Few images in the history of modern architecture have exerted quite the same uncanny fascination as Marius Gravot’s 1932 black-and-white photograph of a most unusual French decorating scheme. A severely outlined rectilinear space, so emblematic of the early International Style with its high, white-plastered walls devoid of any detailing or surface ornament, is incongruously interrupted by a white Baroque chimneypiece flanked by a pair of curvilinear iron garden chairs. On the floor in front of the fireplace, a cushion and an open book appear to have been left by a reader who has just wandered away.

This minimalist salon recalls one of René Magritte’s enigmatic Surrealist compositions, in which familiar signifiers of everyday bourgeois life are given unnerving new connotations through visual non sequiturs that are as impossible to explain as they are to forget. One almost expects a small, puffing locomotive to emerge from the hearth, as in his painting La Durée poignardée (Time Transfixed, 1938). The odd dissociations continue. Instead of having a trompe l’oeil ceiling depicting the heavens dotted with clouds—an illusionistic conceit popular among grandees from the Renaissance onward—this enclosure is open to the sky. And although the floor at first looks as if it’s covered with a deep-pile carpet, closer inspection reveals it to be planted with grass.

The playfully disorienting ambiguity of this not-quite-indoor, not-quite-outdoor space is a sly subversion of the early Modern Movement’s promotion of salubrious all-seasons living through buildings with fully retractable window walls in climates of every kind. These barrier-breaking experiments ranged in geographic suitability from Richard Neutra’s flat-roofed houses beginning in the 1920s in sunny Southern California to Jan Duiker’s four-story Openluchtschool (Open Air School) of 1929–1930 in Amsterdam, where the North Sea climate made alfresco teaching impractical for much of the year. Sometimes the International Style, alleged to be infinitely adaptable, was done in by local conditions.

Here, though, it’s easy to locate oneself. Above the parapet peeps the unmistakable Arc de Triomphe, a few hundred feet away. The City of Light’s spirit of place became even more pronounced when the dwelling’s resident further embellished the space for parties—its principal intended function. His Baroque decorative flourishes included an oval mirror above the mantel, a stone replica of an eighteenth-century commode against one wall, and a gold-framed oil portrait of a lushly bewigged grand seigneur of the ancien régime. Surrounded by these totems of wealth and status, one could have no doubts about where one was—up on the roof of the house of a person with a great deal of money, a fertile imagination, and an offbeat sense of humor, at the epicenter of the civilized world.

Those attributes exemplified the apartment’s tenant, Carlos de Beistegui y Yturbe, a fabulously rich, French-born, Old Etonian aesthete of Mexican and Basque heritage (whence his unusual surname). Exactly who was most responsible for the creation of his curious Paris aerie is the central focus of an exhaustively researched monograph, Machine à Amuser: The Life and Death of the Beistegui Penthouse Apartment, by the Dutch architect, educator, and scholar Wim van den Bergh. Primary credit for the apartment has most often been accorded to its architects, Le Corbusier (born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret), ranked by many as the most influential of all Modernist master builders, and his nearly decade-younger cousin and longtime collaborator, Pierre Jeanneret.

The three-level Beistegui penthouse was added between 1929 and 1931 atop a six-story limestone-clad hôtel particulier on the Champs-Élysées at rue Balzac, the original portions of which were designed by the architect Charles Gondoin for Beistegui’s Mexican émigré grandmother in the 1870s. Awareness of the no-longer-extant scheme, an unclassifiable anomaly in Le Corbusier’s oeuvre, has persisted mainly through photographs in his vast bibliography. Strangely, Le Corbusier’s name appears in neither this book’s title nor subtitle, a surprising omission given how salable he is among design aficionados. That lacuna reflects Van den Bergh’s assertion that the true auteur of this “autobiographical house,” as he calls it, was Beistegui, who put his personal imprint on the finished product so strongly that he must be seen as its presiding creator.

The book’s clever title is a play on Le Corbusier’s oft-misquoted dictum, first posited in his revolutionary polemic Vers une architecture (1923), that “une maison est une machine à habiter”—a house is a machine to dwell in. He did not mean—as has been widely misunderstood—that a house ought to resemble a mechanical device, however much the stripped-down, industrially based aesthetic he favored during the first half of his career reminded the general public of factories and other utilitarian structures. Rather, his intention was to stress that a successful residential design ought to operate with the same interdependent logic, efficiency, and productivity as a well-engineered machine.


Van den Bergh’s titular twist instead emphasizes the self-indulgent way of life pursued by the hedonistic playboy who brought the endeavor into being and, to paraphrase a 1929 Noël Coward lyric, had a talent to be amused. It is axiomatic that creating a great building requires a great client. Yet regardless of how a control-freak architect might define that term, it does not mean a patron who acquiesces to every aspect of a scheme but rather one who participates in a mutually beneficial give-and-take with the designer. Either passively accepting or reflexively rejecting elements is unlikely to lead to a favorable outcome for either party. Conversely, architects are sometimes driven to distraction by their clients’ excessive demands.

But such considerations meant little to the haughty, discriminating, and secretive Beistegui—incongruously known to his high-flown intimates as Charlie—who lived only for pleasure and led a nonstop quest for the next fashionable thing. Often mentioned in the published diaries and letters of the twentieth century’s international beau monde, he is perhaps best remembered for Le Bal Oriental, the opulent masked gala he gave in 1951 at his Palazzo Labia in Venice, which he had just finished restoring. After six years of European postwar austerity, this convergence of a thousand revelers—which commingled the Aga Khan, Orson Welles, Barbara Hutton, Cecil Beaton, Salvador Dalí, and Christian Dior with titled French, Italian, British, and Russian nobility—was calculated to recommence the glittering entertainments that the host and his privileged coterie conjured with astounding frequency during the interwar Années folles.

The theme of Beistegui’s now legendary extravaganza was Antony and Cleopatra, inspired by the palazzo’s glorious cycle of Tiepolo frescoes representing the ill-fated couple. The elaborate period costumes this fancy-dress soiree inspired—its organizer came as a procurator of the Venetian Republic, with sixteen-inch platform shoes to amplify his five-foot, six-inch stature—make Truman Capote’s 1966 Black and White Ball, often called the party of the century (as is Le Bal Oriental), look like a potluck supper. The main thing the two events had in common, besides masks and a celebrity guest list, was their diminutive hosts’ supercilious snobbery. When the renowned British society beauty Lady Diana Cooper (on whom Beistegui bestowed the honor of portraying Cleopatra) asked him if she could be escorted by US Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall, the father of the Marshall Plan that revived war-devastated Europe, he asked, “Is he from a good family?” (Though Marshall was related to the nineteenth-century US Supreme Court chief justice John Marshall, no invitation was forthcoming.)

In granular detail likely to be too much for the nonspecialist reader, Van den Bergh gives lengthy analyses of all seven successive design schemes by Le Corbusier and Jeanneret. Beistegui’s family had sold the Champs-Élysées building after his grandmother’s death, and it was broken up into apartments, with commercial spaces on the lower floors. In 1929 Beistegui rented the roof and immediately began to ponder how to turn it into a spectacular showplace. Le Corbusier and Jeanneret’s initial plans were part of an invitational competition that the new tenant held to elicit proposals from three architectural offices, a practice sometimes thought to produce the best possible result by pitting professionals against each other. However, that strategy succeeds only when a commission is highly desirable or other work is scarce. Given the amount of time that goes into drawing up a speculative design, it is rarely worth the inadequate compensation usually provided (if there is any at all), and many established architects thus refuse to enter contests.

The second participant was André Lurçat, the architect of the Karl Marx School of 1930–1933, a bold concrete structure in the southern Paris suburb of Villejuif, one of France’s first Communist-governed municipalities. The third was the young Armenian architect Gabriel Guevrekian, a former Le Corbusier employee who devised a highly mannered Cubist garden for the avant-garde art patrons Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, haute bohemian aristocrats and close friends of Beistegui’s. Their sprawling hilltop villa in Provence near the Côte d’Azur, designed in 1923 by the middle-of-the-road Modernist Robert Mallet-Stevens, marked a turning point in the French upper class’s acceptance of the new architecture.

Whatever one may say about Beistegui’s taste as an interior decorator, he had an eye sharp enough to determine that the Le Corbusier–Jeanneret offering was by far the best of the lot. It possessed a buoyancy and elegance missing from the two other proposals, which by comparison were weighty and static. The client’s compulsive need to control—most evident in his repeated attempts to impose Classical symmetries on his chosen architects’ design, contrary to the Modernist preference for asymmetry—led to subtle pushback on their part as well as an exceptional number of reiterations. But if he was willing to pay, pay, pay, the architects were ready to revise, revise, revise, while at the same time never compromising their core principles.


As Van den Bergh convincingly argues, not only was the Villa Noailles the inspiration for Beistegui’s exquisite cabin in the sky, but a number of its distinctive touches were the basis for ideas that Le Corbusier and Jeanneret were asked to adapt for the Champs-Élysées penthouse. These included a home cinema with a retractable movie screen that could be pulled down from the apartment’s ceiling, an early built-in phonographic sound system, and a newfangled electric refrigerator.

Beistegui was especially taken with the Noailles’s rooftop chambre en plein air (open-air room) and its carpet of grass, which when transposed to Paris would allow him the outdoor entertaining otherwise possible there only if one had a private garden. (He was envious of the urban fêtes champêtres thrown by a colorful couple in his inner circle, Cecil and Mimi Pecci-Blunt, at their eighteenth-century hôtel particulier on the Left Bank, which had more than an acre of walled gardens, among the largest in central Paris.)

Although Beistegui had to badger Le Corbusier into fulfilling several of his desiderata (including double-paned windows for extra sound insulation), the architect had no hesitation about the roof terrace. As he wrote to his patron at the outset,

Your program interests us because it is a “star” program (Champs Élysées), and because it proposes a solution for the roofscape of Paris, something I have been talking about for fifteen years.

In fact roof gardens were one of Le Corbusier’s essential “Five Points of Modern Architecture” (the others being open floor plans, free façades, piloti columns, and horizontal strip windows.)

Carlos de Beistegui and Ira von Fürstenberg

Max Scheler/Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy

Carlos de Beistegui and Ira von Fürstenberg, 1955

The Noailles, who owned the building adjacent to Beistegui’s rental on the Champs-Élysées, made Modernism chic, and he wanted to outdo them. Instead of the telescope they installed for stargazing in Provence, he specified a revolving rooftop periscope that could project views of the surrounding city onto a tabletop in a small, windowless ovoid chamber that served as a modern camera obscura. The landscaping of the apartment’s exterior was no less unusual, with clipped boxwood hedges along the building’s parapets in mobile concrete planters. These containers were set on tracks and could be moved at the press of a button to reveal breathtaking vistas down the Champs-Élysées. A tall columnar cypress added vertical punctuation, although plants had to be frequently replaced because of the windswept roof’s less-than-optimal growing conditions.

Like Le Corbusier’s houses of the 1920s, the Beistegui penthouse in profile resembled the superstructure of an oceangoing steamer, one of his industrial vernacular touchstones. Here, though, the nautical reference was less pronounced because abundant peripheral greenery supplanted the architect’s customary use of ship railings on stairways, balconies, and roofs. To accord with city zoning regulations, the rooftop additions had to be set back from the parapet far enough to be minimally visible from the boulevard below. In addition, the unusual amount of glass used on the outer walls of the lowest of the apartment’s three levels gave it a much more dematerialized feel than Le Corbusier’s other houses of the 1920s, and thus the project’s overall character derived mainly from the outdoor spaces it defined rather than from its enclosed elements.

The interiors were done up in a manner far different from the relatively simple way in which Le Corbusier’s other clients inhabited their houses, which often included the innovative furniture designed by him, Jeanneret, and their young colleague Charlotte Perriand. Indeed, Beistegui’s florid accoutrements for the apartment—notably a life-size “blackamoor” statue, a huge mirrored Hollywood Regency portiere, and a pyramidal tabletop centerpiece of deep blue Dresden porcelain studded with rhinestones—were so overwhelming that it takes considerable effort to discern the underlying architecture. Someone once said that the genius of advanced French design lies in its being so far ahead of prevailing modes that one cannot gauge how ridiculous it is until long afterward, once fashion has moved on. In retrospect, the interiors of Beistegui’s penthouse could be cited as confirmation of that thesis.

The penthouse was widely publicized through illustrated articles in glossy consumer magazines as well as more sober evaluations in the architectural press, and Van den Bergh’s book reproduces several in their original layouts. The more breathless of those journalistic treatments, which struck some as galling during the hardships of the Great Depression, drew the scorn of the wholesomely American E.B. White, who parodied them in a 1934 New Yorker casual titled “Dusk in Fierce Pajamas,” referring directly to the Parisian prodigy:

It is the magic hour before cocktails. I am in the modern penthouse of Monsieur Charles de Beistegui. The staircase is entirely of cement, spreading at the hem-line and trimmed with padded satin tubing caught at the neck with a bar of milk chocolate.

Others, however, looked upon such fantasies-made-real in much the same way that moviegoers at the time viewed the dazzling Moderne sets in Rogers-and-Astaire films—as marvelous but harmless escapism into an unattainable world that brought relief from the grim realities of daily life.

Machine à Amuser excels in its incisive delineation of the architect–client dynamic, one of the best I’ve read concerning the interactions of two strong-willed creative figures. Van den Bergh’s research is based on letters and plans preserved at the Fondation Le Corbusier, which restricted access to the architect’s papers for decades after his death in 1965 until it at last relented and gave permission to Nicholas Fox Weber to use them for his Le Corbusier: A Life (2008), the first full-dress biography of the architect.* The well-paced account in Machine à Amuser, enlivened by the gentlemanly but exasperated missives that passed between Le Corbusier and Beistegui, reads like an epistolary novel, almost comical at times in its evocation of two supreme egotists squaring off against each other. Each was self-assured in his own superiority—the master builder convinced of his artistic genius, the patron cocooned in his vast wealth, but alike in being used to having things done their way. They are at their most representative in this exchange—the client high-handed and unconcerned about others, the architect unsubservient but with his eye always on the main chance.

Beistegui to Le Corbusier, July 1, 1929:

I would remind you that I would like to see another design inspired by our conversation of yesterday and the little sketch that I made for you.

I will be in Paris on July 14th, in the evening to be precise. So, I will call you in the morning of July 15th to arrange a meeting with you on that same day, as I will have to leave for Italy on the morning of the 16th and will only return to Paris at the end of October.

Please let me know if I can count on you concerning the drawing and the meeting.

Le Corbusier to Beistegui, July 5, 1929:

I will make a little sketch for you for the 15th, to assure you of my goodwill. But this sketch will be practically meaningless, since one cannot make architecture from the outside…

The nub of the matter is this: I am the instigator of the modern architectural movement. All countries recognize this, apply my methods, exploit my ideas…

For those who have little work, or for whom architecture is a matter of external appearance, of fashion, of adapting to the vagaries of fortune, it is normal to seek out a flattering clientele, to play their game and take a chance on studies. But as for me, I’ve been playing my game for twenty years now. And today that game is won. I am recognized, people know what I do…

My clients come to me. And not one of them has left unsatisfied.

Not the least of their frictions stemmed from the peripatetic way of life they had in common, enabled by advances in transportation, from new passenger planes and record-breaking transoceanic liners to fast trains and motorcars. Although both were based in Paris, they seemed to be in perpetual motion and were seldom in the same place at the same time. They dashed among far-flung destinations, with Le Corbusier in search of commissions and global attention through his self-advertising lectures and Beistegui in no less strenuous pursuit of sequential social seasons in one gilded enclave after another.

The two repeatedly made and broke their appointments, as the client imposed unrealistic deadlines and his hireling blithely evaded them. They wrote or telegraphed to forwarding addresses the recipient had already left, further slowing the momentum. When Beistegui hectored Le Corbusier for plans on short order, the architect ignored him, left on a lengthy sea crossing to South America, and let Jeanneret do the work instead. These parries were conveyed with the utmost faux politesse that barely masked cynical wariness on both sides, though the principals shared a genuine desire to see their improbable enterprise through to a successful conclusion, if not within the same time frame. Le Corbusier was clearly an expert psychologist with a firm grasp on how to keep the upper hand with clients. His shrewd dealings with the unusually difficult Beistegui constitute a master class in how a major artist can maintain his integrity and still get the job done under trying circumstances.

The Beistegui commission coincided with the new vogue for living at the apex of an apartment house, which reversed the old French hierarchy according to which a building’s second-story bel étage was the most prestigious, with each successive floor above it becoming less desirable and culminating in the uppermost grenier, or garret, the traditional abode of the poor starving artist or writer. The upending of this long-established practice began in New York City, where the very top of a dwelling, whether one-family or multiunit, was often used to house servants, as at Henry Hardenbergh’s Dakota apartment building of 1880–1884. In 1924 Condé Nast, the socialite proprietor-publisher of Vogue, Vanity Fair, and House and Garden, took over the highest floor of a new apartment building at 1040 Park Avenue designed by the old-guard firm of Delano and Aldrich. He added another story on the roof, with the outer walls set back far enough from those of the building below to create capacious areas for outdoor entertaining, a novelty that captivated the smart set Nast cultivated and whose activities his magazines chronicled.

A penthouse quickly became a coveted Manhattan status symbol, as affirmed by Cole Porter’s torch song about a lonely rich woman titled “Down in the Depths (On the Ninetieth Floor),” even though residences that high up would not become available in New York City until the advent of postmillennial supertall towers. By the mid-1930s a penthouse was a sought-after attraction in new apartment towers from Casablanca to Shanghai to Rio de Janeiro. Actually, the concept had a Parisian precursor in Auguste Perret’s Rue Franklin Apartments of 1902–1904. Although now best known for its pioneering exposed concrete framework, that structure ascended to a luxurious multilevel penthouse with several contiguous outdoor spaces, albeit rather small ones in comparison with the wraparound terraces of Nast’s duplex.

After Beistegui had exhausted his novel apartment’s publicity value, and with a low threshold for boredom—the most dreaded emotion among his sensation-seeking cohort—he set his sights on a bigger domestic design project: the Château de Groussay, an early-nineteenth-century country house some forty miles west of Paris. He bought the neglected property in 1938 and lavishly refurbished its rooms in a variety of historical styles with the help of the Russian artist Alexandre Serebriakoff and the Cuban-French architect and interior designer Emilio Terry, an eclectic antiquarian and the antithesis of Le Corbusier.

In 1952, by which time Modernism had superseded Classicism as the lingua franca of architecture, Beistegui expressed characteristically contrarian pride in going against the grain in both instances. He said in a Connaissances des Arts interview, “In 1929 my entire house was a bathroom. Now, my bathroom looks like a bedroom.” Speaking of bedrooms, he was a lifelong bachelor who carried on numerous affairs, preferably with titled and often married women. Although none of this is touched on in Machine à Amuser, the art historian and peerless social observer John Richardson, who knew Beistegui personally, relates many piquant anecdotes about this seasoned roué in Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters (2001).

World War II and the Nazi occupation barely fazed Beistegui, who held a diplomatic passport thanks to his sinecure as a cultural attaché at the Spanish embassy in Paris. (His father had been the Mexican ambassador to Spain and Portugal.) He used diplomatic immunity to facilitate a constant flow of foodstuffs and luxury goods from Franco’s noncombatant Spain but remained oblivious to the privation and suffering around him. Cecil Beaton visited Groussay in 1944 and found its chatelain “utterly ruthless. Such qualities as sympathy, pity, or even gratitude are sadly lacking. He has become the most self-engrossed and pleasure-seeking person I have met,” no small indictment from someone as self-absorbed as Beaton.

Astonishingly—given the thoroughness of his approach—Van den Bergh makes no mention of Le Corbusier’s greatest exploitation of open-air living atop a building: the brilliant roofscape he created at his Unité d’habitation of 1945–1952 in Marseilles, the seventeen-story horizontal slab-sided apartment building designed to house 1,600 people, which he later replicated with minor variations at four other sites in France and Germany. To be sure, there are vast discrepancies in scale and access between the private Beistegui penthouse and the communal roof terrace of the original Unité. The latter measures nearly 3,200 square feet, and the architect loaded it with amenities for the tenants, including a gym, a running track, an open-air theater, and a day care center complete with a kiddie pool. Even without making use of all those improving appurtenances, the building’s residents could appreciate the Unité’s expansive crowning glory as a veritable Modernist sculpture park. Here Le Corbusier fully displayed his gift for imbuing architectural forms with a raw volumetric power unrivaled by any of his contemporaries.

The rooftop’s rectangular concrete-and-glass pavilion, elevated on slender pilotis and originally conceived as a kindergarten, has an obvious antecedent in the Beistegui penthouse. In Marseilles, the juxtaposition of that rectangular element against the upwardly flaring, undulatingly contoured concrete exhaust funnel—which exudes the mysterious aura of an ancient Cycladic fertility idol—echoes the contrast between the vertical biomorphic accent of the periscope and the ovoid camera obscura on the Champs-Élysées roof deck. Ironically, the first Unité was going up just as the Beistegui penthouse was beginning to be taken down.

The demise of the apartment is far less well understood than its genesis, and as Van den Bergh concedes, “What happened to the penthouse after 1938 is difficult to determine.” With remarkable forensic attentiveness, he resorted to unusual methods to determine a timeline. Apparently Beistegui relinquished his lease sometime after the war, as Groussay and the Palazzo Labia became his chief obsessions.

At the Musée Carnavalet, the archive of Paris history, Van den Bergh discovered the aerial photographer Roger Henrard’s decades-long series of overhead views showing the environs of the Étoile. Through these minutely detailed images he could trace changes made to the Beistegui rooftop between 1935 and 1961. Step by step he followed the gradual alteration of one detail after another—the removal of hedges, the disappearance of the periscope, the closing off of the outdoor fireplace, the installation of multipaned fenestration in place of the sheet-glass window walls—until the original components completely vanished.

Much more so than the building art, interior design is susceptible to destruction in the short term, as fashions change and older trends become passé (until their inevitable revival). But when architecture is intimately interwoven with up-to-the-minute decorating, as it was in the Beistegui commission, that process is accelerated. Where this scheme remains most instructive, though, is in its demonstration of how the absence of the idealistic social program that motivated the Modern Movement in architecture at its finest reduced that revolutionary rethinking of domestic habitation to just another consumable, disposable style.

Although during his so-called heroic period of the 1920s and early 1930s Le Corbusier designed several houses for other rich people with commanding personalities, none of them was spiritually repurposed to the same extent as his Champs-Élysées commission, which Carlos de Beistegui transmogrified into the height of society chichi. The architect had incorporated private roof gardens in his Quartiers Modernes Frugès of 1924–1926 in Pessac, near Bordeaux, a low-rise working-class housing estate whose residents over the decades also altered his stucco-surfaced International Style row houses to suit their own tastes. Those modifications included lower-bourgeois decorative touches like Swiss chalet eaves, nonfunctioning shutters, sham half-timbers, and fake stone siding. (In recent decades the development has been meticulously restored to encourage architectural tourism to Pessac.) Nonetheless, such insensitive changes never diluted the strong communal values fostered over the past century by the architecture itself, unlike the solipsistic vagaries of one particular good-time Charlie.