Josephine Baker: Muse of Modern Architecture

On the 3rd of June 1906, the American dancer, singer, and actress Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Her life story is a typical ‘rags to riches’ tale. Born in poverty, having lived in the slums of St. Luis, where she slept in cardboard shelters and searched for food in garbage bins, she was taken literally off the street by the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show after being spotted dancing on street-corners. Thanks to her extraordinary on-stage charisma, she became hugely successful with the show, soon gaining the title of the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville. After winning the hearts of New York audiences, she travelled to Paris, where she became an instant star.     

510qpGizcuLHer first Parisian performance in La Revue Nègre on the 2nd of October 1925, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées was like an exotic bombshell explosion.  “With eyes crossed, buttocks quivering, legs going every which way, that slim pulsating body on stage appeared part child, part simian, part puppet on neurotic strings; then she retreated. But she came back, this time, clad in nothing but copper skin, bright pink feathers around her thighs, ankles, and neck, doing a full split while hanging upside down on the well-oiled shoulders of a black giant: one moment, dead weight; the next, pure kinetic eruption.” (Anne Anlin Cheng, Second Skin: Josephine Baker & the Modern Surface). After the performance, the critic Pierre de Regnier described Baker as a strange figure “who walks with bended knees… and looks like a boxing kangaroo. …Is this a man? Is this a woman? Her lips are painted black, her skin is the color of a banana, her hair, already short, is stuck to her head as if made of caviar, her voice is high-pitched, she shakes continually, and her body slithers like a snake. …Is she horrible? Is she ravishing? Is she black? Is she white? …Nobody knows for sure. There is no time to know. She returns as she left, quick as a one-step dance, she is not a woman, she is not a dancer, she is something extravagant and passing, just like the music…” (Jean-Claude Baker, Chris Chase, Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart).

The publicity, fame, and financial rewards that followed, turned Baker into the most successful entertainer in France. The general confusion she provoked with her sensual and exotic persona drew the attention of many artists, and became an inspiration for changing trends in entertainment, art and fashion, and, a lesser known fact, in architecture too. The evidence of the latter is the house of Josephine Baker by the controversial Czech-Austrian architect, Adolf Loos. The house was never built, yet its project, embodying the architect’s personal fascination with the dancer, is an interesting example of modern architecture. “The house design combined two aspects of Viennese modernism – primal purity masking erotic extravagance, and the sensible versus the sensual. Both the primitive purity and the sense of erotic excess were grafted onto Baker’s image as an exotic other who simultaneously symbolized and subverted bourgeois aesthetic canons.” (Bennetta Jules-Rosette, Josephine Baker in Art and Life: The Icon and the Image). The house itself was to be anchored by a cylindrical 511oFeU4O9Lturret. The rest of the design, however, was rectangular in form. “The walls were pierced by very small portal windows. The three-storey house was to be built in alternating courses of black and white granite and marble, producing a stripped effect. …The centrepiece of the house on the second and third floors was a large swimming pool, measuring 4x9x2 meters, with the capacity to hold two tons of water. The pool was surrounded by large glass doors and had a glass ceiling, permitting visitors to watch their hostess swim from various angles in a panoptical sweep. Since Baker swam in the nude, Loos’s idea was that she would provide a floor show for special guests within this seductive interior. The pool breaks through the walls of spectatorship and draws visitors into a shared erotic space. This experience is reinforced by the exotic North African design of the small, square windows cutting off vision from the outside and by the Mediterranean look and feel of the exterior stonework.” (Jules-Rosette)

Whether Loos was inspired by Josephine Baker’s sensual body and was trying to reflect it in his design, is debatable. According to some sources, Baker and Loos did not even meet, nor did Baker see the design. But “[a]round the same time that Loos was designing this house, an intriguing photograph of Baker was taken in Paris. In this image, Baker sports a distinctly modern dress in a black and white abstract geometric pattern, with matching coat: pattern on pattern, stripes on stripes. For the French press then, and for some critics today, this image symbolizes Baker’s sophistication and triumph against her “jungle” image.” (Anne Anlin Cheng, Skins, Tattoos, and Susceptibility, Representations, Vol. 108, No. 1, Fall, 2009). So the question is, what was Loos really trying to capture in his architectural design: the sensual purity of Baker’s naked body or her reinvented sophistication? Or was it the combination of the two?