The Red Wall: Déductions consécutives troublantes() (with notes)
Léger. — Avez-vous remarqué chez Rosemberg l’Exposition des architectes hollandais (2) ?
X… — Ils vous doivent une fameuse graine.
Léger passe par dessus le problème technique de l’architecture qui n’est pas son affaire. (Et il vaut mieux, car la manifestation intéressante des hollandais se limite strictement à une question d’esthétique (3.)
— Ces maisons polychromes sont intéressantes (4) ?
X… — Je ne partage par votre avis, la polychromie à l’extérieur, produit les effets du camouflage, elle détruit, désarticule, divise, donc va à l’encontre de l’unité (5.) Mais, par contre, à l’intérieur, les Hollandais exploitent une formule que n’est pas tout à fait neuve, mais qui mérite la plus grande attention. C’est là, Léger, que votre peinture a fait école.
Léger. — Un mur rouge (6,) un mur bleu, un mur jaune, un sol noir ou bleu ou rouge ou jaune, je vois toute une transformation du décor intérieur (7.)
X… — Oui, un mur rouge qui est fixe, un mur bleu qui fuit, un mur chaud, un mur froid (8,) etc… Voilà des éléments de l’architecture et dont l’immense dehors ne perturbe ni la qualité, ni les rapports.
Léger. — Voilà le problème qui me passionnerait. Ah, architecturer ainsi une banque, par des plans de couleurs (9) !
X… — Vous admettez donc que les surfaces colorées demeureraient entières ou à peu près ; qu’en tout cas elles ne devraient pas être décorées comme vous en avez essayé aux derniers Indépendants avec Csaky (10) ?
Léger. — Parfaitement, là était l’erreur : il faut que les murs soient des entiers qui entrent comme des
X… — Vous admettez que ce serait là l’oeuvre qui vous ravirait, mais alors vous ne pourriez plus signer au bas du cadre (11) ?
Léger. — Bien sûr, et ce serait tant mieux.
Voilà un signe des temps, tout un côté du problème peinture-architecture qui s’énonce.
1 This fictional dialogue was printed in the November, 1923 issue of L’Esprit Nouveau (The New Spirit), a critical journal published by the architect Le Corbusier and the painter Amedée Ozenfant between 1921 and 1925. It was written by Le Corbusier and appeared within a longer critical article about the Paris Salon d’Automne of that year. The dialogue is between an architect and a visual artist (X/Le Corbusier and Fernand Léger), and sheds light on one of the defining cultural debates of the early 20th Century: Architectural Polychromy. It was a debate between architects and painters; between movements; and even between countries. The central protagonists in this debate were the French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier, associated with the Purism movement in France, and the Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg, a member of the Dutch de Stijl school.
2 The reference is to a 1923 exhibition of works by members of the de Stijl group at Léonce Rosenberg’s Paris gallery L’Effort Moderne. Le Corbusier and van Doesburgs’ rivalry was legendary, even leading to rumours of professional sabotage when a van Doesburg handwritten manuscript on architectural polychromy mysteriously disappeared after being submitted to L’Esprit Nouveau around the time of the publication of this fictional dialogue.
3 De Stijl was an interdisciplinary movement, made up of artists and architects. Theo van Doesburg was determined to break down the boundary between disciplines, creating architectural renderings which read like near-abstract paintings, and using his colour schemes to break down architecture into “pure plastic” compositions.
4 The centerpiece of the “Exposition chez Rosemberg” was a model for a house: Theo van Doesburg and Cornelius van Esteren’s Maison Particulière. The house was made up of a series of distinctly coloured planes, in white, black and the primary colours. The exhibition also included examples of Theo van Doesburg’s “contra-constructions”: highly abstracted diagrams for architectural structures made up of floating vertical and horizontal planes. The distinctly coloured planes of these drawings came together to form volumes plotted on the diagonal, using a drawing technique called “axonometric projection”. In axonometry, all dimensions are drawn to scale (as with a floor-plan or elevation) yet space is presented in three dimensions. Van Doesburg’s use of axonometry lent these drawings a geometric dynamism, and was adopted as a graphic strategy by other artists and architects of the time.
5 Here is Le Corbusier’s theory of “camouflage”. He believed that on the exterior of a structure, distinctly coloured, adjoining planes can have a dematerializing effect: They can effectively disguise or “camouflage” a building. This occurs where the colours meet at the corners. The walls become pure surface skin and lose their perceived thickness, their sense of materiality.
6 “Un mur rouge…” (A red wall…): If we look closely, we observe that the red wall is painted red from floor to ceiling. The colour is confined to a single plane, even continuing beyond the entrance partition of the gallery. In fact the strongest characteristic of this wall, other than its colour, is its reduction to a single plane. This red wall and accompanying booklet is part of an on-going research project into the significance of red walls in architecture. Each version of this work has been made up of two elements: 1. A large red wall. 2. A summary of my research into the optical and cultural significance of red walls. The previous versions of the Red Wall have taken the following forms:
Version I. The Red Wall, (Installed at the Queens Museum, New York City, 2004). A fictional debate between three figures prominent in 20th Century art and architecture: Le Corbusier, Theo van Doesburg, and Donald Judd. The dialogue was presented as a framed text mounted directly on the red wall, and in a pamphlet to be taken away by museum visitors. The Red Wall was installed along the “Corbusian” ramp which connects the two levels of the museum.
Version II. El muro rojo, (Installed at Laboratorio Arte Alameda, Mexico City, 2005). A large black and white photograph of the roof patio of the Casa Barragán hangs on the red wall. It is a copy of Armando Salas Portugal’s famous 1953 photograph, and shows Barragán’s famous coloured walls reduced to grey tones.
Version III. The Red Wall (Queens Museum), (Installed at the Queens Museum, New York City, 2005). A pair of digital prints were mounted adjacent to the red wall. The left print was an axonometric drawing of the installation, and the right print was a detail from the first drawing which erased the illusion of depth, resulting in a flat graphic composition.
Version IV. The Red Wall: Déductions consécutives troublantes (with Notes), (Installed at UKS, Oslo, Norway, 2006).
7 This text points to a period ambivalence towards the figure of the decorator. The old-school decorator was made obsolete by the very reduced arena of functionalism, while at the same time, a new decorator was required to add colour to the interiors of the new architecture. He or she could become an “architectural colourist”—a new, more integrated role—which would take “décor” beyond surface aesthetics and into the scientific realm of optics. In his manifesto, Polychromatic Architecture (L’Architecture Vivante. Autumn/Winter, 1924), Léger insists that surface colour (“a decorative quality”) become a “natural function of architecture.”
8 (“Yes, a red wall which is immobile, a blue wall which flees, a warm wall, a cool wall, etc…”):
In these lines, X assigns emotional and kinetic characteristics to distinctly coloured planes. Van Doesburg believed in the purely optical and physiological applications of architectural colour to alter space. Le Corbusier granted colour in architecture a certain metaphysical function. He preferred to explore the psychological effects of colour, and made statements such as “Le bleu est la couleur de la connaissance intellectuel.”
9 Here Léger uses the verb “architecturer” (to architecture) to describe the creation of forms and volumes using planes of colour (plans de colour). Léger proposes the most ephemeral of materials (colour) as the foundation to build the most solid of buildings (the bank).
10 Joseph Csaky was a Hungarian-born Cubist sculptor. The “collaboration” refers to a multi-panel painting by Léger mounted below a Cubist frieze by Csaky at the 1923 Salon des Indépendents. Both hung on a wall that had been specially painted to form part of the overall composition. The whole assemblage was entitled Projet d’ensemble pour un hall. Le Corbusier mocks Léger for his participation in this heavily criticized attempt at polychromatic integration.
11 X describes architectural polychromy as an ideal art form, but one which the artist can’t “sign at the bottom of the painting”. Yet many of these colour schemes only existed as “signable” paintings or drawings, unrealized at full scale. The complex ensemble of coloured planes of the Contra-Construction drawings of van Doesburg are a graphic evocation of Russian Constructivist propaganda, which lends the drawings the air of a visual manifesto. This was a formula of strategically-applied primary colour fields, with a special emphasis on red. A red diagonal plane immediately catches the eye and draws it into a composition. At full-scale, the red wall transcends the optical/physiological realm and becomes a graphic signpost, pointing in the direction of the revolutionary artistic ideology of the early twentieth-century avant-gardes.