Event review: Le Corbusier/New York

Sammy Medina and Ross Wolfe

Saturday, June 8th, 2013
Center for Architecture
Museum of Modern Art
New York, NY

Originally published at Former People:
A Journal of Bangs and Whimpers

“Le Corbusier/New York” was billed as a two-day international symposium focusing on the architect’s relationship to the city, and featured such luminaries within the field as Jean-Louis Cohen, Kenneth Frampton, Peter Eisenman, Stanislaus von Moos, and Mary McLeod, along with a host of other lesser-known critics and historians. Jointly organized by the Center for Architecture together with the Museum of Modern Art, the event was held at the former’s downtown headquarters on the occasion of the latter’s upcoming exhibit, Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes. Barry Bergdoll, the chief curator of architecture and design at MoMA, was on hand to preside over several rounds of the discussion. With headlining acts like these, the space was predictably packed to the gills. Somewhere around two hundred people attended the symposium.

Le Corbusier in New York, 1946

Le Corbusier in New York, 1946

Beneath this general rubric of Corbusier’s relationship to New York City, the quality of the presentations varied widely. The first batch was composed of papers decidedly more academic, even scholastic, in character. Of these first few twenty-minute talks (though they frequently ran over time), the one by Mardges Bacon “On the Streets of the Vertical City: Le Corbusier in New York, 1935” was perhaps the most compelling. In all likelihood, this owed  its fidelity to the historical record of Corbusier’s actual visit to the city in that year, rather than to speculation about the impact the city might have had in concept — in the abstract. Bacon carefully traced his ambivalent impressions of New York as he encountered it in person for the first time, no longer forced to make do with the visual descriptions or the photographic documentation of others. She explained the great modernist’s awe before the sheer verticality of Manhattan, and his profound admiration for skyscrapers’ use of the latest building materials and techniques. In Corbusier’s view, the real tragedy was that such modern methods were forced to fit the framework of such antiquated zoning laws.

Unlike Bacon, who relied mainly on the personal diaries Corbu kept and the letters he sent during his stay in New York, von Moos took the contemporaneously written When the Cathedrals were White as his lecture’s primary point of departure. Disappointingly, however, the address delivered by the Swiss theorist — who is usually consistent — proved rather lackluster by comparison. While the aim of his paper was ostensibly to make the case for a surrealist undercurrent to Corbusier’s experience of New York, von Moos pulled the rug out from beneath his argument almost before he could begin. (Conspicuously absent from von Moos’s talk was Koolhaas’ surrealist strategies which he used to dissect Le Corbusier’s appraisal of and engagement with  New York.) Early on, he disavowed any connection between the architect and the French post-Dada movement. Instead, his claim was to be considered much more modest, if not wholly irrelevant to theme of the event. By the end of von Moos’ talk, it was clear that all that was being asserted was some kind of vague stylistic affinity between the writings of the surrealists and Corbusian prose. The prior piece by Francesco Passanti, “A New York with Intention,” seemed similarly removed from the subject. While interesting enough as exegesis, covering Corbusier’s readings of Wright, Perret, and Taut, the city barely figured into the picture at all except as the negative model against which the Plan Voisin for Paris was formulated. To boot, the paper concluded with the familiar, by now clichéd, critique of modernist urbanism (à la the Ville Contemporaine) as inherently totalitarian and unable to cope with the messiness of life. Yawn.

"A noted architect dissects our cities," opinion piece by Le Corbusier published in the New York Times (January 3, 1932)

“A noted architect dissects our cities,” editorial by Le
Corbusier in the New York Times (January 3, 1932)

The set of presentations that followed von Moos’ bit on the surrealist stylings of When the Cathedrals were White was by contrast refreshingly devoid of theoretical extravagances. As might have been expected, the talk by Cohen on Corbusier’s troubled dealings with the Museum of Modern Art stole the show. No broader point was being made here about the implications of his study on future Corbu scholarship; Cohen instead was satisfied to sketch the numerous disputes between the architect and the museum over time, as the French-Swiss master grew increasingly impatient with what he felt was its insufficient appreciation of his contributions to the discipline. Cohen’s narrative was wildly entertaining as a result, keeping track of all the petty controversies Corbusier stirred up in response to perceived snubs or slights. Eisenman’s remarks continued in this more informal vein, bordering on autobiography as he reflected on the influence of Corbusier’s legacy on the so-called “New York five” (to which he of course belonged). Still more immediately, Eisenman made sure to mention the significance of the new MoMA exhibit during his comments, offering it an unqualified endorsement. This coming from a man not known for his enthusiasm of late, Eisenman’s words of approval doubtless surprised many in the audience accustomed to his usually dour temperament.

All things told, “Le Corbusier/New York” was something of a mixed bag in terms of the actual output of thought it generated. Very little new theoretical ground was covered here, as old interpretations were rehashed or reworked in uninteresting ways. A few fascinating tidbits of information rose to surface, unearthed through Cohen’s masterful scouring of the archives, but even in this respect there was nothing that constituted a paradigm-shattering discovery.

Le Corbusier with Oscar Niemeyer, Raymond Hood, and a host of other international architects in New York, 1940s

Le Corbusier with Oscar Niemeyer, Raymond Hood, and a
host of other international architects in New York, 1940s

These several shortcomings notwithstanding, which may themselves have owed to flaws in its conceptualization, the major takeaway from the symposium was not that Corbusian studies have somehow run their course. Nor should its weaknesses be thought to suggest that today — at the dawn of a new millennium, with a specific set of sociopolitical and technological challenges foreign to the architect’s own — Le Corbusier’s architectural corpus has finally been rendered irrelevant. As Frampton noted in his incisive (if informal) closing comments: “We shall never be finished with this figure.”

To bolster his claim, he cited the core duality that runs throughout Le Corbusier’s canon and character. According to Frampton, Corbu was at once architect and artist, prophet and heretic, technocrat and humanist. In like fashion, his projects followed split trajectories. One of the most cogent reflections from the day’s proceedings came as Frampton described the ideological tensions that informed Le Corbusier’s work, especially as manifested in his audacious urban schemes. Their form and content, Frampton explained, were caught between opposing poles of capitalism and socialism. The early plans, the Plan Voisin and the Ville Contemporaine, were monuments to the first of these epochal outlooks, while the later Ville Radieuse and its more basic building block, the Unité d’Habitation, embodied the second. The Unité, at least as it was realized in Marseilles, was the Ur-tower of collectivist housing invoked by rubes and reactionaries ever since to illustrate the supposed “ills” of postwar urban planning. Repudiating these critiques, faint echoes of which could still be heard in some of the presentations earlier in the day, Frampton pointed to the bankruptcy of moralistic condemnations of modernism in architecture. To argue that Corbusier’s Unité leads straightaway to Yamasaki’s Pruitt Igoe is “completely absurd,” Frampton unequivocally asserted. He instead recommended a more diachronic approach to the assessment modernism’s ambitions. Borrowing a phrase from Cohen, Frampton called such an approach “cultural layering.”

Construction of the United Nations building in New York, 1949

Construction of the UN Building in New York, 1949

Unfortunately, the clarion sounded a little too late. Even so, the conference had its merits. Most of the frustration conveyed here can quite likely be chalked up to the symposium’s overly narrow focus on Corbusier’s relationship to the city, which though a constant referent in his earlier works remained relatively distant and abstract (as “paradox and contradiction”) until visiting New York in the mid-1930s. Only so much could be squeezed out of these few sporadic encounters apart from his concrete interaction with its environment in that moment as well as his later work on the United Nations Building in the 1950s. Ascertaining the precise role the city’s image played in the architect’s younger writings is one thing; expounding upon it at any length is quite another. Blame cannot truly be laid at some of the presenters’ feet for stretching what little material there is beyond the limits of apposition or credulity. Still, as the first large-scale conference of its kind in decades, Le Corbusier deserved better. For those in New York’s architectural community who left feeling slightly underwhelmed, however, not all is lost: after all, the Corbu exhibit at MoMA — now open to the public — spans every facet of the great modernist’s legendary career. And for all who attended the event, it’s just around the corner.



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