Not least of the paradoxes confronting visitors during the opening days of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes”—a sprawling, frustrating, intermittently thrilling tribute to the twentieth century’s most influential master builder—was that one could not easily determine where the exhibition begins. With its geographic and environmental premise, the show aims to map out Le Corbusier’s epic career from his early residential designs in Switzerland and France to later large-scale schemes for a wide variety of functions in the Soviet Union, North Africa, South America, India, Japan, and the United States, among other far-flung locales, and to explain why his impact was far more pervasively felt than that of any of his peers, and remains so to this day.
And yet finding several of the master’s late works in what appeared to be the show’s initial gallery (including his posthumously completed Église de Saint-Pierre of 1960–2006 in Firminy, France) I gradually realized that I was experiencing an inverted chronology—Le Corbusier as Benjamin Button. As I moved on, I ultimately wound up in a room with drawings from his Swiss hometown of La Chaux-de-Fonds, where the architect was born Edouard-Charles Jeanneret in 1887. (He adopted the pseudonym Le Corbusier in 1920.) In fact, the smaller, glass-fronted doorway from which I and other viewers exited marked the start of the show, as I later found out from Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s admirable chief curator of architecture and design, who admitted in reply to my email query that it is “always counter intuitive however to try to get people to go counterclockwise without stronger graphic cues!” The day after our exchange, and ten days into the show’s run, a sign went up to identify the actual entrance.
But that was far from the only problem with this comprehensive survey, remarkably MoMA’s first, which Bergdoll co-organized with the eminent French architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen. In previous exhibitions, both scholars have successfully brought provocative new insights to supposedly familiar subjects, as for example Bergdoll’s Bauhaus show at MoMA in 2009–2010, which fully honored the school’s initial but often downplayed Expressionist phase, and Cohen’s audacious exploration of World War II design at Montreal’s Canadian Center for Architecture in 2011.
“Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes” also attempts to challenge prevalent notions of its subject—in this case, the reputation of the architect as a dogmatist whose designs varied little from site to site, let alone region to region. (His building formula, including piloti columns, free floor plans, free façades, ribbon windows, and roof gardens, having been famously outlined in Five Points of Architecture of 1926.) For example, the curators emphasize the many works that carefully frame views of surrounding terrain to show that the architect responded to landscape settings with more sensitivity than has been generally acknowledged (though academics have been making this point in lectures and publications for years now).
They also demonstrate how Le Corbusier’s increasingly sophisticated conception of regional planning emerged de haut en bas during long airplane journeys when he mapped the terrains he observed below him. But as happens all too frequently with exhibitions organized around grand themes, the effort the MoMA survey expends in shoehorning a very large and unruly body of work into predetermined categories often raises more questions than it answers.
Like most stereotypes, the popular image of Le Corbusier did not emerge ex nihilo. His longtime default mode, demonstrated in such designs as his parents’ Villa Jeanneret-Perret of 1912 in La-Chaux-de-Fonds and his Villa Savoye of 1928–1931 in Poissy, France, was to place dazzling white buildings atop prominent sites in the manner of the ancients, rather than follow Frank Lloyd Wright, his older American rival and polar opposite, in seeking to insert earth-toned structures into their natural surroundings with seamless finesse. Nor were Le Corbusier’s stucco-clad, flat-roofed, unornamented cubic houses of the 1920s well suited to the damp northern climates in which many of them were erected.
Even more difficult to counter is his reputation as a megalomaniacal city planner who in the 1920s proposed leveling vast sections of Paris and replacing them with monumental grids of skyscrapers set amidst sweeping greenswards and highway-like boulevards. (Somewhat countering that provocation is his less-familiar scheme for the city’s Îlot Insalubre of 1935–1935, which shows his signature high-rise slabs snaking through a preserved low-rise neighborhood rather than flattening it completely.)
For quite some time, scholars have been correcting many of the faulty received ideas about Le Corbusier, and there is no question that his architecture was more site-specific than most people now imagine. But what seems to me largely missing from this ambitious project is an address of the two contradictory sides of this crazily bifurcated personality. On the one hand we have Le Corbusier the romantic humanist, whose prose poems on the raptures of life as it could be enjoyed in his buildings are among the most irresistible sales pitches ever written by an architect. On the other is Le Corbusier the calculating realist, who saw the destruction wreaked by World War II as a welcome job opportunity and gave full rein to his reactionary (not to say anti-Semitic) tendencies by seeking work from the pro-Nazi Vichy regime.
The new exhibition has some astonishing lapses. Take, for instance, the abysmal handling of Le Corbusier’s most widely recognized postwar work, the pilgrimage chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut of 1950–1955 in Ronchamp, France. A pair of smallish models (one white, one dark-wooden) stand forlornly in a vitrine beneath a battleship-gray painted wall, above which a wide-angled color photograph of the hilltop church by the estimable Richard Pare is hung so high as to be nearly invisible except from across the gallery. (Pare’s superb work is so excessively “skyed” throughout that it seems as if the curators wish to be rid of it entirely, though the photographer’s breathtaking panorama of Chandigarh, Le Corbusier’s Punjabi capitol complex of 1951–1964, offers the finest post-construction view of that ensemble I have ever seen.)
There is no sense here of Ronchamp’s stunning interior—a mysterious sequence of cavernlike biomorphic volumes illuminated by a virtual galaxy of small stained-glass windows punched through the thick stucco exterior of the sanctuary—or why it reveals a depth of spiritual feeling scarcely to have been imagined from this chilly technocrat, mama’s boy misogynist, and ruthless careerist. Similarly neglected is another late-career highlight, his Maisons Jaoul of 1951–1955 in the Paris suburb of Neuilly, so skimpily evoked that the uninitiated will have little idea why this pair of neo-primitive private houses exerted such an immense impact on younger practitioners alienated by late International Style corporate minimalism.
The installation is interspersed with four mock-ups of Le Corbusier interiors spanning five decades. Given the architect’s unusually keen interest in furnishing his own buildings, this was a logical decision, but the execution of these model rooms ranges from tolerable to embarrassing. Into the latter category falls the Italian furniture manufacturer Cassina’s recreation of Le Corbusier’s Le Cabanon of 1951–1952, the tiny holiday cabin he built for himself on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, off the coast of which he died while swimming in 1965 at the age of seventy-seven.
As his deeply personal version of the Primitive Hut—an archetype that has fascinated architects since the eighteenth century—the Cabanon was the antithesis of the industrial aesthetic he had been steadily moving away from since 1930. This bogus simulacrum’s wooden surfaces are so uniformly overfinished and obviously machine-made that it seems less a back-to-basics hermitage than an Ikea catalog set. The humble shack’s white porcelain cuvette peeps out from behind a red cloth curtain, but the rectangular niche next to it lacks a roll of toilet paper: something of a metaphor for this exhibition’s failure to convey the all-too-human conundrum that is Le Corbusier.
“Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes” is showing at the Museum of Modern Art through September 23.