Out of Site

An exhibition at Museum of Modern Art,New York,presents Le Corbusier’s preoccupation with landscapes and their many layers

Written by Vandana Kalra | Published: July 24, 2013 12:14:14 am

He always dreamt of building a city and,in Chandigarh,

Le Corbusier found that opportunity. The Swiss-French architect was to spend the ’50s exploring and designing the North Indian city where the Himalayan landscape served as a malleable backdrop for his monumental buildings. The master plan itself was analogous to the human body,with the Capitol Complex as a clearly defined head. Now,a large model of the Capitol along with the architect’s sketches of the cityscape comprises an exhibition that celebrates his architectural talent. New Yorkers are being introduced to Chandigarh through many drawings of the architect that show the early stages of design of the main structures and the workers who built them. These feature in A City in Chandigarh,the 1965 film by Swiss filmmaker Alain Tanner.

“Chandigarh is the most important example of the vast territories planned by Le Corbusier,” notes Jean-Louis Cohen,curator of the exhibition “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes”. At Museum of Modern Art in New York City,the exhibition,curated by Cohen with Barry Bergdoll,comprises over 320 exhibits that centre around landscapes. “A general retrospective would not have allowed for a

renewed view — pretty much as in the case of major artists such as Pablo Picasso. Hence,the decision to focus on the overlooked issue of landscape,understood in many ways,as the physical organisation of space,but also as the representation of space.”

From Corbusier’s watercolours of the early 1900s to sketches made from the airplane in the ’60s,he never stopped observing and drawing landscapes,while at the same time imagining his buildings,even the most innovative,and apparently abstract ones,as a response to specific landscapes — urban or rural,” writes Cohen,who has divided Corbusier’s six-decade-long career into four types of landscapes — the landscape of found objects,the domestic landscape,the architectural landscape of the modern city,and the vast territories he planned.

The first of five sections “From the Jura Mountains to the Wide World” cover the early years of the architect’s life. Born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris,he learned to draw by exploring the landscape surrounding his home in Switzerland. Section two,“The Conquest of Paris”,shows works completed after the architect settled in Paris,when he adopted the pseudonym Le Corbusier and constructed villas for the Paris elite. “Responding to Landscape,from Africa to the Americas” follows a decade where Corbusier began to work on projects outside France and Switzerland,developing plans for Rio de Janeiro,Sao Paulo and Montevideo,as well as a master plan for the transformation of Algiers that occupied 12 years of his life but failed to be realised. “Chandigarh,a New Urban Landscape for India” traces the architect’s commission to design the city,and the final section of the exhibition is “Toward the Mediterranean,or the Eternal Return” that displays projects from the last 15 years of the architect’s life,when he completed some of his most famous buildings,from the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille to the Chapelle Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp and the Convent of Sainte-Marie de La Tourette near Lyon.

The vastness of the archive — 32,000 architecture drawings,8,000 art drawings,200 paintings,and 1.5 million memos and other documents posed a challenge but Cohen assures that “a rigorous selection had to be made of the most efficient works,articulating well-known pieces and works never seen before and buried in the archives for decades.”

There is the perception that Corbusier’s buildings were universally hostile to the natural world. “Absolutely not,” says Cohen,adding,“Le Corbusier was educated in contact with nature,and always remained interested in observing and interpreting nature.”

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