Machines and machine-like things weren’t just cold, hard and inanimate objects for Le Corbusier, and his most famous definition — that a house is a machine for living — has to be understood in the context of his idiosyncratic and fluid understanding of the mechanical world. He loved air travel and conceived of airplanes as having eyes, as absorbing into themselves (and their passengers) new visions of the world, from above and animated by speed. His domestic spaces were windows on the world, and functioned rather like cameras, framing and fixing views. In one 1929 drawing, for a project in Rio de Janeiro, the occupant of an apartment looks almost as if he’s sitting inside a giant box camera, with a rigorous grid for drawing perspective superimposed on the view. And highways were to houses as cinema was to photography, extending the mechanical representation of the world into a fluid dimension. Even classic buildings were anthropomorphized: The Parthenon, which exerted a magical force on his imagination from an early age, was described as a “contemplator of the sea.”
The curators convincingly demonstrate that Le Corbusier was indeed sensitive to place, took cues from the landscape, respected history and deplored much of what we would call sprawl. But he would still be seen as a dogmatic and insensitive presence at a progressive urban design conference today. He didn’t seek to dominate the landscape, but he did want his buildings, including the magnificent Chapel at Ronchamp, to organize it. His ideas about preservation weren’t grounded in today’s sense of holistic and contextual space, but treated history like an antique picker treats a shop full of old furniture: Something to be sorted, evaluated and selectively preserved.
Today, many of us imagine ourselves duty-bound to be almost subordinate to landscape. Preservation and sustainability (a very different thing than mere love of nature as an aesthetic phenomenon) aren’t seen as antithetical. We relate to our built and natural environment with an a la carte lack of ideological clarity, happy to have coffee in a low-slung, crowded 18th-century cafe and sip wine atop a gleaming, minimalist skyscraper. New generations of urbanites embrace the modular repetition of Le Corbusier’s design because it simplifies life and suggests (despite its often hefty price tag) an admirable rejection of clutter and materialism. Drafts and disease are hardly spoken of; Density is a good thing; for many of us, living in old houses, the machine owns us, drinking up money and resources, and we like it that way. In Marseille, Unitéd’Habitation looks awfully shabby, but it isn’t empty, and many who live there aren’t just residents, but votaries.
So we lack the consistency and zeal of Le Corbusier, and have weak faith in his dream of fixing the world through the radical redesign of cities, houses and other buildings. Le Corbusier is preserved a la carte, too, with his greatest works now selectively remembered as isolated gems. The love-hate reaction has gone so deep in our relationship to the architect that it’s almost intellectually imperceptible. Our love of tall buildings, balconies, perfect geometrical objects set in lush landscapes, our sense that buildings should unfold like film, and our continuing delight in speed and the exhilarating view from 30,000 feet: All of this still connects us to Le Corbusier’s aesthetic. Our belief that architecture should be humble, that architects should serve, that landscape should be saved from mankind, our allergy to grand plans of any sort, and our loss of faith in machines separates us from him. The achievement of this new exhibition is how well it fills in the middle ground between these two, visceral, unavoidable first reactions to one of the most influential architects of the last century.
Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes
is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York though Sept. 23. For more information visit www.moma.org.