To be honest, my budget hasn’t included any of the twenty-six or so books devoted to Le Corbusier that have arrived in the last decade. More than two books a year would make anyone proud. But Voiture Minimum: Le Corbusier and the Automobile is something different. A few pages in, I realized that I’d been gulled. Corb is in there, but only as a walk-on. Built around a few scrappy sketches from the thirties, Antonio Amado manages to lasso an entire era in which the automobile, not architecture, represented the ultimate design challenge. Think about it. While we take the suburban zeitgeist of SUVs, ATVs, minivans and Rovers for granted, in the 1930s it looked as though it would be the automobile that would transform cities. It would be the automobile that led material culture away from wood and rabbit glue, and it is the automobile that refined and popularized the formal language that today’s Young Turks aspire to apply to their buildings. The tale of Le Corbusier trying to duke it out with the auto industry is a bit like a varsity wrestler trying to make it in the Ultimate Fight Cage. He simply lacked the chops.
But he loved cars! Gatsby had nothing on Le Corbusier, at least when it came to fast machines. Voisin, the high-end automaker, was a friend and patron—witness the Voisin Plan—and then take a good look at the images of Corb’s stable of sultry Voisins, with their long noses and dinner-plate wheels, as they idle in front of Villa Garche, or lounge in the shadow of Villa Savoye. That car was the Bentley coupe of its day. It was enormous, stylish, extraordinarily well crafted, with rectilinear lines that conferred the status and breeding its well-heeled owners wished to declare. And it was about as far from a people’s car as it could be. This is the image of Corb that the paparazzi would have devoured, the one with the bespoke car in place of the manifesto, the one with Josephine Baker perched on a running board, and product placement high on his agenda.
Streamlining was in the air when Le Corbusier visited America, where he toured Ford’s assembly plant in Detroit and came back besotted with mass production. At that time automobiles were either hand-crafted and ponderous or down-market and basic. Designers and some brave architects around the world were jousting to introduce aerodynamic silhouettes that challenged the upright architectural profiles then in vogue. Ferdinand Porche’s People’s Car, the Czech Tatra, and Gordon Buehrig’s Cord Speedster were beginning production, and Chrysler’s Airflow was on the drawing boards. A competition for a low-cost automobile had just been launched by a consortium of producers, and even though it omitted architects from the roster of invitees, Le Corbusier wanted in. After all, Gropius had done it, and so had Loos, and it’s clear from the tone of this letter that Le Corbusier had an itch he simply had to scratch: “I would be very pleased to design the body of such an automobile,” he wrote. “I have been familiar with the question for many years and I am convinced that cooperation with automobile engineers would make it possible to develop an elegant model with class. If you are able to make this disclosure known to whoever is interested, I would appreciate it.” But the letter was late, as the industry had already become established, and he found himself up against some very stiff competition. Amado beautifully reproduces plates of 78 entries by rivals, many featuring rear engines, earnest attempts at streamlining, a surprisingly agile juggling of features, and, quel scandale, a progressive industrial rather than architectural language. Viewing them as an ensemble, as a snapshot of the struggle to represent fluid (read sexy) forms with an engineer’s kit, I’m once again made aware of the hair-raising digital revolution we are witnessing today, and reminded of the incredible breakthrough embodied in pioneering designs like the Cisitalia. Le Corbusier, focused on the Modular and the harmony of intersecting lines with no Xenakis in sight, was caught off-guard. Lacking beziers and splines, locked into antideluvian T’s and angles, he found himself far from the shells and airfoils he lauded in Towards a New Architecture. Nevertheless, he soldiered on, eventually producing drawings for a strange, pug-nosed vehicle which would be right at home in Trey Parker’s garage.
Slab-sided, and aggressively Euclidian, with arcs and planes where his peers imagined aircraft-like swoops and ogee curves, it has all the charm of a self-propelled, home-built travel trailer. Interior room presses to the margins, barely acknowledging the running gear, popping the wheels half the way into the passenger compartment. As soberly utilitarian (it fairly shouts “Home Depot!”) as the Voisin is proud and majestic, the design is a tart reminder of the disconnect between Le Corbusier’s rhetoric and his bid to personally enter the world of the industrialist.
That world, at least on the surface, seemed willing to entertain his entreaties. Amado has unearthed fascinating letters politely shunting Corb to those the authors deem likely to collaborate, which, like a spurned lover, he pursues with increasing ardor. Between the lines, however, the message was blunt: architecture was fine for the estate, but not for the road.
Conflicted? Indeed. This was an era in which the contesting forces of industrialization and elite culture were uneasy companions. Architects, noses in the air, were awash with grand illusions. Gropius shed his austere identity to build his very own bling-mobile, and Frank Lloyd Wright tooled around in a grand but off-putting Continental with portholes (the automotive equivalent of Johnson’s Chippendale tower!). Fuller and Molino threw their hat in the ring, but, ultimately, there was no there there. It was up to a new breed of industrial designer—Norman Bel Geddes, under-the-radar William Stout, and of course Raymond Loewy—to crack the code that separated elite patronage from the all powerful consumer. Matter of fact, there is still no way to connect the dots. The Citrohan House, the Lustron House, and the Wachsman/ Gropius Panel House all failed to work out the simple fact that the public eyeballs buildings but craves consumer goodies.
Amado doesn’t try, which is to his credit. Discussing the Citrohan House along with the Stein house, Amado avoids a mash-up by confessing that his passion for automobiles drove him to cross conceptual and academic boundaries, finally giving birth to a thesis that favors fervor for the subject over academic limits, and leaving us with the tantalizing thought that the automobile was the secret force behind Le Corbusier’s urban vision.
He gives us the goods, packaged in a in a generously designed format, which fills page after page with foolscap sketches (in color), and a remarkably astute collection of period photographs. Corbusian lore peppers the pages, sparked by the occasional well chosen bon mot and, above all, untainted by a whiff of undeserved authority. This book is clear and innocent, and the author is passionately devoted to his subject. Leafing through the reproductions of the competitor’s drawings, I thought as Le Corbusier must have thought, perhaps for the first time, “Merde—all the good ideas are taken!”