Urban Nightmare, Sensual Landscapes in Corbusier Legacy

Le Corbusier, the architect who wanted to bulldoze much of Paris, was a romantic at heart.

That’s the takeaway from the 320-object retrospective on the 20th century’s most influential architect, “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Born in Switzerland in 1887, nicknamed Corbu in his later years, he established himself with an abstract painting style that made ordinary objects like bottles and guitars look like machine parts.

Guest curator Jean-Louis Cohen -- working with Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s chief curator of architecture and design -- shows how the architect put those same forms together in white-plastered concrete to build both social housing and luxurious villas as austerely elegant sculptures.

The show mixes paintings with a profusion of drawings and sketches, some exquisite building models, and some full-size room mockups that fall flat.

On display are drawings of the 1925 Plan Voisin, which would have eradicated historic Paris neighborhoods, leaving a few choice monuments to float amid 245-meter (800-foot) cruciform towers awash in trees girded by wide boulevards. It was a provocation, justly reviled at the time, but unfortunately influential.

Builders and bureaucrats embraced his notion of warehousing people in low-cost towers and remaking cities to speed autos. The rest is tragic urban history.

Vichy Taint

Neither can we forget that Le Corbusier tried to make nice to the Vichy French government that collaborated with the Nazis. His naive attempts were rebuffed, which allowed him by sheer persistence to rescue his reputation in the postwar era.

Cohen uses the landscape theme to reveal Le Corbusier’s sculptural bravura as humanely sensual. The architect roofed a much-debated experimental apartment building in Marseilles (the Unite d’Habitation), with a whimsical garden of sculptural forms that echo surrounding hills.

Cohen is immensely aided by photos taken by Richard Pare. One shows a gnarled tree that mellows a villa where sleek surfaces have been humbled by time.

The tightly wound Swiss-born architect loosened up his stiff, machined geometries as he and his wife spent more time in the relaxed Mediterranean atmosphere of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, on the French Riviera.

In one of his late masterpieces, a chapel on a hilltop in Ronchamp, France, rounded tower forms enclose a monastically beautiful worship space in a maternal embrace.

Wright Contrast

In the end, the landscape theme isn’t persuasive. As the drawings and models show, Le Corbusier kept the earth at a remove, typically by raising buildings above the ground plane on columns. By contrast, Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings embed themselves in the landscape.

A late project, the complex he designed in Chandigarh, the post-partition capital of India’s Punjab region, manages to be grand and human-scaled at once.

Behind a broad reflecting pool, a deep porch protects the entrance of the Assembly building from the searing sun, then curls up in a welcoming concrete wave. Inside, daylight gently suffuses a shadowy, dreamlike sequence of rooms, crossed by ramps and bridges.

The buildings pose beautifully together but they embrace a vast plaza so tentatively that it does not seem to have become a true civic place.

Grandeur Trashed

Le Corbusier’s great contribution was to help Modernism trash the pompous aristocratic grandeur of dimming empires while trying to make possible a light-filled architecture of the people.

Even after the Paris debacle, he continued to concoct toxic but gorgeous visionary schemes. He loved to draw roads as graceful sinews linking elegantly composed building groups, and so proposed highways surmounting miles of uniform, honeycombed apartments.

In drawings they look gorgeous as they curve through the tumbled landscapes of Algiers and Rio de Janeiro. Thankfully the dreadful urban place that would result could never be built.

He was first of all an artist. That made him blind to the profound social implications of imposing a new style of art to transform cities.

“Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes” runs through Sept. 23 at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. Information: www.moma.org. The exhibition will travel to Barcelona and Madrid.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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