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Le Corbusier in Stockholm, 1962 © Fotograf okänd. Ahrenberg Collection, Switzerland

Le Corbusier’s Secret Laboratory 0

Alida Ivanov

Photo: Åsa Lundén/Moderna Museet

The exibition “Moment - Le Corbusier’s Secret Laboratory” is open for viewing at Moderna Museet, Stockholm, through April 18, 2013.

Le Corbusier (born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret in 1887) is arguably the most important architect in history. The exhibition “Moment - Le Corbusier’s Secret Laboratory” at Moderna Museet, Stockholm, presents an opportunity to discover other parts of his body of work: rarely shown sculptures and paintings. Here we see a celebration of mechanical objects and Le Corbusier’s search for poetic forms. It is also an investigation of the resonances between artistic work and architectural design. But, the focus of this exhibition is on his painting studio – the “secret laboratory”.

The curator of “Moment - Le Corbusier's Secret Laboratory” exhibition is Professor Jean-Louis Cohen. His main interests are 19th and 20th Century architecture and urbanism in Germany, France, Italy, Russia and North America and issues on architecture, town planning and landscape design. This is what I managed to find on the NYU’s web site. So, when I was about to email him regarding my interest in arranging an interview, I had to stop for a moment. What was I supposed to write as a greeting?

He is an architect, professor at NYU, writer…French…so: Dear...Monsieur…Mr…Jean-Louis… In the end I settled it by writing “Dear Professor Cohen”. This is always hard when you’re a Swede, because we call everyone by their first name and without a title. Anyway, I received an answer the following morning: the first sentence was in Russian and, when translated, it read “Why not?”.

Jean-Louis Cohen. Photo: Gitty Darugar

What is the relationship between Le Corbusier’s architecture and how people actually live? Is it more compatible with nature than with humans? 

You have to differentiate between what he does at different times of his career. In the 1920s he was more schematic, more abstract, and less comfortable. After the war, in the early 1950s his architecture was much more complex and based on a discussion with his clients, which led to houses with more features of comfort. This showed his rather paradigmatic view of how interiors should be organized and worked well in large houses where you have more space. But it does not work as well in smaller units. He did some excellent residences during the 1920s and 30s. An example of this is the apartment house in Paris, where he had his residence and studio.

Again, he made 75 buildings and about 400 designs you have to look at the entire work. They all are very different. You can find dogmatic buildings, buildings built in very small spaces and with little money. And you can also find houses that are much more comfortable because they are bolder and based the ideas of an elite. This is interesting because Le Corbusier was someone who had no interest in the conventional interior and, in many ways, challenged the bourgeois interior. 

He preached and published a lot. He pretended to be the great founder of the collaborative city. He is punished where he has sinned, in a way. Lots of people credit Le Corbusier for having invented the functionalist city: he has not. It is much more a result of German city planning.

Le Corbusier’s city plans have many different sources. The vertical cities, for example, could be looked upon as interpretations of New York. The areas of functional zones in Dubai, something that Le Corbusier took credit for, were invented by German city planners. The industrialized housing schemes of the 20th century were invented in Frankfurt or Berlin. So, one has to see the specific contribution of Le Corbusier. One contribution is the large isolated housing blocks, with very generous services. This is unquestionable something that he invented. 

Is this related to the Swedish notion of funkis (functionalistic architecture that shaped Swedish suburbia)?

Funkis was, in its ideas, not at all related at all to Le Corbusier.

It feels like Le Corbusier made architecture for the power and not the people, or?

No, that is not true. He had a sort of dual activity. If you look at his work in the 1920s, he did do houses for the Parisian elite. So in that case it is true. But, at the same time he made housing schemes for workers. Things are always much more complex and he tried to move between the high and the low. And he is not organically attached to a movement, in the way the funkis architects were. The source for the funkis-language is probably more related to Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia.

Do you feel that you capture this complexity in the exhibition?

No, certainly not. This exhibition has specific themes. It has been created for an art museum, and the central theme is the relationship between art and architecture in his work. We would’ve needed a much larger space to capture all of his complexity and that would have been a different story.

Tell me a bit more about the central themes of this exhibition?

The essential theme comes from the very title I gave to the show, which is based on a text, by Le Corbusier, written in 1948. The idea is that the painting studio was the laboratory where he shaped his inventions: his architecture and city planning was equal to what he was doing in painting. It’s about countering and oscillating the view of Le Corbusier as a dogmatic prophet.

What is the outline of this exhibition? 

The largest gallery is structured like a spiral, something that is a recurring shape in Le Corbusier’s work, both in painting and other work. He was also very interested in snail-shapes – putting the spiral in a square, like in this show. This spiral has slots for light and allows you to follow his works from the 1920s to the 1660s. And it helps the visitor to understand the collaborations between the various aspects of his work. It us into the last room where we can understand the shapes that he uses frequently in his works, from the spiral and snail.

That is why I like to do exhibitions. It’s not like reading a story in a book, but by seeing the story through moving around in a space. You get the opportunity to relate to aspects that are discussed between walls.

And the colours on the walls…?

Pascal Mory designed and selected the color scheme that is based on Le Corbusier’s own colors of the 1920s. They are of the colors that you find in the purist paintings of that time.

On the subject of purism, why isn’t Le Corbusier classified as a futurist? Especially, when it comes to his way of re-designing buildings and cities: beginning from scratch.

He is not a futurist mainly because he’s a conservative. Purism is conservative and ambiguous: it looks at the machine; at the same time we have to return to the order that the Greeks created for our society. It’s part of the “Return to order”, a movement theorized by Jean Cocteau in 1918. That appears during World War I. It is seen in the graphics of L' Esprit Nouveau (the art journal run by Le Corbusier and Amedée Ozenfant) where Le Corbusier published his articles. This can be seen in their 1918 Manifesto “After Cubism”.

Do you think that he is a good painter?

Sure, I think he is an interesting painter. I wouldn’t put him in among the 50 best painters of the 20th century. But if you’d ask me to mention 500 of the best painters, then he would probably be there. I’m certainly not saying that one should re-write art history and put Le Corbusier there.

A lot of his paintings are reminiscent of Picasso…

Yes, Picasso, Miró, Léger, and Braque in the beginning; then Mirò and sometimes even Dalì. His painting is reactive and responsive to his time.

What is your relationship to Le Corbusier?

I never knew him, because he died in 1965, and I started architect school in 1967. But I have been interested in him at very early stage. But also a little annoyed about his dogmatic discourse. 

How has he affected your own work, has he? 

Other historians and people I have read, not Le Corbusier, inspire my work as a historian. I get inspiration from social sciences, from architectural historians like Manfredo Tafuri, in Italy, and art historian Hubert Damisch, with whom I wrote my dissertation in France. I don’t think I got direct inspiration from Le Corbusier; he provides for me a field of investigation. When I designed architecture in the past, or if I were to design buildings today, I wouldn’t do Corbusian buildings. 

What would you do?

I would do things differently, but I might use some ideas. In general, I’m more interested in issues of landscape, and in the different aspects of vernacular architecture, than what Le Corbusier was in his work. 

Why is this exhibition important for us now? What does Le Corbusier mean for us? 

Increasingly more architects are interested in art and emulating and trying to brand themselves as installation artists or makers, while artists have become more interested in the city and architecture. This is one case and it’s not an ideal story, but it could be a source for inspiration. It’s one human’s experience, the interrelations and contaminations between art and architecture. If one wanted to find a message in this show, it would be that it’s an invitation to look at art and architect as very close disciplines and to reconstruct the connections between them.

The exhibition is not telling us that Le Corbusier’s aesthetics are relevant today or that he found the ultimate solution. It should help us to think about his relationship to the present.

If one would look at art and exhibitions as installations, as Boris Groys suggests in his essay on multiple authorship – then would a connection between art and architecture be the future?

Perhaps. When it comes to installation art and the communication of exhibitions that is becoming a key issue. I see more and more. If you look at the recent biennales it is very clear that the architects are operating more as installation artists, even more than artists and sculptors do.

What will you do differently for the next show?

Every show is a negation between an ideal and what the possibilities actually are. For this one we had a specific space and we had to articulate this exhibition in a relationship to the one in Moscow, which was larger. When it comes to Le Corbusier, there are works that you can and those that you can’t get, because they have been over-exposed in other shows. I have one major question mark, with this show – one misses to see the built work. We did not include, for various reasons, recent photographs of built work, which we did in the Moscow show.

What were the reasons for not doing that? 

Space and money. You see a little of the built work through the cinema in the exhibition. But, the film only shows work from the 1920s and not newer pieces.

So, what story do you want to tell at the upcoming show at MoMA? 
(“Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes” will be open for viewing at Museum of Modern Art, New York, from June 9 untill September 23, 2013.)

That story there will be completely different. The MoMA show will discuss landscape, Le Corbusier’s relationship with landscape with its aspects. And after that I will stop. I hope that for a while I will stop working on this guy.

What are your plans for the future?

I have an exhibition coming up in March, in Strasbourg on something completely different. It will be on the relationship between Germany and France in architecture, from the 19th to 20th century. It’s a project that I’ve been working on for years. And I will probably curate a show in Paris, a new version of the one I did in Montreal last year, called “Architecture in Uniform”. It was about the architecture during the World War II, and it had a great success in Canada. The book from the show is out, but the show has not been presented in Europe. It will be in 2014.

Another idea for a project, if everything continues well with the Royal Academy in London, is to do a show on Paris-London, which has never been done as an exhibition. One of my first exhibitions that I did back in 1979 was Paris – Moscow, Centre Pompidou (curator: Pontus Hultén, former director of Moderna Museet) did Paris – New York, Paris – Berlin, but never Paris – London. We will look at the two cities during a long period of time from mid 18th century to this day. Anyway, these are some examples of what I’m interested in – the question of cultural transference and interrelationships. 

Is it to find similarities or differences?

It’s to find out what happened. To find correspondences, crossings, double agents, concrete projects and rejections. It’s similar to the complexity of life. And that’s what I like.