A playful critique on Modernism: A model of the film Villa Arpel by Jaques Tati’s film “Mon oncle” in the French pavilion. Photo © France Pavilion
Modernism and its uncle
By Thomas Wagner
Jun 17, 2014

Promises are a great thing. We like to hear them and have to trust that they will be redeemed. In other words, promises are exciting because we wait to see whether what was promised actually becomes reality. With jokes, things are the other way round. The excitement derives here from the punchline and if it’s no good, then neither is the joke. In brief, what the joke promises it has to deliver immediately, or it’s worthless.

Something of this sort must have gone through the head of Jean-Louis Cohen, curator of the French pavilion, when he heard of Rem Koolhaas’ key slogan “Absorbing Modernity”. As we can see from his response. Cohen asks the question “La Modernité, Promesse ou Menace?” with a little help from Jacques Tati and his film “Mon oncle” dating from 1958, which with such great satire balances a fascination with Modernism so wonderfully with discontent with it. “Mon oncle” was to be Tati’s greatest success and the film won the special jury prize at the Cannes International Film Festival in 1958 and a year later bagged the Oscar for best foreign-language film.

The French contribution thus makes it official that if we want to comprehend Modernism we need a critical counter in the form of an uncle like Monsieur Hulot. Someone who meets progress and its blessings with respectful clumsiness and in this way playfully assesses its promises to see whether they square up to reality. It goes without saying that this can lead to grotesque situations and all manner of slapstick. It casts a sharp light on the trend in Modernism to subject human needs to some abstract, technological model of progress. For Monsieur Hulot, the uncle of the nine-year-old Gérard, who lives with his parents (his dad is managing director of a plastics factory, his mother devoted to the automated home) in a modern house in a new building estate, standardization, series production, mass manufacturing and in particular automation in the home are a constant source of conflicts that then manifest themselves in ultra-comical situations. If the garage door is controlled by a light sensor, all it needs is for a hand to trigger it and the master of the house is trapped. A sympathetic amateur, the uncle mercilessly exposes the economic-social consequences that have arisen from Modernism’s technological box of tricks.

For this to be successful, you not only need the opposite of the New Man as in Monsieur Hulot, but you also need the corresponding settings in the film, and if possible genuine architecture. Artist Jacques Lagrange provided it for “Mon oncle” in the form of the Villa Arpel. Lagrange was the son of the works architect at Citroën, his brother was an architect and he himself was married to the daughter of Gustave Perret, who along with his brother Auguste was a pioneer in steel construction and came to fame with his reconstruction efforts in Le Havre.

When the film first came out, the architects were accordingly indignant at the fun poked at the holy living machine. Now, the 1:10 model of the film Villa Arpel from Paris’ Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine is to be seen in the central hall of the French pavilion. Were it not just a film set, the cubic building with its large glass windows, blinds and portholes could pass today as a “Modernist classic”, would be under a preservation order and would have long since been restored. Along with its gardens, with their geometric layout and dolphin fountain.

The fun in “Mon oncle” highlights not only a critical angle, but is closely bound up with the rise of the engineer and the fall of the traditional master builder. Thus, the ambivalences innate in how we see Modernism today tend to take the front seat. The “utopian elan” which is far clearer in France than elsewhere, proves to have contradictions and snags. The project of “Modernité” vacillates troublingly between promise and threat, dream and nightmare.

This critical-satirical angle is ratified and given greater depth in three other rooms that frame the model of the filmset villa. Here Jean Prouvé takes the stage as artist/engineer, here grand Modernist projects are presented and prefabricated construction illuminated, after all the dream of intelligent living systems, of prefab houses and their serial production was trail-blazing and it was no coincidence that it was pursued by the GOMs of architecture such as Le Corbusier and Jean Prouvé.

The exhibition is accompanied by a publication that by way of example presents 101 planned or realized buildings dating from between 1914 and 2014 and intended to demonstrate the “creative dynamism” of modern construction in France and the need to preserve that heritage. On show are, for instance, Robert Mallet-Steven’s “Villa de Noailles” (1924) and Adolf Loos’ “Maison Tristan Tzara” (1925), and the “Villa Savoye” by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret (1931) as well as Auguste Perret’s reconstruction of Le Havre (1944). The line continues through to Lacaton & Vassal’s “Maison Lapatie” (1993) and Frank Gehry’s “Fondation Louis Vuitton” (2014).

The exhibition thus of dishes up both the promises and the threats, and in so doing manages to tread the difficult line between satirical critique and documentation. Because here Modernism also becomes a joke, we can discern that it is an ideology. Suddenly, the engineer can be seen to be the producer of a technology that tends to make fools of people rather than serve them. And the French pavilion deserves great praise for achieving this. Rarely were modern architecture and its grotesque consequences so entertainingly combined. Chapeau!

Read more about the 14th Architecture Biennale
Rem Koolhaas’ foundations
Architecture Know-How in Museum and Archive
Italian affairs
If you want to understand Modernity you need to have fun with it
Germany’s Ex-Top Models
Please touch
A Clockwork Modernism
Import – Export
The dream of an open society
Charles Brooking’s world of windows

At the French Pavilion Jacques Tati’s film “Mon oncle” mercilessly exposes the economic-social consequences that have arisen from Modernism’s technological box of tricks. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Long live the automated home the modern house in a new building estate: sequence of “Mon oncle” by Jacques Tati. Photo © Les films de Mon oncle
Long live the automated home the modern house in a new building estate: sequence of “Mon oncle” by Jacques Tati. Photo © Les films de Mon oncle
Jean-Louis Cohen, curator of the French pavilion, asks: “Modernity, menace or promise?”.
Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark
Coverpage of the chapter "Concrete, the Radiation of French Thought and Creation in the World" from the book "Cent ans de Betonarme" of 1949. Photo © Droits réservés
The Villa Arpel from “Mon oncle” was designed by Jacques Lagrange. Photo © Adeline Seidel, Stylepark
Jean Prouvé giving a lecture at the National Conservatory for Arts and Crafts, 1968. Photo © Edmond Remondino, courtesy of Dominik Remondino
Prefab-elements designed by Jean Prouvé. Photo © Adeline Seidel, Stylepark