Umberto Riva's unexpected exhibition layout (designed with Emilio Scarano) catches visitors by surprise and references a less conventional Le Corbusier — or rather, a less conventionally known Le Corbusier. At the MAXXI, the L'Italia di Le Corbusier ["Le Corbusier's Italy"] exhibition project isn't inspired by the architect's purist 1920-1930s' language, but by his use of traditional techniques and materials, filtered through that strongly avant-garde sensitivity that has always been core to Le Corbusier's architectural imagery. A number of tall panels of roughly assembled wooden planks dotted with bright colours and pale backgrounds — probably inspired by the Cabanon in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin (1952) — divide the MAXXI's architecture gallery into smaller and more intimate spaces. The ensuing route unfolds chronologically, with the odd major exception.
Le Corbusier, one of the undisputed Masters of 20th-century architecture and the past focus of a myriad essays, books and monographic exhibitions, is currently the subject of further important exhibitions that explore lesser-known aspects or particular moments. This is true of the recent Le Corbusier and Jean Genet in the Raval exhibition at the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, and the Jean-Louis Cohen-curated Le Corbusier. The Secrets of Creativity between Painting and Architecture, still on display at the Puškin Museum in Moscow.
What is — or was — Italy for Le Corbusier? Firstly, it was a source of interest, beauty and inspiration for the young Le Corbusier, then still known as Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, who first arrived there in 1907 at the age of 20, still undecided about his future. Would he be a painter or an architect? The two paths came together and his early experiences took the form of reproductions of frescoes and religious art objects — at the MAXXI, the splendid Bargello reliquary is displayed with Le Corbusier's drawing of it — plus sketches of city visits and architectural ones, complete with plants and details, of the Florence Charterhouse in Val d'Ema, a prelude to the young Swiss architect's future designs such as the 1922 Immeuble Villas, that applied avant-garde canons to the organisational model of the Carthusian cell.
Le Corbusier visited Italy sixteen times between 1907 and his death, as painstakingly reconstructed by exhibition curator Marida Talamona, alongside Claudia Lombardi and Panayotis Farantatos. During this time, the architect's infatuation with the country was taken over by more concrete design interests. In 1934, le Corbusier tried to meet Mussolini to put himself forward as the architect of Pontinia, the last of the new cities to be built in the Pontine Marshes. He was back in Rome in 1936 for the Volta conference on Rapporti dell'architettura con le arti figurative ["Connections between architecture and the figurative arts"] at the Reale Accademia d'Italia. In 1949, he was at the VII Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne ["International Congress of Modern Archutecture"] in Bergamo and then he visited Milan, Venice, Rome, Turin and Florence again. Three of the last visits led to as many designs: for the Olivetti Electronic Calculation Centre in Rho (Milan, 1961-63); for a new church in Bologna (1963-65); and for a new hospital in Venice (1964-65). None were built for several reasons linked to the clients, followed by the architect's death in 1965.
The stages of the exhibition route are marked by pictures carefully researched by Ferruccio Luppi and period material — sketches, drawings, photographs and models — much of it from the Fondation Le Corbusier in Paris, the Bibliothèque de la Ville in La Chaux-de-Fonds and other public and private collections. These are interspersed with reproductions that, although excellent, leave us yearning for the quality of the originals. The highest quality is seen in the pictures by Le Corbusier, who continued to paint, and Amédée Ozenfant, flanked by works by Gino Severini, Giorgio Morandi and Carlo Carrà which, especially those of the second half of the 1910s, display surprising affinities, the result of direct contacts between the Italian artists and the Swiss Master.
The catalogue accompanying the exhibition — edited by Marida Talamona — can also stand alone. Albeit a compendium on the exhibition, it revolves around a number of essays that make it self-sufficient. The volume is the fruit of studies conducted over several years by Marida Talamona (much has already appeared in L'Italie de Le Corbusier, Paris 2010, edited by the curator herself). The book also offers a transition between different generations of Le Corbusier scholars, with the traditional experts on the subject flanked by new names that open up different, future research opportunities. Roberto Dulio, architectural historian, Milan Polytechnic
Through 17 February 2013
L'Italia di Le Corbusier
MAXXI – National Museum of 21st-Century Arts