Statement of Record

Nico Joana Weber: The Jungle in Architecture

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Nevertheless, something like a baleful pollen in the air—a ghost pollen, impalpable rot, enveloping decay—suddenly became active with mysterious design, opening what was closed, closing what was open, upsetting calculations, contradicting specific gravity, making guarantees worthless. [1]
— Alejo Carpentier

 

In 1954, construction work on Le Corbusier’s Curutchet House in La Plata, Argentina, was finally complete. The architect would never see the building with his own eyes; communication with his client and on-site building manager was strictly in writing. In one of his letters, Le Corbusier called for a poplar to be planted in the inner courtyard so that it might grow into the architecture and toward the light.

In spite of the many ideas he’d developed since his first journey to South America in 1929, which took him through Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, this would remain the only building the architect would succeed in realizing in South America. Studying the writings that followed Le Corbusier’s trip, his Precisions (1929), the impression remains that the Curutchet House was very much a manifestation of his fascination for a tropical landscape and climate that were alien to him. During his travels, nature presented itself to him as a rebellious and elusive organism for which change is an everyday affair and the manmade order is under constant threat. In contrast to the vegetation native to Europe’s moderate climate, “the American palm tree grows naturally in accordance with a law I do not understand.”[2] He came to the conclusion that, due to the more radical natural conditions in the South American landscape, one must, as an architect, decide whether one wants to play the game of “‘affirmation of mankind’ against or with the ‘presence of nature.’”[3] The treatment of nature now implemented in the Curutchet House was untypical for Le Corbusier and reads like an attempt, unusual for modernism, to approach the ubiquitous vegetation and to grant it a place in the design process. Although the method remained controlled and composed, it was remarkable when one takes into consideration that in The City of Tomorrow and its Planning (1925), Le Corbusier describes the basic relationship between man and nature as a violent act of domination: “Man undermines and hacks at Nature. He opposes himself to her, he fights with her, he digs himself in.”[4]

In his standard reference work An Outline of European Architecture (1957), The British scholar of art and architecture Nikolaus Pevsner called the integration of a tree into architecture a venture in the wrong direction. It was an example of “nature in the sense of the irrational” claiming a place within the architectural composition, which clearly went against the tenets of a rational architecture. Le Corbusier had already built his temporary Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau in Paris of 1925 around a pre-existing tree, and Pevsner was grateful that Corbusier did not, for the time being, pursue this line of thought any further.[5] Now, in the inner courtyard of the Curutchet House, the tree makes another appearance, purposely planted and explicitly inserted. Irrational proliferation is deliberately transposed from the outside to the inside; nature is brought indoors. Thus, the building carries special significance, not only in terms of its integrative approach to nature, but also as an architecture of transition within Le Corbusier’s oeuvre. It stands for the beginning of an inexorable shift away from the functional, radically utopian work of the 1920s toward the monumental regionalism of Le Corbusier’s late work, which expressed a milder form of utopia—the work which, to Pevsner’s mind, the experiment of 1925 had already prefigured.[6] The culmination of this development was the cave-like chapel of Ronchamp, which was built the same time as the Curutchet House. For Pevsner, it was logical to search for the source of this development in Le Corbusier’s experiences in South America; he took a critical view of the way the architect was distancing himself from rationalism in an increasingly radical manner. This essay provides a framework for pondering architecture’s symbolic function, rational and sensuous experience, and the tense relationship between the smooth surfaces of Classic Modernism and the rampant growth of tropical vegetation.

In 1937, Le Corbusier traveled once again to Brazil in order to collaborate on the plans for the Board of Education building in Rio de Janeiro, “and it is conceivable that the country had the effect on him of forcing into the open the irrational traits of his character […]. However that may be, Le Corbusier has since changed the style of his own buildings completely.” To be sure, Pevsner recognized an international shift starting in the mid-1950s, a “desire for novelty of form,” which for him assumed the character of a “revolt from reason.” To his mind, it was Brazil where this tendency prevailed most strongly.[7] The “relish for such bizarre forms” was evident here in the arbitrary addition of architectural and decorative trifles that fulfilled no purpose and were opposed to the Classic Modernist style of the 20th century, which was characterized by a “new style […] with its sheer surfaces and minimum of mouldings” that renounced all ornamentation.[8] While on the surface the “dangers of the mid-century irresponsibility” revealed themselves in a failure to adequately take cost and function into account, an additional dimension seemed to rise up that applied to the relationship between the rational and sensuous experience of architecture in a fundamental way. Pevsner located the reasons behind this departure from the strict logic of functionalism in the architectural sterility of the pure objectivity of the 1930s “with their lines of exactly parallel, exactly oriented ranges.” He couldn’t deny that “however excellent the design of the elevation, however well functioning the plan, there is indeed something lacking here, and one finds oneself longing for the organic instead of the mechanic, the imaginative instead of the intellectual, the free instead of the rigidly organized.”

Yet instead of seeing the Brazilian trend as a way out of the ascetic misery, Pevsner explained that, despite it all, one could and should not give in to the “craving for relief”: “but explanation is not justification.”[9] It becomes clear that architecture has the social duty to hold reason aloft and irrational and sensuous velleities in check. For Georges Batailles, this position was explicitly connected to architecture’s changing function: architecture, which once symbolized an image of social order, had transformed into an authority that imposed social order and actively suppressed disruptive elements.[10]

Programmatic for this concept of architecture is the linear chessboard layout of the colonial cities founded in South America. In The City of Tomorrow and its Planning, Le Corbusier described the exceptional significance a geometric system holds for a human being’s sense of orientation, for “without [constants] he could not put one foot before the other.”[11] Yet the order occurs not only in the dimension of the large-scale geometric grid of city planning, but also on the human level, eye-to-eye with nature. It was a colonial concept of nature that characterized the surrounding landscape as hostile and induced the settlers to build heavy and compact buildings that separated inside from outside with thick, solid walls.[12] The colonial buildings were the allegory of Portuguese loneliness in the uncivilized expanses of the New World; the massive, impermeable structures became a symbol of culture and civilization. The extent to which this way of separating the outer from the inner and giving housing a static and immovable form contradicted the native culture of Brazil’s indigenous population becomes clear in Claude Lévi-Strauss’s description of the Bororo huts, which were more organism than house:

“For these houses were not so much built as knotted together, plaited, woven, embroidered, and given a patina by long use. Those who lived in them were not overwhelmed by great blocks of unyielding stone; these were houses that reacted immediately and with great flexibility to their presence, their every movement. The house was, in fact, subject to the householder, whereas with us the opposite is the case. The village serves the villagers as a coat of light elastic armour; they wore it as a European woman wears her hats. It was an object of personal adornment on a mammoth scale, and those who built it had been clever enough to preserve something of the spontaneity of natural growth. Leafage and the springing branch were combined, in short, with the exactions of a carefully planned lay-out.”[13]

Yet Brazilian modernism didn’t stop at overriding the crystalline logic of functionalism through extravagant architectural escapades—local architecture also opened up space in a very concrete way to incorporate nature.

The artist Roberto Burle Marx, who was closely involved in cultivating native plants for architectural landscaping in Brazil, planted a garden on his estate in 1943 in which the boundaries between planned and wild nature were blurred. The potential of Brazilian vegetation was deliberately integrated into the plan and gave rise to a dream landscape that ran riot. In Brasília, the rooms of Oscar Niemeyer’s Palace of Justice (1970) open up onto surrounding pools—also designed by Burle Marx—decorated with pots of tropical plants. Mario Severiano Porto’s university building in Manaus (1973–1980) is located in the middle of the rainforest, which is only cut back in the areas where the buildings are situated.

In Brazilian modernism, the dichotomy between indoors and outdoors that Lévi-Strauss described as one of the essential “marks of our civilization” is deliberately suspended, the categorizations softened.[14] The creation of continuous, flowing rooms the building style propagated presupposes a closer intertwining of nature and culture, an equality between the two that was undesirable both in Brazil’s colonial history and in traditional modernism. Architecture loses its status as a powerful symbol that stands for man’s dominion over nature, protection, and rationalism.

The experiences of the Swiss artist and designer Max Bill led him to believe that the danger of the irrational in Brazil was inexorably connected with a movement toward nature, a movement that to his mind was to be avoided. In 1953, on a trip to Brazil, Bill was shocked by modern Brazilian architecture. The overwhelming extent of this disastrous development became clear to him on the construction site of Oscar Niemeyer’s Palace of Industry:

“The first thing you notice on entering the site is an awful confusion of different architectural systems, thick pilotis, thin pilotis and pilotis of peculiar forms […], aligned in different directions […]. The walls and pilotis intersect for no reason at all, the forms destroy and cut into one another. It is the greatest chaos I have ever seen on a building site. I wondered how such a wild construction […] could come about […].”[15]

The shell construction reminded him of Le Corbusier’s untamed American palms taking root everywhere without regulation. The building elements grew wildly, chaotically, capriciously; their architectural forms seemed derived from nature. Bill summed it up by saying that there could hardly be a form more suited to conveying the opposite of what he wanted to see embodied in architecture and culture: “It is the jungle in architecture in the worst possible sense, it is total anarchy.”[16] Once again, the jungle is the symbol for the irrational, which had mutated the buildings of Brazilian architects into forms that had gotten out of control and could no longer be apprehended with any rational system.

In Rio de Janeiro, a tree is beginning to break up the front square of the iconic Ministry of Education, the planning of which Le Corbusier participated in. It remains unclear whether the tree belongs to Roberto Burle Marx’s original landmarked landscape design, and for this reason it cannot be chopped down. The nature deliberately integrated here does not adhere to the rules imposed upon it.

The active integration of nature fuels what can only be held in check to a certain degree in a tropical climate: a rampant nature that reclaims architecture; contamination by vegetation. The Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier describes this in his novel The Lost Steps (1953):

“For hundreds of years a struggle had been going on with roots that pushed up the sidewalks and cracked the walls. When some rich property-owner went to Paris for a few months, leaving his residence in the care of lazy servants, the roots took advantage of songs and siestas to arch their backs, putting an end in twenty days to Le Corbusier’s best functional designs.”[17]

Here, like any other building style, functionalism has no chances for survival if one does not constantly, rigorously push back against nature’s intervention. The dream of permanence and escape from entropy lying at the heart of architecture is in fundamental danger. Confronting any planned integration or exclusion of tropical nature is the ongoing uncontrollable encroachment of climate and vegetation on the building, rendering the walls porous and unstable. Claude Lévi-Strauss observed the impossibility of excluding the “jungle in architecture” in the early devastation of Brazil’s relatively young cities. They were decaying at the same speed with which they were being built, which had the effect that they “have a perpetual high temperature, a chronic illness which prevents them, for all their everlasting youthfulness, from ever being entirely well.”[18] Using the same ruthlessness architecture employs in its attempts to restrict and control nature, nature for its part begins to actively wear down the boundaries placed in its path. Outside the more moderate climate zones, architecture is as unstable and mutable as nature itself. Ruination is always an unwanted part of anything built in the tropics; it demonstrates a constant movement toward growth that takes over and penetrates building structures. Architecture and nature do not, as Bill proclaims, encounter one another as thesis and antithesis; instead, they are constantly approaching one another, touching one another. Georg Simmel describes architecture as the “sublime victory of the spirit over nature.”[19] Yet as soon as the building begins to decay and transform into a ruin, this balance is disrupted and everything shifts. Gradually, a new form of being arises, one that enters into its surroundings. “The influences of rain and sunshine, the incursion of vegetation, heat, and cold must have assimilated the building abandoned to the same destinies. They have reduced its once conspicuous contrast to the peaceful unity of belonging.”[20]

This pervading contact between building and natural growth also extends to the basic encounter between man and nature, which cannot be prevented by building walls. Lévi-Strauss sees that it is “the easy-going damp heat which emancipated my body from its normal layer of woolens and abolished the distinction […] between ‘indoors’ and ‘outdoors.’” The opposition between inside and outside is replaced by the contrast between “mankind and the jungle, which does not exist in our entirely humanized landscapes.”[21] Heat is an essential and all-encompassing component of tropical reality, which sends the body into a “peaceful unity of belonging,” causing it, like the buildings, to resemble its surroundings. At the same time, the loss of architectural boundaries makes the body vulnerable. If, in accordance with this, one were to understand architecture as a symbol of the human being, and the walls as a protective skin holding mind and body together, then Max Bill’s description of a contaminated, porous building takes on a broader meaning.

During his research trips through the Amazon region, Lévi-Strauss had firsthand experience of the power nature exerts. The more time he spent in the jungle, the greater its stealthful encroachment on his body’s limitations, which is evidenced metaphorically in the most surreal scene in Tristes Tropiques. When he sees bone splinters being removed from the hand of one of his traveling companions, he understands what is going on inside him: “The sight was both disgusting and fascinating, and it merged in my mind with the look of the forest, with its multiplicity of threatening shapes. I took my own left hand as a model and began to draw whole landscapes made up of hands emerging from bodies as twisted and convoluted as liana.”[22]

The bodies that intertwine like liana are more plant than human; they connect to the wilderness surrounding them. The image that spontaneously arises in his mind is that he himself is a part of the jungle, an image that simultaneously attracts and repulses Lévi-Strauss and draws him inward. Like a parasite, nature takes hold of his body in the vision; it comes to resemble him. The promise of the dissolution of the body’s borders and the resulting pleasure and fear of being consumed are a recurrent motif in the male-dominated literature of the tropics. The temptation to give in to this sensuous experience brings its protagonists to the end of their wits. The situation illuminates the enormous force with which nature begins not only to permeate the body, but the psyche as well. Alejo Carpentier also describes the urge resonating here on the part of the self to relinquish itself, the contradiction this poses to rational thinking. Confronted with a collection of primeval plants that have endured untouched in a remote rock fissure deep in the jungle, the protagonist reflects on the pull the moment exerts on him, a pull that he can only barely keep under control: “I knew that if I let myself come under the spell of what I was looking upon here, this prenatal world, I would end up by hurling myself down, burying myself in this fearful density of leaves which would one day disappear from the planet without having been given a name, without having been re-created by the word.”[23] Where Carpentier’s protagonist sensibly recoils from the temptation of a sensual relinquishment of the self, in the programmatically titled novel Tropics (1915), Robert Müller’s protagonist Brandlberger immerses himself in the Venezuelan jungle and his own psychic state. What begins as a classic story of three adventurers undertaking a treasure hunt becomes increasingly catastrophic the longer the men remain in the jungle. The geographically defined coordinates of the journey are soon confused, while the group quickly transforms into “abnormal figures.” It is the beginning of a state that grows more and more fragile, that is no longer able to make decisions for itself, a state in which Brandlberger begins to dissolve into “an endless sensitivity no longer held together by a conscious unity, a sensitivity for the fierce, selfish life all around it.”[24] The increasing foreignness of his own body, now exceeding its familiar form, together with the state of his psyche, which can no longer be clearly defined, correspond to the disappearance of the map, this instrument of spatial location, whose geometry, according to Corbusier, is what makes it possible for humans to “put one foot before the other” in the first place. The actual Venezuelan tropics grow increasingly indistinct as it becomes evident that Müller’s concept of the tropics refers not merely to the geographic region, but also to the semantic figure of the metaphor. This stratagem transports the entire novel onto a metalevel and turns the tropics themselves into a symbol. It turns out that the northener harbors the tropics within him. He doesn’t even need to go to the equator, he carries it inside. His brain, filled with a lush vegetation of tropes and allegories, can be explained by the residue of his heritage.[25]

The tropics turn out to be a European fiction that Europeans simply “invented” to consolidate an entire spectrum of irrational needs that cannot be acted upon and whose exclusion guarantees the continuation of civilized society. Entering into contact with topical nature fuels a desire to restore a human life that is more complete; that encompasses a desire to transgress boundaries and to relinquish the self; that allows for aberrant acts and feelings outside the rational. Interior and exterior tropical landscapes merge and become one. Thus, the potential danger that can lead to the system’s collapse comes not from without, but from within. It awakens what is already there, but is necessarily hidden in the depths of the human (European) soul: “Nothing comes out of a person that wasn’t somehow already there, and nothing is available to him that’s not already inside him.”[26]

The unstable physical and mental state corresponds to the precarious and permeable state of architecture in the tropics. In order not to lose oneself in a world that seems to know neither architectural nor moral limitations, contact between tropical vegetation and the body must be avoided, as this harbors the danger that the mind will also be irrevocably subsumed, unleashing needs lurking at the very heart of human nature. Like the “Brazilian influences” that “forc[ed] into the open the irrational traits of his character,” Pevsner also describes Le Corbusier’s transformation as something that needed a mere prompt to burst forth and to cause the architect, once so dedicated to rationalism, to lose his way—much like a plant that overcomes resistance to follow its path to daylight according to its innermost being.

Thus, in many regards, the proliferation of tropical growth and the resulting porousness and instability pose a problem for modernism’s smooth surfaces. Architecture crystallizes into a symbol for the protective outer layer of the skin. The establishment of clear intellectual spaces that a rational modernism calls for attempts to maintain boundaries and avoids all contact with the “irrational” in the guise of nature. For its part, nature harbors a basic potential to activate the tropics within us and to destabilize the social norms and orders that are also reflected in a rational building methodology. Both inner and outer tropics work to overcome restrictive structures, turning architecture and the tropics themselves into antithetical symbols in a dialectic between rational/intellectual and impulsive/sensuous action and experience.

The fragile balance between architecture, the body, and vegetation immanent in the tropics shifts the separation between nature and culture so crucial to the Western perspective into the realm of the impossible. It is a zone of ambivalence in which process-based, ambivalent aspects encounter secure, concrete elements and the two provoke one another. The tropical challenge for the rational modernist project resides in making it aware that its claim to duration and to an unchanging, intact location is mere illusion: in the tropical landscape, distinctions between inside and outside, nature and architecture, body and mind begin to merge.

 

 

[1] Carpentier, Alejo, The Lost Steps, p. 55

[2] Le Corbusier. Precisions on the Present State of Architecture and City Planning, p. 6.

[3] Ibid., p. 236.

[4] Le Corbusier. The City of Tomorrow and its Planning, p. 24.

[5] Pevsner, Nikloaus, An Outline of European Architecture, p. 414

[6] Cf. Lapunzina, Alejandro, Le Corbusier’s Maison Curutchet

[7] Pevsner, An Outline of European Architecture, pp. 426-429

[8] Ibid., p. 404

[9] Ibid., p. 431

[10] Cf. Hollier, Denis, Against Architecture, p. 47.

[11] Le Corbusier. The City of Tomorrow and its Planning, p. 21.

[12] Cf. Wisnik, Guilherme, Brasília: nature reinvented, p. 493.

[13] Lévi-Strauss, Claude, Tristes Tropiques, pp. 198–199

[14] Cf. ibid., p. 90

[15] Bill, M. Architect, Architecture, and Society

[16] Ibid.

[17] Carpentier, Alejo, The Lost Steps, p. 68

[18] Lévi-Strauss, Claude, Tristes Tropiques, p. 101

[19] Simmel, Georg, The Ruin, p. 378

[20] Ibid., p. 384

[21] Lévi-Strauss, Claude, Tristes Tropiques, p. 90

[22] Ibid., p. 357.

[23] Carpentier, Alejo, The Lost Steps, p. 359

[24] Cf. Müller, Robert. Tropen, pp. 24, 86 in the German original.

[25] Ibid., p. 215.

[26] Ibid., p. 196.

 

Images:
Casa Curutchet (1948–1954), Le Corbusier
St. Paul Plaza Hotel, Brasília, Brazil
Parque Rodó, Montevideo, Uruguay
Centro, Manaus, Brazil
Zoológico “El Jaguar,”  Puerto Maldonado, Perú

 

Literature:
Max Bill, “Architect, Architecture, and Society,” in: Paul Andreas / Ingeborg Flagge (eds.), Oscar Niemeyer. Eine Legende der Moderne, Frankfurt am Main 2003
Alejo Carpentier, The Lost Steps, Knopf, New York 1956
Le Corbusier, Precisions on the Present State of Architecture and City Planning, Zurich 2015
Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow and its Planning, New York 1987
Alejandro Lapunzina, Le Corbusier’s Maison Curutchet, New York 1997
Denis Hollier, Against Architecture. The Writings of Georges Bataille, Cambridge, MA/London 1989
Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, New York 1961
Robert Müller, Tropen, Paderborn 2011 (freely translated here from the German)
Nikolaus Pevsner, An Outline of European Architecture, New York 1972
Georg Simmel, “The Ruin,” in The Hudson Review, 11:3, New York; Fall 1958
Guilherme Wisnik, “Brasília: nature reinvented,” in: Lina Kim, Michael Weseley (eds.), Arquivo Brasília, São Paulo 2010

 

 

About the author

Nico Joana Weber, born in 1983, is a German artist working primarily with video, photography, and installation. During the past years her work has focused on the relationship between architecture and landscape, today's use and appropriation of modernist architecture, and the way history is readable in the built form. She graduated from Goldsmiths College London and the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne and has received numerous grants and awards. Her book "Monstera Deliciosa" has just been released by Grass Publishers.

About the author

Contributing Editor Andrea Scrima studied fine arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York and the Hochschule der Künste, Berlin, Germany, where she lives and works. A German translation of her first book, A Lesser Day (Spuyten Duyvil), has just been published by Literaturverlag Droschl, Graz, under the title Wie viele Tage.

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