Le Corbusier at MoMA: A Globe-Spanning Show for a ‘Multitasking Character’

Le Corbusier said that he preferred drawing to talking, on the grounds that the former is “faster and leaves less room for lies.” And so we silently sketched a “vehement silhouette” of MoMA beside a pair of round eyeglasses and handed it to writer Nancy Lazarus, who knew immediately what to do. Here’s her take on the museum’s highly anticipated Corbu-fest.

Le Corbusier’s urban plan for Rio de Janeiro (1929). Inset, a 2012 photograph of his Villa Savoye (1928–31). © 2013 Artists Rights Society, New York/ADAGP, Paris/FLC. Photo © Richard Pare

So much for Swiss diplomacy and neutrality: Le Corbusier, a prolific artist and architect, was politically active and often provoked and antagonized those closest to him in the art world, according to Jean-Louis Cohen, professor in the history of architecture at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.

Cohen spoke at the press preview for “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes,” which opens Saturday at the Museum of Modern Art. He organized the exhibition and served as guest curator, working with Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s chief curator of architecture and design. The comprehensive display of 320 objects draws on MoMA’s own collection and extensive loans from the Paris-based Le Corbusier Foundation, culminating a longstanding but rocky relationship with the artist.

The career of Le Corbusier (a Frenchman born in Switzerland as Charles-Edouard Jenneret) spanned six decades. The scope of his life’s work leaves the public both impressed and overwhelmed: he was involved in 400 architectural projects, completed 75 buildings, and published nearly 40 books. A small group of his buildings is now being considered for inclusion on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

“Le Corbusier was an exceptionally multitasking character,” Cohen said. He not only mastered painting and architecture but also canvassed the world. “He was probably the first global architect. The show is a parallel movement of his life from his youth through old age. It also traces Le Corbusier’s geographical voyages.” Those trips led the artist from his hometown in the Jura Mountains to Africa, Latin America, India, Russia, and back to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea.

“Landscapes were the optimal vantage point from which to organize the exhibit,” Cohen said. “Here Le Corbusier is an observer, dreamer, prophet, urban planner, and we see it all through his landscapes. The architect described landscapes by his feelings. He understood that houses were machines to live in and to look out at landscapes.”

“This exhibit shows Le Corbusier as a very fine artist and architect who revolutionized architecture,” noted Bergdoll. “The color palette here is his, and follows his chromatic journey using his paints,” Cohen added, “For Le Corbusier, paintings were the secret laboratory for his architecture. He had the ability to integrate memories and experiences and images into his work.”

“This exhibit educates and includes multiple screens”, said Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director, citing the multimedia dimension. “It shows Le Corbusier’s links between painting and architecture, drawings, and models.” The mediums include pencil, pen, ink, charcoal and pastel sketches and drawings, watercolor and oil paintings, plastic, plaster and wood models, films about the artist, and selected photos of his buildings. Highlights include four recreations of rooms that Le Corbusier designed for himself and his family.

“We’re not creating a temple of worshipping Corbu,” Cohen pointed out. “The film shows him in his entirety. He antagonized lots of people and used scandal as a provocation and as a weapon. He even broke with each of his masters, who were the symbolic fathers” that taught him each of his metiers.

In conclusion, Cohen observed, “There are lots of Le Corbusier ‘isms.’ No other artist is as reduced to clichés by others, and by his own account. His is a rich oeuvre that we could talk about forever.”

Nancy Lazarus’s last contribution to UnBeige was about another multitasker: designer David Rockwell. Learn more about her at www.NL3Media.com.