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William JR Curtis: Honouring and dishonouring Le Corbusier

We inhabit buildings but are also inhabited by them. When I look back, a string of architectural works haunt me, from Canterbury Cathedral to Pugin’s Grange in Ramsgate, both experienced as a child, to Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University where I studied and taught in the ’70s and early ’80s. I wrote my first major book about this building − a meticulous reconstruction of its design and construction, based on a close analysis of drawings, letters and recollections. The text served as a Harvard PhD in 1975, and was published as Le Corbusier at Work, The Genesis of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. This study was one of my foundation stones as a historian. By focusing on a single architectural specimen through a microscope, I was able to intuit some principles of historical method, even to get closer to the mind, meanings and creative process of a great architect.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Carpenter Center and I am marking it with a series of lectures. The first was in the Maison du Brésil designed by Le Corbusier and Lucio Costa in the ’50s, and the second at the Boston Society of Architects. At Harvard, the anniversary is marked by events that express ironical distance or a lack of real interest. In the building itself there has been a sort of post-modern pantomime called Brute. Featuring the sort of neo-avant-gardist virtual installations beloved of theory-blinded academia, the low point is surely a model in the lobby which presents Le Corbusier’s building as a structure stuffed with straw floating on a tacky blue plastic surface. The ramp is shown covered with twinned small toy animals (Noah’s Ark, geddit?). Brute no doubt refers to a letter which Le Corbusier wrote to Josep Luís Sert, friend and executant architect of the project, in which he exclaimed that ‘béton brut’ is not the concrete of a brute but just concrete cast directly from the form work; unlike at Marseilles where the surfaces were textured, at Carpenter they are smooth and precise.

Rather than looking into the history, meaning and contemporary implications of Le Corbusier’s building, the Carpenter show Brute makes a point of blurring fact and fiction and of trivialising both art and reality. The response to a work of authenticity is a sort of over-sophisticated mockery, a refusal to deal with depth of content. Meanwhile at the Graduate School of Design, there is a small show in the library of a selection of Le Corbusier’s presentation drawings. Executed by Jullian de la Fuente but signed Le Corbusier, these give ‘la sensation architecturale, pure et simple’, as the master put it. With their pale ochre planes evoking surfaces of concrete, blue crayon rectangles suggesting openings with glass, and red lines describing structure, they lucidly convey the main relationships and proportions of primary volumes harmonised by the Modulor.

These drawings hark back to the Purist paintings of the ’20s. Indeed the building as a whole is like a summa of Le Corbusier’s architectural elements in concrete while the plan shapes and S-shaped ramp refer to his American experiences and the ideology of the Ville Radieuse. None of this emerges in these Harvard shows and the GSD one makes the extraordinary assertion that Carpenter is the only work by Le Corbusier in the Western Hemisphere (what about the house in La Plata?). The assertion is also made that the drawings have never been shown to the general public. Wrong again! In 1980 I curated a show at the Boston ICA Forty Years of Modern Architecture, which included a selection.

In 1981 I curated Fragments of Invention, The Sketchbooks of Le Corbusier in the Carpenter Center itself. In this case, a selection of the drawings was accompanied by eight of Le Corbusier’s original sketchbooks and several other original drawings from the Fondation Le Corbusier in Paris. The layout was conceived by Roger Brandenberg-Horn, the talented resident exhibition and graphic designer who played the building as if it were a musical instrument. On display on the third level visible from the ramp, the drawings resonated with the space of the building itself, suggesting correspondences across time, and hinting at the architect’s sources of inspiration, as well as his powers of transformation and invention. In those days Harvard cared more about Le Corbusier, more about visual education for its students, and possibly more about architecture itself.

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