|© samantha krukowski
Le Corbusier's Beistegui as Emblem of Surrealist Space
|In 1930, Le Corbusier completed an apartment commission in
Paris for a wealthy client named Charles de Beistegui. The apartment is,
by most accounts, one of Le Corbusier's most paradoxical works. While it
reflects many of the architect's well-known concerns (with light and circulation,
for example) some of its elements are of a decorative and surreal character
uncommon to his oeuvre. These aspects are made more noticeable in the context
of Charles de Beistegui's taste: he was an avid collector of surrealist
art with a penchant for both exaggerated imagery and overstuffed furniture.
Yet, there are particular spaces within the apartment which are decidedly
surreal, and which can be called this without necessarily invoking the influence
of Le Corbusier's client. One such space is the elevated and attached roof
garden--a strange, exterior room that is home to a false fireplace with
a mantelpiece, living room furniture, and a mirror. This garden is a mystifying
place that insists on a surrealist experience instead of presenting a surrealist
pastiche. It plays the role that Nadja does for AndrŽ Breton by introducing
an unexpected encounter into the scheme of the apartment, one which causes
an inexplicable sense of alienation.
The Beistegui apartment is one of Le Corbusier's least discussed architectural works. Only a few texts make reference to it, and those that do tend to merely acknowledge it.1 It seems that the unusual character of the apartment is partially responsible for these omissions. Tim Benton, who devotes a scant four pages of writing to the Beistegui commission, is quick to relate it to the rest of the architect's work and states that "Le Corbusier began the commission from a position of convinced Modernism."2 While the apartment cannot be understood as separate from the rest of Le Corbusier's buildings, it is distinguished by its unusual embellishments and Benton avoids a discussion of them. He is intent on integrating the apartment into Le Corbusier's oeuvre, and he does so by announcing that "in a letter to the Italian modernist P.M. Bardi in 1933, Le Corbusier had no qualms in setting the apartment de Beistegui alongside the Pavillon Suisse as paradigmatic examples of his urbanistic principles" and indicating that the apartment is a "coda and critique of the 1920's villas."3 Despite Benton's program, the differences embodied in the Beistegui apartment are loci of information too. It is a far more complex and interesting effort when they are examined. The apartment has a number of unconventional features including electrically driven partition walls and hedges, a camera obscura in the form of a telescope, and a built-in cinema with a metal screen that comes down as a chandelier rises. These are assuredly whimsical and technologically advanced quirks, but it is the roof garden that appears most complex and bewildering in both architectural and surrealist terms. Even if it is to Benton merely "a classic expression of Corbusian dogma...(a) prototype for a Plan Voisin or Ville Radieuse,"4 this kind of conclusion limits an imaginative understanding of how the roof garden works and what can happen in the space that it delineates.
While the roof garden is assuredly part of a larger scheme (part of the apartment as it is conceived in its entirety5) I am treating it as an entity in and of itself in order to examine the possible nature of a surrealist place. Another investigation could consider the entire Beistegui apartment as such, but I am privileging a specific portion of Le Corbusier's project in order to theorize the experience of a certain kind of compass. The apartment as a whole seems less open to a plural reading because it is suffused with the marks of Le Corbusier and his client. While the garden is assuredly constructed by them as well, it proposes an experience that neither could possibly define. The roof garden appears as an irregular and startling architecturally discontinuous arena. It is representative of a moment like that sought by Louis Aragon "when immense cracks appear in the palace of the world" and for which he would "sacrifice all (his) life."6 Peter Inch explains that the result of any such fissure is an "exquisite tension...fed by the conflict...between what we can see is there in a disturbing situation--a hole in the sky, a horrible something scratching at the window--and what we know for a fact ought to be there."7 This tension is produced in the Beistegui roof garden. It denies the passive involvement that might occur in other parts of the apartment to those who stand within it. They are posed in an elevated and unreal space which they are obliged (and frightened) to construct for themselves.
The Beistegui roof garden can aptly be called a place of the mind, and if this is extended, it can also be termed surrealist. Le Corbusier played on the fringes of the surrealist movement8 and it may be his involvement there that prompted him (along with the surrealist interests of his client) to make such a whimsical space. Nevertheless, I use the term surrealist carefully and not simply because Le Corbusier knew something of surrealism. The Beistegui roof garden reveals something of the Freudian uncanny: its components are familiar but they appear strange and discontinuous. Its setting, its characteristics and the objects of its presentation undermine reality, or at least that "little reality (ce peu de rŽalitŽ)" proposed by Jacques Lacan in which "human knowledge is determined (and) which the surrealists, in their restless way, saw as its limitation."9 The Beistegui roof garden pushes the experience of an architectural place up against the definitions, the "little realities," that limit such experience and that the surrealists attempted to countermand.
The garden is comparable in size to a large living room. It has a carpet of grass and is surrounded by a white wall which is approximately five feet in height. Most of the photographs that take it as their subject show the fireplace at one end with some curved metal chairs arranged around it. There is a carved, oval mirror above the fireplace that is placed so that half of it hangs below the top of the wall and half protrudes above, creating an arched shape along the wall itself. In a few photographs there are additional elements: sometimes an ornately carved chest is pushed against one wall, and sometimes there are candlesticks on the mantel of the fireplace. Beyond the wall with the fireplace, the top of the Arc de Triomphe is visible, and the Tour Eiffel extends above the wall opposite the fireplace at the other end of the garden. These "facts" reveal a few of the paradoxes introduced by the garden.
First of all, the garden creates a tension between inside and outside. It is separated from the apartment because it is outside of it, and because it is accessed by a separate set of stairs which lead up to it and which place it on top of the apartment. It occupies the phonetically determined space of the sur-rŽal because it is beyond the space of the contained (and stable) apartment below. The tension between inside and outside is evident in the space of the garden itself, which takes elements that are usually found inside a building and removes them to its exterior. Second, this physical separation invokes a complex division between public and private. The garden is part of the private space of the apartment in that it is separate from the public realm of the city. At the same time, it is more public than the interior of the apartment because it is open to the sky and situated between two public monuments which protrude into it and declare its connection to the city. These divisions and conflations of public and private, inside and outside, are represented by the mirror which hangs above the fireplace. Anyone who looks into it experiences his existence as a public and private being at once, as self and reflected self.
This mirror can actually serve as a guide to the complexities and effects of the tensions introduced by the Beistegui roof garden. When a visitor to this garden looks into the mirror, he is immediately and doubly framed. The mirror is placed so that its top half appears to fit into the void left by the arch of the Arc de Triomphe in the background, and the self is here subjected to its own dissection. There is a self that walks to the mirror in the space of the garden. This self is duplicated in the mirror, and placed outside of himself and outside of the garden. Additionally, this reflected self is placed within the space of the arch of a public monument, which reinforces its existence as a zone of construction. The person who looks into the Beistegui mirror is thus forced to see himself as a representation and a construction, and forced to consider the manner in which he is these things. The mirror is the site of a destabilizing moment, especially since it only reflects a partial being. What is reflected is only a head which appears unconnected to the body that supports it--the body that is elsewhere. Consciousness is physically separated from the bodily processes that produce it. This doubling, this sense of being inside oneself and being elsewhere, or of being in a particular place but of also being in a space much larger than its limits, is discussed by Lacan in his work on the mirror stage.10
The mirror stage is a period of time when the child is "at an age when he is...outdone by the chimpanzee in instrumental intelligence (and) can nevertheless already recognize as such his own image in a mirror."11 At this moment there is a split between the child and his reflection where the child can recognize himself as himself but also as something other than himself. This division is so astonishing that the child begins to make gestures in order to test and play with his newfound reflection. Lacan calls the result of these gestures a "virtual complex" that is separate from "the reality it reduplicates--the child's own body, and the persons and things, around him."12 While anyone tall enough to look at himself in the mirror of the Beistegui roof garden has undoubtedly passed through the mirror stage, the experience of looking in the mirror should remind them of their original encounter with the division of self and outside-of-self. Unlike the child who first looks into the mirror (and who is without the language that will confer subjecthood upon him) the person in the Beistegui garden will already understand himself as an object seen by others in identification with others. He will know that he is not the same as his reflection, which is constituted by all of the names, occupations and friends he has accumulated and with which (or whom) he defines himself. Ordinarily, he will attempt to diminish the separation that is implied by the mirror because it is unresolvable. The "secondary identifications"13 that Lacan associates with the realm of the social and of fiction are much more comforting, and as such, they are often proposed as the only manifestations of the self. The first glance into the Beistegui mirror disallows this desire. It imposes a cataclysmic conflation of the self and the non-self, of the private and the public, that challenges the viewer to either immediately construct himself or to recognize himself as in some way constructed.
The very act of looking into a mirror is an attempt to find or rediscover the self, possibly the self that was known to the child before he encountered his other in the mirror. A visit to the Beistegui roof garden is a reminder of this endeavor. Yet this self that is sought cannot be found (we are not only constructed by others--we construct ourselves), even though everyone aspires to find it, guided as they are by a nostalgia that Baudelaire locates in the tension between idŽal and spleen. The space of the Beistegui roof garden compels the visitor to look in the mirror because it is itself a reflected and reflecting space. And when he looks, the garden insists that he acknowledge his existence as a being in space because he finds himself in such an unusual arena. Both the mirror and the garden, then, provoke a nostalgic and prying glance because the reflection that each represents is in marked contrast to what houses them. Trying to understand what occurs when one looks in the mirror is like trying to determine the differences between what is secret and what is exposed. Gaston Bachelard understands this differentiation in terms of space when he writes:
What would be the use, for instance, in giving the plan of the room that was really my room, in describing the little room at the end of the garret, in saying that from the window, across the indentations of the roofs, one could see the hill. I alone, in my memories of another century, can open the deep cupboard that still retains for me alone that unique odor, the odor of raisins drying on a wicker tray.14
The person looking in the Beistegui mirror knows that what is reflected is not him, and also knows that what is him cannot really be described to anyone. Yet it is this interior description that he seeks, as well as an indication of the signs he has used (and that others have invented) to describe him.
There is an element of fear in this face-off in the Beistegui mirror. Since it only shows part of the person looking into it, the person experiences himself as constituted in parts and as exposed at once. The effect of this exteriorization is that the person appears in a "contrasting size (un relief de stature) that fixes it and in a symmetry that inverts it, in contrast with the turbulent movements that the subject feels are animating him."15 The person is distorted by the mirror and is disturbed by this distortion. His face is turned around and constituted by elements that are always unfamiliar (this is why we look into the mirror so many times in the course of a day) and the sky behind him seems like an atmosphere characterized by a vastness and emptiness of luminescent infinity. These experiences of exteriority are "pregnant with the correspondences that unite the I with the statue in which man projects himself, with the phantoms that dominate him, or with the automaton in which...the world of his own making tends to find completion."16 Man's statue cannot sit still in the Beistegui garden. The chairs placed there are only a reference to his existence as an object of presentation. He cannot sit in them because his image will not be contained by them: it reverberates back and forth between mirror and space, self and world, so that neither he nor the components of his reflection can falsely assert their stability.
The Beistegui roof garden is a space of formation. Encountering it is something on a par with the surprise of meeting someone for the first time who you know you will immediately love. This kind of unexpected meeting is the surrealist source of beauty, and it is not a beauty that is produced by the stability or predictability of the terms that constitute it. As Lacan points out, "the meaning of beauty (is) both formative and erogenic."17 In the case of the Beistegui garden, the self is presented as formed and is re-formed with the exposure to this knowledge. This reformation incites sexual desire at least partially in the form of self love, for the mirror is analogous to Narcissus' reflecting pool. Just as the self in search of self (or definitions of self) is self-obsessed, the Beistegui garden is a space obsessed with space. It talks about itself, it forms itself based on what it sees (it has eyes in the form of a mirror18.) It is space in its most derealizing effect because it questions the source and the location of what it contains. It becomes a temple where constructions and definitions are sacrificed but at the same time acknowledged.
The mirror is one aspect of the Beistegui garden that represents the drama that occurs there, or that clarifies its role as a stage. Lacan knows that the mirror stage itself is "a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation" and the drama enacted by the Beistegui garden is similarly motivated. It imposes a sense of alienation (insufficiency) on those who visit it and it causes apprehension and a heightened awareness (anticipation) because of the way it is structured. The very existence of a fireplace that resembles an ornate interior structure but which is exposed to the elements inverts the traditional meaning of the hearth: that which has been considered as an emblem of the home, of family, of stability and warmth. This hearth undermines these associations: it presents the body that stands in front of it with a simulation that neither works nor proposes to fulfill any of these functions. When the Beistegui visitor is confronted with this hearth, as with the chairs and the surrounding walls, his defenses are shaken. The stability of the self ("the formation of the I") is undermined by these strange objects; its usual symbols (in dreams, the fortress or the stadium) are denied so that the subject "flounders in quest of (a) lofty, remote inner castle"19 that the Beistegui garden consistently dismisses. The walls that encircle the garden are unforgiving and blank canvases which taunt the viewer to paint and repaint himself. As they partially block the view of the city beyond, they insist that anyone visiting the Beistegui garden invent what happens in the midst of their contained placidity.
The mirror in the Beistegui roof garden is the key to the experience it offers. It is an internalizing and externalizing instrument that separates the viewer from himself and from his environment so that he thinks about how he is experiencing what he understands to be "here" and "there." The whole garden acts to visually construct a visceral response that may be experienced so deeply that it becomes traumatic. Le Corbusier has created a place that speaks about the the self and its habitations while it undermines their stability. Their distinct worlds of inside and outside are unveiled in an arena of trickery where personal reflections and grand monuments collide, where living room furniture seems as misplaced as one's face in the mirror. These are certainly some of the requisite provisions of the surrealist moment.
1 I do not pretend to be an expert on Le Corbusier, so I make this point tentatively. However, of the twenty books on Le Corbusier that I scanned, only four named or pictured the Beistegui commission and of these, only two included text about it.
2 Tim Benton, The Villas of Le Corbusier 1920-1930 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 209.
3 Ibid. Of course, Benton does not explain Le Corbusier's possible reasons for making this comparison. It seems clear that Benton's paraphrased quote indicates Le Corbusier's desire to have all of his work seen in the light of his principles: this is quite a promotional move.
4 Ibid. I have quoted Benton at length because his text is seemingly (embarassingly) the most detailed one on the Beistegui apartment and in its descriptions it is remarkably unselfconscious. My point is not to slander Benton but to indicate that Le Corbusier's project deserves another kind of attention than that it is awarded by writers like Benton.
5 It should be noted that Le Corbusier did not conceive of the roof garden in its final form when he began working on the Beistegui project. The space was originally designed as a croquet field. Benton's text reproduces a few of Le Corbusier's drawings that indicate these changes. See Benton, The Villas of Le Corbusier 1920-1930, 212-214.
6 Unfortunately, I could not find the original source of Aragon's comment. It is reprinted in Peter Inch, "Fantastic Cities," Architectural Design 48 no. 2-3 (1978), 117.
8 Le Corbusier was the main contributor to L'Esprit Nouveau, a publication founded in 1920 by Paul DermŽe and edited by the painter AmŽdŽe Ozenfant. While those writing for and around L'Esprit Nouveau attempted to see themselves as separate from the members of the literary surrealist movement, Le Corbusier was certainly around the surrealist milieu so that he was aware of the games and tactics played by those who concerned themselves with it. For further discussion on the relationships between various individuals who contributed to the surrealist movement, see Marcel Jean, ed., The Autobiography of Surrealism (New York: The Viking Press, 1980).
9 Jacques Lacan, "The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I," in ƒcrits, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1977), 3-4.
10 Lacan is a relevant source for any discussion of the experience of surrealist space. The surrealists were interested in and influenced by psychoanalysis, and Lacan's elucidation of some workings of the mind suggest some of the ways the mind reacts in a space like that of the Beistegui roof garden.
11 Ibid., 1.
13 Ibid., 2.
14 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), 13.
15 Lacan, "The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I," 2.
16 Ibid., 2-3.
17 Ibid., 3.
18 According an inanimate object the power of eyesight is a commonplace in recent newspapers, which have referred to the new cameras being installed on the Hubble Telescope as its eyes.
19 Lacan, "The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I," 5.