Friday 20 March 2009

Radical vision

Le Corbusier – The Art of Architecture, Barbican, London

Le Corbusier was one of the most prolific architects of the 20th century and a leading figure of Modernism; his work still divides opinion more than four decades after his death. To his admirers, he is a visionary thinker who transformed the way we look at architecture and the city in a radical manner, while his critics hold him responsible for the soulless public housing projects that became common in the aftermath of World War II. Now, a major survey of his work at the Barbican Centre in London successfully conveys the extensive range of his creative output, and challenges the common criticism of dogmatism and lack of sensitivity often levelled at Le Corbusier.

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret was born in 1887 in the town of La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland, where he acquired his early architectural education at the local art school. He travelled extensively throughout Europe in his early years, and apprenticed with the famous German architect Peter Behrens, becoming fluent in German and getting exposed to new ideas that would move him away from the Arts and Crafts tradition that characterised his early education. In 1920 he changed his name to Le Corbusier, interpreted by some as ‘the crow-like one’, which reflected his belief that anyone could reinvent himself. In 1922 he opened an office in Paris with his cousin, and he later became a French citizen. He would continue to travel extensively throughout his life, learning from every place he visited and continuously refining his ideas. In addition to architecture, he was also a painter, writer, poet and the most influential urbanist in the 20th century.

Few creative minds can bridge the gap between the two extremes of art: architecture and poetry. Architecture is burdened by the demands of functionality, while poetry soars free from the distractions of everyday existence. Poetry is the purest art form, architecture the most implicated. Rarely can the two come together. When they do, we know we are in the presence of an extraordinary encounter. Contrary to the stereotypical image of Le Corbusier as an über-rationalist, his preoccupations revolved around such encounters, producing some of the most poetic spaces and works of architecture in the 20th century. The current exhibition of his work at the Barbican is poetic in its own right, shunning pedagogical concerns in favour of a lyrical reconstruction of Le Corbusier’s life. The result is a broad-themed exhibition that is engaging and thought provoking.

The curators opted for a bold approach, dividing the exhibition into 3 sections, ‘Contexts’, ‘Privacy and Publicity’ and ‘Built Art’, choosing a thematic structure over a chronological or genre-specific organisation. Within each section there are further categories, picking up on themes from Le Corbusier’s long career and explaining the ideas that influenced his work. Under the sub-section entitled ‘Searching for an Ideal’ the exhibition takes us through Le Corbusier’s early travels, and a particularly influential visit to the Charterhouse of Galluzzo near Florence where he came across what he considered a ‘timeless model of a living commune’. The monastic order stressed the value of community life, and was organised along those lines with shared facilities.

Le Corbusier would later revisit these ideas in projects like the ‘Unité d’habitation’, the residential design principle that he developed for housing complexes that featured many communal facilities with a generous provision of open space. Many versions of the Unité were built in various cities around Europe, the most famous of which is the one in Marseille. The building is raised to free up space on the ground floor and it has shops, sports venues and educational facilities. the flat roof is designed as a communal space for the residents with sculptural elements and a swimming pool. To many of his critics, such ideas are considered utopian and unnatural as a model of communal life, but as the exhibition shows, these ideas drew on a long tradition of social life in Europe without compromising of individual flats. The Unité in Marseille is very popular with its inhabitants today, a testament to Le Corbusier’s vision and creative design solutions.

Throughout the exhibition, there are sketches and artefacts that Le Corbusier collected throughout his life that reveal his sources of inspiration as well his ability to re-invent his style and approach. This is certainly one of the strengths of the exhibition, it is an intimate portrait that counters the accusations of dogmatism, even Fascism, that some critics today level at Le Corbusier without understanding the complexity and range of his ideas. His image among the critics today is that of an architect intent on reproducing his buildings endlessly all over the world with a tyrannical zeal. Many critics in Britain tend to blame Le Corbusier’s ideas for the poor quality council estates that were built cheaply in the 1950s and the 1960s. Le Corbusier was certainly enthusiastic about the possibilities of mechanised production, but he wasn’t a believer in thoughtless reproduction. The cartoonish image of him still persists nevertheless.

The exhibition manages to show a different side, a man sensitive to local context who is always willing to challenge his own ideas. This must have been a demanding task and the curators should be praised for sorting through the large amount of drawings, models and countless paraphernalia at their disposal and selectively reconstructing episodes of Le Corbusier’s life that connect the inspiration to the final product. The exhibition is designed in a very clever manner, it patiently reconstructs trails of thought in Le Corbusier’s work that originate with past encounters and culminate in new ideas.  This is more of a poetic than an encyclopaedic approach that celebrates the work of Le Corbusier without resorting it to the common clichés about him today.

This approach allows the exhibition to portray Le Corbusier and his work with all his complexity and apparent contradictions.  The same man who wrote a poem in praise of the ‘right angle’, the rational geometry that he considered be very important, painted voluptuous depictions of bare-chested Algerian women that probably drew more on the imagination than on pliant subjects. The poem sits next to some of Le Corbusier’s later paintings that had evolved in terms of abstraction and style but retained the sensuousness that had attracted him in Algerian women. A short distance away are the large architectural models of his designs for the new city of Chandigarh in India, which represented at the time the height of rational urban design. Yet the projects that Le Corbusier personally designed in Chandigarh, such as the High Court or the Assembly Building, were anything but simple rational abstractions. Le Corbusier combined local references with the latest architectural ideas producing masterpieces that retain their power to impress decades later. The accusation of disregarding local context sometimes levelled at Le Corbusier, and modernist architects in general, is inaccurate. Not only was Le Corbusier inspired by the local motifs, he also designed those buildings with the Indian climate specifically in mind. However, Le Corbusier allows such responses to be discreetly absorbed within the building and not become its sole feature as our-climate obsessed contemporaries do.

Despite the wide range of objects on display, what attract my attention the most in Le Corbusier’s work are his architectural sketches, and there are enough of them here to satisfy the most enthusiastic fan. Much is made of Le Corbusier’s ‘PR’ skills and his ability to sell his ideas to governments and private clients all over the world. The large number of books and articles he wrote certainly helped in that respect, but the most seductive tool he had at his disposal was the ability to represent his ideas in minimalist drawings. The best examples of these drawings are his sketches for a ‘Contemporary City for Three Million Inhabitants’ through which he literally re-invented the city for his age, an age of optimism and a desire for progress. There are various sketches for schemes in Algeria, Moscow and Latin America that are equally powerful, depicting not only architectural form but also a way of life that the world was longing for.

This is perhaps the most problematic aspect of our understanding of Le Corbusier today, and I would venture of other historic figures as well. We are all products of the age that we live in, and we reflect through our existence the contradictions of that age and the way we attempt to resolve them. Le Corbusier’s prolific output is not only a product of his individual genius but also of the age he lived in. Le Corbusier’s contemporaries included the likes of Picasso, whose work influenced Le Corbusier’s ideas. The exhibition devotes a special section to this encounter entitled ‘Painting, Sculpture and a ‘Synthesis of the Arts’’ which is important to understanding Le Corbusier’s work in its right context. Equally, situating a project like the Plan Voisin, his radical vision for central Paris, outside the context of the 1920s and the optimism about the future and the desire for change would reduce that proposal to a cartoon, a mistake that many today are making.

Le Corbusier had summed up one of the crucial paradoxes of his age in his dictum ‘architecture or revolution’. His preference was clearly for the former. Le Corbusier presented better architecture and cities as solutions to the problems of the industrial city and the threat of disorder that it had nurtured. On that, Le Corbusier was a supporter of the social order, although his ideas might seem very revolutionary today. To a certain extent, this allowed the welfare state in the post-war years to appropriate the ideas of Modernism and put them to use in the service of reconstruction and ultimately the preservation of the socio-political order that prevailed for decades. This was, however, a modernism on the cheap, a crass and watered-down version that relied on endless repetition, and it would have certainly horrified Le Corbusier himself.

In contrast to the cheaply-built council estates in Britain, the city of Chandigarh is one of the most thriving cities in India today, and is a very desirable place to live. It sits comfortably under the hot Indian sun, and is unmistakably both Indian and Modernist. The Barbican Centre itself, not designed by Le Corbusier but strongly influenced by his ideas, is another Modernist success story. Nevertheless, today we shy away from attempting such ambitious projects, having concluded that the whole experiment of Modernist architecture was a failure. The real culprit is assumed to be not so much the Modernist style itself but grand ambition as a way of solving society’s problems. This is the wrong conclusion.

The Barbican exhibition avoids such rash judgements, allowing for a clear-headed revisit of Le Corbusier’s more controversial schemes with enough background information to appreciate the particular circumstances in which they were designed. The exhibition also avoids the pedantic tone that characterised the two exhibitions about Modernism at the V&A, which came with a health warning : ‘Modernism can lead to Fascism and Environmental Degradation’. Happily, the curators of the Barbican exhibition avoided the temptation to turn Le Corbusier’s life into a moral parable for our age. For that and for such a superb exhibition, many thanks. 


Till 24 May 2009
Karl Sharro is an architect and writer based in London. Read his blog here.


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