Le Corbusier: The Art of Architecture

Very interesting exhibition in an unusual venue: the exhibition dedicated to the life and work of architect Le Corbusier, one of the capital of Culture highlights, is being held in the Catholic Cathedral crypt. It presents a wealth of original architectural models, interior reconstructions, drawings, furniture, vintage photographs, films, tapestries, paintings, sculpture and books by Le Corbusier himself.

The exhibition presents his most important architectural projects, furniture and interior designs, his paintings, textiles, drawings and books. It gives a comprehensive introduction to Le Corbusier’s work and influences, but also reveals new views on Le Corbusier for people already familiar with his architecture. As indicated by the title ‘The Art of Architecture’, the exhibition focuses on Le Corbusier’s concept of the synthesis of arts – fusing art, architecture, design, urban planning, film and other disciplines into a creative view of the contemporary environment that shaped the 20th century.

In the Observer, Stephen Bayley writes:

The gloomy crypt is all that was finished of Edwin Lutyens’ Catholic cathedral in Liverpool. Now, with dissonant irony, it houses a major exhibition of Le Corbusier. Why irony? Generally, because Lutyens was historicist and Corb was anti-sentiment, at least of the historic sort. Specifically, because Frederick Gibberd’s 1967 cathedral now above Lutyens is a monument to what most people think they do not like about Corb: abrasive showboating in concrete…

The case against Le Corbusier is simple: he is the most influential architect ever … but that influence is malign. How did a belief that ‘space and light and order’ are ‘things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep’ become corrupted into desolate Thamesmead or the burning banlieue of Toulouse-le Mirail?

Le Corbusier’s architectural philosophy was elegant, simple and correct. He wanted houses to be as useful as machines. What we deride as tower blocks he called vertical garden cities, designs which freed up the land. He developed a new system of proportions called ‘Le Modulor’ based entirely on the human form: it is modern classicism. We are absolutely wrong to condemn him because of asinine politicians responsible for postwar social housing. Entirely lacking the conceptual sophistication of Le Corbusier, Thamesmead is hideous because the penny-pinching government insisted on inept systems of prefabrication. There were government cash inducements to build tall at any price. They forgot about the gardens, the proportions and the art.

That was not Le Corbusier’s fault. The case for Le Corbusier is simple: some of the most beautiful buildings of all time are his. The Villa Savoie in Poissy of 1931 (a fine model is in the Crypt) is an absolute, world-class, eternal masterpiece. And so too is the 1952 Unité d’habitation in Marseille. This is the most complete expression of his architectural philosophy: an entire city in a single building created by one controlling intelligence. And it really works.

The exhibition is divided into three thematic sections:

1. Contexts

Contexts is organised around the five cities that shaped Le Corbusier’s life and work and his ideas about the built environment: La Chaux-de-Fonds, Paris, Algiers, New York and Chandigarh. These cities illustrate the historical and social context that shaped Le Corbusier’s work, provide important cultural references and introduce some of his main works.

2. Privacy and Publicity

Privacy and Publicity consists of seven settings representing seminal houses or interiors using either large models or reconstructed rooms. Examples range from Le Corbusier’s early works in La Chaux-de-Fonds, to the famous settings in the Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau and the Salon d’Automne, to his artistic concepts from the 1930s and 40s. Chairs, tables and other pieces of furniture shown in the context of these projects are clearly presented as part of a typological evolution from the ‘primitive’ to the ‘standard’ type. A selection of paintings, sculptures and tapestries gives further insights into Le Corbusier’s artistic preoccupation with the human environment.

3. Built Art

Built Art is a bold dramatisation of Le Corbusier’s large-scale projects mainly from his late period. It includes six to eight ‘large projects’ including the Palais des Nations, Geneva (1927), the Soviet Palace competition project (1933), Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles (1947-1952), the chapel at Ronchamp (1955), the Philips Pavilion in Brussels (1958) and the Capitol buildings at Chandigarh (1954-1958). Large-scale models, digital animations and documentary films help explain the ambition behind these projects, namely, to redefine public space and give meaning to the concept of the ‘monumental’ in 20th century architecture. I was struck by the joyful colours of the tapestry that Le Corbusier designed for the Parliament Building in Chandigarh (top), compared to the severity of the building itself (below).

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