At the start of every semester, during that unavoidable ‘get to know you’ part of the first lesson, I ask my new students why they are taking French. Some get nervous and say something like “the language sounds nice” or “I don’t know” (that’s ok; I can work with a blank slate). Others cite French food, fashion, cinema, music or just “Paris” as motivations for learning the language. Some want to travel or do an exchange in Europe, Québec or North Africa. Usually foreshadowing a straight-A record, some students say they plan to work in international law or diplomacy and want to learn another UN language (gracious, I did not have my career plan together like that when I was 18).
I like hearing these diverse reasons for studying French, and learning a little about the group of strangers sitting in front of me. There are no wrong answers, but some are more entertaining than others. For example, earlier this year one student exclaimed “French architecture is the awesomest”.
“French architecture is the awesomest.” Not a word, but yes. Yes, French architecture is the awesomest.
All that romantic grandeur; the sweeping staircases, sloping iron roofs studded with tiny chambre de bonne windows, boldly-painted street doors, scrolled detailing, secluded courtyards, quaint shuttered windows.
But French architecture is not stuck in the 19th century. Some of the most inventive, forward-thinking architecture to come out of France is much more modern. Perhaps one of the greatest masters of 20th century architecture was the Swiss-born, French-nationalised Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known by the pseudonym Lecorbusier.
The Fondation Lecorbusier, a cluster of semi-detached modernist houses designed by Lecorbusier in the 1920s, is hidden away down a quiet 16th arrondissement laneway. The small but spacious houses are all unexpected curves, splashes of strategic colour and a clever play between light and space. The buildings feel very contemporary, considering they are almost a century old.
Perhaps ‘museum’ isn’t even the right word for the Fondation Lecorbusier, as stepping across the threshold feels like stepping into a very fashionable retro couple’s living quarters. Lecorbusier’s geometric designs and futuristic touches still speak to people today; I laughed and laughed when I read a recent interview in which Kanye West credited a “Lecorbusier lamp” as inspiring his recent album. But I think I understand where that endlessly hyperbolic fool was coming from. The creative modernity of Lecorbusier’s style feels somehow cutting-edge and timeless all at once.
As a wise man once said, French architecture is the awesomest.