Corbu, the Endless Frontier

Reports from the Field by • 03/10

Event: Le Corbusier: Latest News from the Front
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.03.09
Speakers: Jean-Louis Cohen, Ph.D. — Sheldon H. Solow Professor of the History of Architecture, New York University Institute of Fine Arts; Mary McLeod — Professor of Architecture, Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (respondent)
Introduction: Francine Goldenhar — Director, La Maison Franç aise, NYU
Organizers: La Maison Franç aise, NYU; AIA-NY Global Dialogues Committee

If understanding modernity means understanding Le Corbusier, it’s apparent that nobody completely does. Even historian Jean-Louis Cohen, steeped in the minutiae of Corbu’s life, works, correspondence, and psyche, finds that the study of Modernism’s chief theorist reveals incessantly unfolding levels of mystery. “I don’t consider myself a Corbumaniac,” Cohen averred, and his scholarly attention to the details of Corbu studies seems to have immunized him against the extreme reactions that Corbu tends to evoke. (Anyone assuming that time has calmed down the Corbuphobic faction should look at Guy Booth’s screed in the BBC Magazine, attacking his legacy as “monstrous.” This appeared less than a month ago.)

Like many public figures who operate under pseudonyms, Corbu had what Cohen calls a “double nature”: he was simultaneously Corbusier the prophet and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret the “Sunday painter” and private man. Corbu wrote some 20,000 to 25,000 letters, including one or two a week to his mother, as well as the Gesamtkunstwerk now known in John Goodman’s improved 2007 translation of Toward an Architecture, plus a series of lesser, unpublished writings that advanced his thinking. (“Every time Corbusier lost a competition,” Cohen said, “he tried to get revenge with a book.”) He engaged in complicated relations with the political world, drawing up plans for both Stalinist Moscow and the Italian Fascist government’s colonial regime in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Cohen finds his politics “more naive than cynical”); he may have had flings with dancer Josephine Baker and/or the center of the British Profumo scandal, Christine Keeler (then again, Keeler’s signature in his correspondence may be a prank). He was not above doctoring photos to prove a point or publishing others’ designs as his own.

A mind as large as Corbu’s is full of ambiguities, and Cohen approaches them with both tolerance and skepticism. Cohen’s Corbu is a “spongelike” creature, borrowing ideas from cities and colleagues, creatively refracting his influences as much as he reflected them. Conditions on the front lines of Corbusiology appear lively and turbulent; London’s Barbican Centre is currently hosting an exhibition of his work, and Renzo Piano Building Workshop’s planned addition to the grounds of the Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp is stirring controversy (Cohen believes it violates the contemplative spirit of the site but has gained public approbation as a “genius meets genius” project). Even while confining his attention to Corbusier’s works and thought directly — many more panels and volumes will be filled with theoretical debates over his legacy as an urbanist, the (mis)applications of his work in America and elsewhere, and the counter-reactions they have evoked — Cohen made it clear that “a lot is still to be expected from this man.”

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