A Surprising New Angle On Le Corbusier

In the first major U.S. retrospective of the modernist architect’s work, the ruler of right angles goes rustic, comes with curves.

Walk into the entrance gallery of the MoMA’s long-anticipated Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes and you might think you’ve stumbled into the wrong exhibition. The room contains a smattering of watercolor impressions and sketches of the Jura mountainscape, the westerly region of Switzerland where Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, Le Corbusier-to-be, was born and lived through young adulthood.


Neither modern nor signed, the works suggest a rustic Art Nouveau, called “style sapin, in which fir trees and mountain slopes are rendered as ornamental geometric patterns–by an incredibly perceptive talent, perhaps already seduced by rules and order as much as by the unruly appeal of nature. “In Le Corbusier’s oeuvre, landscape is both a manifest and a latent preoccupation,“ co-curator and architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen tells Co.Design.

The young Jeanneret painted and sketched during hikes, crossing valleys and exploring the organic forms of his bucolic country and the mysteries they might contain. The swirl of a river jetty and the conical silhouettes of pines would catch his eye. This isn’t the machine-obsessed architect or alienating urbanist–those associations came later for Le Corbusier–but the artist and Renaissance man behind the roundest of glasses, producer of beautiful objects and buildings.

The show soon moves onto the clean-lined architecture, though smartly not before the early organic Le Corbusier landscape–the one with a few rough edges–has been established. As the first expansive retrospective of Le Corbusier’s work in the U.S., the exhibition serves the important function of firmly grounding a fresh, relatively novel reading of the architect’s built and unbuilt projects through “the field of landscape.”

While persistent criticism has condemned Le Corbusier for the destructive effects of post-war urbanism, the impressive and impression-changing exhibition, four years in the making, presents a convincing case for the architect’s sensitive, experiential approach to landscape. It challenges us to see, or wonder, how this fascination with nature informed his later work, of the most designed and manufactured kind.

And by landscape, of course, co-curator Cohen does not exclusively refer to the rolling hills and green pastures of Jeanneret in Jura. As the future architect left Switzerland for Paris, the continent, and the world at large, nature would be transmuted to “urban landscapes,” a term, Cohen says, likely coined by Le Corbusier. The exhibition’s second trajectory charts this geographical turn using the architect’s travel notes, sketchbooks and photographs, including hastily drawn impressions of Rome, Rio, Istanbul and New York, in graphite and watercolors, that document a telling shift in subject, into more analytical compositions that featured buildings and the manmade.

The third and last leg of the exhibition, by far the largest, picks up with the architect’s early Purist phase in the 1920s and tracks his work through the 1930s, when unsolicited or canceled projects piled up, then onto the post-war period, with the building of the Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, and finally, his expedition to Chandigarh, India, in the 1950s, where Le Corbusier was at last able to realize, if only partially, his utopian vision Radiant City.


At times, particularly in the earlier phases of the exhibition, the landscape thesis comes across elegantly. But as the show picks up, the connection of Le Corbusier’s work with the idea of landscape, however modern, falters. The taut planes and the filmstrip windows of the Purist villas were conceived as machines for viewing the surrounding terrain. Houses of the machine age, such as the Villa Savoye near Paris or the Villa Le Lac in Switzerland (the house Le Corbusier designed for his mother), were attuned to the places in which they were set. Is it fair to consider architecture that looks outside as design driven by the landscape?

A collection of the architect’s smallest-scale designs, which Le Corbusier called “objects of poetic reaction” and frequently used as the subjects of his paintings, are also on display. So we get the full tour of small, large, and extra-large industrial, architectural and urban designs, most ambitiously and arrestingly so in the first masterplan for Algiers from 1932, in which Le Corbusier envisioned a kilometers-long megastructure that mimics the city’s coast, to be comprised of plug-in housing modules and topped with a highway.

A replica apartment duplex of the Unité, which Le Corbusier lifted onto thick, trunk-like blocks to give residents a view of the Marseilles harbor, is also on view–though, unfortunately, off limits–and offers a sense of the surprisingly generous proportions (and limitations) of the architect’s Modulor system. Another particularly well represented project is the geometric plan for Chandigarh’s government complex, which is monumentalized in a heavy wood-carved sculpture.

The sheer number of items on display–and the eclectic tastes and motivations they reveal–are a testament to Le Corbusier’s powers of polemic. They also reveal his commitment to engaging promiscuously with movements, ideas, and things, often in ways that belie the straightforward timeline.

Unless you pay faithful attention to the wall cards, which unspool the curator’s narrative, the landscape motif quickly recedes into the background. But perhaps that’s exactly what it’s intended to do–as it did for Le Corbusier. His vast panorama of work is best examined slowly and deliberately, which means pausing to bend over an architectural model to inspect its proportions and liberating spaces. It means enjoying the landscape, and this one is surely among the most far-reaching bodies of work produced by an architect and one of the finest architectural exhibitions produced by the MoMA.

Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes runs through September 23 at the MoMA.


About the author

Sammy is a writer, designer, and ice cream maker based in New York. He once lived in China before being an editor at Architizer.