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Career Case Study #9: José Oubrerie

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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.

1932: Born

1946-51: Studied painting at the Ecole des Beux-Arts in Nantes (ages 14-17)

1955-58, 1966-68: Studied architecture at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (ages 23-26, 34-36)

1958-1963: [There is no information for the period between the end of the first phase of Oubrerie’s education and his first acknowledged appearance at Le Corbusier’s office in 1963. Wikipedia*however lists three periods of Oubrerie’s involvement with the Le Église Saint-Pierre project: 1960–70, 1970–78 and 2003–06. This would place Oubrerie in Le Corbusier’s office three years earlier – which is possible as he may have had the resources to work unpaid for at least the period 1958–1963. Family? Wife?]

1963-1967: Centre Le Corbusier, Zurich, Switzerland (with Le Corbusier, G. Jullian, et al.) [This coincided with the second part of Oubrerie’s architectural education so I’m assuming he was still an intern. However, 18 months after Oubrerie [re-?]enters the office, Le Corbusier dies.]

1965: Le Corbusier dies. 

1964–1972: Venice Hospital, Venice, Italy (with Le Corbusier, et. al) [Oubrerie continued his studies 1966-1968 concurrently, yet is credited with carrying the Venice Hospital prject forward until its final cancellation in 1972. This all suggests he was the last man standing. It turned out to be not such a bad call to bet all his chips on the Le Corbusier memory industry.]

1970: Registered in the Ordre des Architect, Paris, France and, three years after graduation, as an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects. [(For starters.)]

1974: Taught architectural design as assistant professor at Cooper Union, New York City [I’m told – and on good authority (cheers CB!) that this was for six weeks in Spring semester AY1973-4. The series of “open-ended” seminars asked the six or eight students to “consider” the condition of Manhattan’s Canal Street and make an architectural project out of it. To kick-start a process of inquiry, somebody made a blue foam model of a couple of blocks. There was no grading – assessment was pass or fail. John Hedjuk oversaw the presentations as Oubrerie had commitments elsewhere.]

1974-84: Taught architectural design as assistant professor at Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beux-Arts, Paris and concurrently (1981) as assistant professor at Polytechnic University of Milan.

1985–87: Taught architectural design as assistant professor at New York Institute of Technology and (concurrently) at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation

1980–81, 1983-4: Taught as professor of architecture at Austin E. Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University [The 1981–1983 gap would have been covered by the abovementioned concurrent, concurrent assistant professor duties at Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beux-Arts and Polytechnic University of Milan.]

1988: Completed Le Corbusier’s French Cultural Center, Damascus

1987-91: Visiting professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago and (concurrently)Dean at University of Kentucky College of Design, formerly College of Architecture, in Lexington, Kentucky

1992: Miller House, Lexington Kentucky

1991-7:Chair of the architecture department, professor of architecture, and professor emeritus at Austin E. Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University

2015: The Chapel of the Mosquitoes, County, New York, 2015 (unbuilt)

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.

2017: Oubrerie is often described as the last living protégé of Le Corbusier and this lets us infer a level of guidance and support more directed, intense and sustained than was almost certainly the case.

The term protégé also implies Le Corbusier had a concern for architectural education and the benevolent nurturing of talent but there is zero evidence for this.  It’s a strange situtation when an architect having no interest in education is “taught” so much. One can only wonder what architectural education consisted of before there was Le Corbusier’s life and work to teach. It might be worth trying to imagine what it might have been.

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image gallery,_Firminy




  • 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.