Career Case Study #9: José Oubrerie

I’ve always wondered about the value of working for famous architects for education and/or work experience. If it’s to be anything more than a CV builder, then what is the information actually transferred and what is the actual mechanism of information transferal? Frank Lloyd Wright was in no doubt as to the value of the information transferred and had people pay to do his work. This never really took hold as a business model but it did morph into a system where bona-fide students pay bona-fide universities to pay practicing architects to be visiting or guest educators. (The situation where bona-fide students pay a bona-fide university to pay a practicing architect to be a practicing architect seems peculiar to Japan.)

Le Corbusier didn’t make his workforce pay but he did think people should work for him for nothing. If ever we wonder today why so many architects are paid so little and are prepared to work for so little in the name of gaining experience, then we need look no further than Le Corbusier who, amongst his many other contributions to architecture, took the business fundamentals of marketing and cashflow to new levels. Building on the groundbreaking work of Wright, we know much about what Le Corbusier did for marketing and self-promotion but very little of his innovative approach to cashflow and reducing fixed expenses by paying little, if anything. The intern farm is one of Le Corbusier’s less recognized but more ubiquitous legacies. Starchitect clones are well aware the right to underpay is one of the perks of fame.

Le Corbusier’s office

Judging by Le Corbusier’s suit and hair in the header photograph, these two images look like from the late thirties. Were all these people content with just doing their job or did they believe proximity to Le Corbusier and observing and learning how those buildings came into being constituted an architectural education? We know what happened to a few of them. Louis Sert worked unpaid in 1929 but was back in Barcelona within a year. Léonie Geisendorf worked unpaid during the 1930s. [c.f. Brands as Architectural Legacy]

We don’t know if José Oubrerie was paid or not.

He arrived at Le Corbusier’s office in 1963, eighteen months before Le Corbusier’s death in 1965. Oubrerie is said to have carried the Venice Hospital project forward until it was finally cancelled in 1972. [c.f. The Mat Building] He also completed LC’s French Cultural Center in Damascus in 1988. This is one of those inconvenient and thus forgotten buildings.

The Damascus project is conceived of as a continuous interior surface. Its enclosed continuous interiority relates in part to the formal complexity of Le Corbusier’s Villa La Roche, and, in part, to a new architectural topology, a “Moebiusian” one. *

Baghdad Gymnasium was designed by Le Corbusier in 1956 but completed in 1980 without input from Oubrerie.

Better known is Le Corbusier’s Le Église Saint-Pierre in Firminy, completed by Oubrerie in 2006, or 1996 according to the Knowlton School website.  Peter Eisenman said it was the most important structure built since 1980. [? I can’t imagine what that 1980 structure could have been.] Unlike some of the posthumously completed works of Frank Lloyd Wright, the fidelity and authenticity of Firminy as a genuine work of Le Corbusier is never questioned despite the forty-year hiatus. If it had been faithfully constructed with period materials, technologies and services then I guess we would’ve been told. Nevertheless, I’m keen to find out how this kind of real authenticity differs from the merely authentic.

The thing I find most interesting about Oubrerie is this house, his 1992 Miller House in Lexington Kentucky. It’s his only built work and it’s rather fabulous in all its LC meets NY5 glory.

And is probably why we hear nothing of it. It’s got motifs from the whole bunch of five and asks uncomfortable questions such as who exactly is appropriating whom and for what ends? It’s very much a statement building but nobody’s asking what it’s stating or why.

It also has a surfeit of colour, pattern and texture – something the “whites” eschewed in their timber-framed reworkings of the plasticity implied by Corbusian stucco on brick.

Miller House post-dates the New York Five by two decades, so I can only assume Oubrerie is showing them how it ought to have been done and what would have been the better lessons to have learned. For this impertinence he has been roundly ignored. I’m still unconvinced every single surface and element has to show the trace of an architect’s hand. In the case of the Miller House, those timber shelves seem a bit over-the-top. I also doubt every single element needs its own colour and, even if they must, are these the right ones?

With all that colour, pattern and materiality all over the place, the debt to Maisons Jaoul is obvious. It’s everything the NY5 eschewed with their designs that existed as ideas over and above any construction-based reality. I confess to liking Oubrerie’s Miller House, but my feelings towards the NY5 have varied over the years. In 1979 I thought Peter Eisenman’s House X the ultimate whereas in 1977 I had a page, torn from Progressive Architecture, of Richard Meier’s 1973 Douglas House pinned above my drawing board.

I enjoy the relentless design of Oubrerie’s Miller House in the same way I enjoy Carlo Scarpa’s art piece Olivetti Store in Venice, or Gio Ponti’s 1955 Villa Planchard. All three invoke the concept of “total design” as probably invented by Victor Horta circa 1890 and later co-opted by Wright, Gropius, etc. Even now, the concept of total design is still used to imply the “attention to detail” and “obsessive perfectionism” of the artist-architect.

When compared with Douglas House, the physicality of Miller House is obvious but I find it no more human for all that colour, pattern and texture. Both houses leave no conceptual space for people as whatever furniture, rugs or art one possessed, or even the clothes one wore, would clash. In representing the pleasures of colour and materials, Oubrerie has forgotten to involve the people who are to appreciate them. I don’t know if that makes him better or worse than the bunch of five who succeeded by aiming lower.

All in all, Oubrerie’s is a curious career involving five built buildings only one of them his and even then only in a sense.

The Chapel, commissioned and encouraged by Steven Holl for his residential and gallery complex in Rhinebeck, New York, features a light-water diagonal conduit that pierces the roof and floor and is a contemporary interpretation of a ladder in a kiva — a traditional round Pueblo Indian form — in which the ladder joins the sky and earth. There is no real sipapu, the round hole in the kiva’s floor through which the spirits of the ancients can exude. However, in the Chapel, the ground is visible and the floor sometimes retracts; it practically enters inside, or reciprocally, the floor extends and reaches the outside.

• • •

SaveSave

2 thoughts on “Career Case Study #9: José Oubrerie

  1. Mark Macy

    Graham — another great post; thoroughly insightful and enjoyable.
    I’d love to hear your thoughts on Josef Frank — seems like he would be a got fit for Misfits.

    Reply

Leave a Reply