Le Corbusier at MoMA

This exhibition looks like it might be really interesting. It runs through September 23rd at the Museum of Modern Art. I’ve never actually seen a museum-curated show about Le Corbusier’s work, but he deserves one. In addition to his architecture, the show focuses on Corbusier and landscape. This is an aspect of his work that I haven’t given much thought, and it’s definitely got me intrigued about the exhibition. To me, Corbusier has always been a sympathetic character, albeit an often hopeless product of his crazy, driven time. And I think it’s no accident that the more mundane aspects of Corbusier’s vision came to influence the soul-numbing housing projects and office buildings of the mid-20th century, because Corbusier himself seemed to have a blind spot about others’ individuality, and the settings whose builders superficially imitated Corbusier’s forms were usually those in which individuals were reduced to mere cogs in a wheel, or numerical problems to be solved. Corbusier’s work is so perfectly emblematic of that modern Western insanity that tries to standardize and quantify everything, without doing the required qualitative analysis first, to see whether doing so even makes sense.

Corbusierhaus, Berlin. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Corbusierhaus, Berlin. “A machine for living in.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Even though I’ve never seen a museum exhibit on his work, I did read a great book called Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century, by Robert Fishman. The author gives a fascinating account of Corbusier’s life and works, beginning with the architect’s childhood in the Swiss watchmaking town of La-Chaux-de-Fonds, on the western edge of the Alps, in the late 19th century, when the tradition of home-based artisans’ and craftsmen’s workshops was collapsing under insurmountable competition from heavy industry. Fishman then narrates Corbusier’s long career, in which he designed a world that increasingly seemed like a mechanized dystopia — where the most inherently human subjects of design, like homes and political buildings, were built in an industrial, impersonal, even brutal style. Of course, some of Corbusier’s designs were quite beautiful. But they were often pleasing in ways that allowed little room for the individual or the small community that used them to shape its own space; and they were attractive in ways that showed little concern for the human instinct for familiar forms. The ironies and psychological implications of Corbusier’s career are rich. Fishman’s is a great book — it also covers Ebenezer Howard and Frank Lloyd Wright — and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in the human imagination, and some of its blind spots, in the early 20th century.