Tony Garnier Visionary Urban Designer

Architects are visionaries. Ever since Romulus slew his brother for the right to create the Eternal City, thinkers and design¬ers of urban life have not ceased to envision cities whose buildings, monuments, and thorough¬fares would not only serve (or control) city-dwellers, but also exalt the rulers and astonish travellers. But the multitudinous visions create a labyrinth of choices: to create flat cities? high cities? glass cities? green cities? Between utopias and dystopias, how can one determine which visions of life are best?

The Georges Pompidou Centre de Creation Industrielle provides abundant materials to answer these questions. In a series of exhibits at Beaubourg, the CCI has featured such architects as Le Corbusier, Hugh Ferris, and Carlo Mollino, offering re-interpretations of controversial careers. In its latest exhibit, the CCI re-evaluates the work of Lyon native Tony Garnier, who many consider to be the precursor of the early 20th-century avant-garde.

Garnier (1869-1948) is Lyon’s most famous architect. Students of architecture make pilgrimages to study many of his buildings: villas, monuments and tombs, a hospital, a stadium, a clinic, a city hall, and the celebrated Quartier des Etats-Unis. Garnier broke with Beaux-Arts academicism to develop original principles of urban organization using new materials such as reinforced concrete.

Inspired by the writings of Zola and the socialist milieus he frequented, Garnier began working on his imaginary Cité Industrielle in 1899. In this city, abundant green areas flow in and out of the sections in which the city’s functions are distributed: residences, administration, sport and education, industrial and sani¬tary services all form separate sectors. Despite the excitement that publication of his ideas caused, Garnier had few chances to realize them. The Lyon abattoir and the Quartier des Etats-Unis are only modest examples of his thinking.

Plans, elevations, paintings, photographs, posters, models, statues, and even scrapbooks make up the material in which Garnier’s development is traced. His limpidly sensitive but aborted utopian projects show that Garnier was in no danger of falling into the excesses of those he inspired. The Nantes abattoir is worlds away from Hugh Ferris’ dark, vast and relentlessly vertical cities. Garnier did not write at all, and therefore does not indicate, as does Le Corbusier, that a trans¬formation of the city is ipso facto a transformation of humanity. Dozens of beautifully colored and cunningly composed watercolors and charcoals show him to be a first-rate artist: the “Allée d’arbres,” the “Parc,” the “Village de Lampnas,” and the luminous “Parc de la Tete d’Or, villa C, perspective 6,” show his mastery at depicting intimate spaces and meditative atmospheres that are a far cry from Corbu’s machines à vivre.

As Garnier’s researches lose their utopian character in 1917, they give way to re-workings of monuments in a series of stunningly beautiful images; meditations in which stone, vegetation, and water embody his searching architecture of commemoration. He also returns to classical motifs – not Roman, but rather Egyptian and Assyrian. This classicism distinguishes him from the Fascist and Nazi classicism. Garnier is not interested in glory to the Fatherland, or murderous nationalism: the Great War’s devastation sufficed to demonstrate for him the dangers of these notions. Indeed, the aesthetics and resolute unrealisability of Garnier’s projects call into question the use of architectural vision for business-as-usual.

In the 1925 “Airport,” a single landing field nearly surrounded by a thick forest, the Public Garden, the Parc de Parilly, and the Ile des Cygnes, whose pylons rise from the water before a tree-covered island set in the middle of a lagoon encircled by trees, Garnier seems to insist that vast spaces be used in the service of a “pause in history” in the darkest years of the 20th century. The vast proportions of Garnier’s celestial city extend an invitation to a journey into the interior.

The presentation of the exhibit reinforces this impression. In the preceding exhibit (of the work of Carlo Mollino), the gallery space was well lit, and the drawings, photographs, models and manuscripts were displayed in cases arranged so that an observer could move throughout the exhibit without retracing a step. It was an eminently logical arrangement. But the Garnier exhibit is dark and labyrinthine, one walks up and down steps, in and out of nooks and crannies, retracing one’s steps in what seems to be a tour of Garnier’s unconscious mind. At the end of one’s wanderings one comes upon a fifteen-foot model lighthouse. Its phallic symbolism reminds one that Jung once dreamed he was exploring an underground chamber in which he found a tower like phallus that rose from a throne, one eye in its head.

The psychoanalytic reference is not accidental. If an exhibit of an artist’s work is itself an interpretation of that work, then the Tony Garnier exhibit suggests that Garnier’s accomplishment also consists in having overcome his early training and concerns in the name of an oneiric return to architectural forms and contemplative sites which denounce the genocidal paroxysms of the day.

But is Garnier’s work still relevant? In the sixties there was a comic book series called Magnus the Robot Fighter in which the main character constituted a one-man resistance movement to liberate an indifferent humanity that had forfeited its spiritual force and dignity by allowing robots to do their living for them. Magnus conducted his battle in a vast city called North Am – which covered the entire North American continent. Lest this comic book version seem the sort of silly thing one could expect in pulp literature, one should remember that a group of Italian architects in the 1970s dreamed of a city to be called Continuous Monument: it would cover the entire world. There are, of course, architects who reject this view (Soleri is among them), but its persistence makes Garnier seem more of a contemporary than a simple precursor of the frenzied modernism one would like to transcend.

Tony Garnier (1869-1948), Galerie du CCI, Georges Pompidou Center.

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