Modern architecture was forged in concrete, glass, and film. Early modernist architects like Bauhaus designer Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier (Corbu for short) pioneered the use of architectural photography, which they used to disseminate images of their own buildings and their polemics. The latter would go on to develop a near schizoid method of collaging building plans, doodles, text, and, of course, black-and-white photographs of his work to convey his ideas for a radically new architecture. The built architecture was only part of the equation.
Corbu’s project entered a new phase when, in 1949, the famous architect discovered his future partner, Lucien Hervé. Over the next 16 years, until the architect’s death in 1965, the Hungarian-born Hervé would capture Le Corbusier’s increasingly plastic and fleshy architecture in thousands of photographs. Corbu would make extensive use of the images, incorporating them into monographs and pamphlets.
A defining chapter of the partnership’s fruitful production is currently on display at a recently opened show in Manhattan. Lucien Hervé: Le Corbusier in India at the agnès b. Galerie Boutique features prints compiled from two trips to the subcontinent in 1955 and 1961. The dates of the excursions bracket the construction and completion of Corbu’s gargantuan civic complex that was designed to crown the new city of Chandigarh.
Hervé met Le Corbusier after sending the master architect a set of expressionistic portraits he had made of the , then under construction. Upon seeing the prints, Corbu relayed to Hervé his delight with the pictures and even went so far as to say that he had “the soul of an architect.” Corbu soon made Hervé his official photographer, and the pair would form a close teacher-pupil bond. “With Le Corbusier,” Hervé later wrote in retrospect, “I learned to discern and identify beauty in its nascent form, along with a need for total purity, this notion forced me to work with rigor and precision.”
Hervé’s photographs favor high contrasts and display a profound sense of mass and void. They are melodramatic, sure, but they’re also very material, as earthy as the craggly concrete surfaces Corbu almost exclusively employed over the last two decades of his career. Most of the pictures depict Chandigarh’s sun-stroked architecture bathed in deep shadows. The show also displays Hervé’s affinity for high-wire, neo-Constructivist perspective, in the vein of Aleksandr Rodchenko’s vertiginous lens. His photos of the High Court and Secretariat, though chiefly horizontal, are framed to accentuate their verticality, making the buildings soar.
The show seems timed to coincide with Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes, MoMA’s planned blockbuster summer show. That exhibition expounds on Le Corbusier’s use of landscapes, both natural and manmade, through models, plans, drawings, and photography.
Lucien Hervé: Le Corbusier in India is now on view at the agnès b. Galerie Boutique, 50 Howard Street, New York, through June 30.