The exhibition is billed as the first major overview of Le Corbusier’s work at MoMA, which has since at least the 1930s been this country’s most important voice in the display and analysis of modern architecture. The delay, says MoMA’s Barry Bergdoll (who helped organized the show with guest curator and architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen), had to do with longtime MoMA curator Philip Johnson’s preference for Mies van der Rohe, another great visionary of architectural modernism. And there was no love lost in the other direction: “He hated MoMA,” Bergdoll says of Le Corbusier.
But MoMA has done Le Corbusier right, if belatedly. The exhibition includes more than 300 objects, including paintings and sculpture, elaborate architectural models, and full-scale reproductions of some of Le Corbusier’s seminal interior spaces. Visitors are greeted by a reproduction of the Cabanon, a cabin on the French Riviera, where Le Corbusier worked in splendid isolation yet surrounded by an interior space that conformed to his most cherished theories. And they can explore a room from one of Le Corbusier’s first built projects, the home he designed for his parents in 1912, and another interior from his Unitéd’Habitation, an apartment block he first completed in Marseille, then franchised to Berlin and other cities.
A love-hate reaction is inevitable. Today, it’s hard to see what was so innovative in the distilled geometry of the Maison Blanche he created for his parents; to us, it looks lean, unfussy and inviting. His masterpiece of domestic architecture, the Villa Savoye, has also aged into easy acceptance, a study in white planes, horizontal window strips, transparent walls and formal columns, all brilliantly white and set off against a verdant grassy base and robust forest. Its curious entry ramps, which draw the visitor from the ground to the roof, now seem a mere quirk rather than a profound innovation and or deliberate statement. And the late-career chapel at Ronchamp, with its bulbous, flowing roof and thick window cuts in a Mondrian pattern of squares and rectangles, is simply synonymous with eccentric, otherworldly beauty.
But then there’s the 1925 Plan Voisin, often remembered as a theoretical act of vandalism on the scale of the bombing of Dresden. Le Corbusier’s proposal to redevelop Paris, which would have decimated much of the Right Bank of the Seine, including the Marais, replaced the charming disorder of a historic urban fabric with a rigorously rectilinear, and modern order of high-rises, standardized housing and efficient roads and highways. Paris, the architect said, would rise “vertical to the sky, open to light and air, clear and radiant and sparkling.” It is, for many who encounter Le Corbusier, the unforgivable sin.
He committed others. The Plan Obus, developed for Algiers in the 1930s, treated the old Casbah with the same highhanded condescension as old Paris. Elevated highways and viaducts would link suburban enclaves to the old city, or what remained of it. Inspired by a Fiat factory in Turin, which featured a rooftop test track, Le Corbusier imagined sinuous roadways snaking along the coastline, intersecting audacious new high-rise apartment blocks at midlevel. A pencil sketch of one new freeway shows Algiers all sky and horizon, liberated by the automobile and the highway from the “leprous sore” of the teeming Arab enclave.
Add the remorseless ambition of colonialism to Le Corbusier’s intellectual certainty and messianic urban vision, and you have an exceedingly ugly mix.
The exhibition, however, struggles to salvage and contextualize what was good in these ideas, what was deemed good by the standards of the time and what connects those qualities to our own cherished ideals of landscape and urbanism. And in the process, it shows how much those standards have changed. Both plans were proposals, and never realized, and in the smarmy language of contemporary debate, the Plan Voisin was simply meant to spark debate, or as Le Corbusier wrote, “It may serve to raise the discussion to a level in keeping with the spirit of our new age.” And that spirit was Utopian, as yet unsullied by the disappointments of decades of failed urbanism, in the United States in the 1950s and ’60s, and in the Soviet bloc through 1989.
Despite the futurist polish of the Plan Obus, with its Italian-style roadways inspired both by the landscape and feminine curves (including perhaps those of Josephine Baker, whom Le Corbusier considered sexy beyond measure), the architect also admired Arab culture, and the efficient preservation of privacy and family space in the Casbah, to the extent that he understood it. His plan for Paris didn’t call for absolute destruction, but preserved central landmarks — including La Madeleine and the Place Vendome — like marble statues in a museum. What seem to us intrusions of concrete were, to Le Corbusier, often direct responses to context, landscape and place, and thus in 1941 he defined a road as “a plastic achievement in the bosom of nature.”
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.