Architecture as a Narrative Medium

Architecture as a Narrative Medium

2002-05-01
Privacy and Publicity,
Beatriz Colomina
Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 1996/1994. xi + 389 pages, 168 photographs.

Christine Bucher, reviewing Beatriz Columnina, considers the narrative and photographic dimensions of interiors designed by Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier.

Dorothy wants to leave Oz, the land of spectacle, so she chants “There’s no place like home,” three times to awake in familiar grey Kansas. That’s a far cry from Vienna and Paris, but in Beatriz Colomina’s Privacy and Publicity, these European cities provide the backdrop for a discussion of home. Focusing primarily on the houses and interiors designed by Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier, Colomina argues that architecture, far from being immune to the influence of mass culture as traditional architectural thinking has it, was influenced by mass media such as advertising and photography. As Colomina writes:

The building should be understood in the same terms as

drawings, photographs, writing, films, and advertisements; not only because these are the media in which we more often encounter it, but because the building is a mechanism of representation in its own right. The building is, after all, a “construction,” in all senses of the word. And when we speak about representation we speak about a subject and an object… Inasmuch as these boundaries undermine each other, the object calls into question its own objecthood and therefore the unity of the classical subject presumed to be outside of it.

Through Loos and Le Corbusier, Colomina reads a concern with the relationship of the inside of the house with the outside: the question of privacy or publicity. How do we construct the “home”? Is it the private space of solitude and anonymity, or is it an extension of the public life of spectacle, display, and movement? Does home escape the world or become a part of it?

There are no simple answers to these questions, but Loos and Le Corbusier provide different frames for this questioning. Each architect engaged with the modern as it developed in European cites, but in tellingly different ways. Colomina looks at how each architecture designs vision (a few chapter titles are “Photography,” “Museum,” “Interior,” and “Window”) and relates this to the increasing anonymity and depersonalization of the modernist city, claiming that “modern architecture only becomes modern in its engagement with the media.”

In Colomina’s reading, Loos and Le Corbusier emerge as two points in architecture’s engagement with the modern. Loos emerges as something like a proponent of the authentic. He was proud that his rooms were rendered unrecognizable by the distancing flatness of photographs, and needed to be experienced in person. Colomina describes how Loos’s houses “work”: the Loos house keeps the visitor constantly turned inward. Windows are both curtained and obstructed (by built-in couches) to keep the gaze inside the house, and the structure of the house itself continually turns the visitor to face the room he has just left. The gaze is folded inward in an intimate yet controlling movement, private yet specular.

Le Corbusier sees the house as constructing pictures, or scenes, as about movement through space as the unfolding of a movie or a narrative. (In fact, he, one of his houses, and his car appeared in a film, L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui, 1929.) For Le Corbusier, houses built spectacles. Houses became mechanisms for seeing, as evidenced by design sketches that begin with postcards pasted to the page (the tourist site/sight) and that figure the human by a large eye. The view was crucial to the house, not for light or ventilation (technology could take care of these needs) but for the vision they allowed. This vision, however, became more detached from the humanist observer, as it was modelled on the mechanical eye of the camera. Colomina writes that Le Corbusier aspired to be a “producer” of art, that “Le Corbusier is perhaps the first architect to fully engage the modern condition of the media…his work is, in more than one way, fundamentally contaminated by the materials of low culture.”

With her final discussion of Le Corbusier, Colomina traces the effect of mass media’s modernity on architecture: “The organizing geometry of architecture slips from the perspectival cone of vision, from the humanist eye, to the camera angle. It is precisely in this slippage that modern architecture becomes modern by engaging with the media.” Architecture is not only photographed for display in books, exhibits, and magazines (thus losing its “transcendence” by being reproducible), but is itself constructed to recreate the space of a photograph in its rooms and windows. Sitting in a Le Corbusier house, gazing out the window, one becomes the camera eye.

The camera eye is also evident in Privacy and Publicity’s 168 illustrations. The book continually disengages the reader’s attention from the text to the evidence, illustration, and occasional commentary provided by the photographs. The convolution between inside and outside is variously shown by the mirror hung on Freud’s study window and by a train crashed through its station, resting delicately on the street below. The reader is shown the interiors and houses discussed in the text, Le Corbusier’s tracings, sketches, drawings, and plans. The series of photographs, in their succession, reinforce the arguments being made in the text itself, even as they illustrate the “mechanical eye.”

In juxtaposing ads for industrial equipment with art, Colomina illustrates the slippage between the two. In a similar manner, Colomina wants to reconsider architecture’s status as High Art. She constructs this re-reading of architecture by using the familiar names of modern writing and criticism, such as Nietzsche and Benjamin. This is an oppositional reading from the inside, as it were, but Colomina has a more oppositional critique in this book, a subtle and suggestive focus on gender. Brief mention is made of Le Corbusier’s artistic relationships to Eileen Grey and Charlotte Perriand (relationships that seem to have been more advantageous to Le Corbusier) and Colomina has an extended discussion of the house Loos planned for Josephine Baker. However, women (and Woman, as a hypothetical category) have had their own unique relationship to vision, architecture, and modernity, and I found myself wishing that Colomina had taken gender as an outsider’s category from which to analyze high architecture.

For many people, architecture remains an inaccessible art form. It’s expensive, imposing, and uses a specialized language. Colomina writes of her project:

To think about modern architecture must be to pass back and forth between the question of space and the question of representation. Indeed, it will be necessary to think of architecture as a system of representation, or rather a series of overlapping systems of representation. This does not mean abandoning the traditional architectural object, the building. In the end, it means looking at it much more closely than before, but also in a different way.

In this statement, Colomina not only makes a call for more thought about architecture, but also about how it comments on and shapes the world. Architecture constructs space and hence shapes the world around us: what and how we see. These same elements shape knowledge and subjectivity, so Colomina’s argument is also an argument about changing attitudes toward “Man.” The boundaries of subject and object, public and private, high and low become more porous the more they are examined, and in the slippage between the two sides lies a new perspective on old structures.