Friday, December 2, 2011

Portrait of Architects and advisors of UNESCO Headquarters

Unknown photographer. Portrait of architects and advisors of UNESCO Headquarters, Paris: Eero Saarinen (1910-1916), Pier Luigi Nervi (1891-1979), Ernesto Nathan Rogers (1909-1969), Walter Gropius (1883-1969), Bernard Zehrfuss (1911-1996), Le Corbusier (1887-1965), Marcel Breuer (1902-1981), and Sven Markelius (1889-1972).
Paris, 1952

At first glance, this anonymous photograph, dated 1952, reads as an innocuous document of a typical working session of eight of the nine architects who participated in the design of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization Headquarters in Paris. Upon deeper analysis, however, it reveals considerable intrigue.

Le Corbusier establishes the main visual focus. White bald pate, signature black-frame glasses, and bow-tie askew, he leans his muscular shoulders into the picture plane, engrossed with Sven Markelius in a drawing over which their pens converge on a common point of conversation. Above, pipe-smoking Bernard Zehrfuss observes the design discussion at safe distance. Marcel Breuer stands apart, disengaged. At the centre of the table, Walter Gropius sits back, silent and stoic, with eyes focused at a distant point, hardly attending to Ernesto Nathan Rogers (pipe in hand), who appears to share with him a set of notes and to occupy chairmanship of the meeting. At the far corner of the table, heads inclined, Eero Saarinen and Pier Luigi Nervi engage in a separate conversation over a scattered pile of papers. Despite appearances, the official roles of these eight men were not at all at par.

ln 1951, the UNESCO planning committee had studied the feasibility of establishing its new international headquarters in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, facing the Place de Fontenoy, on a historic north-south axis with Jacques-Ange Gabriel’s Ecole Militaire (1768-1773), Gustave Eiffel’s Universal Exposition Tower (1889), and Jacques Carlu, Louis-Hippolyte Boileau and Léon Azéma’s Palais de Chaillot (1935-1937), across the Seine. Initially, Le Corbusier had been recommended as principal architect by the Brazilian delegate Paolo Carneiro. However, U.S. State Department representative Jacobs vetoed the recommendation because of the French architect’s much publicized confrontations with Wallace Harrison during 1947-1948 over the American’s alleged artistic exploitation and inaccurate execution of Le Corbusier’s original plans for the United Nations Headquarters in New York. This scandal, and Le Corbusier’s notoriously excessive financial demands, left some American members wary of future engagements, especially as the United States was to provide principal financing for the Paris construction.

Ignoring strong interventions on Le Corbusier’s behalf by Luis Sert, President of the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), on 5 November 1951, the UNESCO Committee instead named Beaux-Arts-trained Eugène Beaudouin as provisional architect, with consultants Howard Robertson of England and Eero Saarinen of the United States. The Headquarters Committee simultaneously appointed an International Panel of Advisors, presided over by Gropius, which included Rogers, Lucio Costa, Markelius, and Saarinen. Enjoined by Gropius to participate on the Advisory Committee and “to take the bitter pill,” Le Corbusier consented in February 1952. This panel unanimously rejected Beaudouin’s design proposals submitted in April.

Ignoring Gropius’ persistent promotion of Le Corbusier as sole principal architect, on 10 Jury 1952 the UNESCO Committee ultimately appointed Zehrfuss, Breuer, and Nervi as the official architect-engineer team, retaining the original Advisory Panel. The photograph must have been taken during that summer when the trio likely presented their designs to the advisors (Costa is absent) before publishing their submission on 15 September 1952. It contained a perspective of the General Secretariat Building raised on pilotis, closely resembling that drawing (barely visible) pinned up behind Zehrfuss and Breuer in the photograph. At that moment, given his visible engagement, Le Corbusier must have still believed in the potential for influence in his advisory position to move the project forward.

His belief was short-lived: his role proved nominal. Rarely was Le Corbusier solicited during the design and construction process from 1952 to 1958. Correspondence at the Foundation Le Corbusier reveals rancour and condescension toward the official team whose work he considered banal and from which he dissociated himself. In the Secretariat building, he must have recognised that the Y-shaped, concave, concrete-and-glass façade, sunscreens, and tapered pilotis, were the work of second-generation Modernists, depending largely on formulaic motifs. He had already taken more dramatic steps in his daring expressionistic works at Chandigarh, Marseille, and Ronchamp, leaving behind the UNESCO Building as a vapid reminder of his past, original achievements.

Barbara Shapiro Comte
Source: Casabella, November 1999