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Straight Lines

[Le Corbusier's Palace of Justice, Chandigarh (1952-55). Image via Wikimedia Commons.] [Le Corbusier's Palace of Justice, Chandigarh (1952-55). Image via Wikimedia Commons.]

Living Cities, Tate Modern.

Barjeel Art Foundation Collection: Imperfect Chronology – Mapping the Contemporary II, Whitechapel Gallery, 23 August 2016 – 8 January 2017

Gideon Mendel: Dzhangal, Rivington Palace, 6 January - 11 February 2017


In a corner of the Living Cities display, at Tate Modern’s Switch House, hangs a photograph of the Swiss-French architect, writer, and civic planner, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier. The modernist—dressed in a heavy black coat and bowtie, sporting his characteristic thick black-rimmed glasses, eyebrows raised slightly and brow furrowed—seems to be in the middle of a conversation, poised to answer the questions posed by the artists and viewers around him.

The photograph is part of Kader Attia’s installation, Untitled (Ghardaïa), which also consists of a photograph of another French architect, Fernand Pouillon, a copy of UNESCO’s certificate designating the city of Ghardaïa a World Heritage Site, and, finally, laid out in a circle, overlooked by the photographs and certificate, a three-dimensional model of Ghardaïa built entirely from couscous. Le Corbusier visited Algeria in the early 1930s, and the trip, along with his travels in South America, greatly influenced the ideas he developed around urbanism. However, in the grand plans he later proposed for different cities, he rarely acknowledged his debt to the indigenous architecture he encountered in Algeria, and little attention has been paid to his appropriation of the Mzab architecture of Ghardaïa since. Furthermore, Le Corbusier’s aesthetic has been reproduced throughout the world, especially in huge, concrete low-income housing projects, like in Paris, where many of the Algerian immigrants who have arrived from the former colonized nation now live.

Attia hopes to highlight these cycles of influence and migration in his installation. He comments on the ways that mid twentieth-century modernist schemes for housing became laboratories for social engineering, rather than the utopian models of communal living they were intended to be by their avant-garde planners. While Attia’s installation fails in part – the use of a staple diet as a marker of identity comes across as reductively ethnicizing in an installation that hopes to uncover irreducibly complex routes of appropriation – the photograph of Le Corbusier sticks with the viewer as a floating, overarching sign.  

As James Scott wrote in Seeing Like a State, Le Corbusier was “the embodiment of high-modernist urban design… a Colonel Blimp, as it were, of modernist urbanism.”[i] He proposed sweeping plans for urban restructuring in Paris, Algiers, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Moscow, Stockholm, Geneva, and Barcelona. Due to the immense financial and political backing required for his monumental city-planning schemes, most of the proposals were never implemented, and remained theories on paper. Among the few gargantuan schemes that were brought to completion are Chandigarh, the planned capital of India’s Punjab, and L'Unite d'Habitation, a residential complex in Marseilles. Despite the failure of many of his individual proposals, his influence is ubiquitous. The Athens charter of the Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), the key document of urban planning after World War II, devotedly reflects his ideas.

As many modernists, Le Corbusier embraced the machine-age, advocating for the transformation of dense and organically tangled cities into ordered and centralized networks. He obsessively repeated straight lines and right angles in his designs. He wrote in The Radiant City:

An infinity of combinations is possible when innumerable and diverse elements are brought together. But the human mind loses itself and becomes fatigued by such a labyrinth of possibilities. Control becomes impossible…. Reason…is an unbroken straight line… in order to save himself from this chaos, in order to provide himself with a bearable, an acceptable framework for his existence, one productive of human well-being and control, man has projected the laws of nature into a system that is a manifestation of the human spirit itself: geometry.[ii]

Based in monumentalism and linearity, Le Corbusier hoped to convert curves and crowded meeting places into rectilinear axes and grandiose squares with little regard for existing traditions. His impatience with disorder led him to maniacally prescribe models that throttled social habits and smoothed over complex histories. This model of development naturally resulted in austere and rigid plans that had no basis in the actual daily lives and aspirations of people beyond the basic functions of eating, sleeping, and working.

Many contemporary diasporic artists have attempted to engage the architectural modernism of planners like Corbusier, appropriating it and challenging it to resurrect the histories hidden by an obsession with straight lines and grids. An artist prominently displayed in the Living Cities exhibit, Julie Mehretu, is one of these artists. Mehretu, one of the most sought-after contemporary artists, invokes geography and cartography by layering diagrams, maps, and abstract marks in densely packed works, and often incorporates ordered and rectilinear architectural plans in her paintings. However, she subverts them by layering the black-and-white plans with personal marks, often colorful lines and curves drawn over and across the plans.

In the painting on view at Tate Modern, Mogamma, A Painting in Four Parts: Part 3 (2012), outlines of different architectural monuments associated with recent social movements blend with one another, among them Cairo’s Mogamma, Addis Ababa’s Meskel Square, and New York’s Zuccotti Park. The plans are rigidly and meticulously traced from digital photographs and consequently overlaid with freely rendered marks. This intermingling of the plans with the artist’s individual marks produces a palimpsest—an indeterminate space, which is at once the straight lines of modernism and the specters of personal and communal memories buried between and inside them. It is abstraction, but it is also the laying bare of the conceits of abstraction, forcing geometry—the foundation of architectural modernism—to come to terms with history.

In his book, The Production of Space, Lefebvre challenged the presumed innocence and neutrality of the architect, pointing out the ways in which architectural discourse “caricatures the discourse of power,” suffering “from the delusion that ‘objective’ knowledge of ‘reality’ can be obtained from graphic representations.”[iii] Mehretu is similarly interested in the link between architecture and power, in the way space is never neutral: “I think architecture reflects the machinations of politics, and that’s why I am interested in it as a metaphor for those institutions. I don’t think of architectural language as just a metaphor about space, but about spaces of power, about ideas of power.”

Across the River Thames, in Whitechapel Gallery, hang four drawings that also deal with Cairo’s architectural plans, taken from Susan Hefuna’s Cairotraces series. The gallery’s exhibition, Barjeel Art Foundation Collection: Imperfect Chronology – Mapping the Contemporary II, is interested—in much the same way as Living Cities at Tate Modern—in the ways narratives of nationalism, migration, and trade relate to the social and architectural cartographies of urban spaces.   

Hefuna’s drawings are an attempt at modelling the architecture of Cairo through the subjective act of walking through and between it and later sketching from memory. Each drawing consists of two layers, one on white paper and the other on tracing paper, which gives the two-dimensional surface a sense of volume. But the object of the exercise is not to be literal. Instead, the representations are better classified as lateral, approaching the grids and straight lines of the city sideways, obliquely, off the mark in their playful imitation of the plan without fully losing the trace of geometry. As a result, even as they evoke the abstract, rectilinear forms of modernist architecture and urban plans, they also remind the viewer of other structures, such as mashrabiya latticework or molecular patterns, destabilizing, in the process of drawing, what Henri Lefebvre termed as “the order of power, the order of the male,” or, “the cult of rectitude, in the sense of right angles and straight lines.”[iv]

Moving further towards a critique of the assumed link between geometry and reality, Lefebvre particularly pointed out Le Corbusier and the moral weight assigned by him to certain forms: “It [architectural discourse] only too easily becomes—as in the case of Le Corbusier—a moral discourse on straight lines, on right angles and straightness in general, combining a figurative appeal to nature (water, air, sunshine) with the worst kind of abstraction (plane geometry, modules, etc.).”[v] Considering this critique, Hefuna’s drawings become an important intervention in the masculine and moral order of the straight line, enabling us to glimpse at a reality which is dizzying in its illegibility, despite remaining, all the while, in dialogue with the rigid structures of modernism.

Finally, an exhibition that deals directly with the tangled disorder of displaced communities, spaces that defy the planned utopias of modernism, is Gideon Mendel’s Dzhangal. Installed in the Autograph ABP gallery at Rivington Palace, the show puts on display everyday objects—toothbrushes, playing cards, trainers and clothes—that Mendel collected during visits to the refugee camps at Calais, which were demolished last year.

The refugee camps had grown over several years, haphazardly adjusting to space as increasing numbers of migrants streamed in. Even the very name given to the camps, “Jungle,” signals their organic difference from urban plans; surely a nightmare for Le Corbusier—a clear failure of geometry to render obsolete tangled, sedimented disorder and the histories of violence that give birth to it. Interestingly, the artist, Gideon Mendel, tries to do precisely that: attempt to bring order to tragedy by installing the objects in neat patterns. The toothbrushes are lined up in rows, torn jackets hung up on a clothes rail, teargas canisters grouped together. The objects are also photographed, either individually or in groups, and the photographs are hung on the walls of the gallery. The viewer is caught between the dirt, rust, and ashes marking the objects, claiming them as traces of irreconcilable catastrophe, and the desperate attempts to categorize and order them.

Is it possible to make sense of such violence, depict it in an unwavering, straight line? In Mendel’s installation, the intricate and complex routes of migration are packaged in rows for a sympathetic audience. There is no attempt to grasp the social and political implications of the disorder, to critically interrogate the objective documentation of artefacts. The horror is reduced to straight lines.


[i] James C. Scott, Seeing Like A State (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1998), p. 103-4.

[ii] Le Corbusier, The Radiant City, trans. Pamela Knight, Eleanor Levieux, Derek Coltman (Faber and Faber, London, 1967), p. 82-3.

[iii] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Blackwell, Oxford, 1991), p. 361.

[iv] Ibid., p. 305.

[v] Ibid., p. 361. 

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