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Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes, Jean-Louis Cohen

Handsomely produced but lacking deep exploration of the theme; Peter Buchanan reviews the book which accompanies MoMA’s recent exhibition

Much modern architecture conforms to the archetype of stripped, abstract forms unresponsive to context and culture − a vision that was promulgated by the Museum of Modern Art’s influential 1932 show The International Style. This tabula rasa approach was always, of course, an exaggeration; but it was given credence by the general tendency to publish buildings without referring to or illustrating their context.

Le Corbusier, too, followed this trend, repressing the context of his buildings in the Oeuvre Complète so as to stress the universal applicability of his approach and solutions. But when architects visited the buildings, what often most struck them is how much the designs draw on, and are sensitively attuned to, their settings.

Perhaps to make amends for the pernicious influence of their 1932 show, MoMA belatedly organised an exhibition showing just how very much Le Corbusier learnt from and responded to local contexts and cultures during his wide-ranging travels and when designing for many parts of the world. This book originated as the show catalogue.

Large in format, copiously illustrated and handsomely produced, the book is divided, after the editor’s main introductory essay, into geographic sections arranged according to their chronological and biographic significance for Le Corbusier. These sections are introduced with simplified maps, the early ones charting his crucial formative journeys and all indicating locations of projects and built works. (Le Corbusier visited, designed projects for and built in all continents except Antarctica and Australia.)

The wide range of essays and authors (which include many esteemed Corbusian scholars − although others of these are not represented − along with many writers that are new to this reviewer) all discussing differing works or aspects of Le Corbusier’s life and thinking, attests to the scale of the still burgeoning field of Le Corbusier studies. All of this, and the intention behind the show and catalogue, is laudable and promising. But the book is a disappointment, and for several reasons.

moma_lecorbusier_pare_p13copRichard Pare’s photographs for the book Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes are characteristically well-composed but betray a lack of deep knowledge of the buildings

The wide range of essays gives a suitably kaleidoscopic vision of Le Corbusier’s prodigious and multifaceted achievements. But many texts are so short they barely nibble at their subject, which is especially frustrating when the topic is potentially very interesting. They also vary considerably in quality: some authors seem to struggle even to sustain their short allocated length.

Others are less than convincing in their speculative readings − this complaint from a reviewer who often wishes authors would dare to be more speculative. And some are snide, pointing out that Le Corbusier’s perceptions of foreign lands merely repeat the clichés of the time. That may be so, but what matters is how these informed his architecture, a topic these authors don’t address. Of course Le Corbusier’s views were selective and unbalanced − he was looking for architectural guidance and inspiration, not for an encompassing and objective overview of all aspects of a country. Besides, the views of these current authors, even if better informed and correct by our standards, also reflect the prejudices of their own time.

The book opens with, and includes elsewhere, recent panoramic images by Richard Pare, some on gatefolds. Several of these have the virtue of including some of the context of the buildings. But these pictures would be much more illuminating if the photographer had been guided by someone with a deep understanding of Corbu’s work, just as Lucien Hervé’s photographs in the Oeuvre Complète had obviously benefited from Le Corbusier’s own input. Like these photographs, the rest of the illustrations are largely those that curators would consider ‘original art works’, such as sketches, paintings and drawings (mostly from the Fondation Le Corbusier), contemporary photographs by Le Corbusier and others, and so on.

Hence architectural drawings, which were once humble working documents, mere means towards the final art work ends (the buildings), are treated as final ends in themselves, reproduced to show the current condition of the total sheet, discoloration, tears and all. Quite apart from elevating such documents to the status of art works being ultimately a problematic form of consumerist commodification, they tend to be reproduced here far too small; the result is that many are pretty much inscrutable. This, together with the lack of the conventional plans, sections and so on − such as found in the Oeuvre Complète − included in the book, makes it difficult for the reader to follow the description and argument of some texts.

If this book had been smaller in format, this kind of criticism would carry less force as the book could be read in conjunction with the relevant volume of the Oeuvre Complète. But the unwieldy large format makes it difficult to study both books together − the lesson here being that large books should be relatively self-sufficient in illustration. 

Ultimately, this book would be a useful resource in a library. But otherwise, probably only those committed to owning absolutely everything about Le Corbusier would consider it an essential purchase.

LE CORBUSIER: AN ATLAS OF MODERN LANDSCAPES

Editor: Jean-Louis Cohen
Publishers: Thames & Hudson
Price: £49.95

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