Back to Babel: Project Unite

Article excerpt

Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation, a monumental block of low-income apartments awkwardly wedged into the hills surrounding the small city of Firminy in central France, may once have functioned as a beacon of hope; now it bears witness to a return of the repressed--capitalism in crisis haunting the house of high Modernism. Completed in 1967 as part of a larger complex including a youth center, a stadium, and a church, the building was intended as a visionary response to the economic disenfranchisement caused by rapid industrialization. Continuing recession, however, has sharply reduced the local population, and many of those who remain prefer individual residences. Today the unite stands half empty.

French curator Yves Aupetitallot selected this Corbusier building for his project precisely because of its symbolic complexity--its status as both a monument to France's greatest modern architect and a model for the reinvention of urban communal living. He envisioned the site as a catalyst for European and American artists, designers, and architects to establish a temporary society, a microcosm (paralleling the microsociety of the inhabitants) in which they would be encouraged to reexamine preconceptions about the broader cultural meaning of their practices.

"Project Unite" was not the only show in Europe this summer animated by a desire to reinvent relations between art, culture, politics, and society. For the most recent incarnation of Sonsbeek, the international sculpture show in Arnhem, Holland, the American curator Valerie Smith chose artists who rejected traditional "public art" approaches, then encouraged them to rethink their methodologies in relation to "actual" social environments. In doing so, she advanced the idea that art, released from its institutional cage--though still tethered to an institutional leash--can at least be an agent of social commentary, if not of social/political transformation. But Aupetitallot's show constituted a considerably more radical attempt to escape institutional limits into the "extrinsic" social domain, by replacing the art institution with a functioning community--one that already symbolized, within a living monument to an unfulfilled utopian pragmatics, a grand, if flawed, integration of art, architecture, design, national culture, economics, politics, and the social. In effect, the participants were asked to assume the role of inhabitants and to reflect upon "collective" living within the machinery of Corbusier's social architecture. Each apartment became a symbolic space for cultural exploration as well as a surrogate studio or gallery, while the building as a whole was transformed from a residence into a laboratory (re: Bauhaus) that doubled as a readymade museum.

Participants were also invited to begin researching both the town and the building more than a year before the opening of the project; the results of their investigations and their dialogue with Aupetitallot helped shape the final form of the project. Much of this developmental work has been documented in a continuing series of newsletters and catalogues that underscore Aupetitallot's understanding of the project as an ongoing process as well as a finished exhibition product.

But how then were we to evaluate the works themselves? According to what criteria? In practical terms, the structure of the "exhibition" aspect of the project was somewhat conventional: each participant was allotted an apartment on one floor of the empty north wing, and their projects were restricted to that area. As viewers, we were necessarily compelled to scrutinize the floor where the projects were located as a kind of autonomous, privileged site, and our relationship to the "other" residential part of the building remained peripheral. We moved through the row of apartments as if negotiating gallery rooms in a cultural space, and so were forced, ultimately, to confront each project as a distinct work, even though our criteria of evaluation had to take into account the unique contextual circumstances. …