The apparently incurable flaw of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)’s design and architecture department is that, for its major monographic shows, it recycles the architects already banked in its DNA, especially the architects canonized by the International Style Exhibition of 1932. At last count, there have been 10 MoMA shows on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and nearly as many on Frank Lloyd Wright but not one, for example, on the brilliant R.M. Schindler or Claude Parent or any of the pre- or post-War II Italians. The Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier, who was in the 1932 show, has been conspicuous by his near-absence even though Philip Johnson did pursue him for a show in the 1950s: Corb himself, resentful of perceived slights by MoMA and Johnson and of his treatment in the United States, rebuffed Johnson by making excessive demands.
MoMA has just corrected the omission with a major exhibition, “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes,” stunning for its generous array of original artifacts, a few even dating from the architect’s teens. If, true to form, MoMA is still exhibiting one of its DNA architects, at least Corb has not been already over-exhibited, and at least the show is comprehensive—it’s the largest Corb exhibition ever produced in New York, with a wide range of projects in a variety of media. The show was organized by architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen, Sheldon H. Solow Professor in the History of Architecture at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, with Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design. MoMA commissioned the English architectural photographer, Richard Pare, to photograph several seminal buildings as they exist today—his panoramic shots of Le Corbusier’s buildings within atmospheric landscapes document the fact that his buildings endure: They are not inventions of fashion.
Though a comparable show might have been done 50 years ago, “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes” is especially eye-catching for today’s architects because the copious and diverse materials are all analog rather than digital, a near novelty nowadays, including vintage movie clips from the ’20s. Besides showing how and what Le Corbusier thought in a clear, evenly distributed chronology, it exhibits how architects not long ago used analog tools, especially drawing and painting, to evolve and promote their thinking. The show is both biographical and archaeological. The aura of tattered and yellowed drawings and models whose woods have mellowed to glowing—not to mention the flickering film footage—adds a sense of authenticity to the show via patina.
Drawing is the thread that ties together both the protean architect’s several phases of development, as well as the organization of the exhibition itself, as one Le Corbusier slides into the next. Corb was born before easy-to-use hand-held cameras, when architects drew and traveled, sketching their voyages, and those images chronicling the advancement of his career and aesthetic are on display.
His career as a draftsman started in a particularly Swiss way when he learned how to engrave watchcases (think patterns like palm trees) in a local craft school linked to the watch industry, which combined industrial and craft methods. A professor directed his talent more towards architecture, but with an emphasis on symbolic ornaments inspired by the Jura landscape and the writings of John Ruskin. Early on, Corb showed his ambitions and aspirations by briefly working for Auguste Perret in Paris and Peter Behrens in Berlin, but he was basically a self-taught architect who acquired his training through the osmosis of itinerant apprenticeships and architectural history absorbed through pencil and watercolor brushes.
At a time of transition between tradition and Modernism, he had little to unlearn, and certainly not the daunting edifice of a formal Beaux-Arts training. Pare’s pictures of Corb’s first buildings show poised but quintessentially Swiss chalets and villas with charming roofs, a purposely regional architecture which then ceded to more classicized villas. The language of his design was Swiss and Germanic, though during the Great War, he started to theorize what a modern architecture might be, famously proposing the Maison Dom-Ino (1914–15), with its thin columns supporting concrete floor slabs, and a staircase connecting floors.
Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, as Corb was born, moved to Paris after the war, and though the section of the exhibition chronicling this period is titled “The Conquest of Paris,” it was really Paris that conquered Jeanneret. The architect plunged into the intellectual and artistic foment, and emerged a theoretician, a counter-revolutionary challenging no less than Cubism in his manifesto After Cubism, which he co-authored with the painter, Amédée Ozenfant. They issued their own manifesto on Purism, putting back together the cube that had been shattered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, proposing instead the Platonic solids that characterize his later works (many of which are on display in the MoMA show), and a world of permanence rather than change.
Following the fashion of the time and no doubt his own instincts for self-promotion—which the show doesn’t hesitate to point out—it was at this point that Jeanneret adopted a single moniker, changing his name to Le Corbusier. He proceeded to paint his theories. A collection of deft and serious paintings in MoMA’s exhibition from this period of his career explains the Purist idea by example, with objects shaped as simple, sometimes transparent volumes, juxtaposed and layered to form virtual tablescapes. Like the cubists he had dismissed, Corb avoided perspective and constructed the space of his paintings instead with overlapping elementary shapes that anticipate architectural designs characterized by an articulation of elementary parts. Under the influence of his friend Fernand Léger, Corb’s purist paintings shift to highly modeled organic forms inspired by “objects of poetic reaction”—nudes, ropes, snakes, skies, the sea—which exhibit a plasticity achieved through shading that he translated to his architectural designs.
Two further long walls of paintings at MoMA represent what is effectively an aesthetic subconscious motivating the architect, the deep well from which he draws architectural ideas. This section of the show is particularly well developed because Cohen has carried over the energy and insights from a previous show in Stockholm earlier this year, “Le Corbusier’s Secret Laboratory,” into this exhibition, forming a show within a show. As Corb depicts his architectural designs from above, we see the influence of the painting in the many axonometric drawings that portray his buildings like tablescapes, the building sections articulated into juxtaposed or overlapping parts. What becomes evident is that painting has a clear impact on how he conceives architecture. Yet the reverse is not true: Architecture does not appear to architecturalize the painting.
Although he criticized Cubism for its abstraction, Corb proves the most abstract of architects, creating pure white, apparently immaterial prisms spotted with anecdotal cylinders, cubes, cones, and other prisms. Incandescent in their beauty, the famous white houses of the 1920s—the villas Savoye, Stein, and Church, among others, all of which make an appearance here—establish his reputation. But after the Léger period, during which he also looks at the objects of “poetic reaction,” he grafts rounded forms onto and within his buildings and sculpts faÇades with three-dimensionally rich brise-soleils. He tends to “see” his buildings from the outside and above, in the same way he paints his tablescapes. Without dividing the show into clean breaks, the curators nonetheless pace Corb’s shifts in interests and even idioms evenly, not dwelling on any one period at the expense of another.
Ever the polemicist during a period when architects wore their manifestos on their sleeves, Corb bases his designs on health principles, cultivating roofs for greenery and ribbon windows for light. But when he pivots the same logic to very large apartment buildings—such as those proposed in his Plan Voisin (1925)—to propose healthy living environments to replace the unhealthy slums surrounding French cities, the resulting housing blocks trade one problem for another: They liberate the land for open space, but they create inhumane environments that, as the show points out, Jane Jacobs would later criticize as breeding grounds for alienation and anomie.
As the audio guide notes, the result of Corb’s proposals to invent entire cities is to transform him into a public figure. Grainy films running on loop in the galleries show him lecturing, talking about the necessity of sun, air, and trees, while he draws on large sketch pads, making the case for the tabula rasa planning that derives, ultimately, from his painted tablescapes. With the show’s strong documentation of his Villes Radieuses, it’s impossible to look past the weaknesses that will incite Jacobs, including the borderline megalomania: The totalizing urban visions of so many crushing megablocks keep the show from being an exercise in adoration. Corb is on exhibit as a self-incriminating witness in his own posthumous urban trial.
The problems go back to the paintings, which are the source of both his weaknesses and strengths. Corb learned articulation, composition, differentiation, and plasticity from his paintings, but his approach prejudiced the architect to view land as a flat table on which to arrange the compositions. Tellingly, in one film he says that it is necessary to raise the building above the “wet” ground on pilotis, to aerate the building for dryness, as though the ground were an agent of infection.
In hindsight, the arguments are simplistic and arrogant: He is building his career on thin logic, proposing self-serving, faintly demagogic arguments to lay claim as a prophet of Modernism. The buildings remain objects on the landscape, and as a rule the Platonic solids remain largely closed to the environment. Though he perforates the box, he does not break it.
In a beautifully crafted model of Chandigarh, he treats the ground as a bas relief composition. In the model of the Marseille Unité d’Habitation (1946–52), the roof is a tablescape of forms—amphitheater, running track, pool—planted on a prismatic solid with the detachment of a toupée. In all the renderings of his interiors in the show, he proposes “landscapes” that are, again, like tablescapes, perhaps with some wiggly walls, but always sandwiched between flat, oppressive floors: Corb only visualizes the landscape through a window, or through framed architectural compositions in a pictorial relationship—like a painting. His own rather pathetic summer cabin on the Côte d’Azur, Le Cabanon (1951–52), painstakingly rebuilt at the museum, has a single, rather mean window capturing the view of the bay. The wooden cabin does not open to the environment. The re-creation makes evident that he strangely abandoned the principle of Maison Dom-Ino in a site that demanded exposure to the outside.
The paintings on display prove a rich but limiting source of ideas, which leads Corb to sculpt form rather than shape space, and to visualize the landscape without participating in it physically. He kept his forms self-contained, and they remain formal, sculptural and detached.
But even given the limitations of painting as the generator, the design process yields masterpieces, even among the large buildings. The complex Palace of the League of Nations in Geneva (1927), depicted and shaded from above in axonometric like his purist paintings, concatenates across its site in blocks with sculpturally articulated sections and components. Cohen shows a constructivist-inspired work, the Palace of the Soviets (1931–32), that was highlighted in another exhibition that he curated at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, which had a special section on Corb’s experiences in Russia. As in his paintings, the design articulates the building into programmatic segments which are then subdivided into architectonic components, with a heroic superstructure from which roofs are suspended. Corb’s design for a high-rise apartment tower in Algiers (1933) proposes a deeply sculpted, highly differentiated brise-soleil façade that articulates and advertises the diversity of apartments inside.
Then there is the famous Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, his thesis proposal for large apartment complexes, which anticipates his sculptural masterpiece, the capital buildings in Chandigarh in India, a summary of Corb’s thinking. And, of course, there is the sublime, out-of-the-blue Ronchamp, inspired by organic shapes of his “objects of poetic reaction” on display—a vitrine of shells and rocks—and by mud-packed towns in Central Algeria. Corb cultivates a masterful play of light inside its cave-like interior.
This is a voluptuous show, rich in visually tactile material. But there are trade-offs. Maison Dom-Ino, so revolutionary in its time but very well known, hardly makes an appearance. The curators make room instead for such relatively unknown and revealing works as the unbuilt Villa Chimanbhai (1951–54) in India, a small concrete cube of a building whose brise-soleil faÇades open to a highly porous interior of honeycombed spaces, configured like a snail and designed to circulate air. While the choice of projects is nearly encyclopedic, the weight the curators give to certain phases, such as the urban planning and of course the paintings, gives the show an interpretative thrust. The emphasis on painting provokes an enticing thought: What if Le Corbusier hadn’t dispatched Cubism in oedipal fashion, but had applied his genius to develop Cubism in architecture, opening form and space, creating simultaneities? This avenue would have yielded a vastly different, perhaps even more compelling, Le Corbusier. We can only wonder at its untapped potential.
The weight the show gives to the megaprojects also gives insight into the disconnect between the machine that was shaping Corb’s vision for a standardized architectural future and the hand that was painting the seminal visions. The marriage of the two, as in the sculpturally purist roofscapes of the Unité d’Habitation and the cool, prismatic apartment block below, was uncomfortable, more a juxtaposition of differences than a merger or hybrid. The conflict between the hand and the machine is not resolved, especially given the evidence of the magisterial works like Ronchamp, where the machine is completely absent. Corb’s machine has a chilling effect on his designs.
But the show does exhibit the material trail of a mind and a talent searching through the century from an Arts & Crafts beginning into the Machine Age. Like others of his generation, Corb sought to create an architecture that would harness the machine as a positive social force, thereby creating a new habitat for a deeply transformed human condition. The effort was heroic, and so were his proposals for architectural rescue. If Jane Jacobs critiqued his buildings, his buildings stand as a critique of Jacobs: The village was not enough. He speculated on a bigger scale.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated curator Jean-Louis Cohen's title. See his correct title in paragraph 2 above.