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Newsmaker: Jean-Louis Cohen

Record talks with the eminent architecture historian and architect who organized the comprehensive new Le Corbusier exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

By Suzanne Stephens
June 7, 2013
Photo © Richard Pare
Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret), Villa Savoye, Poissy, 1928–31 (Photo 2012)

You might say it’s about time. Finally a retrospective of the pioneering master of modern architecture has been mounted by the Architecture and Design Department at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes (on view until September 23), presents a vast range of the work of the influential architect who was born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland in 1887, and died in 1965 after practicing most of his life in Paris. As the show demonstrates, Le Corbusier never stopped innovating with the language of architecture, refining a rational vocabulary of modernist taut planes, open plans, and gridded structures to reinterpreting vernacular building methods or generating organic sculptural forms using poured-in-place concrete. Nor did Le Corbusier stick to architecture alone. He painted, sculpted, photographed, wrote treatises, and designed furniture along with buildings and cities. This exhibition, organized by guest curator Jean-Louis Cohen, an architect and historian, with Barry Bergdoll, chief curator of the museum’s architecture and design department, frames the vast oeuvre with the relationship of Le Corbusier to the landscape—from the small domestic scale to the large regional one. The comprehensive exhibition, featuring a vast array of drawings, original models, still-life paintings, and even films by the architect, brings to life the outpouring of this creative force of the 20th century. Just before the show’s June 15 opening Record discussed the exhibition with Cohen.

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Why did the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) take so long to present a retrospective exhibition of Le Corbusier? As you point out in the catalogue accompanying the show, he was included in the landmark Modern Architecture: International Exhibition of 1932, plus an exhibition in 1935 devoted to recent work, along with several smaller shows in 1963, 1978, and 1987. But no retrospective.

In 1953, Philip Johnson proposed a retrospective at the museum that would have opened in 1955. But negotiations were arduous. Le Corbusier wanted very high royalties, plus total control over both the selection of works and their installation. He asked that paintings as well as architecture be included, and he attempted to sell paintings to the museum. MoMA finally abandoned the idea.
But in addition to this scandale in the 1950s, MoMA’s perspective has long favored the architecture of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Alvar Aalto. In the context of the Architecture of the Ecole des Beaux Arts exhibition mounted in 1975 by Arthur Drexler, [then head of the architecture department] and the general involvement of the period in Postmodernism, it would seem the interest in Le Corbusier was not as strong as in the heyday of Modernism—although a small show of Le Corbusier’s drawings was mounted in 1978, and Le Corbusier: 5 Projects in 1987.

Since this is the first retrospective of Le Corbusier at MoMA, and it is the only venue in the U.S. for the show, you must have considered quite seriously the didactic or pedagogical expectations of such an exhibition. Were you concerned about how you would present his work to architecture students—or even young practitioners—who are not really that familiar with Le Corbusier’s contributions?

Mounting a pedagogical exhibition per se was not part of my agenda, but I would think that students being exposed to major works and drawings of Le Corbusier’s architecture should help. He defined modern architecture at every level with innovative forms and a new perception of space that came out of art—and of landscape, as I argue in the show. He brought together space, art, and technology, and dealt with these components—along with the physical site—in many ways. Le Corbusier invented a vocabulary and syntax for a battery of forms that could still be successfully applied now, but under careful medical prescription...For me, the most relevant teachings of his work today are to be found more in his attitude than in his language.

The exhibition is organized from the perspective of the relationship between Le Corbusier’s architecture and the landscape—particularly his experience with landscape in various parts of the world at various stages of his life, including Switzerland and Germany, the Americas, and Asia. As Barry Bergdoll suggests in the exhibition catalogue, the show avoids placing Corbusier’s architecture within a historical taxonomy of styles, or treating it as “autonomous works of spatial art.” What is it about the landscape that interested you?

Le Corbusier’s lifelong observation of the landscape led me to examine the way he developed his building projects and city plans. Not only was he interested in the siting of buildings and their immediate environments, most notably the gardens that surrounded them, but also the distant horizons onto which they opened. He transformed territories into landscapes that responded to the machine age, addressing specific topographies, as the projects for Lake Geneva or Algiers reveal. He was also one of the first global architects, going off to Moscow or Rio, and this exhibition, which we call an “atlas,” evokes the images Corbusier never ceased accumulating, as well as the extended geography of his activities.

Is the notion or “theme,” in danger of being a Procrustean bed where only the works of Le Corbusier that involve the landscape are included? And is there a problem that if a well-known work is shown, such as the Villa Savoye (1929-31), its presentation is limited to the aspects that make the thematic point?

In the exhibition, I am developing ideas of memory and urban landscape: by recording landscapes visually and verbally, Le Corbusier could repeatedly return in thought and in design to the places that moved him—for instance Athens and Rome, transforming them into what could be called “landscape-types” after the “object-types” he used in his Purist paintings. There are many layers that need to be seen together to show a real constellation of positions. In the exhibition of works, we move from unfamiliar stories about the familiar to the unknown—through the unfamiliar. With 75 buildings to include in one show, discussing them according to one theme seemed the only way to do it.

The installation includes drawings, original models, photographs, as well as paintings and furniture. The four, room-sized interiors specially built for the exhibition are particularly worth attention. They include the Cabanon of Le Corbusier from Roquebrune-Cap-Martin (1951-52) near Monte Carlo; an interior based on the living room of Maison Blanche (Villa Jeanneret-Perret) (1912) at La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland; a third room from the Pavilion for the Villa Church (1927-29) in Ville d’Avray; and finally the room-size interior of Unité d’Habitation in Marseille (1952). How did you decide upon these particular examples?

We focused on rooms with a view, as well as the historical meaning in term of furniture. For example, the placement of the furniture in the Cabanon was important. We wanted to open it up and not just treat it as a black box. In the rest of the show, the most significant is perhaps Maison Blanche, where the young architect also designed furniture for his parents’ house, beginning with the very moving desk on which his mother sat for nearly 50 years, writing biweekly letters to him. The Villa Church has the first examples of furniture designed by Charlotte Perriand (with Pierre Jeanneret) placed in a domestic environment. Plus Le Corbusier designed a picture frame around the window looking out to a pastoral view. The room we re-created at Marseille demonstrates his commitment to siting: the Unité d’Habitation is conceived in direct relationship with the bay and the hills at its back, just like the Parthenon—a parallel Le Corbusier himself explicitly drew.

You also have a very intriguing mix of paintings by Le Corbusier that you placed in parts of the installation. How did you decide to handle this aspect of his work?

We wondered how do you place paintings throughout a show when you do not want to use them as decoration. I felt it was abusive to connect one realm to the other too directly. What one sees are sequences of paintings that announce changes in architecture—the superimposition of plans in the Purist ones contributing to the architecture of the Parisian villas, for instance. I could also have shown paintings from the 1940s and 50s, but Purist still-lifes of the 1920s displayed as landscapes of objects were more convincing. The second section of paintings [from the late 1920s and early 30s] is more difficult to interpret, with its allusions to Fernand Léger and Surrealism. But they contain miniature landscapes and reveal combinations of shapes and textures that can be can be seen in his architecture of the period.

Basically the installation is structured according to biographical and geographical themes—as well as the connection to the landscape. As you go through the exhibition you are on a promenade: you might see a model in a remote corner or a strange looking object. I wanted to develop what film director Sergei Eisenstein has called a “montage of attractions.” The real question in this show, as in others I have conceived, is how to generate a series of attractions from striking objects of a certain scale, color, and history, all of which contribute to the narrative of form.

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