Periodically people ask me if I’ve been to the restaurant down the street from Dhagpo, or if I’ve visited such-and-such center, or if I know this or that part of France. Generally the answer is no, and generally my response is, “Um. I don’t leave Dhagpo much. Like, almost ever.” I meeean, I go to the movies every couple months. I think I ate out once last fall and a couple times in the summer. I’ve visited one out of the three or four other nearby Tibetan Buddhist centers. But that’s about it.
My dad came to visit for a week, and now I can officially say that I have been places. And I have pictures to prove it. You know you’re in France when everywhere you go seems to include at least one building with a vaulted ceiling and a sensually ambiguous copper-tinged fountain. Bordeaux is a clear win for these.
And you know you’re in the Dordogne when every corner you turn seems to reveal yet another magic castle or sickeningly charming secret garden.
There may or may not be briar roses and eighteenth century chandeliers. If you’re in St. Léon-sur-Vézère or Chateau de Hautefort, well, there are. I didn’t run into Sleeping Beauty, but it’s possible she had a run-in with a spindle and was passed out in a tower somewhere.
She wasn’t in this particular tower. However, the coolest hand-crafted beam-and-strut wooden roof strucure was. My dad’s an architect. We geek out on good engineering.
And good design. Which is easy to do if you stay at Les Garachons while you’re in Auvergne. The owners of this totally adorable B&B are former caterers and write a food blog (which is normally in Dutch, but which I Google-translated with reasonable success) about their current endeavors. Every detail is well-placed and makes you feel like life could, perhaps, be as tidy and nourishing as an issue of Martha Stewart Living.
Which I quickly realized was not the case upon arriving in St. Etienne. It’s an industrial city that has been reimagined as a center of design. Despite hosting a major biennial design fair and being home, in its surrounding environs, to the second largest concentration of Le Corbusier buildings in the world, the city is rough around the edges. It’s a working class melting pot that reminds me that bucolic comfort is for one thing a luxury and for another not everyone’s ideal.
Le Corbusier designed his buildings in response to a need to house large numbers of impoverished people. But his vision of buildings was a humanist one; constructed spaces are meant to be egalitarian and elevating. He developed engineering to allow for walls shaped by imagination rather than structural constraints. He melded geometric and organic forms, blended color and arithmetic. He dreamed of ways to build cities that would facilitate human life rather than simply contain it.
He was a visionary. My dad tells me he’s known as the most influential architect of the twentieth century. He changed the way that buildings are conceptualized, the way that humans create our own space. It’s a pretty big legacy.
I haven’t seen any of his other work up close, but I was surprised by these. They are concrete blurs of line and form with dabs of color. To me they look more like abstract paintings superimposed on a landscape than like buildings. I found them ambitious, but a little sad. The concrete is heavy, maybe a reflection of the weighty times. After all, these buildings were designed to respond to post-war poverty in the mid 1900s. Le Corbusier designed whole cities. In some ways, the buildings that exist are prototypes of a great dream that was never realized.
I wonder if he didn’t quite believe the dream himself, though. The roof of St. Pierre Chruch is speckled with glass tubes that illuminate a man-made constellation within the somber interior. You can see the stars he’s wishing on, and the central space rises hopefully from the roof toward the sky, but in the end, the resignation of dense concrete remains. The space is dark and grounded and only the artificial stars remind us of what could be.
But this is what life is like, isn’t it? A balance between beauty and disappointment. Extravagance and actuality. For every castle, there was a whole region’s worth of peasants. For every perfectly baked cake, there is a slew of unsightly experiments. Despite the best attempts of engineering and artistry, the only cure for the human condition is living, and doing so consciously.
To see other places is useful. I’ve concluded that whevever we are, the work is the same. I’m grateful to be good where I am, grateful to be reminded of that, and grateful to be free to experience contrast and draw my own conclusions. Autonomy is for sure a liberty. Now it’s back to the home that I choose and the business at hand.