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An ambiguous play with perception

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Architecture and Cubism Edited by Eve Blau and Nancy J Troy. mit Press, 1997. 264pp. £29.95

As the editors of this collection of 11 essays aver, a link between cubist painting and Modern architecture has long been assumed but never thoroughly substantiated. Two texts in particular have fostered the assumption: Sigfried Giedion's Space, Time and Architecture (1941), where Picasso's fractured L'Arlesienne half-peers at Gropius' Bauhaus Workshop Building on the facing page; and Colin Rowe & Robert Slutzky's Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal (written 1955-56, published 1963), which refined Giedion's analysis with a distinction between a quality of 'substance' (the literal transparency of a glass curtain wall) and one of 'organisation' (phenomenal transparency with its complex layering of space, as in Le Corbusier's Villa Stein-de Monzie).

The colloquium at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in 1993, on which this book is based, was an attempt to explore the relationship between cubism and architecture in greater depth. But anyone who thinks of cubism as primarily the research in painting, sculpture and papier colle which Picasso and Braque undertook between c1907-14, with 'analytic' and then 'synthetic' phases, will be surprised at how broadly the contributors range.

So we find essays on Raymond Duchamp-Villon's Maison Cubiste (1912), on Czech cubist architecture, and on 'Cubism and the Gothic Tradition' (with Robert Delaunay's studies of the church of Saint-Severin seen as 'a second way of representing objects as planes'). Cubist poetry, French garden design in the 1920s, and Fernand Leger's interest in architect- artist collaboration are all considered. These are scholarly pieces but, one can't help thinking, on the margin of what really matters.

Fortunately, four participants - Yve-Alain Bois, Bruno Reichlin, Detlef Mertins and Beatriz Colomina - tackle more directly the issues that Giedion and Rowe & Slutzky raise. Bois (sensibly) sticks to a 'resolutely narrow' definition of cubism, distinguishing it from the widespread geometricising style that led to Art Deco. ('To be labelled cubist, it became enough for architecture to be merely cubic.') His focus is the synthetic cubism of Picasso, seen as a play with arbitrary, interchangeable signs (arbitrary because the same sign - say, an outlined circle - may be read as an eye in one context, a wineglass in another). Bois believes that Le Corbusier enjoyed similar 'whimsical games' and that the connection between cubism and architecture is a 'semiological playfulness' - but, in his brief account, offers only one example (the hall of Villa La Roche).

In a persuasive longer essay that would have benefited from more illustrations, Reichlin examines a number of Le Corbusier's purist paintings of the 1920s and their connection with his architecture of those years - especially in the sense of 'structural correspondences' (for example, interpenetrating contours). Endorsing Bois' proposition that cubism is best understood as a game with arbitrary signs, he argues that the spatial and compositional tactics of Le Corbusier's purist period can only derive from 'his apprenticeship in cubism'.

Mertins returns to Space, Time and Architecture, to the text and sequence of images that first made the connection between cubism and architecture. He suggests that Giedion was more engaged with 'ambiguities and indeterminacies of perception and cognition' than Rowe & Slutzky admit, and that their own distinction between literal and phenomenal transparency is 'inadequate and forced'; inadequate because it confines discussion to 'the pictorial facade' and doesn't pursue the deeper implications for architecture of cubist ambiguity.

Where does this collection (in the end, rewarding) leave us? Perhaps tempted to agree with Colomina that the relationship between cubism and architecture can't really be conceived as cause and effect: 'While both cubism and modern architecture are organised around a particular model of perception, they did not produce it; rather they participated in it.' The generative force was rather the nature of perception in the early twentieth century city (speed, fragmentation, etc). And yet this book does not exhaust the topic. Given its catholic contents it is odd, for instance, to find Juan Gris is only glancingly acknowledged. As the artist who, with geometric armatures, brought the ruler and the Golden Section to bear on cubism, his prefiguring of purism should surely be explored.

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