur which illuminates the bar of the "Palais de Bois". The sketch depicts the circumstances of an encounter between Perret, Jeanneret, and Le Corbusier. Perhaps out of spite the draughtsman shows the walking-stick of the venerable master pointing straight at the long window. Pleased about having "caught" Perret sitting peacefully in front of the building's sole l ong window, Le Corbusier congratulated him - "very pretty, your long windows" - and expressed satisfaction at the discovery that the old master, too, is employing this type of window. Perret, for his part, did not react to this humorous allusion, but returned to the attack: "Actually, the I ong window is not a window at all. (Categorically): A window, that is man himself!" And when Jeanneret stated that the human eye can only capture a horizontal view, he dryly retorted: "I detest panoramas".11

When Perret claimed that a window was "like a human being" he did so because he recognised an anthropomorphic analogy. In his book on Perret, Marcel Zahar elaborated on this: "The vertical window gives man a frame in line with his silhouette..., the vertical is the line of the upright human being, it is the line of life itself". Behind Perret's convictions lies a cultural framework of ideas, documented through centuries of pictorial and literary tradition and still valid today. How not to be reminded of the first verses of the second and fifth poems from Rainer Maria Rilke's cycle "The windows":12

N'es-tu pas notre géometrie, fenêtre, très simple forme qui sans effort circonscris notre vie énorme?

Comme tu ajoutes à tout, fenêtre, le sens de nos rites: Quelqu'un qui ne serait que debout, dans ton cadre attend ou médite.

Corseaux Lake Geneva
Fig. 5: Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret: location plan for small house in Corseaux, Lake Geneva (CH), 1923

Perret was opposed to long windows because for him they indicated a momentous change, a change that questioned the values deeply rooted in culture, especially in the "experience" of the interior. And this is probably why he believed that Le Corbusier was "destroying the beautiful French tradition".13

The traditional window opens up the inside towards the outside; at the same time, however, the window defines the space and acts as a threshold, "excluding" in a physical as well as a figurative sense. Whereas the I ong window "condemns us to look at an eternal panorama", Perret observed, the vertical window is a stimulant "as it shows us un espace complet [a complete space]: street, garden, sky". But what matters most is that these openings can also be closed.14

According to Le Corbusier the I ong window - in contrast to the traditional window - was acting as a mediator between inside and outside because the opening itself cancels both the threshold and its own boundaries. And this is the true meaning of the photograph of the l ong window at the petite maison published in the Almanac, a photograph in which everything that constitutes the physical elements of the building diffuses into an indistinct, dark background, a framework that allows the euphoric picture of "one of the world's most beautiful panoramas"15 to emerge. "The scenery is right there - it is just like being in the garden".16 Whereas the traditional window limits the view to a section of the continuum of the landscape, thus "manipulating" it by giving it the aura of a veduta, the long window is answering the request for "objectivity"

- one of the main goals of "Modernism" and "purism": to depict the scenery as it is. "The window with its length of 11 metres allows the vastness of the outside world into the room, the unadulterated entity of the lake scenery, in stormy weather or brilliant serenity".17

But is it true that a I ong window does not manipulate the view? Perret contended that the vertical window (in other languages not just by chance called a "French window") renders a complete "three-dimensional impres

Fig. 6: Le Corbusier: lighting sketches, 1923

Fig. 7: Article about the small house in Corseaux by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret

Excerpt from París Journal, 28 December 1923

Fig. 7: Article about the small house in Corseaux by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret

Excerpt from París Journal, 28 December 1923

Introduction

sion" because it allows a view of street, garden, and sky. Marie Dormoy, Perret's faithful supporter, elaborated on this: "A window in the form of an upright rectangle makes a room much more cheerful than a horizontal one because this form permits a view that includes the foreground, the most colourful and vivacious segment of a view."18 This comment reminds us of the particular preference for the window picture that dominated the world of painting from the days of Romanticism through to our times, and the important role it played in the development of the modern picturesque interior. The vertical window allows the eye of the observer to wander downwards to the first and nearest spatial levels - street and garden - and horizontally to the middle and deeper levels - houses opposite, trees, hilly background - and upwards into the unlimited expanse of the sky. The vertical window shows a pictorial cut-out of maximum perspective depth as well as great variety and gradation in terms of dimension, colouring, and brightness. But it is also an ideal conveyor of manifold atmospheric impressions: the perception of the immediate and familiar surroundings creates a feeling of quiet and calm, and looking out from the elevated position of the window provides the necessary detachment and the discretion of seclusion.

"The view from the window is one of the privileges of house-dwellers, mainly the middle classes, as they live in apartments in the towns and cities... The window is... a place of silent monologue and dialogue, of reflection on one's own status between the finite and the infinite."19 It is obvious that Perret prefers the vertical window for the very same reasons that painters are fascinated by the window as a motif.

The window motif is also an important experimental field in modern painting. This happened at the very latest when artists more or less consciously turned away from the painting as a peep-show, thus questioning the principle - which goes back to the Renaissance - that claims any painting in the original sense is a "window picture". "In order to force all elements of a painting into the picture's frame"20, painters gradually withdrew from the absolutisation of linear perspective, renounced the space of aerial perspective, and stopped rendering the tactile - and later the apparent materiality of the subject. Painting also abandoned the absolute colour of the object and the relative apparent colour as well as graphic detail and the exact rendering of anatomical and perspective proportions.

As far as the window motif and its role in these drastic sublimation processes is concerned, J.A. Schmoll, known as Eisenwerth, drew the conclusion that "the window motif in the paintings of the 19th and 20th centuries has paved the way for an understanding of a purely two-dimensional,

Fig. 11: Le Corbusier: sketch of functions (north at the top), 1923

abstract depiction devoid of illusory concepts of depth (as Matisse's painting 'Porte-Fenêtre' already suggested as early as 1914). The representation of perspective in Western art began with the assumption that the depth of a room is generated by a view through a window, and ended with the notion of recognising the form of the window itself as the principle behind a two-dimensional, pictorial architecture."21

Against the backdrop of this summary of the role of the window motif as an important pioneer of modern painting, we will once more return to the long window...

Perret was opposed to the long window because it did not facilitate a full view of the outside space - garden, street, sky - "particularly the segment of the sky, most of the time lost through the horizontal window", as Margherita G. Sarfatti remembers.22 And, indeed, the long window does limit the perception and correct depth evaluation of the scenery that is visible. This impression is emphasised by the extreme distance between the vertical boundaries to our view, even more so if - as in the first sketches for the petite maison- all the elements that delineate the room, i.e. the side walls and the ceiling bordering on the openings, are altogether hidden from sight. In other words: the I ong window breaks through both sides of the pyramid of vision horizontally and thus itself disappears from the visual range of the observer. Consequently, the window picture loses the characteristic of a veduta framed by a window, and the window frame its function as a repoussoir.

But if the long window is the opposite of the perspective peep-show with its characteristic steeply sloping sides and the traditional window frame, it must be considered as one of those constructional measures that played a vital role in architecture's gradual disentanglement from the traditional perspective environment. In looking at the conception and effect of the interior, the long window thus

Introduction

Fig. 12: Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret

View through the long horizontal window of the small house on Lake Geneva, contemporary photograph

Fig. 12: Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret

View through the long horizontal window of the small house on Lake Geneva, contemporary photograph

Fig. 13: Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret

View through the long horizontal window of the small house in Corseaux on Lake Geneva, today

Fig. 13: Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret

View through the long horizontal window of the small house in Corseaux on Lake Geneva, today plays a similar role to the pictorial experiments that, based on the window motif, led to "a transformation from the panel painting to the prevalence of painting on canvas.23

"The scenery is there", in its direct immediacy, as if it were "glued" to the window because either a detached and calming effect is denied, or the "transition from the nearby, familiar objects to the more distant ones is hidden from view, which significantly reduces the perception of three-dimensional depth."

"The paradox of the window - the modern, completely transparent one which simultaneously opens up towards the outside and admits but also confines"24 - resulted in some embarrassment for interior designers and architects at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. It encouraged Dolf Sternberger to dedicate a whole chapter of his book Panorama of the 19th century

Fig. 14: Le Corbusier

View through the long horizontal window of the small house on Lake Geneva, 1923

Fig. 14: Le Corbusier

View through the long horizontal window of the small house on Lake Geneva, 1923

Fig. 15: Le Corbusier

Interior of the small house on Lake Geneva, 1923

Fig. 15: Le Corbusier

Interior of the small house on Lake Geneva, 1923

to "The Disruptive Window". And Cornelius Gurlitt begins his chapter on windows, as published in his comments on art, the artistic crafts, and interior design,25 with some cursory comments on the window's recent development: the gradual enlargement of both the opening itself and the individual panes of glass: "Goethe's cry from his deathbed for 'More light!' rang through our living quarters." But he also makes a complaint: "The large window bonded the room too closely with the outside world. Man's deftness in creating large, fully transparent walls grew to such an extent that the border between the room and the outside world was altogether blurred to the human eye, which greatly impaired the artistic consistency of the room." For Gurlitt both the use of brightly coloured curtains towards the end of the 18th century and the more recent fashion of blinds and bull's-eye panes are means employed in order to restore a room's original feeling of "inner seclusion", which was disturbed both by an excessively obtrusive relationship with the outside world and by the incoming flood of too much consistent daylight that deprived the room of twilight's charms. "Far removed is all that goes on outside" - this should apply to the interior as Gurlitt wishes to restore it: "We feel alone in it, be it with our own thoughts or with our friends."

Fig. 16: Caspar David Friedrich: View from the Artist's Studio, Fig. 17: Henri Matisse: Open Window, Collioure, 1905 Fig. 18: Robert Delaunay: Window on the City, 1910

Window on the Left, 1806

Fig. 16: Caspar David Friedrich: View from the Artist's Studio, Fig. 17: Henri Matisse: Open Window, Collioure, 1905 Fig. 18: Robert Delaunay: Window on the City, 1910

Window on the Left, 1806

Fig. 19: Max Beckmann: Interior with Mirror, 1926

The same kind of criticism comes from Baillie Scott26 in his sarcastic comment on the fashion of large windows spreading to English suburban mansions: "From the outside we instantly note the enormous breaches in the walls, calculated for their external effect just like shop windows. There is the table with the vase, there are the lace curtains, and so on, it all reminds us of a 'shop display'. And inside there is this harsh, merciless light that destroys all feeling of calm and shelter."

"The interior", writes Walter Benjamin in his "The Arcades Project",27 "is not only a private person's universe, but also his protective shell." The shadowy, phantasma-gorical half-light of the interior softens the all-too-physical reality of things, while the objects' mainly symbolic existence "erases" their utility value, their concrete and commercial substantiality. In this environment furniture, furnishings, and personal knick-knacks turn the room into a safe haven for ideological and sensual identification because the gentle deception hovering at the centre of this microcosm has been created by the room's occupant himself in accordance with his very own spiritual disposition.

But along comes Le Corbusier's I ong window to tear open the "protective shell of the private person" and let the outside world invade the interior. In the tiny living room of the lakeside villa, nature in all her glory is within reach, through the whole cycle of weathers and seasons. "A window with a length of 11 metres establishes a relationship, lets in the light. and fills the house with the vastness of a unique landscape, comprising the lake and all its transformations plus the Alps with their marvellous shades of colour and light."28

"Then the days are no longer gloomy: from dawn to dusk nature goes through her metamorphoses."29 No longer shut out by walls and curtains, the light pours in through this opening and de-mystifies the room and the objects; the sentimental objects regain their original, solid, prosaic quality of practical tools.30

The interior has taken flight - this time into the open. True nature is a place of genuine memories, a euphoric object of desire with uplifting and consoling abilities. The house on Lake Geneva is a tiny hideaway protected within nature's bosom.

But the petite maison does not constitute the typical "hut" with thick walls creating a protective square around the interior. The l ong window, opening up wide towards the scenery, enforces an unusual visual and psychological "omnipresence" on the occupant.

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