To mark the 125th birth anniversary year of Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, 1887–1965), the Museum Of Modern Art (MoMA), New York put together the biggest-ever exhibition of his works as an architect, interior designer, city planner, artist, writer, speaker and photographer.
Conceived and organised by guest curator Jean-Louis Cohen of New York University with Barry Bergdoll, Chief Curator of architecture and design at MoMA, the exhibition is as stupendous and grand in its sweep — as perhaps the man himself with the sobriquet of Le Corbusier Le Grand. The exhibition titled Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes was opened in June 2013 and would remain open till year end. It’s not just a mere huge, general retrospective of his works — but based on a specific theme, that contrary to the common perception, Corbusier was not insensitive or indifferent to sites and landscapes he designed for. Rather, he deeply engaged with them. This raw aesthetic béton brut of the reinforced concrete and the power of his sculptural forms and visual language of his buildings, domineering in their presence, often portrayed such an erroneous perception. The exhibition establishes that landscape, with its optical and physical attributes, was integral to his concepts.
Sifting out the final
320 exhibits displayed, fine-combed from the vastness of Corbusier’s
— 32,000 architecture drawings, 8,000 art drawings, 200 paintings,
and 1.5 million memos and other documents—Bergdoll says, "We
conceived the exhibition in 2009 and it took us all this while to
realise it." The structure and display of the exhibition is akin
to an atlas, mapping his worldwide peripatetic range of his projects.
Sequence of display
The display reveals the ways in which Corbusier observed and conceived landscapes throughout his career: frenetically doodling, sketching, making spontaneous notes or tarrying a while to make more serious drawings, watercolour paintings and, later, taking fancy to the still camera and films. Endowed with a myriad artistic techniques and creative practices at his disposal, from his early watercolours of Italy, Greece, and Turkey, to his sketches of India, and from the photographs of his formative journeys to the models of his large-scale projects, Corbusier filled up a large repertoire.
As an appropriate backdrop for the theme, the walls of the MoMA galleries were painted in accordance with a colour theory developed by Corbusier. The curators, though, have chosen muted, pastel shades for the other sections--for Chandigarh, bold, primary colours (loved and used by him in the Capitol Complex Chandigarh) have been instead used.
The first section, "From the Jura Mountains to the Wide World," covers the early years of the architect's life, and training in art under the tutelage of his legendry teacher Charles L’Eplattenier, in his hometown of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, who later encouraged him to take to architecture. Section two, "The Conquest of Paris", exhibits the projects from up his practice in Paris, where he had learnt architecture under mentor August Perret and adopted the pseudonym Le Corbusier, to construct villas for the Paris elite.
"Responding to Landscape, from Africa to the Americas", showcases the decade when Corbusier extended his reach beyond France and Switzerland, developing plans for cities like Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Montevideo. He made a master plan for the transformation of Algiers that occupied 12 years of his life but failed to be realised.
"Chandigarh, a New Urban Landscape for India" documents his assignment to design the city, and the final section "Toward the Mediterranean, or the Eternal Return" as a closing finale exhibits projects from the last phase of his life, such as the iconic Unité d'Habitation in Marseille and the Chapelle Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp.
Among the models on display, those pertaining to India are of the Capitol Complex and the Assembly dome at Chandigarh, along with the projects at Ahemdabad. Among the other sections those of Villa Savoiye, Ronchamp Chapel, the skyscraper for Algiers and the Palace of Soviets are most eye-catching.
Along with the old
photographs of his projects are exhibited recent views, photographed
brilliantly by Richard Pare. The long, sweeping panorama of the
Capitol Complex, Chandigarh is truly breathtaking. Among the four
reconstructions of Corbusier’s interiors along with the furniture
designed by him, the one of Corbusier’s Cabanon at his favourite
retreat at Roqebrune Cap-Martin in the later years has been placed
right before the main designated galleries begin.
Architectural constructs & urbanism
The exhibition brings out the larger picture of the "Making of Le Corbusier". His rise from an intense, brooding art student in a small world to the global master of Modernism. His vision unfolding through his writings, observations and hypothetical projects" as well built ones, based on his inner understandings on architecture and urbanism. The Five Points of Architecture, outlined by him in 1926, comprise: Piloti columns, free floor plans, free façades, ribbon windows, and roof gardens, are assiduously woven into his numerous projects on display. Also, his numerous visions for the new machine-age era city, enabling easy movement of the automobile; yet enriching the inhabitants with sun, space and verdure are well brought out. On display are urban renewal schemes ranging from Algiers, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo to Moscow, including some controversial proposals for Paris. His scheme, Plan Viosin in the 1920s, proposed razing down of vast sections of Paris and replacing them with "monumental grids of skyscrapers set amidst sweeping greenswards and highway-like boulevards."
Through numerous failed and aborted urban planning projects all his life, finally came his tryst with Chandigarh. The layout plan for Chandigarh nestles in nature. Grandly, Corbusier’s placed his own edifices in the Capitol Complex at the tip of the gridiron plan. "In the verdant plain of Chandigarh, visually closed off by the distant mountains, Le Corbusier revisited the epiphany of his beloved Acropolis in Athens, which from the beginning of his career had embodied his deal of the relationship between architecture and context. The Siwalik Range was the perfect backdrop against which to juxtapose the city and its noblest element: the Capitol Complex," says Maristella Casciato. There are fascinating studies from Corbusier’s pocket sketchbook on display, such as of the nearby Mughal Gardens of Pinjore and of Edwin Lutyen’s gardens seen at the Rashtrapati Bhawan at Delhi, telling of his influences. A drawing comparing Edward Lutyen’s layout for the colonial Capital of New Delhi with his own layout plan for Chandigarh too is on display. A quaint archival film shows the hand-made construction of the City with colourful sari-clad women dauntingly carrying loads of building materials on their head.
While the plastic possibilities and power of his architecture live on, Corbusier’s advocacy for new urbanism of vertical building blocks, spaced adequately amidst large green areas promising "sun, space and verdure," is somewhat more ambivalent. Whether architects agree with or reject his notions of architecture — his single-minded pursuit of art, architecture, urban planning, and theorising will always inspire.
—The writer is former
principal of the Chandigarh College of Architecture. He attended the
exhibition inaugural and lectured at the American Institute of
Architects, New York.
SYMPOSIUM & PUBLICATION
The exhibition was enriched by two parallel activities. A two-day symposium in conjunction with MoMA’s exhibition, was organised by the AIA (American Institute of Architects) & Center for Architecture, New York on the theme of: Le Corbusier/New York. It examined the architect's impressions of New York before and after his first journey to the United States, and his influence on generations of American architects. His love-hate relationship with the skyscraper jungle of Manhattan is most fascinating. On the one hand he found it a, "mystic city rising up in the mist"; which on closer scrutiny transformed into one of "incredible brutality and savagery" yet that also suggested the "strength" and "power of modern times." He made newspaper headlines with his tongue-in-cheek, sardonic comments, when asked to comment upon the skyscrapers "much too small"!
MoMA also brought out
the publication Le Corbusier — An Atllas of Modern Landscapes on
the exhibition theme, which is a new sourcebook on Corbusier and a
collector’s item on Corbusier. It has brilliant essays by
international curators, scholars and critics providing new insights.