The Law of the Meander

News Review

Music Pavilion for Villa Church, 1927-1938.
Courtesy Museum of Modern Art

Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
New York
Through September 2013

It is hard to believe that this is the first retrospective exhibition of Le Corbusier at MoMA. An Atlas of Modern Landscapes, the title chosen by the curators Jean Louis Cohen and Barry Bergdoll, asks us to view these selected works of Le Corbusier under the rubric of landscape as the frame for the exhibition. The show is wonderful and is hung with a very didactic point of view, but to focus on both landscape and provide a retrospective diachronic view of his major works, built and unbuilt, drawn or painted, is difficult to accomplish within the limited space of the gallery. The catalogue that accompanies this exhibition does succeed in reconciling these two points of view admirably and is a wonderful contribution to the scholarship on Le Corbusier.

Using original drawings, watercolors, paintings, models, and films, Le Corbusier emerges as an architect and painter concerned with nature since his early work in his hometown in Switzerland. This might surprise many who blame Le Corbusier as the culprit, or, more to the point, the scapegoat for all the mistakes of modern architecture and city planning in the 20th Century. Viewing mostly lesser-known images of familiar works, we can perceive the evolution of his thinking in multiple mediums. The exhibition begins with the paintings of Charles L’Eplattenier, his first mentor, and Le Corbusier’s own romantic landscapes of the Jura School. It continues with the polemical proposals for erasing big chunks of Paris and replacing the medieval urban fabric with abstract utopian urbanism office towers and low- and medium-rise housing surrounded by parks and freeways. The landscape-oriented work begins with his sketches of landforms and cities that resulted from his airplane trips up and down the coast of South America in 1929.

Plan for Buenos Aires, 1929 (left). Governor’s Palace, Chandigarh, 1951-1965 (right).

Le Corbusier boarded the inaugural flight of “Aeroposta Argentina” on October 22, 1929. Piloted by Jean Marmoz and Antoine de Saint-Exupery, it flew from Buenos Aires to Asuncion del Paraguay. It was an epiphany for the 42-year-old architect whose previous urban proposals for Paris were scandalous. Although specific to their context, the generic flat Cartesian urbanism of Ville Contemporain de Trois Millions D’habitants, Ville Radieuse, and Cite Linear Industrial was transformed into an aerial geological view of the site as structured by mountains, rivers, and the ocean. The marvelous urban proposals that he made from the plane for Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, and Rio were reflective of the unique waterscape of the river Plata of Buenos Aires, the promontory peninsula of Montevideo, the many hills and two rivers of Sao Paolo, and the extraordinary sequence of bays and boulders of Rio de Janeiro.

Plan for Algiers and Barcelona, 1935.

A drawing from a 1928 lecture in Buenos Aires, entitled The Law of the Meander- solution to the crisis!, shows to what extent this particular epiphany became axiomatic of his worldview. The fall of 1929 was the turning point in his career from his early prismatic houses and polemic urban proposals to a more grounded view not of landscape but of site. This geological view was not concerned with vegetation, which for Le Corbusier was always generic, but with the dramatic topography of these cities. His ocean voyage with fellow passenger Josephine Baker to Rio and then Buenos Aires was a quest for “the future of architecture” and resulted not in architectural commissions but in the gathering of these lectures as a book. In my opinion, his best book on his particular view of the theory and praxis of architecture and urban planning was published in 1930 in Paris as Precisions on the Present State of Architecture and City Planning.

The otherness of Latin America’s climate, vegetation, and topography drew out the sensual side of Le Corbusier’s complex personality. His bold proposals of urban infrastructure integrated into the landscape as architecture for Rio, Montevideo, and Sao Paulo are both sensual and monumental. None of these “earthscrapers” proposed were built in America, but he continued to draw them on a subsequent trip to Brazil in 1936 as a consultant to Lucio Costa for the Ministry of Education Headquaters and the University City of Rio. His later project, the Plan Obus for Algiers, a refinement of the earthscraper architecture/urbanism, was also unrealized.

Urban Plan for Rio de Janeiro, 1929 (left). The Fireplace, 1918 (right).

Although Le Corbusier was a relentless traveler looking for new work in the Soviet Union, Latin America, Istanbul or Algiers, he cannot be considered the model for the contemporary name-brand architect that proposes generic branded architecture irrespective of context. As his sketchbooks show us, Le Corbusier was constantly observing his surroundings and paid attention to almost everything he saw on his many travels: from the vernacular structures to agriculture and celestial phenomena. Each one of his architectural projects were inflected to reveal the physical and cultural values of the context that he was working with—never a generic or prototypical solution for architecture.

Le Corbusier would paint every morning and this practice nourished his architecture, but rarely does his painting reach the excellence of most of his built work. Yet his best buildings have painterly and sculptural values and the sensitivity to color and materials is evident in the original models and drawings as well as paintings. Before his collaboration with Amédée Ozenfant and the advocacy of “Purism,” he was engaged in exploring the relationship of architecture and landscape as a subject for painting. The most surprising oil painting in the show is The Fireplace from 1918. In this painting, a white cubic volume appears painted in perspective on an abstracted field of layered colors. Even as a purist painter or architect, one can see the creeping influence of surrealism in his painterly work, which would reach its zenith in the Charles de Beistegui apartment in Paris of 1929–1931.

Parthenon, Athens, 1911 (left). Still Life, 1920 (right).

While Le Corbusier was very hopeful that Argentina and Brazil were the ideal countries to build his architecture, all his efforts resulted in only two built works on that continent: Villa Curuchet with Amancio Williams as site architect in La Plata, Argentina, and the Carpenter Center with his colleague and former employee Jose Luis Sert as patron in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Some of the most striking and rarely seen works in the show are the long scrolls for his lectures that illuminate a particular subject. Whether it is Columbia University’s scroll of the Palace of the Soviets shown next to the original model, or his long sketches for Algiers and Barcelona with the vertical garden city made during a lecture in Chicago in 1935, these drawings register the emotional and spontaneous intensity of his ideas and the urgency to convince us of his own world view. He said to the audience at Columbia University on April 28, 1961, “I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing allows less room for lies.” Here the notations and the calligraphy are complimentary to the ideas and give us a secondary reading of how he himself inhabited his own architecture. Le Corbusier never attended University and he never taught architecture, making these scrolls important documents of the didactic role of Le Corbusier as public architect.

In Precisions, speaking of Brazil he writes: “When, after two and a half months of constraint and inhibition everything breaks out in a festival.” He concludes: “Ladies and Gentlemen this year my attentive wanderings in Moscow with its steppes, at the pampa and in Buenos Aires, in the rain forest and in Rio have deeply rooted me in the soil of architecture.” You must see this show and beware: this exhibition will change your view of Le Corbusier and his complex role in the “Modern Movement.”

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