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Le Corbusier’s Atlas
The largest exhibition ever mounted in New York on Charles Édouard-Jeanneret shows landscapes of various scales: cityscapes, seascapes, and even, in the case of Ronchamp, an acoustic-scape.
You might imagine the atlas of Le Corbusier to be one of concrete right angles, gridded tower blocks and cream coloured buildings on stilts.
This exhibition – the largest ever mounted in New York on the architect né Charles Édouard-Jeanneret (1887–1965) – presents an alternative atlas, of Swiss country watercolours, Austrian lakes, domed mosques, sweeping coastlines. Le Corbusier has not, up until now, been commended for his appreciation of the landscape. His totalising visions have been criticised for neglecting the surrounding contexts of his machines-for-living. But here, MoMa’s architecture curator Barry Bergdoll and architecture historian Jean-Louis Cohen visually argue for a dramatic reassessment of Le Corbusier’s life work in terms of its condition upon the land.
The exhibition takes “landscape” in its broadest sense, both actual and represented, the scenic view and its artistic arrangement. In the modern world, there is a constant mediation between landscape as representation and landscape as physical manifestation. W.J.T. Mitchell writes that landscape is “both a frame and what it contains”, a relation which proves key in the formulation of Le Corbusier’s architecture and city planning. Here, “landscape” is made to encompass the architectural layout and the complete urban view, but also the domestic scene and the space between objects – as laid out in room-sized recreations such as le Petit Cabanon (1951-1952).
While the alignment of “landscape” with the home interior or the Purist still life can feel like a stretch of the term, the exhibition’s scenic insistence allows fresh lines to be drawn between Le Corbusier’s phases of work. The first rooms display watercolour studies and ink drawings with perspectives through streets and out to sea – lines of sight which he would later construct via building, with windows as picture frames onto the paysage. Looking closely at La Cheminée (1918), his first oil painting, a yellowed fireplace becomes a beachy plane on which a horizon of built structures. The curves of still lifes composed in the twenties recur in the roof shape of Chandigarh’s Assembly (1951–1965) or Marseilles’ Unité d’Habitation (1945), whose béton brut balconies of Modular proportions peer over Provençal environs. The transition from painter to architect appears as natural development.
As we follow Le Corbusier on his lifelong travels, the mapping of this atlas is traced through charcoals, drawings, paintings; in records of places and studies of sites across multiple media. We are reminded of his single solo construction in America via an architectural model of the shell-like form of Harvard’s Carpenter Centre (1961–1964). Collages of his plans for the UN headquarters assert his involvement in the project – in fact an amalgam of both his and the usually-credited Oscar Niemeyer’s plans. This would be his only contribution to New York, the city he condemned for not having built the skyscrapers in the parks.
A few gems of 16mm film scan the land around specific buildings, such as his paean to the willows and water of a wintery Villa le Lac (1936), or Allan Tanner’s colour footage of Chandigarh (1965), featuring the populated hubbub of the complex against the tranquil blue of the Siwalik hills. Throughout the exhibition, Richard Pare’s specially commissioned photography also works to reframe the architecture in its ‘natural’ context, although these images are displayed too high on the walls to gain the focus they deserve.
Following the threads of the sprawling exhibition demands close attention from visitors, as we fly from the Mediterranean and back, through rough sketches of Greece and the Balkans, to the architect’s provocative city plans for Algiers, Rio, Paris and Barcelona, laid out in panorama drawings and aerial views. Beatriz Colomina has written for Domus that Le Corbusier was one of the first global jet set, the details of the jetliner influencing his designs. The exhibition shows us how the high vistas of his transatlantic journeys also provided new points of view; the aeroplane nothing less than “a flying camera lucida” (curator, J.L. Cohen) whose perspectives would feed into his overarching visions.
As such, the exhibition succeeds in showing -scapes of various scales: cityscapes, seascapes, and even, in the case of Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp (1950–1955), an acoustic –scape – a metaphor used by Le Corbusier to describe the chapel’s situation, a harmonic balance between valleys and building. Although the ambition to recontextualise Le Corbusier’s work according to an expanded definition of landscape is achieved, this attention does not waylay established criticisms towards his ignorance for the social contexts of building. Rather, it is Le Corbusier’s overarching understanding of landscape that prompts the kind of total plan we see in La Ville Radieuse, and the then novel use, in Vers Une Architecture, of the term “paysage urbain” (urban landscape). In landscape lies power, and it is perhaps this recognition that persuades Le Corbusier he might construct the city as a –scape on its own terms.
The word “atlas” is drawn from the myth of the eponymous ancient god, who is frequently depicted carrying the celestial spheres or the terrestrial globe. Atlas was known to be enduring, as hard as the Berber peak to which he also gave his name. As though standing on the summit of Mount Atlas, Le Corbusier is shown to be a steadfast surveyor of the land. What resounds is his interest in creating not only structures, but views – whether looking out, from the intermediary space of the balcony or the rooftop, looking down, from the high-rise, or looking over, as in his urban macro-plans. These are the heights of the Corbusian Atlas, and the exhibition presents extensive views over the architect’s world.