An Atlas of Architecture

John Haber
in New York City

Le Corbusier

In 1932, the Museum of Modern Art presented "Modern Architecture." This museum, it announced, was not just a museum of art. Architecture and design were essential to its mission and to Modernism. And this was modern architecture.

With the book that accompanied the exhibition, The International Style: Architecture Since 1922, that architecture had a name. Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, the authors and curators, were not the first to use it, but they were the first to take it seriously as a label, and it stuck. For them, too, it had three great champions in Europe, in Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier. More than any, Le Corbusier has become synonymous with modern architecture and its ambitions, from private homes to entire cities. That exhibition helped introduce his Villa Savoye, completed only the year before in a Parisian suburb. With its reinforced concrete, long horizontal window, and slender white poles, it is still the most famous modern home that most New Yorkers will never see. Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye (with Pierre Jeanneret) (Museum of Modern Art/ARS, 1928–1931)

Now he has returned to MoMA, but with a very different look. "Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes" sees his work in its surroundings, as context and as inspiration. It opens with two rooms of landscape studies, starting with an airy watercolor at age fifteen. It ends with a full-scale model of the Cabanon—the modest cabin by the Riviera where, he said, he hoped to live out his life. (He got his wish.) It includes a display of shells, fossils, and wood weathered or washed ashore that Le Corbusier could not let go. The show's very title makes him sound less an architect than an observer, a cartographer, and a collector.

Inhabiting architecture

Try to imagine the impact of that 1932 exhibition. Pierre Chareau had just completed his Maison de Verre, but Mies and Gropius had not yet left Europe, and neither had a building in America. That very year, Mies rented an abandoned factory for the Bauhaus with his own money. The Seagram Building on Park Avenue, with Johnson as an assistant to Mies, lay a quarter century in the future. It took Le Corbusier almost to the end of his life, in the 1960s, to have a building in Cambridge, the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts—although he and Oscar Niemeyer contributed sketches for the UN Headquarters in New York. To the chagrin of its architects, Hugh Ferris and Wallace K. Harrison, he claimed the results as his own.

For Hitchcock and Johnson, Modernism always belonged in America—like Hitchcock's building in the style of Gropius long at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 57th Street. Hitchcock helped to revive the reputation of H. H. Richardson, the nineteenth-century architect of Trinity Church in Boston. He also saw Frank Lloyd Wright as central to the new architecture, even beyond the hints in Wright's archives or Wright in the city. And in fact the closest parallel to Villa Savoye may lie in Wright's Fallingwater, built five years later. It, too, is a private home well outside a city, with cantilevered balconies over ground-floor spaces open to its environment. It also developed major cracks, much like the ramps of the Guggenheim Museum, while leaks and difficulty in heating Villa Savoye quickly made it uninhabitable.

Le Corbusier's retrospective is almost as ambitious as that past show. It again places design at the museum's heart—not in the separate galleries for architecture, still hosting Henri Labrouste, but in the sixth-floor galleries that have housed Henri Matisse and "Inventing Abstraction." It covers some four hundred projects, seventy-five buildings, twenty paintings, and film, all of it with help from the Fondation Le Corbusier. It is also again out to remake architecture and reputations, for an International Style rooted in landscape. The curators, Jean-Louis Cohen of NYU's Institute of Fine Art with Barry Bergdoll of MoMA, cite Le Corbusier for support: "city planning and architecture can bring sites and landscapes into the city or make a feature of the city itself."

Often as not in life, when it comes to an argument, the truth lies somewhere in between. Now when it comes to art, where often as not the truth lies somewhere else entirely—or slips happily out of grasp. It gets that much more slippery with Le Corbusier, with a lifetime of unrealized projects and technical disasters. At MoMA, it is all one can do to keep track of just what was built or abandoned. And just to say so suggests a control freak's uneasy relationship to the landscape. Le Corbusier's metropolis is open to earth and sky, but only as he frames them both visually and conceptually, and not everyone wanted to be framed.

Nor is he quite a poster boy for the International Style. One can see why people think of him as one. He set out to remake design, and the title of the first of several book-length manifestos, Vers une Architecture ("Toward an Architecture") from 1923, made clear that it had a ways to go. He studied in Paris with an early adopter of reinforced concrete, and his unbuilt proposals include glass towers. His plans for a Contemporary City of Three Million Inhabitants and, later, a Radiant City have the sci-fi air of early Modernism and also its glory. Even his adopted name (after his maternal grandfather) shows a belief in starting over—and if he had had his way, we would not always have Paris, at least the Paris we knew.

At the same time, it took Americans to insist on an International Style, just as it would take critics like Clement Greenberg in America to turn modern painting into a demand. Europe was not so sure. When Le Corbusier called architecture a "machine for living," he was defining it by its function rather than its form. He is refusing both a style and a sensitivity to context. His final masterpiece, the church of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, on a hilltop in eastern France, looks like a cross between a prehistoric monument and a giant mushroom. Maybe his greatest gift is in showing how, to this day, Modernism's dreams and contradictions keep slipping away.

Observation and purism

Any show that starts at age fifteen should raise suspicions. (I hope that no one discovers what I wrote in high school.) This one, though, gets off to a fine start. Born in 1887, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret grew up in the Jura, the mountainous countryside of French-speaking Switzerland. His early watercolors are spare, fresh, and filled with light, a bit like the seascapes of Charles Demuth in New England. He had not changed notably in style well into his twenties.

After brief studies in Germany and Paris, he traveled widely. Maybe one cannot reduce his maturity to observing, but he began as an observer. He sketched stairs in Prague, the piazzas of Venice, a mosque in Istanbul, ornamental carvings on a street in Germany, the Parthenon, and Pompeii. He later said that his first picture was the Acropolis, with Ronchamp only an extension. There is also a direct line from his visit to a Carthusian monastery in 1911 to this pilgrimage church in 1954. Still, these lineages already point across contexts, and they begin with the isolation of monasticism and a lost civilization.

They also announce one side of Le Corbusier's personality, his introspection. The curators see him as increasingly melancholic late in life, as projects fell on deaf ears. Still, he was a precocious overachiever. He designed his first building at age twenty, and he shows an ease with everything from perspective to elevations. He also lucked out with his parents, who commissioned his first major home, Villa Jeanneret-Perret (or Le Maison Blanche) in 1912. Later he declared that "chairs are architecture, but a sofa is bourgeois," and yet here he still supplies old-world furniture and wallpaper.

He also has a picture window opening to the mountains. One can see him as already dedicated to landscape—or on the way to what he was to call the elements of architecture. These include horizontal rather than vertical windows, a floating façade rather than thick walls, and a rooftop garden rather than a slanted roof. Together, they will describe Villa Savoye, begun in 1928 and finished in 1931. Instead of deep foundations, it has those slim white pillars, called pilotis. By day, the open plaza beneath the cantilevers provides shade. By night, it and the long windows glow with interior light.

These also set it apart its surroundings, but then a suburb by the Seine is by definition an escape, much like the suburban sprawl of 1950s America. Le Corbusier proposes to remake a city as early as 1914, with a housing scheme that uses wide boulevards to maintain lightness. He takes up painting in 1918, a movement that he and Amédée Ozenfant called Purisme. (Again, so much for impurity and context.) Their still life recombines motifs from the Analytic Cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, like guitars, but with ample mass and space. Where Picasso and Braque trade in fragments of sensation and memory, Purisme restores to objects their function, like that "machine for living."

Le Corbusier hits on this phrase late in the 1920s, around the time that he adopts a pseudonym. He has been issuing manifestos, though, starting with "L'esprit nouveau" (the new spirit) in 1920, and he formed a studio with his cousin Pierre in 1922, lasting until 1940. His Villa Church (a family name, not a church) from 1929 still looks familiar, with a two-story atrium right out of contemporary museums. It has a long overpass beside a plaza, like modern offices, and furnishing include a copy after Bauhaus chairs. And with Villa Savoye in 1928, it all clicks. If there is an International Style, it comes together here.

Unity and universals

Perhaps it ends here as well. Where Hitchcock used cantilevers to hide a structure's support, Le Corbusier has his pilotis, and where the International Style worshipped glass, he has concrete, like Brutalism decades later. The narrow windows control what one sees. The landscape, Le Corbusier notes, is revealed only "at strategic intervals," because the very "site or landscape does not exist—except as our eyes see it." With his 1927 design for the Palace of the League of Nations, one can see the harbor as wrapping the buildings or the buildings the harbor. He starts with a given space, but in order to shape it.

The International Style ends here in another sense, too, for from now on plans become larger and larger, but also largely fictions. L'académisme, he says proudly, dit: Non, while he traffics in possibilities. Academism, that is, says no—but so unfortunately do many clients. The garden city of his imagination starts with Paris in 1925, in a proposal to an automaker, before encompassing Rio, São Paulo, and Montevideo. He has success with the headquarters for Centrosoyuz (the Central Union of Consumer Cooperatives) in Moscow and, over the twenty years after World War II, with Chandigarh, an entire new state capital in India. Much, though, remains unrealized.

For all his frustrations, he is compiling his atlas of the world. He quarries local stone in southern France, and he speaks of "truth to shadow." Yet he also seeks "harmonic proportions," now "freed from traditions of the past." Even in rivers, he finds a "law of the meander." He may look to nature, but the crab shell that inspired the roof of Ronchamp was from Long Island—and the mud that led to its rounded walls from North Africa. It is beautiful all the same, with windows that shower the interior with seemingly random cuts and deep points of light.

He thinks big, too, in chalk sketches on huge sheets of paper, for talks delivered at Princeton, and in a twenty-one foot gouache for the city of Barcelona. His idealism looks contemporary as well, not often happily. One can see the same disconnect between towers and parks in postwar housing projects in New York. In India, he encourages variation within a grid of sectors about half a mile on a side. He keeps boulevards within the grid, but to encourage automobiles rather than pedestrians, with a garage in each unit. Cars, too, after all are machines for living.

He finally achieves a bit of his radiant city in Europe, with five versions of his Unité d'Habitation—mostly famously in Marseilles in 1947. Do they adapt as they move? A unité is literally a unit, something unchanging that one can freely recombine. It also suggests a unity, in the sense of both a universal and a universe unto itself, like the universe of people, cars, recreation, and the arts. Le Corbusier never quite relinquishes the idea of architecture as totality, while also never giving up his memories of particulars. No wonder he finds solace in introspection by the sea.

Le Corbusier clings to both idealism and compromise, the kind that allowed him to work with the Soviet Union and French Fascism while committing to neither one. His last projects were more earthly and comforting, not cities but a research center for Olivetti, a hospital for Venice, and the Cambridge center for the arts. Still, no wonder, too, that people argue over his legacy. When Renzo Piano proposed welcome amenities for Ronchamp in 2006, the outcry made him set them further from the church. And now, at MoMA, the International Style asks to be rooted in landscape. It comes down to an argument over not just a great career, but also the meaning of the International Style and of landscape itself.

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"Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes" ran at The Museum of Modern Art through September 23, 2013. I owe much about the architect, from his five elements to the fate of Ronchamp, to Richard Ingersoll, in A History of Architecture (Oxford University Press, 2013) and "Renzo Against Corbu" (2011). The errors and misinterpretations are my own.


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