Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Speculating Le Corbusier

The exhibition, practically touring around the world, arrives in Hong Kong in 2015. The iconic Algiers skyscraper is in the foreground.

The written texts on Le Corbusier (1887-1965) are vast.  A recent biographical work by Nicholas Fox Webber – Le Corbusier: A Life (2008), claims that there are more than 400 architectural monographs published on the architect, so much so that the amount of monographs on him surpasses any other modern architect.  Anecdotes and archival materials on him may yet be surfaced considering his correspondences held by individuals are plentiful. The most recent books, published in French in April 2015 - Le Corbusier, un fascism français and Un Corbusier even argued that the architect had a fascist past.  The attentions to them almost hijacked the exhibition “Le Corbusier, Measure of Man” at Centre Pompidou of the same time, which painted the humanist side of Corb.

I do not have personal account of the architect, who would?  There is only a minute story to tell. Before I went to study architecture in Manchester, my Polish landlady said her Turkish ex-husband used to work at Atelier Le Corbusier in Paris after WWII.  With very limited resources, no trace of this personality can be made in my part. The person, she told me, was charismatic but fundamentally flawed in personality.  Similar line of thought might be applied to Corb and his divisive legacy on architecture.

His disdain for common concerns, especially those without modern attributes, is seen to be his obvious handicap.  Having said that, any visionary front-runner can only earn his keep by upsetting the status-quo, deliberately or otherwise.  What is certain is the consensus that Corb had helped revolutionize modern living, if not still shaping our post-modern environment.  The tiny discussion below will not be able to shed new light except perhaps to stir ripples after this retrospective exhibition.

Rising recognitions

L’esprit Nouveau dating from 1920-25 are on display.

L’esprit Nouveau formed the basis of collaboration between Corb and Amédée Ozenfant (painter and theorist).  Right from the issue of the journal in 1920, the articles “Sur la Plastique” and “Trois la appels à MM, les Architectes” nurtured this partnership for a few good years.  As documented that Corb and Ozenfant co-signed many of these original essays under the names of “A. Ozenfant et Ch. E. Jeanneret” and “Le Corbusier-Saugnier”, the jostling for power is only a thin veil away. (Saugnier was a pseudonym for Ozenfant.)

Vers une Architecture is still among high on the reading list for most student architects.

His early works of Villa Schwob (1912), Ozenfant House (1922) or even the attractive Maison La Roche (1923) did not manage to break through in the architectural scene.  It was the purist art exhibition of 1918-19 and the L’esprit Nouveau journals that led to his gradual recognition in the intellectual circles in the mid-20s.

The book - Vers une Architecture, in which a few co-written essays with Ozenfant were unilaterally reworked by the architect, managed to firmly establish his reputation. At that moment, the rift between the two personalities intensified.  Stories suggested that the arrangement of exhibits at Pavillon de L’Esprit Nouveau in 1925 marked their complete estrangement. It is anyone’s guess whether the split was a case of ideological difference or pure jealousy. 

The drawings of Villa Baizeau, Carthage, Tunisia, 1928

The free hand sketches demonstrate that Corb had exceptional talent of visualizing three dimensional space – a skill that has only made accessible to all architects in recent years through the advent of computer graphics.  In my experience but contrary to public belief, not many architects possess such inlaid ability.

Maison Errazuriz, Chile, 1930.  Notice the ubiquitous internal ramp that appeared in many of Corb’s villas at the time.

So much so we have learned of the private villas he designed in Europe, one of the earlier private houses Corb designed was in the Americas.  The vacation house in Zapallar, Chile, was commissioned by Jose Tomas Errazuriz for his wife Eugenia, an avid modernist.  She went bankrupt before construction was even started.  In order to maintain the project funding, it was said that the couple had to sell a few Picassos to the architect.

Apart from the roof form and internal ramp, the house maintained a neo-vernacular appeal due to the abundance of stonework outside.

Antonin Raymond’s summer house at Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, Japan.

A spitting image of the butterfly roof project was materialized instead in Karuizawa, Japan by a relatively little-known Czech architect - Antonin Raymond for himself in 1934.  

Showing remarkable magnanimity, Corb paid complimentary remarks on Raymond’s well adaptation of his original design in their letter exchange in 1935 and a photograph of this building was allowed in Oeuvre Complete by Boesiger.

Corb the painter

'Le Château de Versailles' by the architect in 1912.

Corb was a serious painter not in the demonstration of a maturing technique but his persistent search of representations throughout his lifetime.  What makes the league of Picasso and Matisse stand out from other painters is their will to re-invent, seeking new paths that challenge themselves whilst captivate the audiences.  Corb might not rank among master painters yet one can trace the outstanding evolution of his painting career through the succession of novice works to purism, and from primitivism to the later free-form individualistic style.

‘Composition avec la lune’, 1929, Oil on canvas
Mythical symbolism, atmospheric settings, plastic volumes and deep shadows… it is fair to say traits of Ozenfant, Leger, de Chirico and even Max Ernst co-exist.

Detail of painting

‘Deux Musiciennes’ (Two Musicians), 1937, Oil on canvas

Detail of painting

Man and woman seated embracing, circa 1934-38, Ink drawing

Yvonne Gallis was Corb’s loyal model since their marriage in 1930. Away from pure forms, “bestiaries humains” of half men-half animals creep in from time to time in his drawings.  The old saying that a painter always paints himself or herself is a fair incision point of understanding the artist.

Creative nature

Objects on display behind glass, as if haphazardly assembled from the beach, were his well-guarded finds.

Paul Valery inspecting a seashell
(ImageLe Corbusier – The Architect on the Beach)

It was well documented he liked to walk the beach and collect objects off the shore if they had any appeal to him. Yet few know that might exist a connection with Paul Valéry (1871-1945), who expressed much appreciation of the young A. Perret – Corb’s mentor in the book Eupalinos ou l’architecte, 1921. 

Corb’s steadfast interest in natural objects may have been attributed partly from the French poet, particularly he had made extensive notes on his copies of Valéry’s books. There is no evidence that the two ever met; but interestingly, Valéry once remarked that books were “machines for reading” – no doubt reminiscent of Corb's famous motto. (Le Corbusier - The Architect on the Beach written by Niklas Maak and published in 2011 provides detailed accounts connecting the two.)

“Objets a reaction poetique” – as described by Corb.

No idea is purer and less derivative than that from nature.

Speculations among many suggest that the roof of Ronchamp was inspired by sea shells.

Speaking of the chapel, this elevation study reveals the wall openings of the cruciform and the emblem of “Christ as the lamb of God”.

Urban projects

Architectural model - Plan Voisin, Paris, 1925

A self-confessed ardent fan of the architect, I need to admit on the naiveté of these serried ranks of mega-towers and linear podium blocks proposed at the heart of Paris. It is a relief to all that the bold insertion was never materialized, otherwise the history of modern urban planning would have been re-written.

After his visit to New York in 1935, he had a different opinion on urban towers in the sense that congenial modern environment, to his disappointment, was not achieved in Manhattan. To elaborate his view, this radical model of urban configuration of the time where work, domesticity and transportation co-existed did nothing but exacerbate problems of modern living.

But the reality is that the mathematics of commerce and realty, and their complex correlation with people in modern metropolis – be it Paris or New York, were quite beyond his parameters of the time. Look at the relationship between the new and old on below drawing, i.e. the brash interventions of building blocks and open space are enough to be convinced that the project is a flawed polemic that leads nowhere.

Detail of Plan Voisin, Paris, 1925, Indian ink on tracing paper

Only from a model, if not the privilege of inside a cockpit, can one have an overall view of the Capitol, Chandigarh.

Between 1952-59, Corb embarked on his biggest urban planning realization after decades of paper projects. Chandigarh’s time-honored north-south orientation, tree lined boulevards, clarity of district grids among others are still merits attributed to the architect and its original planner – Albert Meyer. Its civic architecture, heroically modern, perhaps still wins the hearts and minds of the well-read observers.  However, the architect’s top-down stoic vision, acontextuality and inattention to pragmatic concerns remain problematic especially by today’s liberal standard.

If architecture or urban planning ultimately is to serve users’ needs, Corb’s Chandigarh may succeed in attracting architectural pilgrimage or other modernist sympathizers, but not quite the locals. The Capitol (parliament complex) and the anonymous sectors (gridded district) fail completely to nurture enjoyable landmarks for the people.  It is the Rock Garden situated outside the dreaded grid and ironically designed by a civil servant moonlighting as gardener, triumphs as the most popular hang-out.

The Rock Garden, Chandigarh

A home-grown Nek Chand started the garden in 1957 that expanded to become a favorite parkland. Dwarfing the adjacent parliament buildings by Corb in popularity, the park embraces the contemporary merits of local participation, re-cycling and cultural responses where Corb’s work was seriously lacking, if not embarrassingly dated in today’s perspective.

What is usually missing in exhibitions related to Corb’s Chandigarh is the absence of explanations on town planning even though the sectors make up 90 percent of the city. This one is no exception.

Rare explanatory drawings of Unité d’Habitation, Marseille (1947-53)

Unité d’Habitation, Marseille (middle ground), with the white model of interlocking apartment duplexes (foreground).

Retracted much in size, Unité can still be studied as an exercise to accommodate an urban community in a microscopic scale.  In splendid isolation, it is a visionary realization of affordable housing. 

Consider the context of re-building after the war, Unité had a huge amount of practicalities resolved as much as ideals played out by the architect.  Its popularity among the residents led to a succession of four more prototypes built until 1965.  What followed by a flood of high-rise housing virtually in all corner of the world, designed by less-talented architects who turned the building type into monstrosity was not his fault.

Flesh milk was delivered to each apartment just like your traditional slate-roof habitats.

Time moves on.  While the Unité in Marseille has been revamped into an iconic boutique hotel, the Unité in Berlin (Corbusierhaus) has now become elitist pads for architects, artists, intellectuals and the like.

Man of letters 

Lying woman seen from the back, Ink drawing, circa 1934-38

Powerful people attract the attentions of the opposite sex.  Josephine Baker and the less known architect - Minnette de Silva might have been passing flings, verifications are still pending. His long affair with Marguerite Tjader Harris after their first met in 1930 in New York, however, had plenty of correspondences to back up.  Man of Letters – the profession he stated properly on his passport demonstrates his talent not on just drawing but writing, evidently shown on his lyrical verses on architecture.

The Ceylon architect, Minnette de Silva and Corb at the CIAM meeting, Somerset, England, 1947
(imageFLC, Paris)

Corb’s holiday huts and cabin above E.1027, which is open to the public
(imageJulian lennon)

However, his relationship with women was never one dimensional. To his mother, Corb was never her favourite son, instead his elder brother Albert, a musician, was.  Besides, a minor saga between him and the couple of Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici still haunts in the air.

Corb apparently had developed a huge rift with Gray, who designed and built E.1027 – an attractive modern villa of Eileen Gray and her lover in 1929, 22 years before Corb decided to build his cabin above their house. 

With close tie to Badovici, it was said that Corb actually tried to buy E.1027 without success.  Accepted by Badovici but with no consent of his lover, Corb managed to make eight provocative murals in the house that was deemed as vandalism by Gray. She left Badovici and never returned to the house.  An obscure film in the name of “The Price of Desire” was specifically made on this bizarre relationship triangle.

Interior self

Lone walker in spatial-tempo scale taken from a Ronchamp drawing

Corb had to battle with more officialdom, paper works and public opinions although projects never ceased to show up in the 50s and 60s.  The aggravated work shadow cast a deep shadow on his ageing condition.  With the permanent settlement of Pierre Jeanneret in Chandigarh, the passing of his wife in 1957 and mother in 1960, a more reclusive living emerged.

Les Mains (The Hands), 1957, Natural wood
One finds an architect in his sculptures as much as a painter in his architecture.

Petite Confidence (Small Confidence), 1962, Mahogany wood

Corbusian scholar S. von Moos quoted him in the essay ‘Architecture and Grand Tourism’: “I am an ass, but one that has an eye. It’s all about the eye of an ass capable of ideas. I am an ass with an instinct for proportions.  I am, and remain, an inveterate ‘eye creature’”.  The great architect, like all mortals, had bi-polar modes of his own abilities.

Nature morte (Still life), 1965, tapestry (3.1Mx2.2M)

The end of self foretold?  The predominant black colour and the lying upper torso have the unmistakable aura of mortality.  It was made on the same year he drowned.

End curtain

Cabanon (Holiday home), timber and cardboard interior model

The 108 sq feet cabin at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin became his regular refuge after it was initially built in 1951.  Apart from walking on the beach, his favorite preoccupations were writing and swimming.

“You know, I am an old blockhead, but I still have plans for at least a hundred years. See you later!”  Corb exchanged a few words with his neighbour Madame Shelbert before he took his fateful swim on August 27, 1965.

Conflicting theories of his demise abound.  A dramatic case of ‘sacred suicide’ was put forward by Kenneth Frampton in which he quoted: “My dear Soltan, how nice it would be to die swimming toward the sun.”  Jerzy Soltan – a member of the architect’s studio, recalled once what the old man said to him.  How befitting is the final exit by the enigmatic warrior!

Le Corbusier – Modern Architect Giant
5-28 May 2015, Low Block, Hong Kong City Hall


柯布西耶(1887-1965)的文獻之眾有如恒河沙數。近年Nicholas Fox Webber一書:Le Corbusier – A Life (2008) 甚至説迄今有四百餘本柯的個人專集,相比任何現代建築師的書還要多。由於不少有關他的書信仍歸私人擁有,一旦曝光,這些材料或軼事更别具意義。在2015年四月,兩本法語書 -Le Corbusier, un fascism français》和《Un Corbusier》嘗試論證他有法西斯的過去。這兩書的光芒差點蓋過同期在巴黎龐比度中心的展覽: “Le Corbusier, Measure of Man” - 一個以人文的角度高舉柯氏成就的活動。




《新的精神》是柯與歐贊凡(A. Ozenfant) 的合作基石。這期刊於1920年的創刊號發表了两人的聯署文章,自此他們的友誼萌芽。但微觀他倆的排名先後,不難遮蓋彼此明爭暗鬥的格局。

柯的早期設計包括Villa Schwob(1921), Ozenfant House(1922) 甚至現今還是攝人的Maison La Roche(1923) 並未有為他打出建築的名堂。祇有通過18-19年的purist art展覽及後之《新的精神》,他終於在20年代中葉的知識界獲得青睞。




1930年婚後,Yvonne Gallis是柯的不折不扣忠誠的模特兒。撇除元型的主題外,柯喜歡的畫作很多時置入半人獸的具象。那句老調說畫家總是喜愛繪畫自己為題,往往是了解該藝術家的切入點。


據記載柯喜歡在海灘散步,若遇到有東西吸引他的眼球,他就檢拾回家。但不多人知道Paul Valéry與柯可有一個接合面。Valéry在他的 Eupalinos ou l’architecte》裏表達對柯的導師 – A. Perret甚為欣賞。柯對大自然的標本充滿興趣很可能亦受到這法藉詩人所影響,特別是柯的Valéry書寫滿柯的筆記。這裏沒有證據兩人是否相識,但可堪回味是,Valéry曾宣稱書本是閱讀的機器” - 這話不無令人聯想到柯的一訣金句。


筆者承認是柯的忠實粉絲,不過巴黎瓦贊計劃(Plan Voisin)的超高建築及橫向低座設計絕對是天真之作。這個方案最終未能實現無疑令人鬆一口氣,否則現代城市策劃歷史可能需要重寫。



5259年,柯終於跨越城市設計紙上談兵的往積,實現最大規模的城市項目。昌廸加爾(Chandigarh) 的南北坐向、林蔭大道、清晰的分區佈局等依然是不朽的建樹,確實歸功於原規劃師Albert Meyer及柯。它的主要公共大樓,設計現代又宏偉,也許仍獲得知識份子的垂菁。可建築師剛愎自用的孤僻視野、「離地」手法及莫視用家問題均為人所詬病,絕對有違今天自由主義普遍受𦶡的思維。

若言建築或城市設計的終極目標是服務用家,柯的設計只能成功吸引建築朝聖者或現代主義信徒,一般本地人好像是被拒於門外。而市議會建築群以及千人一臉的區劃完全孕育不岀市民擁愛的地標。反之,一名不見經傳的公務員在暇餘設計的公園 – The Rock Garden則發展成為本地人最喜愛的地方。諷刺地,它沒有座落於設計刻板的區間,也沒有專業設計援手。

說罷大型的規劃,1953年蓋成的Unité d’Habitation可被引用成小型社區規劃去研究。在有條件考慮下,它無容置疑是一個劃時代的資助房屋的典範。不忘戰後重建的背景,Unité除了實現了多少建築師的理想,它不竟解決了很多技術上的問題。監於住客的普遍受落,直至65年總共有五座Unité紛紛建成。可是,往後在世界各地,雨後春筍般,或抄襲或模仿的劣作不應由柯背上各項罪名。


強人抱得美人歸 立於中外皆準,歌手Josephine Baker及建築師Minnette de Silva也許曾經與柯有一手,但證據至今還是欠奉。不過他和Marguerite Tjader Harris之間,自1930年在紐約相識後,有不少文件引證這段維持良久的男女關係。尤如他在護照的職業欄上以「文人」自稱,他的才華不止於繪畫而是在文書上。這想法可以在他的建築文章上表露無遺。

柯與女性的關係殊不單一。首先,在他的母親眼中,最疼愛的兒子並非他而是音樂家哥哥 - Albert。另外,一宗事故涉及Eileen GrayJean Badovici至今依然餘音嫋嫋。柯與Gray發展出的巨大分歧事緣於Gray1929年設計給自己的香閨E.1027,一幢足足比柯在同一海灣建的木屋早22年之多。有說因為柯與Badovici的友好情況,他曾經嘗試購入E.2017但不果。在沒有獲得Gray的同意下,柯成功游說Badovici在屋內畫了八幅具挑逗性的墙畫。Gray直斥它們是粗鄙的塗鴉。經過這瓜葛外,Gray除了跟Badovici分手外,她未有返回這房子。近年的“The Price of Desire” 是描寫這個怪誕的三角關係。


你知嗎,我雖然是個頑固老頭,我還有一百年的計劃要實踐。待回見! 這是柯與鄰居Madame Shelbert65825日遇溺前的對話。
迄今他的去世原因還是懸案。Kenneth Frampton曾結以下的一個巨星殞落的看法: 親愛的Soltan,在泳中游向太陽而死是多麽美好啊。 這是柯的事務所裏Jerzy Soltan回憶柯這老頭跟他說的一番話。柯這老戰士對世人謝幕,仿佛像大老官離開舞台時,一刻扣人心弦,一刻撲朔迷離。

柯比意 - 現代建築大師回顧展

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