Up on the Roof | Martin Filler


Few pictures within the historical past of contemporary structure have exerted fairly the identical uncanny fascination as Marius Gravot’s 1932 black-and-white {photograph} of a most uncommon French adorning scheme. A severely outlined rectilinear area, so emblematic of the early Worldwide Type with its excessive, white-plastered partitions devoid of any detailing or floor decoration, is incongruously interrupted by a white Baroque chimneypiece flanked by a pair of curvilinear iron backyard chairs. On the ground in entrance of the hearth, a cushion and an open e-book seem to have been left by a reader who has simply wandered away.

This minimalist salon remembers one in all René Magritte’s enigmatic Surrealist compositions, wherein acquainted signifiers of on a regular basis bourgeois life are given unnerving new connotations by means of visible non sequiturs which are as not possible to clarify as they’re to neglect. One nearly expects a small, puffing locomotive to emerge from the fireplace, as in his portray La Durée poignardée (Time Transfixed, 1938). The odd dissociations proceed. As a substitute of getting a trompe l’oeil ceiling depicting the heavens dotted with clouds—an illusionistic conceit widespread amongst grandees from the Renaissance onward—this enclosure is open to the sky. And though the ground at first appears as if it’s lined with a deep-pile carpet, nearer inspection reveals it to be planted with grass.

The playfully disorienting ambiguity of this not-quite-indoor, not-quite-outdoor area is a sly subversion of the early Trendy Motion’s promotion of salubrious all-seasons dwelling by means of buildings with absolutely retractable window partitions in climates of each type. These barrier-breaking experiments ranged in geographic suitability from Richard Neutra’s flat-roofed homes starting within the Twenties in sunny Southern California to Jan Duiker’s four-story Openluchtschool (Open Air Faculty) of 1929–1930 in Amsterdam, the place the North Sea local weather made alfresco educating impractical for a lot of the yr. Generally the Worldwide Type, alleged to be infinitely adaptable, was performed in by native situations.

Right here, although, it’s simple to find oneself. Above the parapet peeps the unmistakable Arc de Triomphe, just a few hundred toes away. The Metropolis of Mild’s spirit of place grew to become much more pronounced when the dwelling’s resident additional embellished the area for events—its principal supposed operate. His Baroque ornamental thrives included an oval mirror above the mantel, a stone duplicate of an eighteenth-century commode towards 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 standing, one may don’t have any doubts about the place one was—up on the roof of the home of an individual with a substantial amount of cash, a fertile creativeness, and an offbeat humorousness, on the epicenter of the civilized world.

These attributes exemplified the condo’s tenant, Carlos de Beistegui y Yturbe, a fabulously wealthy, French-born, Previous Etonian aesthete of Mexican and Basque heritage (whence his uncommon surname). Precisely who was most accountable for the creation of his curious Paris aerie is the central focus of an exhaustively researched monograph, Machine à Amuser: The Life and Loss of life of the Beistegui Penthouse Condo, by the Dutch architect, educator, and scholar Wim van den Bergh. Major credit score for the condo has most frequently been accorded to its architects, Le Corbusier (born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret), ranked by many as essentially the most influential of all Modernist grasp builders, and his practically 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 unique parts of which had been designed by the architect Charles Gondoin for Beistegui’s Mexican émigré grandmother within the 1870s. Consciousness of the no-longer-extant scheme, an unclassifiable anomaly in Le Corbusier’s oeuvre, has persevered primarily by means of images in his huge bibliography. Surprisingly, Le Corbusier’s title seems in neither this e-book’s title nor subtitle, a shocking omission given how salable he’s amongst design aficionados. That lacuna displays Van den Bergh’s assertion that the true auteur of this “autobiographical house,” as he calls it, was Beistegui, who put his private imprint on the completed product so strongly that he should be seen as its presiding creator.

The e-book’s intelligent title is a play on Le Corbusier’s oft-misquoted dictum, first posited in his revolutionary polemic Vers une structure (1923), that “une maison est une machine à habiter”—a home is a machine to dwell in. He didn’t imply—as has been broadly misunderstood—{that a} home should resemble a mechanical machine, nonetheless a lot the stripped-down, industrially primarily based aesthetic he favored through the first half of his profession reminded most of the people of factories and different utilitarian buildings. Slightly, his intention was to emphasize {that a} profitable residential design should function with the identical interdependent logic, effectivity, and productiveness as a well-engineered machine.

Van den Bergh’s titular twist as an alternative emphasizes the self-indulgent lifestyle pursued by the hedonistic playboy who introduced the endeavor into being and, to paraphrase a 1929 Noël Coward lyric, had a expertise to be amused. It’s axiomatic that creating an amazing constructing requires an amazing consumer. But no matter how a control-freak architect would possibly outline that time period, it doesn’t imply a patron who acquiesces to each facet of a scheme however quite one who participates in a mutually useful give-and-take with the designer. Both passively accepting or reflexively rejecting components is unlikely to result in a positive end result for both occasion. Conversely, architects are generally pushed to distraction by their shoppers’ extreme calls for.

However such concerns meant little to the haughty, discriminating, and secretive Beistegui—incongruously identified to his high-flown intimates as Charlie—who lived just for pleasure and led a nonstop quest for the subsequent modern factor. Typically talked about within the revealed diaries and letters of the 20 th century’s worldwide beau monde, he’s maybe greatest remembered for Le Bal Oriental, the opulent masked gala he gave in 1951 at his Palazzo Labia in Venice, which he had simply completed 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 the Aristocracy—was calculated to recommence the glittering entertainments that the host and his privileged coterie conjured with astounding frequency through the interwar Années folles.

The theme of Beistegui’s now legendary extravaganza was Antony and Cleopatra, impressed by the palazzo’s wonderful cycle of Tiepolo frescoes representing the ill-fated couple. The flowery interval costumes this fancy-dress soiree impressed—its organizer got here as a procurator of the Venetian Republic, with sixteen-inch platform sneakers to amplify his five-foot, six-inch stature—make Truman Capote’s 1966 Black and White Ball, typically referred to as the occasion of the century (as is Le Bal Oriental), appear to be a potluck supper. The primary factor the 2 occasions had in widespread, in addition to masks and a celeb visitor record, was their diminutive hosts’ supercilious snobbery. When the famend British society magnificence Woman Diana Cooper (on whom Beistegui bestowed the consideration of portraying Cleopatra) requested him if she might be escorted by US Secretary of Protection George C. Marshall, the daddy of the Marshall Plan that revived war-devastated Europe, he requested, “Is he from a good family?” (Although Marshall was associated to the nineteenth-century US Supreme Courtroom chief justice John Marshall, no invitation was forthcoming.)

In granular element prone to be an excessive amount of for the nonspecialist reader, Van den Bergh provides prolonged analyses of all seven successive design schemes by Le Corbusier and Jeanneret. Beistegui’s household had offered the Champs-Élysées constructing after his grandmother’s demise, and it was damaged up into flats, with industrial areas on the decrease flooring. In 1929 Beistegui rented the roof and instantly started to ponder methods to flip it right into a spectacular showplace. Le Corbusier and Jeanneret’s preliminary plans had been a part of an invitational competitors that the brand new tenant held to elicit proposals from three architectural workplaces, a observe generally thought to supply the absolute best consequence by pitting professionals towards one another. Nevertheless, that technique succeeds solely when a fee is extremely fascinating or different work is scarce. Given the period of time that goes into drawing up a speculative design, it’s not often well worth the insufficient compensation often offered (if there’s any in any respect), and plenty of established architects thus refuse to enter contests.

The second participant was André Lurçat, the architect of the Karl Marx Faculty of 1930–1933, a daring concrete construction within the southern Paris suburb of Villejuif, one in all France’s first Communist-governed municipalities. The third was the younger Armenian architect Gabriel Guevrekian, a former Le Corbusier worker who devised a extremely mannered Cubist backyard for the avant-garde artwork patrons Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, haute bohemian aristocrats and shut buddies of Beistegui’s. Their sprawling hilltop villa in Provence close to the Côte d’Azur, designed in 1923 by the middle-of-the-road Modernist Robert Mallet-Stevens, marked a turning level within the French higher class’s acceptance of the brand new structure.

No matter one might say about Beistegui’s style as an inside decorator, he had an eye fixed sharp sufficient to find out that the Le Corbusier–Jeanneret providing was by far the perfect of the lot. It possessed a buoyancy and class lacking from the 2 different proposals, which by comparability had been weighty and static. The consumer’s compulsive want to regulate—most evident in his repeated makes an attempt to impose Classical symmetries on his chosen architects’ design, opposite to the Modernist desire for asymmetry—led to refined pushback on their half in addition to an distinctive variety of reiterations. But when he was keen to pay, pay, pay, the architects had been able to revise, revise, revise, whereas on the similar time by no means compromising their core ideas.

As Van den Bergh convincingly argues, not solely was the Villa Noailles the inspiration for Beistegui’s beautiful cabin within the sky, however plenty of its distinctive touches had been the idea for concepts that Le Corbusier and Jeanneret had been requested to adapt for the Champs-Élysées penthouse. These included a house cinema with a retractable film display screen that might be pulled down from the condo’s ceiling, an early built-in phonographic sound system, and a newfangled electrical fridge.

Beistegui was particularly taken with the Noailles’s rooftop chambre en plein air (open-air room) and its carpet of grass, which when transposed to Paris would enable him the outside entertaining in any other case attainable there provided that one had a non-public backyard. (He was envious of the city fêtes champêtres thrown by a colourful couple in his interior circle, Cecil and Mimi Pecci-Blunt, at their eighteenth-century hôtel particulier on the Left Financial institution, which had greater than an acre of walled gardens, among the many largest in central Paris.)

Though Beistegui needed to badger Le Corbusier into fulfilling a number of of his desiderata (together with double-paned home windows for additional sound insulation), the architect had no hesitation in regards to the roof terrace. As he wrote to his patron on the outset,

Your program pursuits us as a result of it’s a “star” program (Champs Élysées), and since it proposes an answer for the roofscape of Paris, one thing I’ve been speaking about for fifteen years.

The truth is roof gardens had been one in all Le Corbusier’s important “Five Points of Modern Architecture” (the others being open flooring plans, free façades, piloti columns, and horizontal strip home windows.)

Max Scheler/Süddeutsche Zeitung Picture/Alamy

Carlos de Beistegui and Ira von Fürstenberg, 1955

The Noailles, who owned the constructing adjoining to Beistegui’s rental on the Champs-Élysées, made Modernism stylish, and he needed to outdo them. As a substitute of the telescope they put in for stargazing in Provence, he specified a revolving rooftop periscope that might venture views of the encompassing metropolis onto a tabletop in a small, windowless ovoid chamber that served as a contemporary digicam obscura. The landscaping of the condo’s exterior was no much less uncommon, with clipped boxwood hedges alongside the constructing’s parapets in cellular concrete planters. These containers had been set on tracks and might be moved on the press of a button to disclose breathtaking vistas down the Champs-Élysées. A tall columnar cypress added vertical punctuation, though crops needed to be regularly changed due to the windswept roof’s less-than-optimal rising situations.

Like Le Corbusier’s homes of the Twenties, the Beistegui penthouse in profile resembled the superstructure of an oceangoing steamer, one in all his industrial vernacular touchstones. Right here, although, the nautical reference was much less pronounced as a result of considerable peripheral greenery supplanted the architect’s customary use of ship railings on stairways, balconies, and roofs. To accord with metropolis zoning rules, the rooftop additions needed to be set again from the parapet far sufficient to be minimally seen from the boulevard beneath. As well as, the bizarre quantity of glass used on the outer partitions of the bottom of the condo’s three ranges gave it a way more dematerialized really feel than Le Corbusier’s different homes of the Twenties, and thus the venture’s total character derived primarily from the outside areas it outlined quite than from its enclosed components.

The interiors had been performed up in a way far totally different from the comparatively easy means wherein Le Corbusier’s different shoppers inhabited their homes, which frequently included the revolutionary furnishings designed by him, Jeanneret, and their younger colleague Charlotte Perriand. Certainly, Beistegui’s florid accoutrements for the condo—notably a life-size “blackamoor” statue, an enormous mirrored Hollywood Regency portiere, and a pyramidal tabletop centerpiece of deep blue Dresden porcelain studded with rhinestones—had been so overwhelming that it takes appreciable effort to discern the underlying structure. Somebody as soon as stated that the genius of superior French design lies in its being to date forward of prevailing modes that one can not gauge how ridiculous it’s till lengthy afterward, as soon as trend has moved on. On reflection, the interiors of Beistegui’s penthouse might be cited as affirmation of that thesis.

The penthouse was broadly publicized by means of illustrated articles in shiny shopper magazines in addition to extra sober evaluations within the architectural press, and Van den Bergh’s e-book reproduces a number of of their authentic layouts. The extra breathless of these journalistic remedies, which struck some as galling through the hardships of the Nice Despair, drew the scorn of the wholesomely American E.B. White, who parodied them in a 1934 New Yorker informal titled “Dusk in Fierce Pajamas,” referring on to the Parisian prodigy:

It’s the magic hour earlier than cocktails. I’m within the trendy penthouse of Monsieur Charles de Beistegui. The staircase is completely of cement, spreading on the hem-line and trimmed with padded satin tubing caught on the neck with a bar of milk chocolate.

Others, nonetheless, seemed upon such fantasies-made-real in a lot the identical means that moviegoers on the time seen the dazzling Moderne units in Rogers-and-Astaire movies—as marvelous however innocent escapism into an unattainable world that introduced aid from the grim realities of each day life.

Machine à Amuser excels in its incisive delineation of the architect–consumer dynamic, among the best I’ve learn regarding the interactions of two strong-willed artistic figures. Van den Bergh’s analysis is predicated on letters and plans preserved on the Fondation Le Corbusier, which restricted entry to the architect’s papers for many years after his demise in 1965 till it ultimately relented and gave permission to Nicholas Fox Weber to make use of them for his Le Corbusier: A Life (2008), the primary full-dress biography of the architect.* The well-paced account in Machine à Amuser, enlivened by the gentlemanly however exasperated missives that handed between Le Corbusier and Beistegui, reads like an epistolary novel, nearly comical at occasions in its evocation of two supreme egotists squaring off towards one another. Every was confident in his personal superiority—the grasp builder satisfied of his creative genius, the patron cocooned in his huge wealth, however alike in getting used to having issues performed their means. They’re at their most consultant on this trade—the consumer high-handed and unconcerned about others, the architect unsubservient however along with his eye at all times on the principle probability.

Beistegui to Le Corbusier, July 1, 1929:

I’d remind you that I wish to see one other design impressed by our dialog of yesterday and the little sketch that I made for you.

I shall be in Paris on July 14th, within the night to be exact. So, I’ll name you within the morning of July fifteenth to rearrange a gathering with you on that very same day, as I should go away for Italy on the morning of the sixteenth and can solely return to Paris on the finish of October.

Please let me know if I can rely on you regarding the drawing and the assembly.

Le Corbusier to Beistegui, July 5, 1929:

I’ll make a bit sketch for you for the fifteenth, to guarantee you of my goodwill. However this sketch shall be virtually meaningless, since one can not make structure from the skin…

The nub of the matter is that this: I’m the instigator of the fashionable architectural motion. All nations acknowledge this, apply my strategies, exploit my concepts…

For individuals who have little work, or for whom structure is a matter of exterior look, of trend, of adapting to the vagaries of fortune, it’s regular to hunt out a flattering clientele, to play their sport and take an opportunity on research. However as for me, I’ve been enjoying my sport for twenty years now. And at present that sport is received. I’m acknowledged, individuals know what I do…

My shoppers come to me. And never one in all them has left unhappy.

Not the least of their frictions stemmed from the peripatetic lifestyle they’d in widespread, enabled by advances in transportation, from new passenger planes and record-breaking transoceanic liners to quick trains and motorcars. Though each had been primarily based in Paris, they appeared to be in perpetual movement and had been seldom in the identical place on the similar time. They dashed amongst far-flung locations, with Le Corbusier in quest of commissions and international consideration by means of his self-advertising lectures and Beistegui in no much less strenuous pursuit of sequential social seasons in a single gilded enclave after one other.

The 2 repeatedly made and broke their appointments, because the consumer imposed unrealistic deadlines and his hireling blithely evaded them. They wrote or telegraphed to forwarding addresses the recipient had already left, additional slowing the momentum. When Beistegui hectored Le Corbusier for plans on quick order, the architect ignored him, left on a prolonged sea crossing to South America, and let Jeanneret do the work as an alternative. These parries had been conveyed with the utmost fake politesse that hardly masked cynical wariness on each side, although the principals shared a real want to see their inconceivable enterprise by means of to a profitable conclusion, if not inside the similar timeframe. Le Corbusier was clearly an skilled psychologist with a agency grasp on methods to hold the higher hand with shoppers. His shrewd dealings with the unusually tough Beistegui represent a grasp class in how a significant artist can keep his integrity and nonetheless get the job performed beneath making an attempt circumstances.

The Beistegui fee coincided with the brand new vogue for dwelling on the apex of an condo home, which reversed the previous French hierarchy in line with which a constructing’s second-story bel étage was essentially the most prestigious, with every successive flooring above it changing into much less fascinating and culminating within the uppermost grenier, or garret, the normal abode of the poor ravenous artist or author. The upending of this long-established observe started in New York Metropolis, the place the very high of a dwelling, whether or not one-family or multiunit, was typically used to accommodate servants, as at Henry Hardenbergh’s Dakota condo constructing of 1880–1884. In 1924 Condé Nast, the socialite proprietor-publisher of Vogue, Vainness Truthful, and Home and Backyard, took over the very best flooring of a brand new condo constructing at 1040 Park Avenue designed by the old-guard agency of Delano and Aldrich. He added one other story on the roof, with the outer partitions set again far sufficient from these of the constructing beneath to create capacious areas for outside entertaining, a novelty that captivated the good set Nast cultivated and whose actions his magazines chronicled.

A penthouse shortly grew to become a coveted Manhattan standing image, as affirmed by Cole Porter’s torch music a couple of lonely wealthy lady titled “Down in the Depths (On the Ninetieth Floor),” regardless that residences that prime up wouldn’t turn out to be obtainable in New York Metropolis till the arrival of postmillennial supertall towers. By the mid-Thirties a penthouse was a sought-after attraction in new condo towers from Casablanca to Shanghai to Rio de Janeiro. Truly, the idea had a Parisian precursor in Auguste Perret’s Rue Franklin Flats of 1902–1904. Though now greatest identified for its pioneering uncovered concrete framework, that construction ascended to an opulent multilevel penthouse with a number of contiguous outside areas, albeit quite small ones compared with the wraparound terraces of Nast’s duplex.

After Beistegui had exhausted his novel condo’s publicity worth, and with a low threshold for boredom—essentially the most dreaded emotion amongst his sensation-seeking cohort—he set his sights on an even bigger home design venture: the Château de Groussay, an early-nineteenth-century nation home some forty miles west of Paris. He purchased the uncared for property in 1938 and lavishly refurbished its rooms in a wide range of historic kinds with the assistance of the Russian artist Alexandre Serebriakoff and the Cuban-French architect and inside designer Emilio Terry, an eclectic antiquarian and the antithesis of Le Corbusier.

In 1952, by which period Modernism had outdated Classicism because the lingua franca of structure, Beistegui expressed characteristically contrarian satisfaction in going towards the grain in each situations. He stated in a Connaissances des Arts interview, “In 1929 my entire house was a bathroom. Now, my bathroom looks like a bedroom.” Talking of bedrooms, he was a lifelong bachelor who carried on quite a few affairs, ideally with titled and infrequently married girls. Though none of that is touched on in Machine à Amuser, the artwork 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 Battle II and the Nazi occupation barely fazed Beistegui, who held a diplomatic passport because of his sinecure as a cultural attaché on the Spanish embassy in Paris. (His father had been the Mexican ambassador to Spain and Portugal.) He used diplomatic immunity to facilitate a relentless stream of foodstuffs and luxurious items from Franco’s noncombatant Spain however remained oblivious to the privation and struggling round him. Cecil Beaton visited Groussay in 1944 and located 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 somebody as self-absorbed as Beaton.

Astonishingly—given the thoroughness of his strategy—Van den Bergh makes no point out of Le Corbusier’s best exploitation of open-air dwelling atop a constructing: the sensible roofscape he created at his Unité d’habitation of 1945–1952 in Marseilles, the seventeen-story horizontal slab-sided condo constructing designed to accommodate 1,600 individuals, which he later replicated with minor variations at 4 different websites in France and Germany. To make certain, there are huge discrepancies in scale and entry between the personal Beistegui penthouse and the communal roof terrace of the unique Unité. The latter measures practically 3,200 sq. toes, and the architect loaded it with facilities for the tenants, together with a gymnasium, a operating observe, an open-air theater, and a day care heart full with a kiddie pool. Even with out making use of all these bettering appurtenances, the constructing’s residents may recognize the Unité’s expansive crowning glory as a veritable Modernist sculpture park. Right here Le Corbusier absolutely displayed his present for imbuing architectural kinds with a uncooked volumetric energy unequalled by any of his contemporaries.

The rooftop’s rectangular concrete-and-glass pavilion, elevated on slender pilotis and initially conceived as a kindergarten, has an apparent antecedent within the Beistegui penthouse. In Marseilles, the juxtaposition of that rectangular aspect towards the upwardly flaring, undulatingly contoured concrete exhaust funnel—which exudes the mysterious aura of an historic Cycladic fertility idol—echoes the distinction between the vertical biomorphic accent of the periscope and the ovoid digicam obscura on the Champs-Élysées roof deck. Mockingly, the primary Unité was going up simply because the Beistegui penthouse was starting to be taken down.

The demise of the condo is much much less effectively understood than its genesis, and as Van den Bergh concedes, “What happened to the penthouse after 1938 is difficult to determine.” With outstanding forensic attentiveness, he resorted to uncommon strategies to find out a timeline. Apparently Beistegui relinquished his lease someday after the battle, as Groussay and the Palazzo Labia grew to become his chief obsessions.

On the Musée Carnavalet, the archive of Paris historical past, Van den Bergh found the aerial photographer Roger Henrard’s decades-long sequence of overhead views exhibiting the environs of the Étoile. Via these minutely detailed pictures he may hint modifications made to the Beistegui rooftop between 1935 and 1961. Step-by-step he adopted the gradual alteration of 1 element after one other—the elimination of hedges, the disappearance of the periscope, the closing off of the outside fire, the set up of multipaned fenestration instead of the sheet-glass window partitions—till the unique parts utterly vanished.

Far more so than the constructing artwork, inside design is prone to destruction within the quick time period, as fashions change and older developments turn out to be passé (till their inevitable revival). However when structure is intimately interwoven with up-to-the-minute adorning, because it was within the Beistegui fee, that course of is accelerated. The place this scheme stays most instructive, although, is in its demonstration of how the absence of the idealistic social program that motivated the Trendy Motion in structure at its best lowered that revolutionary rethinking of home habitation to simply one other consumable, disposable fashion.

Though throughout his so-called heroic interval of the Twenties and early Thirties Le Corbusier designed a number of homes for different wealthy individuals with commanding personalities, none of them was spiritually repurposed to the identical extent as his Champs-Élysées fee, which Carlos de Beistegui transmogrified into the peak of society chichi. The architect had integrated personal roof gardens in his Quartiers Modernes Frugès of 1924–1926 in Pessac, close to Bordeaux, a low-rise working-class housing property whose residents over the a long time additionally altered his stucco-surfaced Worldwide Type row homes to go well with their very own tastes. These modifications included lower-bourgeois ornamental touches like Swiss chalet eaves, nonfunctioning shutters, sham half-timbers, and faux stone siding. (In current a long time the event has been meticulously restored to encourage architectural tourism to Pessac.) Nonetheless, such insensitive modifications by no means diluted the robust communal values fostered over the previous century by the structure itself, not like the solipsistic vagaries of 1 specific good-time Charlie.

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