It’s ironic that MoMA presented one of the finest architectural exhibitions in years just as Barry Bergdoll, its widely admired curator of architecture, was stepping down, and its director was threatening to demolish the American Folk Art Museum—an architectural gem. Clearly, the gulf between the suits and the creatives yawns wide. If you missed the exhibition (and who wants to suffer New York in summer) you can catch it in Barcelona and Madrid next year. However, this companion book may prove more rewarding. A major reappraisal of a 20th-century master demands patient study of pictures, drawings and text, rather than abbreviated glimpses in a crowded gallery. From the seductive images of Richard Pare to the many essays that chart Corbu’s travels and his response to landscapes, this is a compelling, beautifully produced study that far outshines most books on the architect.
In his introduction, Bergdoll speaks of “a profound relationship between practice and place in Le Corbusier’s life and work,” growing out of his explorations by land, sea and air. Midcentury planes flew low and slow, with many stops along the way, giving Corbu a bird’s-eye view of cities he wanted to re-plan and the topography that shaped his vision. “The notion of genius loci was crucial even to an iconoclast such as Le Corbusier,” wrote Caroline Constant. Think of the Villa Savoie rising from its meadow, the pilgrimage church of Ronchamp isolated on its hill (now marred by the gratuitous addition of Renzo Piano’s convent), and the monastery of La Tourette emerging from the land. Ribbon windows frame landscapes and draw them inside; towers on pilotis were intended to conserve the existing landscapes.
Corbu’s early buildings grew out of his love of the Mediterranean, from the ruined temples of Greece to the cubist white villages that stud the islands. He traveled widely as a young man, filling notebooks with sketches and impressions that informed his thinking about architecture, cities, and nature. Later voyages to South America and India stirred new feats of creativity. He embraced the world, from Tokyo to Moscow, Buenos Aires and Boston—even designing an unrealized sports complex for Baghdad. A fresh survey of his work was badly needed and no-one was better qualified to curate it than Jean-Louis Cohen, a leading historian of Modernism.
Cohen lays out the basic themes in his introduction and describes many of the buildings. Short essays by 28 other critics explore Corbu’s ideas and preoccupations. Together, they provide a vivid account of an architect struggling to be heeded and to build, fighting for projects that ranged from the visionary to the megalomaniacal. Maps chart his major trips and the shocking disparity between his meager output and the multitude of unrealized projects. We can give thanks that his reckless plans to rebuild Paris, Moscow and Algiers remained on paper, while regretting that he was denied the opportunity to build the League of Nations HQ, the Palace of the Soviets and a score of private commissions.