The Shape of Things to Come

It is often observed that when we look to the past we can see our the future. More than 90 years ago, Swiss architect Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) wrote an influential book on modern architecture, Vers une Architecture (1923) that helped to radically change our built environment. Translated into English in 1927 under varying titles (Toward an Architecture, or Towards a New Architecture), the book caught the appreciative eye of New Yorker architecture critic George Chappell, who wrote under the pseudonym “T-Square.”

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Nov. 12, 1927 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

Given that most new architecture in Manhattan was adorned in architectural stylings from the past, or gussied up in Jazz Age art deco, Chappell was introducing his readers to something very different, to ideas that would transform their city within two generations.

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A SOBER-MINDED THINKER…Le Corbusier at work in his apartment at 20 Rue Jacob, Paris, in the late 1920s. (Brassai Paris)

In his embrace of technology and mass production, Corbusier maintained that houses should be built in standardized forms that allowed for continuous refinement, designed as “machines for living” with the same precision as automobiles and airplanes…

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In case you doubt the architect’s fervor, here is Corbusier’s manifesto on mass production included in Towards a New Architecture:

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MACHINES FOR LIVING…This two-family structure on the outskirts of Stuttgart, Germany, was designed by Le Corbusier and his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret in 1927. It was one of the first built manifestations of Corbusier’s Five Points of a New Architecture, a manifesto written in 1926. The house set an important precedent for the emerging International Style associated with Germany’s Bauhaus movement. (noordinaryhomes.com)

In Towards a New Architecture, Corbusier wrote that while architecture was  stifled by custom and lost in the past (“to send architectural students to Rome is to cripple them for life…”), engineers were embracing new technologies and building simple, effective and “honest” structures. Rather than rely on past forms or contemporary trends such as art deco, Corbusier said architecture should fundamentally change how humans interact with buildings.

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ALL DRESSED UP WITH NOWHERE TO GO…A photograph from Towards a New Architecture. Corbusier said contemporary architecture was stifled by custom and lost in the past. (monoskop.org)
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FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION…Examples of “honest” and functional industrial buildings featured in Towards a New Architecture. (monoskop.org)

Corbusier concluded his book with a moral imperative and an ominous choice  for the future: “Architecture or Revolution.”  He asserted that the “great disagreement between the modern state of mind…and the stifling accumulation of age-long detritus” would force modern man to live in an “old and hostile environment” and deny him an “organized family life,” ultimately leading to the destruction of the family.

In less than 10 years the Nazis would chase the “degenerate” Bauhaus out of Europe and into the embrace of American academe. In short order Corporate America would adopt Corbusier’s International Style, if imperfectly, but most Americans would prove resistant to making their homes into “machines for living.”

Corbusier would doubtless be shocked (and disappointed) to know that 100 years hence people would still choose to live in mock Tudors and “Tuscan Villas,” especially in the midst of so much advanced technology.

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HOME SWEET HOME…Villa Savoye near Paris, France. Designed by Le Corbusier in 1928, completed in 1931. Named a World Heritage Site in 2016. (projectoras.com)

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AS HE WAS SAYING…

The new Sherry-Netherland apartment hotel near Central Park was exactly the sort of architecture Corbusier detested. The New Yorker editors in “The Talk of the Town,” however, seemed impressed with its elegant appointments…

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SUMPTUOUS…The foyer of the Sherry-Netherland, restored to its former glory in 2014. (Wikipedia)
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ROOM WITH A VIEW…The Sherry-Netherland penthouse, priced at $35,000 a year in 1927, is now worth more than $100 million.

“Talk” noted that beneath the Sherry-Netherland’s spire the penthouse apartment could be had for $35,000 a year, roughly equivalent to $477,000 today. The building went co-op in the 1950s, and that would have been a good time to buy the penthouse. Today it is valued at more than $100 million.

Poo on Pooh

Dorothy Parker lamented the state of children’s literature in the “Books” section, and expressed her displeasure with A.A. Milne, a former humor writer for Punch who “went quaint” with his Winnie the Pooh stories.

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OLD SOFTIE…A. A. Milne with his son Christopher Robin and Pooh Bear, at Cotchford Farm, their home in Sussex, in 1926. Photo by Howard Coster. (npg.org.uk)

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New Game in Town

Niven Busch Jr. wrote about the growing popularity of professional hockey. Tex Rickard’s two-year-old franchise, the New York Rangers, were a major draw at the new Madison Square Garden (they would win the Stanley Cup in their second year), and even Texans were into the sport–Busch noted that a game between Dallas and Fort Worth teams drew 20,000 spectators.

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ICE MEN…Stanley Cup winners, the 1927-28 New York Rangers. (rangers.ice.nhl.com)

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And finally, from the world of advertising, here is one in a series of classically themed ads for the McCreery department store…

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…and this advertisement for the Marmon 8, an “ideal woman’s car”…
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Next time: Mutt & Jeff…

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Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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