Page 12, 31st October 2008

31st October 2008
Page 12
Page 12, 31st October 2008 — A genius devoid of humanity

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Le Corbusier, The Art of Architecture


As its time as European City of Culture draws to a close, Liverpool is home to a major architectural exhibition on the life and work of Le Corbusier (1887-1965) in the crypt of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King. It was a brilliant idea to put the works of one 20th-century genius inside the last great work of another. The huge and monumental crypt is all that was built of Sir Edwin Lutyens's magnificent design for a cathedral, and this is the first time it has been used for an internationally significant exhibition.

Why Le Corbusier, and why now? Arguably Le Corbusier (born CharlesEdouard Jeanneret-Gris in Switzerland) was the most influential architect of the 20th century, and his disciples are determined that his memory should be honoured. Like Freud, Marx and Picasso, he is in the collective bloodstream of the 20th century. The visit of the exhibition to these shores is at the initiative of the Royal Institute of British Architecture (RIBA) Trust proof, if it were needed, that the ageing British establishment still worships at Corb's shrine, There is no anniversary to celebrate — more prosaically, the Paris-based Fondation Le Corbusier is undergoing major renovations, and so its collections are free to travel. Le Corbusier never built in Britain but his apologists were everywhere in the years of post-war reconstruction and destruction of our cities. He bears the blame for the egomania of modernist architects and their elevation into a breed that considered itself to be above criticism. There is a telling clip in the exhibition that shows Le Corbusier proposing the elimination of whole areas of Paris. The bespectacled genius is shown with his chalk obliterating entire neighbourhoods to replace them with his soulless grids of tower blocks. His vision of L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui actually happened in Britain and we are still paying the price for endless inadequate interpretations of his ideas.

Awesome is, for once, the right word to describe Lutyens's crypt. It is a giantmelancholy fragment of what would have been a visionary building. Byzantine in its vaulted brick perfection and strong in its granite detailing. The Second World War and a lack of funds prevented the domed wonder from being built and the 1960s circular wigwam perched on the crypt can never be more than a cut-price compromise of a cathedral. Visitors to the show have the opportunity of not only comparing Le Corbusier and Lutyens, but also Lutyens (architect of New Delhi) and Sir Frederick Gibberd (architect of the cathedral but also of Heathrow and . Harlow New Town).

The exhibition is deferential in its design to the great vaults and circular windows of the crypt, and panels and perspectives allow extensive views to divert you as you explore the career of Corb. The narrative of the show is weak and disconnected, and understanding the progression of his career is not easy without prior knowledge. But it is worth the struggle, and the models, many of them original from the Fondation, tell their own story. The early white flatroofed houses and the mad abstraction of his giant urban plans for Paris, Algiers and Rio de Janeiro are contrasted with his own rather bad subPicasso paintings, sculpture and murals.

He loved the Mediterranean light and film clips of his summer beach life show him rampantly enjoying the very sea in which one day he would drown. His admiration for curvaceous Arab women — shown by his own private collection of nude photographs — is expressed in the sculptural play of his later buildings. He responds sensually as he matures and the "machine for living in" becomes more shapely and colourful.

The model of the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp near Besancon shows how the almost visceral plastic forms were achieved. Built on a beautiful wooded hill as a pilgrimage chapel in 1955. it is the bestknown of Curb's works and the most original. It was a brave commission by the local priests but it was not popular with the local hierarchy. The Archdiocese of Paderborn at the time deplored the good press the chapel received "this chapel is a consummate example of the mania for innovation, arbitrariness and disorder — we find this church to be wholly lacking in the sacred character that absolutely needs to be fostered". Corb saw it "as a stage for the sublime spectacle of nature" with its catacomb chapels and sculptural presence on the hillside. Today Ronchamp is a place of architectural pilgrimage but there are plans for a new convent for the Poor Clares nearby to renew its use as a contemplative place of worship and religious pilgrimage. The Dominican monastery of La Tourette north west of Lyons. which Corbusier designed in 1960, shows how well he understood the need to create a tough and isolated world for silent monks.

This is a difficult show that suits its subject. Writing in 1928 Lutyens acknowledged Corbusier's seriousness but also described him as "robotic" and devoid of humanity. I think his judgment stands, and the aridity of Corbusier's vision is exposed when placed inside the amazing Liverpool cathedral crypt. The show goes to the concrete galleries of London's Barbican next year, where perhaps it will feel more at home.

Colin Amery

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