Leaks, Crime, and Bad Taste: The Legacy of Le Corbusier

Today a friend from the Twitterverse drew my attention to a petition to save Chandigarh, the planned city designed largely by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. While I rather fear that said friend may decide to “unfriend” me if he reads this piece, be that as it may, this petition provides me with a wonderful opportunity to go against the well-established grain of the intelligentsia, and point out exactly what a dreadful architect Le Corbusier, in fact, was.  Not only did he have terrible taste which led to urban crime and disintegration, but he was incapable of fulfilling the basic duty of a good architect: i.e. building something that could withstand the elements.

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (1887-1965), to give Le Corbusier’s real name, was born in Switzerland but spent most of his working career in France, including collaborating with the Vichy regime. Like many an arriviste, he decided to change his name to something singular, since he liked to reinvent himself depending on what he wanted people to think about him at the time. His most famous quote, and one which pretty much sums up his attitude toward both architecture and human beings, is: “A house is a machine to live in.”  He spent most of his career following this creed, putting up graceless, poorly-built concrete “machines” all over the world, and encouraging others to do the same.

The planned city of Chandigarh in India, built between roughly 1950-1965, is a spectacular example of why Le Corbusier was such a terrible architect. Gigantic, oppressively out-scale government buildings squat alongside slimy reflecting pools ringed by parking lots, their walls stained and failing as a result of the passage of time, the extreme weather of the Indian subcontinent, and the poor choice of materials. Office blocks with pointless shapes plopped along the roofline concealing who knows what look like interrogation centers for the FSB on an episode of “Spooks”. Apartment buildings that are reminiscent of stacks of dirty, corrugated cardboard about to go into the shredder give the impression that the residents would be better off living in an actual cardboard box. Even the artificial lake created for the enjoyment of the residents of Chandigarh features what look like watch tower platforms from a concentration camp.

Those who fawn over Le Corbusier are often too ready to excuse or overlook the fact that he had no idea how to build something that would last, which is in fact why architects are consulted in the first place. Le Corbusier in his own lifetime had to incur the wrath of numerous clients for the fact that his buildings began to fall apart almost immediately after they were built, suffering from water damage, rust stains, cracked walls, crumbling facades, and so on. Like many a narcissist, Le Corbusier never thought that he was the problem, but rather that the fault lay elsewhere. When an early house he designed with a standard, pitched roof started to leak the first winter after it was completed, Le Corbusier simply decided never to build a pitched roof again, and switched to using a flat roof. However, he never figured out how to design one properly, so his flat roof buildings leak also.

Fortunately, here in the United States, the only building by Le Corbusier at which one may throw well-deserved stones is the 1962 Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard, which is not a particularly impressive example of his work – or indeed of anyone’s work. Truth be told, he did not have as much of a hand in the building as did the project supervisor, the Catalan architect Josep Lluís Sert, but he managed to stamp his particular brand of hulking ugliness on it, all the same. Given how many examples of such terrible buildings like this litter our college campuses, we can only hope that our grandchildren will have the good sense to pull them down when they fail, which they inevitably will.

Even though he himself built practically nothing in the United States, Le Corbusier’s influence on his contemporaries had a profound impact on American cities at mid-century. He is partially resonsbile for the collapse of the urban center in the 1960’s and 70’s. Granted, many factors brought about the near-demise of the American city during this period, including social unrest, suburban development, economic decline, and dependence upon the automobile. However Le Corbusier’s ideas, and the damage wrought by him and his disciples, served as an irritant for these problems, but an irritant that failed to produce a single pearl.

If you have ever seen the urban nightmare which was the recently-demolished Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago, or urban planning schemes like that of Boston’s City Hall Plaza, featuring heavy, concrete block buildings and bleak plazas surrounded by freeways, making it impossible or unpleasant for people to move around in, and choking to death entire city neighborhoods, then you have Le Corbusier and the disciples of his ideas to thank. Not only did they bring new depth to the term “ugly”, but they managed to foster crime on a scale never-before seen in American society. Surrounded by such appalling hopelessness, it is no wonder that the residents of these areas turned to substance abuse, violence, and anti-social behavior to try to escape from the hideous prisons built to cage them.

Le Corbusier’s legacy and that of urban planners inspired by him is finally being dealt with by many cities, sometimes successfully – as is the case here in the Nation’s Capital – and sometimes not. His fundamental, philosophical flaw was to view human beings as nothing more than cogs in a machine, who could be placed interchangeably in residential, office, and other buildings, that were themselves equally interchangeable. If we assume that the house is indeed a machine for living, as trite a statement as that may be, then Le Corbusier was the Thomas Midgley of machine manufacturers.

Rather than restoring his work, therefore, let us hope that the good people of Chandigarh have better sense than to waste their resources in the way that Le Corbusier wasted theirs, and instead that they may obtain the funds they need to demolish all of this garbage and begin again.


The Palace of the Assembly at Chandigarh, by Le Corbusier

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17 thoughts on “Leaks, Crime, and Bad Taste: The Legacy of Le Corbusier

  1. William, another excellent blog. Truth and honesty in evaluating beauty is seldom practiced today. If an art student were to say in class that there is beauty in the world, they’d at least be laughed at, and more likely kicked out. Architectural schools long ago gave up the notion that there is elegance in combining beauty and function. Of course defining beauty is difficult do to it’s subjective nature, and art professors and graduate students looking to publish a paper lack any courage to cut the Gordian knot. It’s hard to blame them. Failure would be inevitable, because beauty being everywhere for ever and easily identified is to hard to put into words. Critical review over time seems to be the only recourse for man to define beauty, and only with honesty, truth, and principle can any of us hope to contribute to that discourse. Thank you for your contribution.

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  2. Pingback: Leaks, Crime, and Bad Taste: The Legacy of Le Corbusier | Blog of … : GEA News

  3. William,

    I do not think you have attemped to understand Le Corbusier. One of the most inventive and prolific architects of the 20th century. He dealt practically with every design opportunity and problem of his time (city planning, mass pre fabrication, new materials-reinforced concrete and steel in construction, the separation of the exterior of a building and structure-free facade/free floor plan). He projected a new type lifestyle, you can like it or not, but his influence in culture, architecture, and the construction is impressive. You must be one of those that like palladian windows, doric columns, and plastered greco-roman wedding cakes as buildings.

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    • I don’t understand. Benjamin, do you really mean to say that you prefer concrete blocks to classical architecture? You don’t see anyone taking photographs of the FBI headquarters do you? They walk right by it because it’s ugly and disgusting and quite honestly opressive to the eye. On the other hand, crowds throng around St Paul’s Cathedral in London and the Palace of Westminster for the exact opposite reason, that both are stunningly beautiful.

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      • Nathan, I like classical architecture. The Architecture that is in Greece, Rome, and like St. Paul’s designed by Sir Christopher Wren. This is architecture that has gravitas. But I detest the buildings of today that are meant to look like the past. First, they are not built in stone. They are built using steel, reinforced concrete, or wood. The exterior envelope is “Hung”like a curtain off the structure. What you see in the exterior of today’s “classical” buildings is less than 1″ of gypsum (plaster). So, as a defacto it does not have the power of the real thing. Second, I’m against recreating the past, this will create an urban environment filled with fossils. There is a past, present, and future. As I said in a latter reply: I think you should focus strictly on Le Corbusier’s work and his buildings. Did I say that I liked the FBI building or I liked concrete block? No. There are also some replies in this entry that are very misinformed. Le Corbusier was a very well read and informed architect. He knew a lot about ancient architecture since he travelled and sketched out the buildings on site. His “modern” villas share proportional/ mathematical relationships to other Renaissance villas as the writer Colin Rowe has pointed out. Even though he was creating a revolution against specically beaux arts neoclassical architecture his work is rooted in with a large historical baggage.

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  4. I wholly agree that Le Corbusier was a criminal, the Pol Pot of architecture. If he were alive today, I would certainly want to see him prosecuted for crimes against humanity. And while it is true that his designs inspire despair and loathing (perhaps intentional?), I have difficulty pinning all of city crime on him. It’s far too simplistic to make him the chief culprit. Modernism is a patchwork of ideas (the “synthesis of all heresies”, as Pius X called it) and it is these ideas that begat modern architecture. Certainly, architecture is a very visible manifestation of modernism that affects the daily lives of those who live and move in and around it. Certainly, it played its part. However, many of these housing developments were precisely for the poorest stratus of society and the ideas that made modernist architecture “in” preceded it in the culture. The era Le Corbusier was working in was tumultuous across the board. Leaky roofs, if by design and not by shoddy craftsmanship, are certainly a concern, but they are accidental to the main reason Le Corbusier is a failure. We can improve the designs to fix the leaky roofs. What the leaky roofs do is add insult to injury; the injury of having to live and look at such criminal creations is made worse by the failure of these manifestations of the demonic spirit to meet even the basic requirements architecture. But practical considerations, while absolutely necessary by definition, are insufficient. What ultimately and essentially damns him is his depraved aesthetic. He doesn’t have a good idea that can be improved upon. No amount of sealant will rescue the disasters he produced.

    Architecture must be rescued from arrogant men, from some grandiose l’esprit geometrique, and returned to serve the needs of people. These narcissists, who exist in every field, are motivated not by sane truth but by self-glorification. They cannot bear the idea that they are working on one of many things within one of many fields. They need to believe that they are working on THE field and THE project. They are crypto-utopians. Imagine what would happen if plumbing went through such an absurd turn.

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  5. Well done on the article. I hope everything was all right with you and your friend. Hopefully it led to interesting dialogue about architecture rather than just an “un-friending”.

    It’s hard being an architecture student these days. You know that Corbusier built horrible structures and yet your professors attempt to shove him down your throat as some sort of god with an over-zealousness that astounds me.

    Once, long ago, I thought ugly, decaying concrete structures were limited to the USSR. I never thought someone would intentionally design any building to be that way. It’s a disgrace to architecture.

    I agree with Robert- we must return to thinking functionally, from a humanistic aspect. We need to understand people, not think we understand people as Corbusier did.

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    • Oh we’re good 😉 Yes I agree, it must be difficult now when you’ve effectively become the anti-establishment viewpoint on matters of architecture. This is paralleled in a lot of areas now. Thanks for reading!

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  6. Dear William,

    Here are two articles you should read:

    http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2008/jan/28/architecture.india
    http://www.tribuneindia.com/2003/20031007/chdplus/main8.htm

    First, with regards to your critique. You cannot compare Le Corbusier’s work to the work of the architects that were influenced by his ideas. These are the ones that built generic mass produced concrete housing projects that are uninspiring (The ones that I think you are refering too) Specially Boston City Hall, which is similar to the La Tourette Monestary but with a BIG diference…the SITE! La Tourette is in a beautiful grass landscape setting while the other one is on a giant hardscaped brick plaza. Boston City Hall is dark and La Tourette is surprisingly very luminous in its interior with polychromatic skylights and large glazed openings.

    Second, I recommend you to see his work and perhaps even write about your experience. Having read many of his books before I had seen his work I had shared some of your points but until I got to see the Villa Jenneret, Villa Roche, Villa Savoye I was actually impressed because the EXPERIENCE of being in these spaces is fascinating and inspiring. So I think your writing of Chandigarh appears amateurish and perhaps can be compared of a foreigner that has only seen photos.
    Also the analysis (if any) of the Carpenter Center is elementary. It would be nice to understand why you think it is not impressive or that you did not “like it”. Did you get a chance to visit the visual arts department at Harvard?

    Third, if they every built a city truly with Corbusian ideals in the US, I don’t think we would be as bad after all. What destroyed our cities, was urban sprawl, suburbia, and plopping the american dream all around. If we lived according to some Corbusian principles we would be surrounded by nature and living in dense high rises(talk about sustainability and minimizing footprints!!).

    Forth, here is a list of Le Corbusier’s buildings: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Le_Corbusier_buildings
    I would begin with the Ozenfant studio and go through the years. Visit some of them and then tell me are they that bad?

    Regards,

    Benjamin

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  7. Worked in a city where there is some work of Le Corbusier in France. Wont discuss art or architecture but I can tell you that:

    I had this interview with a police chief and he basically told me “Its like this building was purposedly created to practice mass-scale drug dealing and guerilla against police”.

    Sometime american people would come in bus to visit and just after flee the place when they see the kind of people living there because of this Inhuman environnement.

    I’d say this guy left as a legacy a sizable percentage of crimes in France.

    An architecture who made building unsuited for humans is like a doctor torturing people. And I frankly don’t care if that guy is a torture Genius.

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    • Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. Oftentimes it seems that these architects not only did not consider what people would actually want to live in, but the effect their buildings would have on the community as a whole.

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  8. Agree fully with the article, and disagree with the guy above saying how you must like “plastered Greco-Roman wedding cakes as buildings.” If anything, he shows a great deal of ignorance about architecture if he thinks that, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

    The reason why Le Corbusier was such a horrible “architect” (I do not even think he was really worthy of the word) is because he, like most of the other so-called modern “architects,” completely threw out the entire language of architecture that had been built up over the past 3,000 years of building. This would be like disregarding all known knowledge of cooking and baking in the name of progress. Not surprisingly, you would end up with some horrendous concoctions of food created as a result. Or if one disregarded all known knowledge of music in the name of progress. Again, there would be some horrendous concoctions of music created. Mozart and Beethoven could never have composed what they did if not for the previous thousands of years’ worth of development of music. And so forth. This is what Corbusier and the other modernists did to architecture.

    Thus we ended up with a century’s worth and continuing of architectural monstrosities. One of the worst offenders today is Frank Gehry. People like Gehry continue to build “architecture” that is hideously ugly, not to mention un-functional and extremely costly and difficult to construct to boot. The arrogance shown by the architecture profession is the same as that shown by the artistic profession, which is that beauty is something you have to be cultured and educated to truly understand. Now in most things, this isn’t the case. Any person can look at a landscape and determine whether it is beautiful or not, a flower, an animal, a person, etc…people do not need art degrees with educations in proportion to determine whether a face is a beautiful face or not, or a body is a beautiful body or not. Nor do they with architecture. But according to the architecture profession today, they do, and thus we end up with hideous buildings that are praised by the architects themselves while hated by everyone else, who while lacking degrees, can clearly see that such buildings are ugly.

    There are multiple languages of architecture that have developed in the world, ranging from Chinese architecture which is its own language, as it developed independently from the West, to the architectural styles of the central American civilizations, to Western classical architecture, which is one of the longest-lasting and the most widespread (the Chinese might be longer-lasting). Classical architecture is the style most favored by people these days, and it is what most buildings were constructed in up until the early 20th century.

    There are four huge myths about classical architecture that are perpetuated by the supposedly educated architectural profession.

    I’ll explain them:

    1) Classical architecture is nothing but “decorated shelter.” It was declared that “ornament is a crime” (an absolutely baseless, rather insane view if there ever was one). This was the view held by the modernists and by many architects today, that classical architecture was not designed based on function, but rather just based on prettiness, and thus had no place in the modern world of industry and technology. When modern classical architects design buildings in classical styles, their buildings are often derided as being “Disney-esque,” “Toytown Utopia,” or, as the one commenter above said, “plastered wedding cake.”

    This kind of thinking about classical architecture shows a total lack of understanding about what classical architecture actually is. Contrary to the modernists’ claims, classical architecture is far from being un-functional decorated shelter, but is actually highly-functional shelter. Architects of the past were not stupid. They designed and constructed buildings that were in tune with the natural environment and nature, that made proper use of light and shadow, space, etc…in fact, such architecture of the past was more functional because they didn’t have the kind of climate control and modern materials that we have today (at most, wealthy Romans had a primitive form of central heating system and running water). By contrast, as your post explains, modernist designs such as Corbusier’s are horrible from both a functional and aesthetic point. They do not make proper use of light or work to be in tune with nature, or make proper use of materials.

    Regarding the “Disney-esque,” “Toytown,” “Wedding cake” descriptions, these strike me as being made by those who cannot stand architecture that is colorful and cheerful and basically presents a happy view of society and who also do not understand architecture of the past. IMO, Thomas Kinkade’s paintings were/are hated by the modern art profession for the same reason). Humans have been creating decorated and colorful architecture (and art) for thousands of years, ranging from the Egyptians to the Greeks (whose architecture was very colorful—it wasn’t the drab gray or white modern Greco-Roman designs are made in). The thing is, why is it that any kind of decorated, colorful architecture today is somehow “fake” and “Disney-esque” yet back in the times when it was more common, it was somehow “legitimate?”

    Regarding ornament, the thing with classical architecture is that ornament can play either a large role or a minimal role. Which is why the wedding cake comment is so wrong. Not everyone who likes classical architecture is a fan of having lots of ornament. Many people just want something that is elegant, tasteful, pleasing, but otherwise more utilitarian and minimalist ornament-wise. Others like the really grandiose, highly-decorated and ornamented designs. Thus, hating modernist architecture does not mean one wants ornament everyone. There are classical designs for fans of either method. Similarly with this, classical design is not something only for the monied. There are plenty of basic, simple house designs for the average person that are clearly grounded in classical principles. And then there are very ornate mansions as well. Same with furniture which was classically-grounded.

    2) The next major misconception is that classical architecture designs are “regressive,” that they are “not of this time,” and thus impede on “progress.” There are multiple problems with this claim. For one, there is no law that states that a particular architectural style of a period can only be of that period and that’s that, and it can never be reused, ever. To the contrary, much classical architecture is timeless in design. Two, classical architecture has repeatedly revived older designs throughout its history and utilized the designs of ancient cultures. One only need look for example at the various revival styles of architecture. For example, Parliament in Britain is not actual Gothic architecture, it is Gothic Revival. It was built long after the Gothic period. Does this mean that the entire building is fake? “Disney-esque?” “Out of its time?” Or how during the Renaissance, the architectural styles of the Greeks and the Romans were revived? Were all those designs, such as of Palladio (who was praised by one person who complimented some of Corbusier’s buildings in an above comment) “fake?” “Out of their time?” “Disney-esque?” And during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, architects and furniture designers (classical design played a huge role in furniture design as well) copied many of the motifs from Egypt for example. Was this thus fake? Disney-esque? So how are designing classical designs in modern times fake or Disney-esque? Sure, such architecture doesn’t use the exact same construction methods as the past, so what? The Renaissance-era Greco-Roman architecture didn’t use the exact same construction techniques as were used in ancient Greece and Rome. The classical designs of Washington, D.C., done in a style created by Thomas Jefferson known as “American Classical” did not adhere to the same construction methods as used during the Renaissance. And modern classical designs do not use the same construction techniques as used during the construction of the early D.C. buildings.

    The other big misconception with all of this is that classical architecture cannot progress. That it is a strictly rigid system of design that stifles creativity and innovation. Nothing could be further from the truth. If that was the case, then how did we end up with the extreme myriad of building styles based on classical principles over the past 3,000 years? It started with the Greeks and the Etruscans, then was advanced by the Romans, which then split into the development of Gothic architecture (the original Catholic churches based off of the Roman basilica for example) and Byzantine architecture, which went on to influence Middle Eastern and Russian architecture. Gothic architecture, itself grounded in classical principles, then was rejected for a return to the original Greco-Roman classical designs, which then evolved into a myriad of different styles (Rococo, Baroque, Federalist, American Classical, British, etc…).

    All of this was because of constant innovation and design in classical architecture. The idea that such innovation could not continue into the 20th century and 21st is just nonsense. Had the language of architecture never been thrown out the way it was, we would have an entire century’s worth of architecture that was clearly 20th century, made with 20th century materials and construction methods, but clearly based on classical principles dating back to ancient Greece. And now we would be developing 21st century designs as well that are clearly high-tech and contemporary. One would be able to design airports in a classically-based design because such designs would have been developed (today using a classical design for an airport looks out of place because contemporary ways of designing such buildings with classical principles haven’t really been developed. Classical designs work okay for banks and train stations, because in the past, such designs were used for such institutions, but not for airports).

    Architecture is like music or language. The language doesn’t stifle the expression of creativity and the language evolves over time. Take English. Look at Old English and the creativity done in that literature-wise, then look at the English the Founders of America wrote in, which was more understandable, but still had some big differences and can be hard to understand, and then look at modern English. The language changes, but it always allows great creativity. Same with music and with food. With music, we can look at the varieties of different music today, some very different yet still adherent to the basic language of music, but using totally new and different instruments, such as saxophone, modern drums, electric guitar, etc…we could look at musical scores done by composers like Hans Zimmer, who although uses a lot of classical instruments, also uses lots of electronic sounds and instruments that did not exist back in the days of Mozart and Vivaldi and Beethoven and Schubert. Or the much more classically-based music of John Williams. Does this mean that modern classical-sounding music is “fake?” “Out of its time?” Of course not. There are completely contemporary forms of music and then there is music that is “revivalist,” i.e. sounds like it was composed in the 17th century say, but yet composed in modern times, and music that is grounded in old classical, but uses electronic sounds and so forth. All music though adheres to the same basic principles, and that is why being able to read music allows one to do everything from jazz to rock to classical. Note also how film composers like Zimmer use themes from other cultures for composing his music, such as for the film “The Last Samurai” when he incorporated a lot of Japanese music.

    The truly regressive act was what the modernists and the contemporary architectural profession do, which was to disregard all the accumulated building knowledge. In no other profession would one do this, not in science, engineering, nothing.

    3) The third huge misconception is that classical architecture is too expensive, and that thus contemporary designs have to be used. That they may not look as nice, but they are far more cost-effective then the classical designs. This is again complete nonsense. One can very much design cost-effective classical buildings that are aesthetically-pleasing. IF ANYTHING, it is again the opposite, as a great many of the contemporary modernist buildings are what are extremely costly, often due to the ego of the so-called architects designing them without ever apparently consulting with engineers to see whether they can actually be built. The Sydney Opera House ran into this problem, and so do many of Frank Gehry’s buildings.

    4) A fourth major misconception is that classical architecture represents imperialism and oppression. This again is nonsense. Classical designs have been used by everything from oppressors to freedom-loving countries. There are Soviet and Nazi designs based on classical architecture, and classical architecture has been used by humanists and freedom-lovers (such as the classically-based designs in the United States). It has been used by atheists and religions, ranging from Christianity to Islam. Again, if anything, considering how Le Corbusier was the architect of choice by the Communist regimes, it is modernist architecture that is imperialist and totalitarian in nature. I would also say that is a legitimate argument, as the entire philosophy behind it is totalitarian, seeing people as cogs, which is how the socialist and communist societies saw humans.

    On a final note, one flaw I see is that some in classical architecture fall into the same trap that the modernists do. For example, you design a building in a classical design, but then decide to change around a few things that you don’t like. Heresy! The classical purists will say, “You can’t do that! That’s not how they designed in that particular style.” But that kind of thinking only works if you are trying to design a completely period-correct building, say if a client wants a French Chateau that is designed EXACTLY how they would design it back in the 17th century say. But otherwise, changing certain things and experimenting is just fine, that’s HOW we ended up with all the different classical styles in the first place. Otherwise, classical architecture would never have advanced beyond what the ancient Greeks built.

    Some examples of changing things are how interior designer Clive Christian made the luxury, classically-based kitchen, so famous and widespread. For many years, mansions and luxury homes had rather utilitarian kitchens because only the servants worked in them. Today, however, the kitchen is a major focal point for the home, and thus luxury kitchens are all the rage. Clive Christian has luxury kitchen designs done in Regency and Victorian and so forth. Although using classical, period styles of design, these kitchens are completely contemporary uses of such designs, as such kitchens were not designed before. When he first started doing such designs, such as putting a chandelier in the kitchen, it was met with complete shock. You don’t put a CHANDELIER in the KITCHEN! Creating very contemporary-looking kitchens that are still classically-grounded would be another method of design to do.

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