Twenty stories above Marseille, Le Corbusier has returned to Cité Radieuse’s roof. That’s where French artist Xavier Veilhan installed a sky-blue, 60-foot, bow-tied bust of the late architectural deity on top of one of modernism’s most important apartment buildings, reactivating a former rooftop gymnasium that had spent decades in disuse.
“It’s a classic,” Veilhan tells ARTINFO, describing Le Corbusier’s experimental mid-century concrete community, “but I’m not such a big Le Corbusier fan, actually.” Despite his tepid feelings toward the venerated icon, Veilhan’s “Le Corbusier (Bust)” (2013), along with the 10 other pieces that comprise the fourth installment of his continuing “Architectones” series, inaugurate Cité Radieuse’s newfound artspace. Marseille Modulor (MaMo for short) opened in June, three years after French artist and designer Ora-ïto bought the derelict rooftop space, commissioned his friend Veilhan, and embarked upon a three-year, $10-million joint restoration with the building’s owners and French government.
Veilhan’s “Architectones” occupy modernist landmarks with sculptural installations that interact directly with the architecture. Atop Cité Radieuse, Le Corbusier’s bust appears to be drawing directly on the roof, as if the building had emerged directly from the enormous pencil the statue holds. It’s an illustration of Veilhan’s take on architecture, a profession that bridges the gap between the two- and three-dimensional each time a conceptual sketch is realized into building, as well as the incidental parallels between his work and Le Corb’s; Veilhan’s 3-D bust was at one point 2-D image, a photograph of the architect sketching, as he was often found. In order to “catch the essence of the position,” Veilhan enlisted a Le Corbusier lookalike to dress the part, posing for a digital scan that the artist later translated to sculpture using a computer. The resulting avatar is a resin-and-steel paradigm of Veilhan’s polygonal sculptural style, the unmistakable form of Le Corbusier’s round head shattered into geometric planes.
What the two also share is how deeply they consider the settings in which they place their work. Le Corbusier had designed Cité Radieuse as a vertical community so that its inhabitants would have a vantage point of the nature in the distance, a Mediterranean melange of mountains, sea, and sky. “He was a little bit stiff, super serious, and not very funny,” says Veilhan of Le Corbusier, “but what I love is this connection that he has with the Mediterranean culture, which is a little bit strange for a Swiss guy. There is a very intense connection between Le Corbusier and the city of Marseille that makes it more interesting than a building somewhere else.”
In turn, Veilhan’s “Architectones” series, having previously graced the hallowed grounds of Case Study House n°21 by Pierre Koenig, Richard Neutra’s VDL House, and John Lautner’s Sheats-Goldstein Residence in Los Angeles (as the Mediterranean climate influenced Swiss-born Le Corbusier’s work, so did L.A.’s dazzling sea and sun for Austrian Neutra’s), create site-specific sculptures, ostensible religious icons in modernist holy spaces. His vignettes spring from both a detailed knowledge and appreciation of architectural history and a wild imagination; elsewhere on the Cite Radieuse roof, bronze statuettes depict an imagined scene of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret on a paddleboat in Chandigargh rowing by Buckminster Fuller in a catamaran. Above, the steel cables Veilhan installed to connect the roof’s wall to its cooling tower depict rays of light, the essential immaterial component to Le Corbusier’s work. Combined with the sun and expansive views, it all adds up to the sense that it’s some kind of modernist heaven up there.
To see Veilhan’s architectural interventions atop Cité Radieuse, click the slideshow.