MoMA's New Corbusier Exhibition Reveals a Life Led By Landscapes

Installation view of the exhibition "Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes" at MoMA
(© 2013 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Jonathan Muzikar)

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Jean-Louis Cohen, guest curator of “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes,” MoMA’s retrospective of the Franco-Swiss architect’s work, has taken on a restorative task: he wants to, as he puts it, “re-skew Le Corbusier from his bad reputation of having been indifferent to specific places, of having invented the generic buildings that have no relationship with any particular site.” Cohen counters Le Corbusier’s naysayers by highlighting what he calls “the beauty of [Le Corbusier’s] objects” in an exhibition that surveys the biographical development of the architect’s ideas about landscape and topography. By taking the visitor on a tour through the locales that influenced and inspired Corbusier as a young aspiring painter and the sites that the adult architect interpreted with his structures and plans, Cohen’s display of the dazzling breadth of the architect’s creative undertakings — from watercolors to Purist paintings to furniture and buildings — helps to provide a view of Corbusier apart from his more commonly known reputation as proponent of austere, uniform modernism. However, Cohen’s emphasis on beauty and landscape in Le Corbusier’s oeuvre is not accompanied by a thorough reflection on the practical concerns and dysfunctions — the sources of the architect’s “bad reputation” — that have developed in the wake of some of the grandest topographic interventions presented in the exhibition.

“An Atlas of Modern Landscapes” opens with watercolor paintings the architect completed from 1900 to 1915, as an adolescent and young adult living in the bucolic Swiss Jura Mountains and traveling through Germany, Turkey, and southeastern Europe. Corbusier developed a talent for observing nature in close detail, which despite much later criticism arguing the opposite, would pervade the rest of his life’s creative work. His early 1902 landscape “Au sommet” is a realistic depiction of pine trees, pastures, and expansive sky — while lacking the reductive geometries that would later become Le Corbusier’s hallmarks, the architect’s enduring fascination with the horizon, and its separation of land and sky into planar surfaces, is already evident.


This type of observation was similarly key for Le Corbusier as he began working with architecture and furniture design, organizing domestic interior landscapes of furniture and windows in a way designed to facilitate observation of the geography outside the home. On view at MoMA are four reconstructed interiors featuring the original pieces designed by Le Corbusier, including the living room of the Maison Blanche, the house Le Corbusier built for his parents in his hometown of La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1912. Here, a couch and chairs were positioned toward a wide window to frame and encourage outdoor viewing, while a desk designed for Corbusier’s mother faces the wall. Rather than using design to isolate the interior experience from the outdoor topography, it instead offers the landscape as something to be enjoyed through an aesthetic experience.


Models of buildings appear midway through the exhibition, following a series of paintings, drawings, and interiors that focus on the central role of observation in Corbusier’s understanding of landscape. Seven of the photographs by Richard Pare commissioned for this retrospective, displayed alongside models and architectural drawings, contextualize within the original landscape objects representing the Villa Le Lac in Neuilly-sur-Seine, the Villa Savoye in Poissy, the Capitol Complex in Chandigarh, the Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles, the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, the convent of Saint-Marie-de-la-Tourette in Eveux-sur-Arbresle, and Le Corbusier’s own cabanon in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. These reveal how the curvilinear roof of the small chapel of Notre Dame du Haut imitates the rolling hills of the surrounding landscape and integrates with the topography, while the horizontality of the Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles, though contrasting sharply with the nearby rolling Calanques hills, offers a rooftop platform to enjoy the view.


Le Corbusier’s focus on landscape was at times a shortcoming, a fact that goes unmentioned in the exhibition’s fourth section, devoted to Corbusier’s plan for and buildings in Chandigarh, India. Three plaster architectural models and 11 ink and pencil perspective drawings work in concert with Pare’s photography to reveal that Corbusier was inspired by the expansive, flat plain of the city’s setting – a site he relished viewing from above via airplane – and not by the citizens who would inhabit the new Punjab capital. A detail model of the Palace of Assembly’s roof structure captures the contrast of the Assembly’s rectangular body and square windows against the upward curves and slanted linear plane of the roof structure, emulating the linear landscape of the plain against the curves and peaks of the Himalayan mountains in the distance; while drawings reveal Le Corbusier’s detailed observations on topography.


But what significantly remains unmentioned in the exhibition about the Chandigarh design was its impracticality. When the city was designed from scratch in the early 1950s, Punjab locals navigated back and forth between villages on foot. While in vision, Corbusier’s urban plan and buildings for Chandigarh do reflect the expansive plain and towering mountains that surround the city, Chandigarh was built for cars at a time when most nearby inhabitants did not yet own a bicycle. The models of Chandigarh are indeed beautiful — testament, like all the show’s beautiful objects, to Le Corbusier’s tireless observation and adoration of landscape — but “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Landscapes” would do well to acknowledge that the beautiful objects presented in the exhibit do not always represent an equally beautiful reality.


To see images from the exhibition, click on the slideshow.

Watch ARTINFO video on Le Corbusier show HERE.