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Restoration Of The Living Ideal

Notre Dam du Hout
Le Corbusier – The Art of Architecture
The Crypt, Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, until 18 Jan 2009
www.architecture.com/le Corbusier

So many sins have been committed in the name of Le Corbusier, it is hard to separate the man from his reputation. Veronica Simpson visits a major exhibition exploring the enduring legacy of the iconic architect, writer and artist.

While the carcasses of countless sink estates – often shoddily assembled imitations of this mass-housing blueprint – still haunt our urban landscapes, the negative impact of this image, only one of Le Corbusier’s big ideas, can obscure us to the brilliance of the others.

A Le Corbusier mural
But what this exhibition – his first major retrospective since the late 1980s – sets out to do is restore our understanding of the man as an artist, an idealist and a thinker; a ‘man of letters’ as he chose to describe himself in his passport. After all, he authored nearly as many books as he did buildings.

Beneath the vaulted brick ceiling of the crypt in Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral, a rich assortment of plans, paintings, home movies, sculptures, drawings, furniture and even scribbled tear sheets from some of his legendary lectures are assembled to help us see how his inspirations, ideals and buildings evolved over his lifetime.

There are beautifully preserved models of his most famous projects – the villas, the churches and even a wooden model of his visionary capital city at Chandigarh – as well as virtual, digital recreations of pavilions and buildings he designed but never got to build.

Evolution of spirit
We see how this ambitious and energetic man moved from the youthful zeal of his days as a ‘purist’, eschewing the frills, folksiness and flourishes of previous architectural eras for clean lines, open space and bold, white exteriors shaped by the logic of the building’s interior plan; how his travels through Africa and Latin America inspired a more sensual and organic response; and how, despite his declared agnosticism, he was able to create some of the 20th century’s most striking and beautiful spaces for religion and spiritual worship.

Villa Savoye
Though it was architecture that made his name, he was a prolific painter, very much in the style of Picasso. He allegedly spent every morning at his easel, saving the business of architecture for the afternoon. And when he wasn’t painting, travelling or creating buildings, he immersed himself in the ideas of the day, producing and disseminating his particular brand of design evangelism through many books and magazines. “My own duty and my aim,” he wrote in his youth, “is to try and raise people out of their misery...to provide them with happiness, with a contented existence, with harmony. My own goal is to establish or re-establish harmony between people and their environment.”

To look at his buildings – like the Villa Savoye, the domestic ‘machine’ at its most elegant – is to see these ideas writ large. But, like all geniuses, he was flawed, his inspired rhetoric and idealism sometimes carrying him far beyond what might seem desirable to most mortals. The thought of having to live in the 2km-long wall of high-rise dwellings he designed to run the length of the bay of Algiers, is truly horrific.

And even our exhibition guide declared the citizens of Paris ‘lucky’ not to have had his vision for a new Parisian metropolis – 1925’s Le Plan Voisin – inflicted on them, the city’s rococo excesses stripped away in favour of a uniform vista of tower blocks and barracks-style multi-storey dwellings.

Reforming zeal
But it’s worth being reminded that Le Corbusier’s first completed mass housing project, L’Unite´ d’habitation, was conceived as a utopian city in the sky. The apartments were all intended to be luxurious dwellings, with fitted kitchens, double-height lounges and private garden terraces, the community served and strengthened by generous integral gathering spaces and facilities – a roof terrace adorned with playgrounds, creche, gymnasium; and an internal street stuffed with shops and eateries.

Chaise Longue Thonat-Freres
I left the exhibition convinced that the power of his buildings lay in that heady combination of technical virtuosity, reforming zeal, and the evident poetry in his soul, nurtured and maintained through his dedication to art, travel, sculpture, and the life of the mind.

In lesser hands, his ideas were quickly corrupted, seized on by individuals more seduced by the economy and speed with which massive housing units could be constructed. The failure of these buildings as dwellings, when cheaply built, badly sited and filled with the urban poor, cannot be laid at his door.

The Pavillon Philips
As The RIBA Trust photographic footnote at the end of the exhibition reminds us, in the right hands, his ideas could inspire brilliant buildings – London’s Barbican and the Southbank complex to name but two. It’s a timely reminder, however, as new cities that celebrate the egos of the world’s leading architects are constructed all over the Eastern part of the globe, that architecture is only one element in the mix.

Intelligent social engineering and a robust, supportive infrastructure are what creates truly healthy environments and cities.

Veronica Simpson is an architectural journalist

The Le Corbusier exhibition has been produced by the Vitra Design Museum, in co-operation with the RIBA Trust and the Netherlands Architecture Institute








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