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‘At first I said no,” says Renzo Piano. “We were very busy. For me, the idea of building a convent next to Le Corbusier at Ronchamp was, in any case, a bit crazy.” Certainly, it must have felt like a big risk. The chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp is one of the 20th century’s most treasured buildings, and Le Corbusier a demigod in the architectural firmament; being asked to build alongside this French national monument, an international destination for religious and cultural pilgrims, is like receiving an invitation to knock up a postmodern extension to the Parthenon or St Peter’s in Rome.
When Jawaharlal Nehru commissioned the French architect Le Corbusier to build the city Chandigarh he proclaimed it as the embodiment of a newly independent India “unfettered by the traditions of the past, a symbol of the nation’s faith in the future”.
The resulting feat of urban planning has been proclaimed as Corbusier’s masterpiece – a city built from scratch in the plains of Punjab from the street layout to the public buildings. Crucially, such was the attention to detail of the Swiss-born maestro that he also insisted on being responsible for the furniture inside his buildings, commissioning his cousin Pierre Jeanneret to design thousands of pieces of equipment to sit inside their monuments of 1950s minimalist design.
Such is the enduring appeal of Corbusier and everything he touched that Chandigarh, which now has India’s highest per capita income, has become a symbol for a less glamorous feature of the nation it was designed to symbolise. Amid India’s high-speed transformation into a world power, the purpose-built furniture that once filled the city’s chic public spaces is being systematically sold off in the auction rooms of London, New York and Paris.
Cahal Milmo and Andrew Buncombe
Le Corbusier — The Art of Architecture” has drawn crowds to the Barbican Center in London, part of a complex designed in a Brutalist vein that Le Corbusier inspired. (Steve Forrest for The New York Times)
It’s odd to think that the Modernist architect Le Corbusier has had a bigger influence on housing in Britain than in any other European country.
Odd because he never designed a building here, and also because so many Britons have long held him in particular contempt. Since the 1970s he has been about as popular around here as the French national soccer team, and more than a few concrete, Corbu-style projects, large numbers of which were constructed after the war to ease a convalescing nation’s housing shortage, have since been torn down or fallen into disrepair.
But as Peter Rees, a longtime city planning officer in London, put it recently, about the whole range of such projects, “They were either blown up, or they’re now loved.”
Loved may be an exaggeration. But there is at least fresh debate about whether to preserve what used to be regarded simply as bad Corbu-derived architecture. Occasionally a cultural figure provides a little window into a nation’s shifting identity, and in Britain the self-regarding Swiss-born, Paris-based architectural genius who died in 1965, at 77, may now be one such figure.
An excellent traveling overview of his work, at the Barbican Center here, has turned out to be, of all things, popular. Big crowds have been visiting the gallery, itself a sign of some Corbu revisionism in that the Barbican, opened in 1982 near St. Paul’s Cathedral and designed by the British firm Chamberlin, Powell & Bon in a Brutalist vein that Le Corbusier partly inspired, has always been a place Londoners loved to hate. They voted it the city’s ugliest building in a poll in 2003, and have long moaned about its inscrutable labyrinth of concrete walkways and underpasses.
But Corinna Gardner, an assistant curator for the exhibition there, said that smart Londoners have actually been moving into the Barbican Estate and Golden Lane Estate, vast concrete apartment complexes that, with the Barbican Center, make up what Mr. Rees described as the largest Corbusian-inspired urban development in all of Europe. Likewise the refurbished Brunswick Center, near Russell Square, another Brutalist behemoth, with a ziggurat design, once an infamous example of failed council housing, has become fashionable. Well-heeled Londoners promenaded through its fancy shopping mall the other day.
Ms. Gardner added that “ladies who lunch” have even been turning up at the Le Corbusier show, when not long ago most wouldn’t have been caught dead at the Barbican. That hardly proves a national cultural volte-face, but just three years ago a survey of modern design at the Victoria and Albert Museum provoked an angry passel of letters in local newspapers, which singled out Le Corbusier for a special caning. His problem, it seems, wasn’t only that a generation or two of modern British architects latched onto his urban plans to devise their own concrete, modular apartment blocks, which often weren’t very good.
There was also something, well, un-British about him.
“We have always thought in terms of living in homes, not apartments, and we tend to be very traditional,” Ms. Gardner explained. At that moment she was standing before a model of Corbu’s proposal to demolish a swath of central Paris and replace it with a suite of concrete towers. Across the gallery was his plan, also never realized, to wreak similar havoc in Algiers.
Mr. Rees, contemplating those sweeping schemes in his office at Guildhall, elaborated. “Corbu said, ‘I am to be worshiped,’ which is very French, to see architects on a higher plane.” Mr. Rees spoke like a true Englishman, although he made clear that he is Welsh.
“Architects are seen here more as public servants rather than as gods,” he continued. “We value individuality in Britain and resist being told how to live. The Romans tried to plan London, but what they did was quickly undone. We’ve been added to by waves of immigrants, from the Normans and Vikings on, bringing with them different cultural ideas. We’re a mongrel people. More than 300 languages are spoken by children in London today, and if you live in London for three months, you’re a Londoner. You will never be a Parisian unless your grandparents were Parisians.”
I tried that chestnut about British individualism on Peter Mandler, a Cambridge historian. “It’s a self-regarding British myth that we’re special and that there is something foreign out there called the Continent; that we’re the land of liberty, and here the Englishman’s home is his castle, never mind that most people in Britain never lived in houses with their own gardens. By the ’60s more Britons lived in apartment blocks than anyone else in Europe.
“But there was during the 1920s and ’30s a visceral reaction here against Continental culture, and Paris was beginning to be seen not as a healthy rival but as something dangerous. It had to do with ‘othering’ the French who, unlike the British, the British liked to tell themselves, lived in bee hives. After the war this same attitude was predicated on nostalgia for Britain’s last moment of greatness, around 1940, and so the story had lingering cachet into the ’60s and ’70s. We’re not talking, in other words, about a timeless narrative but about a powerful one implicating Le Corbusier, which gained a purchase on British thinking during the high water mark of modernism.”
In truth, only about 7 percent of the British population today is black and Asian, much of that demographic in London. The benign melting pot myth itself goes back to imperial days.
But stories people tell themselves, whether true or not, can be as good as true to the people who tell them. Visiting Tate Britain after seeing the Corbu show one morning, I stopped into the “Van Dyck and Britain” exhibition, and noticed an oil sketch by Rubens and two Van Dyck portraits that the Tate had recently bought: pictures by foreigners who worked here, acquired by a museum for British art. Upstairs, in the permanent galleries, on loan from Andrew Lloyd Webber, there was also a view of London by Canaletto, hanging not far from a painting by Samuel Scott, an English artist and follower of Canaletto’s.
All of which is to say that the canon of British art seems to be expanding along with Britain’s view of itself, and maybe this helps to account for some small change in the climate around Le Corbusier. And of course then there is the simple matter of fair play, a British obsession.
“The problem with so many apartment developments built in the U.K.,” Mr. Rees said, “was that there was no taking into account the vital French ingredient of the concierge.” He didn’t literally mean French buildings all have concierges, obviously. He meant British housing wasn’t planned with long-term maintenance in mind, and Le Corbusier became a scapegoat for what resulted.
The show, a large and elegant affair, reminds us instead of the many beautiful buildings he designed and of his paintings. Like other groundbreaking figures, he wanted to be admired for something he didn’t actually do very well. He imagined Picasso and Mondrian to be his peers.
On the other hand, he left us the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, the modular housing project that became the model for countless bad imitations. It’s a remarkable building. An old black-and-white photograph of the roof, devised as a public square with parapets tall enough to block a view of the city and frame the mountains beyond, shows children playing in the sunshine.
On the barren concrete patio outside the Barbican it happened to be warm and springlike when I left the show.
Usually almost nobody’s out there. But what do you know?
That day there were children playing in the sunshine.
New York Times
More than any other American building, the home of the Yale School of Architecture holds a special, numinous place in the hearts of architects throughout the world. Recently, in the final stages of its being overhauled, journalists and critics were taken on a hard-hat tour of the premises by the school’s current dean, Robert A.M. Stern, and by Charles Gwathmey, who has designed its new annex.
Paul Rudolph’s imposing Art and Architecture Building is nothing less than the physical embodiment of the institution that inhabits it, and that institution is very likely the most influential school of architecture since the Bauhaus of the 1920s. Some of contemporary architecture’s foremost practitioners have studied there, among them Sir Norman Foster, Sir Richard Rogers, David Childs, and Maya Lin. And some of the most important architects of the past — and the present — have taught there, among them Louis Kahn, Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, and Mr. Stern, himself an alumnus.
Without question, this Brutalist pile, completed in 1963, is an icon of the Modern movement, a place, a site, that remains awash in sentiment for all those driven spirits who, at the outset of their careers, toiled within its concrete warren. To listen to some of them, you would think that it incarnated nothing less than the spirit of Architecture itself.
That is hardly to say that it is universally loved. Much of it was gutted as a result of a suspicious fire back on June 14, 1969, in what may have been the single most incendiary act in the history of architectural criticism. Like a man who has survived an assassination attempt but is never quite the same thereafter, the building was subject, in the ensuing decades, to a series of restorations and revisions so maladroit that Rudolph (1918-97), a notoriously cantankerous character, could claim that it “no longer exists for me.”
In order to rectify those revisions and to address the school’s insatiable need for more space, Yale enlisted one of its most eminent alumni, Mr. Gwathmey, to restore the interior to something like its original state. In addition, he has designed, on its northern flank, an entirely new building that will comprise the Jeffrey Loria Center for the History of Art and the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library.
When it reopens on November 9, the original building will be officially renamed Paul Rudolph Hall, in honor of the charismatic figure who not only designed it, but ran the entire school as his personal fiefdom between 1958 and 1964. Rudolph was the sort of polarizing figure who, both in his pedagogy and in his practice, inspired an equal measure of devotion and ill will. Even today the building remains obviously and instantly controversial. But 45 years ago, at its inauguration, it possessed the fury of a polemic. A sullen gray megalith fashioned out of corduroy concrete, this bully of a building was perhaps the first on our continent to introduce the more subjective, Brutalist aesthetic that Le Corbusier had developed in the postwar period. To a culture that, for two decades, had been fed a mortifying diet of glass and steel, the abrupt intrusion of so much raw emotion was a shock to the system.
But because Rudolph was a very different architect from Le Corbusier, his brand of Brutalism was very different as well. The familiar Modernist grid has been fractured and mangled at Yale, but not fundamentally abandoned, as Le Corbusier had done at Ronchamps. Above all, Rudolph acquired from his predecessor’s late style a knack for thinking volumetrically, rather than modularly, as most earlier Modernists had done. Especially in the famous photographs by Ezra Stoller, the building’s eastern façade stacks up to create a jaunty, ad hoc symmetry. Meanwhile, its vertiginous tangle of interior spaces, occupying fully 31 different levels, was literally improvised from the ground up as each level was under construction. Perhaps it will come as little surprise that the result was more aesthetic than functional. Compared to contemporary architectural practice, it was like a gas-guzzling Studebaker next to a post-industrial Lexus. Its labyrinthine spaces baffled even its most inveterate inhabitants, who had to wear mittens in winter and next to nothing in summer, all the while treading very carefully indeed while rounding the stairwells, with their low-lying banisters.
Just as Rudolph was different from Le Corbusier, so Mr. Gwathmey is different from Rudolph. He is a diplomat among architects, whereas Rudolph was a mud wrestler. Mr. Gwathmey’s stock in trade is smooth legatos of movement through space, gently undulating forms, muted colors, and refined details. In an architectural age in which shock and awe are now tepidly expected, it is unlikely that any building could achieve the response that Rudolph’s building inspired 45 years ago, and Mr. Gwathmey, probably wisely, has not even tried. In part he had the unenviable task of designing a co-equal counterpart to the pre-existing structure, since it is highly doubtful that anything would make eminent visual sense while standing next to it. In the event, the new structure invokes the spirit of the earlier building through its own syncopated surface of straight lines and right angles in two tones of gray. Like most American architects, Mr. Gwathmey is not as aggressively volumetric as Rudolph was, and the deconstructed flatness of his façade reads like a gentle corrective to the truculent protrusions and recessions of the older building.
However that may be, there is reason to be confident that, when the renovations of the old building and the construction of the new one are completed in a few months, Yale’s Art and Architecture Building will be far more amenable to human habitation than it has ever been before.
New York Sun