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Modernism in the Dock: The French Pavilion

Tied together by Jacques Tati’s film, Mon Oncle, Jean-Louis Cohen’s French Pavilion for the Venice Biennale makes both prosecution and defence of Modernism’s legacy across France

Curated by French art historian, Jean-Louis Cohen, this brilliantly staged exhibition takes the form of a trial in which the modern architecture of mid-20th-century France is cast as the defendant in the dock. A central room is dominated by a large model of the Villa Arpel, the preposterous Modernist house where much of the plot of Jacques Tati’s 1958 comedy, Mon Oncle, unfolds. Presented in the film both as an object of bourgeois desire and a comically dysfunctional machine-à-habiter, it perfectly encapsulates the paradoxical readings that Cohen asks us to recognise throughout the show.

Jean Prouvé’s experiments in prefabrication are represented by a series of sample panels in a room that considers whether they represented the building blocks of a new Jerusalem or a technocratic dystopia. Most alarming is the section devoted to La Cité de la Muette (‘The Silent City’), a pioneering residential development built in a remote Paris suburb in the 1930s by Marcel Lods and Eugène Beaudouin. Its name was conceived in reference to the peacefulness afforded by its dislocated location but took on another grimly ironic meaning when the complex was transformed into a Jewish internment camp during the Second World War.

Cohen’s masterstroke is his simultaneous screening of the same film across each of the pavilion’s rooms. Its narrative − including footage of Prouvé lecturing, clips from Mon Oncle and interviews with disgruntled residents of La Cité de la Muette − forms a constantly provocative backdrop to our exploration of the objects on show. There is a terrific accompanying publication too, which profiles 100 pioneering French buildings: one from each year of the past century. It is a formidable roll-call, but having experienced the exhibition, you might find yourself surveying it with a degree of ambivalence.

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