Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Learning from the Jura: Musings on life and architecture in France

Grande Salines in the town of Salin-les-Bains
Much like lectures, vacations are a good way to step back, relax and evaluate things more clearly. It helps to find oneself in a completely foreign place, as familiarity breeds bias and lazy thinking.  This summer I was able to spend a little time in France, mostly in the Jura mountain region near Switzerland's north border. This beautiful place can be characterized by verdant cliffs, rolling valleys, dairy cows, delicious cheese, pine-scented wine, and an almost Swiss-like dedication to specialty industries, such as clocks, pipes and eyeglasses.  Its regional capital, Besancon, contains an attractive historic urban core surrounded on three sides by a meandering river (le Doubs), and topped by a stone citadel designed by Vauban. Louis Pasteur and processed cheese giant La Vache-Qui-Rit (Laughing Cow) hail from this area. On the Swiss side, the Jura mountain region can lay claim as the birthplace of the most influential architect of the twentieth century--Charles Edouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier.  The region's proximity to Geneva elevates the city as the Jura's commercial and cultural center.   From my perspective, going to that Geneva feels more like an extension of France than as a perceptible foreign entity. But overall, the Jura's rippled landscape ensures a mostly rural character and serenity.

Given this splendid experience, certain realizations come to the fore that seem to either reinforce some of my own beliefs while reintroducing me to things I've long forgotten:

There is no better way to travel through Europe than by car.  Traveling strictly by rail limits visitors to experiencing mostly the centers of larger towns and cities and narrow vistas of the landscape.  The most beautiful views and scenic outlooks I drove through were completely inaccessible by rail. Renting a car is far cheaper and allows one much more flexibility in planning or following an itinerary. I had the option of taking the high-speed-train directly from the airport to Lyon, but the ticket prices were so high that two of them would have covered the car rental for an entire week.  We would have never made it to our final destination by rail anyway since rural rail stations are few and far between.  Highway driving in France is quite nice, since they bypass the major cities and are well maintained due to the toll revenue they collect. The numerous signs along the way that point to major landmarks and attractions and there are well appointed rest stops. And contrary to what most rail champions Stateside will tell you, most Europeans rely on cars for almost all travel, with sole exception for those who live in cities big enough to provide urban rail and bus systems. I can't tell you how many times when I was a much younger traveler how ignorant my native hosts were about using the local train and bus system due to the fact that it had been a long time since they had last used them. Once they could drive, they never went back.

In France, living freely here is in truth more about plugging into a sophisticated yet intransigent way of life. In the land of the 35 hour work week, managing your time wisely is important. Life here forces you to conform to sort of predetermined routine-when to work, when to play, when to shop, etc. All businesses are closed on Sunday; All offices and retail that are don't serve food are closed between noon and 2pm. The whole country shuts down the month of August. Your foreign credit card will work in most places, but not for the most essential transactions, such as buying gas or paying the toll. If you are the spontaneous type and prefer to live outside the agreed parameters of French life, endless frustration awaits. If, on the other hand, you agree to this order and adjust accordingly, harmony and a refreshing simplicity awaits. The risk is that life becomes quickly predictable and less serendipitous. Add to this a social welfare system that allows everyone to live in relative comfort and health and thus allowing a sort of stress-free existence, and the inevitable result is a sort of boredom. It's no coincidence that the French are among the largest consumers of anti-depressants per capita.

It doesn't get any better than this- historic street in Besancon
The most satisfying solution to complementing the natural landscape with man-made structures was achieved during the Medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe.  For someone who designs large commercial buildings under the vein of the trendiest modernism and who scours the country photographing beloved architectural masterpieces of the past 70 years, and who has taught classes in 20th Century Architecture, the above statement seems to undercut everything that I've done up to this point. Why not hang it all up and dedicate my life to designing buildings similar to that period and place? It's a good question, but I don’t see it as a call to repudiate all modern architecture than to draw lessons on how to improve it.  Walking and driving through so many beautiful French towns and provincial cities reinforces some immutable principles about buildings by and for humans: scale matters, natural materials please us best, and there is much wisdom to be learned on how to use light, shade and natural forces to create a timeless building. Simple, straight-forward structural systems enable the most pleasing spatial clarity within, and an even more pleasing volumetric purity from the outside. It also allows for remarkable flexibility in adapting to changing functions over time from workshop, to a modern retail or restaurant space, office or aparment. There is something deeply primal about our fondness for the pitched roof over rectangular plan that rises no more than five stories.

Masonry exteriors are a good thing. In Europe, there is a clean break between everything built before 1930 and everything built after. Buildings built before that date would be what we would consider as "traditional', in that it uses a classical proportioning system that governs the size of all elements which are closely tied to long established practices in masonry construction. Even if the façade did not use masonry and used stucco instead, there is an obvious sense of heaviness and permanence. Buildings built after that date are all about accentuating the thin but long-spanning structural frame made possible with concrete and steel. Cladding becomes a matter of lightly protecting this frame, either with glass, aluminum, or thin terracota, cementitious or phenolic panels. Even if natural materials are used, they are reinterpreted to conform to a machine-like smoothness and accurate dimensions. This obsession in processing natural materials to precise man-made specifications has the effect of alienating objects to natural surroundings. The expression, "...as if a UFO landed here" is a really an exaggerated way of saying that something doesn't belong to the prevailing natural order of a place. To rationalize that highly abstract building is natural is to argue that humans' understanding of nature is itself highly abstract, and that one kind of construct is not in any way truer to nature than another. But that's one of the most intractable problems of Modernist creations, is that it requires sophisticated rationalization to justify that something is 'just right' for the time and place. Most traditional design doesn't have that problem, appearing as if it were simply an organic extension of a place.

Air conditioning changed the way we build as well as raised our preferred comfort level. Europe's mild climate is pleasant enough to make one forget about air conditioning until the occasional heat wave occurs. At that point there is no recourse to such unbearable heat and humidity and one has to put up with it. While in the southern US a house is expected to be completely sealed to retain the cool and de-humidified air, the European house breathes through lots of operable casement windows. The difference in conditions between inside and outside are minimal, as small insects, dirt and dust blow in throughout the day. More food can be stored absent refrigeration, which results in stronger smells coming out of the kitchen. In larger scale construction, the lack of a robust air conditioning system means no furring or dropped ceilings, and thus the chance expose the structure and the underside of the roof deck, which allows the designer more freedom to create beautiful ceilings. The drawback is that there is nothing to collect and filter dust and grime floating in the space over time, which then collects onto the structure and becomes difficult to keep clean. Architecture of the "high-tech" style, with its celebrated steel framing and sophisticated glazing systems suffers in particular, and many of the once gleaming train stations and airports built in this style are looking pretty drab and filthy. Thanks to the almost mandatory use of air conditioning, US construction seems to be significantly driven by the mechanical engineer and, to the frustration of many architects, must design around their needs. This leads to more generic ceilings, simpler detailing and tighter non-operable windows.

Much of American architecture might look dull, but it is often more functional and easier to use. Case in point-Charles De Gaulle Airport  (CDG) is a collection of architecture an planning experiments gone awry in one way or the other. Charlotte Douglas Airport desperately needs updating, but wayfinding is much more straightforward and the public spaces and concourse a bit more generous. Terminal 1 at CDG seemed really cool when I was a kid, with its crisscrossing escalators floating in the main lightwell, but its circular plan has proved far too inflexible to growing passenger traffic over the years. Terminal 2, with its curved concrete shell roof, is looking really old and dirty, and has clearly not adapted to changing security protocols since 9/11. Maybe it's my increasing dependence on suburban comforts taking over, but big spaces where hundereds of people either sit on the floor or loiter, or queue behind ticket kiosks that barely work don't meke me appreciate that kind of hustle-and-bustle of big city life.  Sure American airports are comparatively placid, even somewhat sterile, but for the most part, they're ocmfortable and easy.  Returning home, the clarity, space and charm of the Austin airport was a welcome relief the flamboyant and confusing CDG.

In the realm of private residential architecture, the US has everyone beat when it comes to function and convenience. Most private houses in Europe follow the timeless formula of fitting all rooms within a masonry box topped by pitched roof (hipped roofs are common warmer regions). From a formalistic standpoint they allow lots of flexibility at the urban scale, forming elegant blocks and streetfronts, and offer a range of housing types, as entire levels can be rented out as flats.  But the twentieth century house has changed a lot, mainly due advances in mechanical systems and appliances. Plumbing has now become standardized to such a degree that bathrooms can be organized as cohesive units. Kitchens are now designed as a system as well, in which the optimal distances between the stove, fridge, oven and sink have become standard. I have yet to stay or live in a European house that incorporate these kinds of improvements I have long taken for granted.  The kitchens in the nicest homes are haphazardly layed out, the cabinets are shabby, there is very little counter space, and the appliances are relatively small to nonexistent. Bathrooms often have the same problems, in which sinks, tubs and toilets are afterthoughts. They are usually shared, meaning that I don't recall any bathroom located adjacently to a bedroom for exclusive use. Storage spaces hardly exist, even as the average European, just like Americans, have continued to accumulate more stuff over the course of their lives. 

The post-War suburban ranch home and subsequent American styles have proved to be eminenty flexible in adapting to a rising standard of living.  Its use of an open, asymmetrical plan ensure that there will be a direct transition between dining, relaxing and sleeping while maintaining a division between public, private and utilitarian areas. Clearances moving through are maintained, so you are not left dodging furniture sticking into hallways.  This is hard to accomplish with a rigid rectangular plan that characterizes most European homes, even those in semi-rural, semi-suburban locales where there is presumably a bit more space. Everything must be crammed in, resulting in tight and steep stairways, small bedrooms, and shared bathrooms. One anecdotal example of this was when I stayed with friends in Germany who lived in a four-story Swiss-chalet style house. I had lived an entire year in that house as a teen and thought it was pretty big. When I returned fifteen years later, the owners had added an expansive glass-enclosed "winter garden" space to the back.  I noticed that everyone who still lived there spent their entire day in this new living room, due to the generous amount of space and the abundant light. Suddenly the rest of the house, which once was lived in all of its nook and crannies, was mostly vacant as they had all coalesced into the new living room.  All the older rooms in the house looked tiny and dark in comparison.  My four-year old refused to sleep in the house's tiny bedrooms, opting instead to sleep in the new "winter garden" instead.

La Tourette Dominican monastery
 in Eveux near Lyon.
I can understand why Le Corbusier was obsessed with the notion that 'the shortest distance between two points is a line'. The Jura region along the French and Swiss border where the young Mr. Jeanneret grew up features some of the windiest roads imaginable, where towns only a few kilometers away take a good half hour to reach (though it makes for some exhilirating driving). Add to this the fact the most of these roads are narrow allowing only one lane for each direction and you can understand why Corbu was a big fan of the multi-lane highway. The challenges of the existing terrain would be transcended by monumental viaducts, as shown his rejected masterplans for Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo and Algiers.  There are a number of beautiful stone and concrete viaducts connecting small towns in the Jura, and it wouldn't surprise me if that they inspired him to in embrace the engineer as an important part of his design philosophy.

View from underneath monastery
The Jura offers amazing views of the surrounding landscape, and it's clear to me that Le Corbusier understood this when situating his building on a rural site. I visited his Chapel at Ronchamp du Haut about eight years ago and observed how the form rose above the town below and while hugging the hillside as if it were an integral part.  The traditional buildings in the Jura region do the same thing, understanding the opportunities provided by this hilly and mountainous landscape. On this recent trip, I had the chance to visit the Dominican convent of La Tourette northwest of Lyon that he completed in 1960. There Corbu skillfully located the building on the steep hilltop site in order take advantage of a spectacular view out to the Northwest.  Like his Villa Savoye built 30 years before, the architect carefully frames his views, this time with a musical array of vertical brise-soleil. Another aspect worth noting about La Tourette is its suprising relationship to the ground. For such an overtly massive-looking structure, it hovers gently over the surface, as you can walk under much of it, thanks to the use of pilotis and cantilevered wings.  You find yourself immediately within the convent's terraced courtyard, bound by ramped hallways covered in green roofs, which lends the effect of nature going under through the building.

Director's House at the Royal Saltworks
 designed Claude
Nicolas Ledoux, 1779
Main Entrance to Royal Saltworks
Claude Nicolas Ledoux was a genius. Along with Etienne Boullee, they were at the forefront in creating a dramatic neoclassical style in the late 18th century. I was somewhat surprised to find that one of the best preserved examples of his work was standing in a town not too far from where I was staying. His Saline Royale in the small town of Arc-et-Senan, features bold proportions, clean lines and volumes, and a timeless symmetricality even as it is overtly mannerist in details. I was familiar with this project when reading about it during the architectural history survey at school but I was not aware that it had actually been built. It was particularly significant in that it was the first attempt for an architect to design an entire industrial city along the lines of a single masterplan. The salt works was planned in an era in which salt was an extremely valuable commodity, and was most conveniently extracted from underground saltwater springs and later evaporated. The government generated a lot of revenue this way, and appointed Ledoux to create a new salt-extraction facility 20 kilometers away from the original saltworks facility in Salin-des-Bains. Ledoux designed all the necessary buildings, including workers' housing, the salt works and the director's house, within a formal semicircle. Given the autocratic social structure being conjured by enlightenment philosophers at the time, the director's house lies at the center, with a view of all the worker's housing wings beyond, presumably to enable tighter control. It was hoped that the town would expand, demonstrating how industry would change the way cities would look and function. It never came to be, but Ledoux beautiful documented his ideas and related theoretical projects in an influential treatise (L'Architecture considérée sous le rapport de l'art, des mœurs et de la législation) published in 1804. There is a very impressive exhibit on Ledoux's projects featured in that treatise inside one of the worker's buildings in the Saline Royale, featuring elegant plaster and wood models in addition to enlarged fascimiles of pages from the treatise. As any art historian will tell you, Ledoux's architecture was all about going 'back to basics', stripping classical architecture to its bare essence while employing a monumental scale to the orders (this was partly due to archaeological discoveries of ancient Greek and Roman architecture taking place during Ledoux's lifetime.) The effect is an architecture that appears a bit more essential, timeless, and more severe than the baroque and rococo styles that preceded it. It's a bit refreshing to look at these buildings after having seen countless baroque and neo-baroque city blocks throughout France.


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MonarchRH said...

What a magnifencet European adventure you've shared with us! We really appreciated the comparison you gave between U.S. and French lifestyles. As a new urbanism continues to take hold in the states it will be interesting to see whether or not Europe and the U.S. converge to a more similar mode of living.

corbusier said...


Thank you for your comment. Though I do acknowledge that New Urbanism has made inroads in the U.S., I don't think it will change much the way most Americans will live in the future. There are major differences in terms of density and overall distances, largely the result of geography as well as technology. Most French communities were established before the car, ensuring that overall street and block dimensions corresponded to humanist proportions and physiology (how far humans can walk). Outside of American Northeast, Chicago and San Francisco, most everything the in the States was designed around the car. Walkability is limited to how far from the parking lot one is willing to travel to the store. I've come around to the belief that the French will overtime come to resemble Americans more and more since there is an increasing reliance on cars, the rail system continues to bleed money, and sprawl is slowly proceeding apace.

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Anonymous said...

wow...I don't know what houses you stayed in, but your comments about kitchens..and pitched roofs...as being some sort of standard here in europe

you have got to be kidding me!

Houston Roofing said...

When I retire and already have millions in my bank account one of the very first thing I will do is travel Europe by car with my wife. I will start in France and I will stop and experience every place I want.

Jim Allen said...

I have to say that on first reading of your article, from "Masonry exteriors are a good thing..." to the section on Le Corbusier, I was kind of irritated to say the least.

I've calmed down now re-read it, and think I understand the intent.

Let's start with some of the generalisations. This, " In Europe, there is a clean break between everything built before 1930 and everything built after" is just plain wrong I'm afraid. We also have the general extrapolation that houses are the same across Europe from Northern France and Denmark, to Greece. Certainly in Germany and Austria, the new Passivhaus buildings are closer to the sealed, highly-serviced boxes you can find in the US.

It's the comparison with US homes that I find extraordinarily difficult. I would argue that US ranch style houses are the architectural equivalent to the convenience of an extra large Coke and a double quarter pounder with cheese.

Your espousal of the ranch style house and limited comparisons with European houses is to put it bluntly, naive and a bit stupid. What on earth would you think of Japanese houses?

These signs of conspicuous over-consumption are just like the big car culture that used to prevail in the US years ago. This is unenlightened lowest-common-denominator thinking. It's almost like saying that KFC is the ideal food because it's available instantly almost everywhere, it's quick, filling, and as long as you have a side salad contains all the basic food groups!

You ought to spend a decent period of time in one of our European shoeboxes to learn how actually you don't need anything like the amount of space you think you do - unless you are supersized yourself...
Only then can you pass meaningful judgement.

You have obviously not seen Treehugger.com. It's good - they have an RSS feed, and lots of interesting things to say about house sizes in America. You might also want to check out arch daily.com. RSS is best again.

The sections in your blog on Corb, and Boullée and Ledoux's monumental architecture I actually enjoyed, which is a total contrast with the section on housing.

So I think you might have been a bit rash in your assessment :)

corbusier said...

Mr. Allen,

By admitting that you found my post irritating and then attacking the underlying morality of American domestic architecture rather than critically assessing its functional merits, you have helped make my point. You have conceded that standard American housing has set a high bar in terms of space and comfort and is superior to well over 90% of comparable European dwellings, but that it doesn’t mean much because they are inferior based on your moral standards that cherishes efficiency, sustainability, and urbanity. Those are all well and good, but I have yet to come across any mention on the functionality and quality of standard European kitchens, bathrooms, and mechanical systems, nor have I seen any definition on what constitutes comfort in a dwelling from a non-architect’s point of view. There is no doubt that people are adaptive creatures, and will arrive at a certain level of satisfaction within their own circumstances. Claiming people are happy where they live, whether in a tidy apartment in Japan, a French country house, or light-filled social housing flat in Finland, doesn’t counter my point that most people would always choose more space and have bigger appliances and maybe more yard if given the choice, and that standard middle class houses in the U.S. have provided to those desires for a better value more than anywhere else. Citing websites like Treehugger and Archdaily, which tend to highlight those rare architect-designed dwellings of either the elite or highly subsidized affordable housing, fails to adequately describe the way most people in Europe or America actually live.

I probably erred in not qualifying my arguments as mostly quantitative in nature. As pieces of architecture, I agree that single family dwellings in Europe often exhibit exquisite proportions, scale, and details. They are often more beautiful and inspiring to look at many of the tasteless McMansions that have popped up in the U.S. As places to accommodate the demands of changing family needs and most aspects of daily life, European dwellings are sufficient but often fall short in amenities and convenience compared to the American single-family home. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that most kitchens in Europe often do not have food disposals under the sink, have small fridges, dishwashers are often optional, and pantry storage is small. It’s also a given that most European homes have bathrooms lack both a shower stall and bathtub, a separate laundry space, and an integrated car garage. As we all know, most dwellings in Europe can do without Central AC for 90% of the year due to its mild climate as long as one doesn’t mind putting up with uncomfortable fluctuations in humidity. Sure anyone can get used to living contently without these things, as I have many times in my extended stays in the old continent, but once given the chance to indulge in the extras considered standard in American homes, most people never go back. If they do, it has more to do with the locale of the dwelling than the dwelling itself: its urban context, its views and surrounding cultural landscapes. It makes sense, since to enjoy living in Europe is to enjoy living in connection to cities and in a generally more collective fashion. America’s more individualistic heritage has contributed to a focus on building dwellings for people who like to be left alone and who rarely want to mingle with a collective. You can indict the moral standing of the latter, but it doesn’t change the fact in my eyes that when it comes to ease of spending large amounts of time in a home, the typical postwar American house caters to my needs better than anything.

corbusier said...

Mr. Allen,

In continuation to my previous, post I'd like to respond to how some people on your forum think that my statements are based on not having travelled enough, or not having experienced a different way of life outside the US.

Much of what I describe about European houses is based on my own diverse experiences living abroad, especially Europe. I'm a French-American dual national, and I've lived in Paris, Toulon, and Angers, and have stayed multiple times at the homes of relatives living in Strasbourg, Geneva, Pau, Aix-en-Provence, Rennes and Blois. In addition, I spent a year as a high school student in a small town in Saxony, Germany and enjoyed extensive stays in Stuttgart, Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden and Prague while there. Other places I've visited are the UK, Romania, and Hungary, Mexico and Costa Rica. As for your Japanese reference I can't claim I've ever been there, the closest having been in Singapore for six years as a kid. I have stayed in various forms of housing in all of these places, not hotels. I think I have had a pretty good window into observing how people outside the US live.

In addition, I'm LEED-certified architect that designs projects for clients in Asia, the U.S., the Middle East and Latin America. I work on mixed-use projects, retail, offices and hotels. When I work on residential projects for our foreign clients, they explicitly desire designs derived from American garden suburbs if the zoning permits. I often think that such a response is inappropriate in terms of cultural authenticity, but there seems to be an overwhelming demand to live like rich Americans over there. Even when it comes to relatively luxurious multi-family dwellings, they seek American architecturel expertise. All other smaller dwellings designed to the local middle class market and below are indeed designed by local architects. We are paid by our clients to deliver a product that synthesizes complex programs and a high level of service and amenities. Giving them this everyday and then finding myself back in my native country of France navigating narrow hallways, steep stairs with no rails, humid interiors leads me to conclude that we Americans are quite lucky when it comes to the quality of our dwellings. I felt it needed to be said especially in reaction to the constant chatter from my architect colleagues about the 'progressive' quality of European design.

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