Wednesday, August 7

The Language of Architecture

It's been a while since I've posted here; for no other reason than getting work done doesn't leave much time for other pursuits.  Sometimes it's good to just leave the projects behind and take a breather.  A few weeks ago, we went to see the show on Le Corbusier at MoMA.

It was the first time I'd critically thought about his work since leaving college.  Sue and I both had professors who had either been taught by Le Corbusier, or were heavily influenced by his work.  He was the shining light in the early days of our architectural education.  The show was exceptionally enlightening on many levels.  It was the first time I'd ever seen his early work.  His first professor was very much into the Arts & Crafts movement popular in the early part of the 20th C.  Le Corbusier (then known as Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) designed a few houses in that style that are very reminiscent of Joseph Maria Olbrich's work of the time:
Olbrich - Christiansen House

It goes without saying that Le Corbusier was a major force in developing the language of modern architecture.  Even just saying "modern" conjures up visions in my mind of white walls, columns and expanses of glass as evoked in his motto of "Space, Light, Trees".  After seeing the show, what I couldn't understand is how someone who adored Paris as much as he did, totally ignored how humans lived in an urban setting.  His solution to raise buildings up off the ground, denying interaction with the street level, made no sense in a cityscape.  And in fact, this was the downfall of his urban planning and design.  Maybe he realized this as well on some level because, after trying to get his urban vision built around the world (thankfully without too much success), he returned to an architectural language much more rooted in vernacular architectural forms.

Although I love Corb's freestanding houses and later sculptural works, the show made me sad.  I think it's because when I was a young architecture student, we were taught in such absolute terms.  Modern architecture was good, and everything else was considered passé.  I would've loved to have seen Le Corbusier's early work when I was a student, and to see the evolution in his architectural style.  I also would have loved knowing that he used color on the walls, and that his work was not all pure white.

Villa Savoye, 1931
It was good to see all the wonderful details he created.  The first thing you see when you come into the exhibition is a recreation of his cabana in the south of France.  There were so many ingenious details for such a tiny space.  I particularly liked the mirrored panels that opened inward at the windows that reflected light into the space.

Le Cabanon - note mirrored shutter, 1949
The lovely little modern house he built for his parents, Villa Le Lac, was very impressive for his first foray using the language of modern architecture.  How fantastic this must have felt when it was first built in 1924 with the wide and fairly unobstructed open view to Lake Geneva.

Villa Le Lac, 1924
Interesting to me that the exhibition really didn't show much of one of his later projects, Maisons Jaoul, where he returned to using concrete and bricks in a more vernacular style.

Maisons Jaoul, 1955
I guess when I was taught, it was just easier to teach Le Corbusier's architecture that was considered "pure" versus his later work that is much more personal and idiosyncratic.  How does one explain the shape of Ronchamp Cathedral?

Ronchamp, 1954
There is no "right" or "wrong" when designing a building.  How one designs is based on a lifetime of experiences.  Seeing the Le Corbusier exhibition put a lot in perspective for me.  It's taken my whole career to learn that architecture is an art of many languages.  The more languages you know, the richer your work can become.