Not So Modern: The Suppressed Misogyny of Modernist Architecture

Shannon Bool’s show at Kunstverein Braunschweig calls attention to the exoticising and objectifying vision of Le Corbusier

From 1945, Le Corbusier’s sketches and drawings began featuring an odd little man with muscled arms reaching for the sky. Le Corbusier’s ‘Modulor Man’ represented the architect’s self-developed scale of proportions based on the golden ratio and a supposed standard male height (1.75m). Like Renaissance architects, Le Corbusier was keen to discover mathematical proportions in the human body and improve our experience of the built environment. His Modular system was a new principle of measurement intended to make redundant both the imperial and metric systems.

The Modulor Man appears in Berlin-based artist Shannon Bool’s exhibition ‘House of Oblivion’ at Kunstverein Braunschweig. On large dark blue tapestries, Bool neatly embroiders the figure into the fabric with white thread. Here, too, he resides in the architecture of his inventor: blueprints of Le Corbusier’s unrealized buildings in Algiers. Le Corbusier’s clean construction plans are overlaid with shapes drawn from decorative motifs in the Berber carpets he so admired. But Bool’s jacquard tapestries Oued Ouchaia and Maison locative Ponsik (both 2018) contain more bodies than we see at first. Ornaments give way to women’s bodies, taken from the architect’s erotic drawings, exposing his objectified gaze onto women. While the female body was completely excluded from the considerations of the Modulor, it did appear – in Le Corbusier’s sexual fantasies.

‘House of Oblivion’, 2019, installation view, Kunstverein Braunschweig. Courtesy: the artist, Kadel Willborn, Düsseldorf, Daniel Faria, Toronto, Ruth and Hans Hartan, Cologne, Prof. Dr. med. Arnt-René Fischedick, Münster, Jutta Breuer and Michael Heins, Herzogenrath; photograph: Stefan Stark 

The gaze that Bool foregrounds is not only objectifying but colonial, too. For the series ‘Bombshell’ (2018), she opened Le Corbusier’s archive and created photograms which merge his extraordinary city plan for a modern Algiers, titled ‘Plan Obus’, with a selection of postcards of nude Algerian women that Le Corbusier collected during trips to the former French colony. The illustration of an elevated highway seems to blend in perfectly with the curves of a reclining woman. In another, two bridge piers serve as a bra for a female body. There’s something very playful about Bool juxtaposing these two very different subjects, but the images tell the story of disconnection rather than symbiosis. It’s the tale of a modern architect with a romanticized view of colonialism who redesigned a city for a society he did not know but willingly exoticized.

Shannon Bool, The Four Seasons, 2018, installation view, ‘House of Oblivion’, 2019, Kunstverein Braunschweig. Courtesy: the artist, Kadel Willborn, Düsseldorf and Daniel Faria, Toronto; photograph: Stefan Stark 

Le Corbusier is not the only modernist architect with a cameo in Bool’s show. The jacquard tapestry The Four Seasons (2018) shows the men’s room of the Philip Johnson-designed Four Seasons Restaurant in Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York; marble walls, wooden toilet stalls and a dress train embroidered with colourful flowers come out of one of them. (The flowers are not part of the original photograph, but another intervention by Bool.) The fabric belongs to a dress designed by Alexander McQueen that Anna Wintour’s daughter, Bee Shaffer, wore at the 2016 Met Gala. Here, materials associated with power, strength and therefore manhood are displaced by delicate flowers and femininity.

Shannon Bool, ‘House of Oblivion’, 2019, installation view, Kunstverein Braunschweig. Courtesy: the artist, Kadel Willborn, Düsseldorf and Daniel Faria, Toronto; photograph: Stefan Stark 

This work is only one example of how Bool connects art history with today’s mass media. In this way, it resembles the argument of architectural historian Beatriz Colomina’s book Privacy and Publicity (1996), in which she claims that the architecture of Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos only became modern through its engagement with mass media. Similarly, Bool questions the success of modernism and shifts our gaze towards structures that lie underneath its myth. She asks: can we call this period ‘modern’ at all, with its many suppressed, pervasive problems?

Shannon Bool,‘House of Oblivion’ runs at Kunstverein Braunschweig until 17 November 2019.

Main Image: Shannon Bool, ‘House of Oblivion’, 2019, exhibition view, Kunstverein Braunschweig. Courtesy: the artist, Kadel Willborn, Düsseldorf and Daniel Faria, Toronto; photograph: Stefan Stark 

Carina Bukuts is editorial assistant of frieze based in Berlin, Germany. She is co-founder and editor of PASSE-AVANT.

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