Le Corbusier – The Art of Architecture

27 April 2009 (Last Updated April 27th, 2009 18:30)

The most famous architect of the 20th century has been equally celebrated and vilified. And where better to examine the work of Le Corbusier than in a building unashamedly inspired by his utopian visions? Christopher Kanal takes a trip to the Barbican Art Gallery in London, home to the Art of Architecture exhibition until 24 May 2009.

Le Corbusier – The Art of Architecture

Long before Zaha and Norman, Le Corbusier was the original superstar architect, and the first to manipulate the emerging power of the media. Not only an architect but also an urban planner, a thinker and a painter, Le Corbusier was an astute self-promoter, and paved the way for the emergence of multi-disciplinary practices, that are as much think tanks as creators of buildings. Le Corbusier became the living embodiment of architecture.

The Swiss-French architect is a divisive figure, yet his influence on the way architects think and the way the public interacts with architects and architecture has been profound. Emerging out of art nouveau and art deco styles, Le Corbusier created a new architecture for a new century with a zeal fitting for an age of absolute ideals. "We must start again from zero," he famously said.

After a spell in Liverpool, 'Le Corbusier: The Art of Architecture' at the Barbican Art Gallery examines the diverse 60-year career in considerable detail. As well as original architectural models, paintings, sculptures and interior designs, the exhibition includes films, found objects, postcards, and plenty of books and published studies of his works. But even an all-encompassing exhibition cannot adequately define Le Corbusier. The ultimate 20th-century Renaissance man, born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, remains as elusive as he is ubiquitous.

"Le Corbusier was an astute self-promoter, and paved the way for the emergence of multi-disciplinary practices."

Despite the space dedicated to Le Corbusier's major architectural projects including his two greatest completed projects, Chandigarh government buildings (1955-1958) and Chapel de Notre-Dame-du-Haut, Ronchamp (1955), the most intriguing part of the exhibition are the details of the unrealised plans, in particular his proposals for the redevelopment of Paris and Algiers, which reveal as much Le Corbusier's brilliance as a visionary architect as his vanity.

Plan Voisin and Plan Obus

The two projects called for the destruction of the historic centres of both cities. In 1925, he exhibited his Plan Voisin for Paris, which would have seen the construction of 20 huge 60-storey skyscrapers covering the centre of the city.

Le Corbusier sought an alternative to a plan submitted by the French colonial government and without a commission set to work.

Algiers was to be an international city. Le Corbusier worked on the plan for 11 years. The 1933 renderings of Plan Obus for Algiers envisaged an extraordinary curved apartment block, 14 residential levels high that would have accommodated 180,000 people, stretching 15km around the bay of Algiers with a highway atop, as well as a new business district on the Cape of Algiers, a residential area in the heights accessible by a bridge spanning over the Casbah.

Plan Obus would have been a seminal modernist project. While nothing was ever built, the project was abandoned by the Vichy Government in 1942, Plan Obus left an important theoretical legacy and made Le Corbusier realise the limits of architecture to motivate social change.

Equally revealing are Le Corbusier's often forgotten paintings, owing a big debt to Picasso with their fluid organic forms. Details of the paintings found their way into future architectural designs. His art sketches feature early incarnations of piloti columns as human thighs.

Becoming Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, in 1887. He adopted the pseudonym, Le Corbusier after using it in the magazine l'Espirit Nouveau.

"Emerging out of art nouveau and art deco, Le Corbusier created a new architecture for a new century."

From a family of watchmakers, Le Corbusier trained as an artist, had an early flirtation with Mediterranean classicism and designed a number of private properties, marked by their technocratic including the seminal Villa Savoye in Poissy (1928-1931), a perfect expression of the international style, before exploring brief flirtation with constructivism.

In the 1950s, Le Corbusier moved from purism to the bigger, heavier concrete designs that became his hallmark, allowing him to explore organic design on a grand scale and spawning a thousand imitators.

The exhibition consists of three sections beginning with 'contexts' that explores the influence of the five cities affecting Le Corbusier's development: La Chaux-de-Fonds, Paris, Algiers, New York and Chandigarh. The 'privacy and publicity' section focuses on the purist houses Le Corbusier designed for private commissions in the 1920s, in addition to interiors and furniture from the breakthrough Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau in 1925 and the Salon d'Automne in 1929.

The houses' designs all subscribed to his five points of architecture: the use of piloti (reinforced concrete stilts), a roof terrace, a free plan, horizontal ribbon windows and an open non-structural façade. The Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau showcased Le Corbusier's model home, complete with iconic pieces of furniture including The Baluster by Cubist Fernand Leger. There are other chairs, tables and other pieces of furniture conveying the evolution of his design process.

The 'built art' section focuses on the landmark large-scale projects including the Palais des Nations in Geneva (1927), the Soviet Palace competition project (1933), Unité d'Habitation in Marseilles (1947-1952), Chapel de Notre-Dame-du-Haut in Ronchamp, the Philips Pavilion in Brussels (1958) and the Capitol buildings at Chandigarh (1955).

"In the 1950s,
Le Corbusier moved from purism to the bigger, heavier concrete designs that became his hallmark."

The exhibition has put together a complete kitchen from the Unité d'Habitation in Marseilles, which looks as modern and functional as any kitchen today, and comes with a hatch for the delivery of bread and milk.

There is also an intriguing 1965 film by Alain Tanner that documents the construction of Chandigarh against the backdrop of classical India.

But something is missing from 'Le Corbusier: The Art of Architecture', perhaps a sense of context with other architects from the period. It would have been interesting to parallel the work of an equally brilliant, but far more humane, architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

The exhibition shies away from a critical appraisal of Le Corbusier's controversial legacy. The architect's urban vision, realised in both his work and essays like La Ville Radieuse, was authoritarian, inflexible and simplistic and had a destructive influence on his followers leading to terrible errors of urban planning. You don't have to look far beyond the Barbican to find them.

Le Corbusier: The Art of Architecture will be held at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, until 24 May.