PRINT November 1993

Project Unité, Firminy

Le Corbusier’s Unité d’ Habitation, a monumental block of low-income apartments awkwardly wedged into the hills surrounding the small city of Firminy in central France, may once have functioned as a beacon of hope; now it bears witness to a return of the repressed capitalism in crisis haunting the house of high Modernism. Completed in 1967 as part of a larger complex including a youth center, a stadium, and a church, the building was intended as a visionary response to the economic disenfranchisement caused by rapid industrialization. Continuing recession, however, has sharply reduced the local population, and many of those who remain prefer individual residences. Today the unité stands half empty.

French curator Yves Aupetitallot selected this Corbusier building for his project precisely because of its symbolic complexity—its status as both a monument to France’s greatest modern architect and a model for the reinvention of urban communal living. He envisioned the site as a catalyst for European and American artists, designers, and architects to establish a temporary society, a microcosm (paralleling the microsociety of the inhabitants) in which they would be encouraged to reexamine preconceptions about the broader cultural meaning of their practices.

Project Unité” was not the only show in Europe this summer animated by a desire to reinvent relations between art, culture, politics, and society. For the most recent incarnation of Sonsbeek, the international sculpture show in Arnhem, Holland, the American curator Valerie Smith chose artists who rejected traditional “public art” approaches, then encouraged them to rethink their methodologies in relation to “actual” social environments. In doing so, she advanced the idea that art, released from its institutional cage—though still tethered to an institutional leash—can at least be an agent of social commentary, if not of social/political transformation. But Aupetitallot’s show constituted a considerably more radical attempt to escape institutional limits into the “extrinsic” social domain, by replacing the art institution with a functioning community—one that already symbolized, within a living monument to an unfulfilled utopian pragmatics, a grand, if flawed, integration of art, architecture, design, national culture, economics, politics, and the social. In effect, the participants were asked to assume the role of inhabitants and to reflect upon “collective” living within the machinery of Corbusier’s social architecture. Each apartment became a symbolic space for cultural exploration as well as a surrogate studio or gallery, while the building as a whole was transformed from a residence into a laboratory (re: Bauhaus) that doubled as a readymade museum.

Participants were also invited to begin researching both the town and the building more than a year before the opening of the project; the results of their investigations and their dialogue with Aupetitallot helped shape the final form of the project. Much of this developmental work has been documented in a continuing series of newsletters and catalogues that underscore Aupetitallot’s understanding of the project as an ongoing process as well as a finished exhibition product.

But how then were we to evaluate the works themselves? According to what criteria? In practical terms, the structure of the “exhibition” aspect of the project was somewhat conventional: each participant was allotted an apartment on one floor of the empty north wing, and their projects were restricted to that area. As viewers, we were necessarily compelled to scrutinize the floor where the projects were located as a kind of autonomous, privileged site, and our relationship to the “other” residential part of the building remained peripheral. We moved through the row of apartments as if negotiating gallery rooms in a cultural space, and so were forced, ultimately, to confront each project as a distinct work, even though our criteria of evaluation had to take into account the unique contextual circumstances. The restriction, moreover, of the projects to one floor created a subtle but troubling feeling that this part of the complex was divorced from the occupied wing. It seemed as if the territorial divide between the “cultural experts” and the resident population had inadvertently generated a climate of alienation in which the experts, engaged in social analysis or subjective rumination, expected the residents to be cooperative—if estranged witnesses (or accomplices) in the probing of their environment by outsiders. Not that Aupetitallot sought to produce such a logic of segregation; on the contrary, his apparent goal was to compel the participants to reflect upon these very problems and if possible to engage the residents in a dialogue about them. And by evoking the utopianism of Corbusier, he hoped to galvanize both the residents and the Firminy community in general to reconsider the values entrenched in Corbu’s design ideology. But if Aupetitallot believed that the visitors and residents could somehow work collectively to develop a new type of intercultural engagement, the decision to limit projects to one floor seriously compromised this agenda, reinforcing the very us/them logic he sought to avoid.

The artists responded to the situation in diverse ways: some offered a revisionist “institutional critique” that examined the literal architectural and social conditions of the place, while others employed allegory and metaphor to articulate a relationship to the site. Swiss artist Christian Philipp Müller addressed himself to the very real problem of noise control, both in the thin-walled apartments and throughout the building, by hiring experts to record the sound levels. He then framed the graphic representations of the technician’s tests and displayed them as surrogate artworks in his apartment, which was curtained with soundproofing material. Müller’s sophisticated and witty examination revealed that Corbusier’s desire to reinvent traditional notions of privacy by largely ignoring the psychological impact of the sound environment had been experienced by the residents as a crucial design flaw, if not an act of outright sadism visited upon them from the grave.

The relationship between the space of the exhibition and the space of the inhabitants was also taken up by a number of other participants, with varying degrees of effectiveness. American artist Renée Green lived in one of the vacant apartments for a week, using it as a monastic retreat in which to read books and reflect upon her new surroundings. The traces of Green’s presence, indicated by various everyday artifacts as well as by video and audio tapes, marked the “site-specificity” of her lived engagement. By reproducing the conditions of what it might be like to inhabit an apartment, Green offered a kind of documentary fiction, a model of subjective experience that reflected the peculiar distance between the artist (as cultural tourist, masquerader, and infiltrating critic) and this unfamiliar environment. Austrian artist Heimo Zobernig transformed an apartment into a public café, cleverly offering a functional response to the question of what constitutes the difference between public and private space within quasi-collective living conditions. On the lighter side, American Jim Isermann covered an apartment’s walls with his trademark neopsychedelic geometric designs, evoking the Pop, flip side of sober high Modernism.

Ironically, very few of the participants directly engaged the residents in their projects. Exceptions included German artist Regina Möller, who, together with the children of some of the residents, created dollhouses as reflections upon Corbusier’s concept of the apartment as a playful pedagogical space, and Clegg & Guttmann, whose Firminy Music Library was one of the strongest contributions. The pair asked residents to lend selections from their music collections, which were then taped and stored in a cabinet designed as a miniature of the Corbusier building—each tape placed in a slot corresponding to the location of the apartment from which it came. Although the names of the residents did not appear on the cassettes, their individuality emerged, through the agency of musical taste, against the backdrop of an environment defined by inexorable regularity. In a maneuver somewhat related to Clegg & Guttman’s project, the Italian team of Premiata Ditta examined the “Unité” as an organic “community” by creating a map that indicated the social relationships between residents in the building.

The curator gave the residents themselves the opportunity to present photos of their own apartments, allowing us limited knowledge of their response to the predetermined architectural conditions. Sadly, their distinct personalities were only given visual form through the documentation of interior design decisions, and so remained on the level of abstraction, a condition that somehow reinforced the more pernicious effects of their environment.

In the realm of allegory and metaphor, there were collaborative projects by Mark Dion and Art Orienté objet (a visionary look into the future of the building’s “ecosystem”; a hypothesis that the only Nature that could occupy Corbusier’s model would be Nature in a state of entropic decline; an apocalyptic landscape of Modernist decay and death), and by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Anne Frémy (a critique of Corbusier’s ethnocentrism expressed through a reinterpretation of Jean Giraudoux’s Suzanne and the Pacific, itself a rewriting of Robinson Crusoe, wherein civilization is reconstructed according to the logic of a grand unifying program that drowns cultural identity). French artist Philippe Parreno presented an idiosyncratic film about cultural masquerade, in which an art historian living in the Corbusier Habitation researches or rehearses—a book on Modern art by impersonating famous artists, replacing the artists’ voices with those of contemporary pop-culture figures.

Although Aupetitallot included the work of architects, designers, videomakers, and even painters (whose work ironically ended up being represented in the form of posters) in an attempt to challenge traditional divisions of cultural production, their presence, in contrast to that of “installation” artists, seemed mere tokenism. French designer Olivier Vedrine, by creating a reception area, commented upon the notion of a total design system inspired by Corbusier’s model of social architecture, and the “Unité” jacket designs by ABR Stuttgartlabsuits for a brave new future of administered fashion statements—provided only fleeting comic relief.

Without question, this was one of the more challenging exhibition projects to be mounted in many years, yet one could not help feeling that some of its shortcomings could have been readily avoided. For example, why were there no collaborations between the participating artists, architects, and designers? Such interaction could have broken down disciplinary boundaries—a process that might have been expected in such a context. But in the final analysis, relations of cultural authority and power remained largely unmolested, and it was business and art as usual: the itinerant group of cultural experts moved on to other projects, and the residents, perhaps somewhat “enlightened” by the transient encounter, were left behind to enjoy the privilege of living in an unquestionably depressing environment with only a dilapidated cultural pride for consolation.

Joshua Decter and Olivier Zahm are art critics based in New York and Paris respectively.