Closing Le Corbusier’s Atlas

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Sketch made during a lecture in Chicago on November 25, 1935. Featuring the plan Macià for Barcelona, a theoretical section of the Unité d’habitation, and the plan Obus A for Algiers Pastel on paper. 39 3/4 x 109 1/2″ (101 x 278.1 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Robert A. Jacobs 1602.2000. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / FLC

If you are in Madrid or going there, you have the last chance to see one of my favourite exhibitions in a good number of years. Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes which I saw in New York just over a year ago and which I was reminded of by going to see Alvar Aalto: Second Nature at the Vitra Design Museum just recently (which I am reviewing elsewhere). I was reminded of it not simply because of the status of the two architects and their contribution to the great canon of modernist architecture but also through a confusion in the discussion around the exhibition over words and concepts like “nature” and “landscape”. 

I remember that most of the reviews I read about Le Corbusier’s An Atlas of Modern Landscapes at the time took issue with the word landscape in the title and largely baulked at the curator’s take on Corbusier. There was a point at which the critical reaction couldn’t take a show that both has “Landscape” in the title and contains the great cruciform monoliths of Le Plan Voisine crushing dear old Hausmann’s Paris underneath their feet. In this I have a huge sympathy with them. I disagree with the way they go on then to reject the thesis of this exhibition, which to me goes a long way to capturing why Le Corbusier is so important NOW, in a way that the RIBA show I saw in the crypt in Liverpool cathedral did not.

American critics read “landscape” in a very technical professional way to infer an idea of landscape architecture and therefore by extension, greenery in general. Not the siting or placing of architecture in a landscape but you know, trees and stuff. Nature. By that extension Le Corbusier’s An Atlas of Modern Landscapes becomes somehow Le Corbusier’s Big Book of Trees? Which is a straw man if ever there was one. So what did the curators mean by using the word “landscape”?

Even the slightly more subtle meaning of the word which contains the idea of crafting nature to make it more appealing to the human eye comes some way short of explaining why Le Corbusier is rightly considered the modernist genius non pareil. He excelled in every single technique associated with architecture; the sketching; the painting; the drawing; the lecturing; the communicating of weighty social ideas; the delight in executing the detail. He was amazing at all of it. But most importantly he extended its scope. He said, “we can conceive cities” and thought of what we now call urbanism as an aesthetic exercise: something which he will eternally be damned for by some.

moma_lecorbusier-01Yet his comparable plans for Algiers and Buenos Aires; which are dominated by massive linear complexes of housing following a coast; fancifully in the South American case beneath major arterial routes, seem like throw away sketches and yet there was in them a desire to compose cities, not in harmony with nature but as if they were nature. By observing the line of the coast and then drawing it, superimposing lines upon it, conceiving those lines as a structure and then part of a city, Le Corbusier was asserting the right of the architect not just to intervene in the natural landscape but call whole new landscape into being. This exhibition asserted the importance of the great modernist today because it refused to accept a diminished scale and containable aesthetic.

I’m just not sure whether certain critics deliberately misunderstood the term ‘landscape’ or it was a simple accident.

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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