goto Appendx main menu Cornel West, On Architecture?
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DF:  Final question: How would you respond to those people who say that your recent success—your $100,000 book advances, the travel, the notoriety, the elite academic institutions—how would you respond to those people who say that that very association has affected your ability to speak to the masses?  

CW:  Well, I haven't really had a chance to speak to the masses, so it's really in some ways untested. We know the masses are not just one homogeneous blob out there. They have their own different groupings and different kinds of constituencies. But I think it's actually untried and untested at this point. Certainly I think there ought to be great suspicion on behalf of the larger community, but especially the black community, of any black spokesperson or intellectual who comes with the accolades of the dominant American cultural industry. 

And so I think that suspicion is well grounded, and that just means that I have to engage in forms of demystification. So that when they in fact encounter me, they see that somehow this little blood got through, he slipped through; and what they thought they were getting when they talked about "multiracial alliance" and "Christianity" he smiling and talking about "love" all the time—and they end up with a little radical brother on their hands. And so if they take the whole vision and analysis seriously, then the critique is brought to bear. On the other hand, if there's evidence of a thoroughgoing dilution of that radical message on my part just to "go mainstream," then I deserve all the criticism I get. But usually that is more a matter of a particular kind of decision that I would make, and a decision that I think would bear very little fruit in terms of my own sense of calling. But it would keep me honest, and so I deeply appreciate that.  Even when I travel now in black communities and they read my newspaper and Time magazine articles, a whole lot—especially young black folk. . . oh, they're deeply suspicious. This three-piece suit, wearing a tie—Who in the world does he think he is? They come in with their pants all the way down on their sides, barely holding up on their knees like TLC, you know. They say, "Wait a minute." But then when they listen, we have dialogue, you show them respect, you recognize that intellectual humility is not something you're just talking about, it's integral to your sense of personal collective struggle. It opens them up. And they leave thinking, "My God, I thought he was one of these Time magazine Negros, but he ended up something else."  Well,that's demystification. Because all they have to go on is Time magazine, and therefore they ought to be suspicious. But as you know, it's always a perennial process of accountability. And those mechanisms of accountability in a variety of forms must always be in place and operative for each and every one of us And I think that's what it means to take democratic sensibility seriously as an intellectual.

Previous pageI end by looking at the case of the great Corbusier. I think he may serve as an illustration. His serious grappling with the binary oppositions that I mentioned before reaches a saturation point in his critique of the classical theory of architectural design in the form of the "Modulor, and of course this is his critique of the Vitruvian model. This new form of measurement derived not just from the proportions of the human figure, but more specifically from women's bodies—especially fat, so-called primitive, so-called uncivilized, non-European, Dionysian-driven, black, brown, and red women's bodies. It is no secret that Corbusier's paintings and pencil sketches in the early 1930s began to focus on the shapes of women's bodies that highlight the curves of buttocks and shoulder arches. This is nothing new—Charles Jencks talked about this seventeen years ago in his book, Le Corbusier and the Tragic View of Architecture. This preoccupation is often viewed as a slow shift from machine aesthetic to a nature aesthetic, like Picasso's use of so-called primitive art to revitalize the art of the new epoch. Corbusier turns toward female and Third World sources for demystifying, not simply displacing, the myth of the machine he had earlier heralded. 

Corbusier's move toward these sources was not a simple rejection of the myth of the machine. As Charles Jencks notes, "Le Corbusier found in the Negro music in the hot jazz of Louis Armstrong implacable exactitude, mathematics, equilibrium on a tightrope and all the masculine virtues of the machine." And yet in regard to Josephine Baker's performance on board the Julius Caesar on a trip to South America in 1929—of course we have pictures of Josephine and Le Corbusier together, traveling together, dialoguing together. Le Corbusier writes, "In a variety show Josephine Baker sang Baby with such an intense and dramatic sensibility, I was moved to tears." Moving Corbu to tears is quite an accomplishment, as most people know. Yvonne, his wife for over thirty-seven years, rarely did. "There is, in this Negro music a lyrical contemporary mass so invincible that I could see the foundation of a new music capable of classifying its European origins as stone age, just as it happened with architecture" (Le Corbusier from Jencks). Although Baker for Corbusier is a small child—pure, simple—we get the paternalistic and the Eurocentric gesture. He is struggling with issues of difference, he is in search of new forms of space, proportion, structure, order, in light of the products, bodies, the sensibilities of those subsumed under the second terms, those constituted as different, and we see this throughout his writings. "I look for the primitive not for their barbarity but for their wisdom, the columns of a building should be like the strong curvaceous thighs of a woman. I like the skin of women . . . " and so on. Misogynistic, yes; solely misogynistic, no—inadequate grappling with difference but deploying the bodies, cultural products, sensibilities of those constituted as different to create something new and novel. And we see this in the so-called brutalist stamp, and the brutalist stamp can be associated with the 1950s, but it is already at work in the 1930s, especially in the over 300 sketchings, principally of Josephine Baker and principally of her behind, which is very interesting. We have got to talk about Adolf Loos's relation to Josephine Baker as well in terms of the home he built for her, and how that informs his concept of architectural practice in terms of black woman as an object to be surveyed, to control visually. And we can bring it all to Foucault's machinery and theoretical apparatus to provide some insights into the way in which black women are constructed. 

With Le Corbusier, it seems to me what we have here are the creative yet highly problematic grappling with difference in such a way that something does occur. In fact, a fundamental shift occurs from a machine aesthetic to something else—whatever you want to call it—nature aesthetic, brutalist style, preoccupation with bodies, preoccupation with shapes, and you see it in a whole host of different works from the Unite to the chapel in France. 

I conclude. Like Mumford's subtle nostalgia for the medieval garden village, Corbu's search for non-European and female sources was intimately linked to his conception of architectural practices as forms and means for collective life. I'm not suggesting by any means that his projects should be imitated or alienated, but rather that his example is to be examined because the struggle with difference is what is and will be taking place in cultural architectural practices for the next ten, twenty, thirty years. Of course Corbusier associated his life first and foremost with hierarchical religious communities such as the monastic order of the Carthusians. The efforts of his middle period cannot be emulated, but his gallant yet flawed attempt to come to terms with difference, with those constituted as other, must inform any new architectural historiography that includes the postcolonial world, and postmodern culture of megamachines, multinational corporations, clashing nations and states, and fragmented communities. 

Where then do we go from here? The future of architectural criticism rests on the development of a refined and a revisionist architectural historiography that creatively fuses social histories of architectural practices and social histories of technology, in light of sophisticated interpretations of the present cultural crisis. This historiography must be informed by the current theoretical debates in the larger discourse of cultural criticism. Yet the benefits of these debates are in the enabling insights that facilitate actual history writing and cultural analysis of specific past and present architectural practices, not ontological, nor any epistemic conclusions that promote mere avant-gardist posturing and posing. You can't just tune the fiddle, you've got to play the darn thing! You've got to tell the stories. You have to do the detailed historical investigation and the social analytical investigation. The present obsession with theory must now yield to theory-laden historiography if architectural criticism is to have any chance of breaking through the impasse that now engulfs us. There are no guarantees for any resolutions, but there are certain routes that weaken our efforts to move beyond this fascinating and possibly fickle moment in architectural criticism. 

the end Cornel West

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