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Thoroughly Modern Master

Towards a New Architecture

by Le Corbusier, translated and with an introduction by Frederick Etchells
Dover, 289 pp., $8.95 (paper)

The Villas of Le Corbusier: 1920–1930

by Tim Benton
Yale University Press, 224 pp., $50.00

Le Corbusier: Architect of the Century

Catalog of the exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London (March 5–June 7, 1987) organized by the Arts Council of Great Britain, 368 pp., $39.95 (paper)

Journey to the East

by Le Corbusier, edited and annotated by Ivan Zaknić, translated by Ivan Zaknić, in collaboration with Nicole Pertuiset
MIT Press, 270 pp., $24.95

The Le Corbusier Guide

by Deborah Gans
Princeton Architectural Press, 192 pp., $17.00 (paper)

Le Corbusier: 5 Projects 26, 1987)

An exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (March 26–May

Le Corbusier: Une encyclopédie

Catalog of the exhibition “L’Aventure Le Corbusier: 1887–1965” at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (October 6, 1987–January 3, 1988), edited by Jacques Lucan
Paris: Editions du Centre Pompidou, 497 pp., fr420

Le Corbusier

edited by H. Allen Brooks
Princeton University Press, 267 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Le Corbusier: The City of Refuge, Paris, 1929–1933

by Brian Brace Taylor
University of Chicago Press, 176 pp., $29.00

Pessac de Le Corbusier: 1927–1985, Etude socio-architecturale

by Philippe Boudon, preface by Henri Lefebvre
Paris: Dunod, 208 pp., fr120

Le Corbusier: Early Works by Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris

with contributions by Geoffrey Baker, by Jacques Gubler
St. Martin’s, 136 pp., $24.95 (paper)

Le Corbusier: La progettazione come mutamento

Catalog of the exhibition at the Università Statale, Milan (December 15, 1986–January 31, 1987), edited by Cesare Blasi, by Gabriella Padovano
Milan: Mazzotta, 263 pp., 35,000L (paper)

Le Corbusier: Pittore e scultore

Catalog of the exhibition at the Museo Correr, Venice (September 6–November 30, 1986)
Milan: Mondadori, 212 pp., 35,000L (paper)

Le Corbusier Secret: Dessins et collages de la collection Ahrenberg Lausanne

Catalog of the exhibition at the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts (April 2–May 10, 1987)
213 pp.

The Decorative Art of Today

by Le Corbusier, translated and introduced by James I. Dunnett
MIT Press, 214 pp., $12.50 (paper)

L’Esprit Nouveau: Le Corbusier und die Industrie, 1920–1925

Catalog of the exhibition at the Museum für Gestaltung, Zürich(March 28–May 10, 1987)
Berlin: Ernst und Sohn, 296 pp., DM86

1.

Stars fell on architecture during the 1880s, the decade when most of the central characters of the Modern movement were born. Their centenaries have occasioned an unbroken series of commemorative celebrations and critical reevaluations, but no other observances have approached the scale of those surrounding the hundredth anniversary of the most important Modernist architect of them all: Le Corbusier, born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret on October 7, 1887, in La-Chaux-de-Fonds in the Swiss Jura. The leading polemicist of the generation that sought to establish a rational aesthetic order out of the unprecedented technical advances of the Age of Industrialization, Le Corbusier defined the Modernist imperative in the most influential of his thirty-eight books, Vers une architecture (first published in 1923, translated into English in 1927 as Towards a New Architecture and available once again in a facsimile edition). His language recalls Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s earlier assertion that new materials would give birth to a new age:

The history of Architecture unfolds itself slowly across the centuries as a modification of structure and ornament, but in the last fifty years steel and concrete have brought new conquests, which are the index of a greater capacity for construction, and of an architecture in which the old codes have been overturned. If we challenge the past, we shall learn that “styles” no longer exist for us, that a style belonging to our own period has come about; and there has been a Revolution.

The “purification” of architecture—moving it away from dependence on the eclectic historicism of the late nineteenth century and toward a structural and formal vocabulary based on the new engineering principles of that epoch—was Le Corbusier’s initial goal. At the same time he attempted to direct these principles toward human aims. He achieved his program with stunning swiftness and completeness during his so-called Heroic Period, the years between his permanent move to Paris in 1917 and his fundamental architectural redirection in the early Thirties.

His most famous works of that decade and a half of intense research, experimentation, and construction were the sixteen houses thoroughly documented in Tim Benton’s The Villas of Le Corbusier: 1920–1930. These were the “machines for living in” that became the basic source of imagery for modern domestic architecture for decades to come. (Indeed, some present-day architects, especially Richard Meier, continue to use the Corbusian repertoire of motifs and materials of the Heroic Period as their basic point of reference.)

Those villas of the Twenties (several of them built for expatriate Americans who knew Gertrude Stein; her brother Michael was a patron of one of the most important of Le Corbusier’s houses, the Villa Stein/de Monzie of 1926–1927 at Garches) were as startling as their designer’s philosophical writings. Even now, long after they have ceased to shock, they still manage to impress with their clarity of line, intensity of contrast, equilibrium of proportion, and above all their simplicity of means. Dispensing with traditional ornament, pattern, texture, and most color (even though his “white architecture” of the Twenties was far from monochromatic, employing many colors lost in black-and-white photographs), Le Corbusier dared to make the most extreme challenge with the most minimal of means. He would re-create architecture—and, by implication, the way of life pursued in it—absolutely and completely, as fully as Renaissance architecture supplanted the medieval, and his Twenties villas were the dazzling evidence that he could. In those buildings Le Corbusier convincingly carried out his belief that “architecture is the skillful, correct, and magnificent play of volumes assembled in light.”

But there must have been a great deal more to it for him than that, for how else does one explain the profound change Le Corbusier embarked upon almost immediately after the completion of his Villa Savoye of 1928–1931 at Poissy, the house in which his imagery of the machine is most pronounced (see illustration on page 50). Benton’s meticulous study (originally published in French in 1984 and since then the definitive word on that extraordinarily sustained series of Modernist themes and variations) demonstrates both the exceptional range Le Corbusier achieved and the ultimate limitations he encountered with his Purist approach. As the architect wrote in his 1930 book Précisions sur un état présent de l’architecture et de l’urbanisme:

simplicity is not equivalent to poverty; it is a choice, a discrimination, a crystallization. Its object is purity. Simplicity synthesizes. A ragged agglomeration of cubes is an accidental event, but a synthesis is an intellectual act.

This attitude is rather different from those of other early Modernist architects who were attempting, like Le Corbusier, to reshape the man-made environment in the aftermath of the destruction and chaos of World War I. Unlike the members of the De Stijl movement in Holland, who cherished transcendental philosophy, or the Russian Constructivists, who believed in their designs as the architectural embodiment of the revolution, Le Corbusier was largely without a specific spiritual or political program. During the Twenties he thought pure reason was enough; when it proved inadequate to the level of emotional expression he wished his buildings to convey, he embraced an increasingly primitivist style, whose characteristics at first glance seem like an open repudiation of his Purist aesthetic of the Twenties. What could be more different from the Villa Savoye—cubic and hovering lightly over its meadow like an alien spacecraft—than Le Corbusier’s pilgrimage chapel of Notre-Dame du Haut of 1951–1955 at Ronchamp (see illustration on page 53)—irregularly sculptural, with a sensuously curving roof and seeming to grow out of its hill in response to the landscape?

In fact, both halves of Le Corbusier’s easily divisible career drew from the same Mediterranean vernacular sources, though the forms were much more abstracted in the architect’s work before 1930 than they became afterward. In the indispensable catalog for the major retrospective held in London last spring, its organizer, the preternaturally productive Tim Benton, traces the signs of Le Corbusier’s growing interest in the primitive during the late Twenties. Between 1926 and 1928 the architect’s paintings—in which he worked out much of his thinking about form—became noticeably more primitive in their subject matter. He moved away from the exacting still lifes of his Purist phase and became preoccupied with the biologically inspired (“biomorphic”) forms of his later graphic works, turning away from inanimate objects and toward human and animal figures with overtly sexual and mythic connotations. His travels, especially to Barcelona in 1928 (where he encountered the defiantly idiosyncratic architecture of Antoni Gaudí) and to South America a year later, made him aware of new possibilities far different from those he found on his extensive European tours as a young man.

Even then, however, Le Corbusier’s susceptibility to the instinctive element inherent in the design process was clear. Here is his reaction to his first prolonged exposure to Mediterranean vernacular architecture during his 1911 Wanderjahr in Greece, Turkey, Italy, and the Balkans, recorded in his Journey to the East:

The art of the peasant is a striking creation of aesthetic sensuality. If art elevates itself above the sciences, it is precisely because, in opposition to them, it stimulates sensuality and awakens profound echoes in the physical being. It gives to the body—to the animal—its fair share, and then upon this healthy base, conducive to the expansion of joy, it knows how to erect the most noble of pillars.

This is an observation far different in feeling from the popular image of Le Corbusier as the detached, icy theoretician of an architecture of denial and sublimation.

Historians differ over which of Le Corbusier’s buildings was the first to reflect his dramatic transformation. Some make a case for the Villa de Mandrot of 1929–1932 near Toulon, closely related to the houses of the Twenties in its overall configuration, but using for the first time the masonry rubble wall that was to become a hallmark of his new primitivism. Others suggest the Pavillon Suisse of 1930–1933 in Paris, with its rubble wall and plastic handling of mass and volume in exposed concrete—for the first time left in its natural color and not covered over in white-painted stucco like the Twenties houses—pointing toward Le Corbusier’s high-rise schemes of a decade later. All are agreed that with the construction of the architect’s own Petite Maison de Weekend at La Celle-Saint-Cloud in 1935 the change was complete. Its freestone walls, vaulted portals, and sod roof make it, in the words of Deborah Gans in The Le Corbusier Guide, “a cave-like shelter appropriate to a modern-day, ornamental hermit.” A vastly underappreciated landmark in twentieth-century architecture, it acknowledged a loss of faith in Modernist absolutism at least thirty years before it became prevalent in the profession at large.

But as was always the case with Le Corbusier, there were a number of practical factors that bore on his artistic decisions in addition to his larger conceptual concerns. For example, the muscular columns supporting the Pavillon Suisse (forerunners of the even more massive ones he later used in his Unités d’habitation) were a reaction to specific site conditions, in this instance the discovery of an abandoned quarry on the plot that necessitated a stronger footing for the five-story structure. And as Tim Benton pointed out in his superb paper, “The Maisons Loucheur Question” (delivered at a centennial symposium1 held in conjunction with the minor but nonetheless interesting exhibition in New York), when Le Corbusier specified stone walls in his unexecuted plans for the workers’ housing estate of 1929, he was stimulated by more than his growing interest in indigenous building techniques. In response to political pressure from the masons’ union, which had supported the “Loi Loucheur” creating this government-sponsored project, a concession was included in the law requiring that at least one wall in each house be made of masonry—a kind of architectural featherbedding.

The persistent and parallel interest Le Corbusier maintained in the intellectual and the intuitive, the technological and the hand-crafted, the theoretical and the pragmatic, was the underlying constant in a career of enormous breadth and astonishing ambition, fully justifying the accolade of “Architect of the Century” bestowed on him by the title of the London exhibition. In Benton’s judgment, “his dedication to the real was always qualified by his willingness to believe in the ideal,” and it is precisely that complementary, rather than contradictory, duality that gives the architecture of Le Corbusier, both early and late, a complexity far more interesting than the monolithic image of it put forth by many of his revisionist detractors.

2.

According to the centennial bulletin issued by the Fondation Le Corbusier in Paris (the archive established after his death in 1965), there have been no fewer than forty-four exhibitions on Le Corbusier in thirteen countries, with some of those shows traveling to several cities. Their various accompanying publications (and the encyclopedia issued in lieu of a conventional catalog for the big Paris retrospective) further swell the avalanche of books issued and reissued not only to capitalize on the timely event and to reflect the extensive recent research of an emergent generation of Le Corbusier specialists, but also to correct the distorted image some critics have put forth of Le Corbusier as the primary source of most of the evils of Modernism.

  1. 1

    Le Corbusier Between the Wars Architecture and Ideology,” The Museum of Modern Art, New York, April 25, 1987.

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