Ross Wolfe and Sammy Medina, "Corbu's Corpus" Le Corbusier at the MoMA

Corbu’s corpus

Ross Wolfe and Sammy Medina

First published by the University of Bristol’s Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, and is reproduced here with permission.

Exhibit review
Le Corbusier: An atlas of modern landscapes

Jean-Louis Cohen with Barry Bergdoll.
15 June-23 September 2013.
Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The Museum of Modern Art’s Le Corbusier: An atlas of modern landscapes, recently opened to the public, marks the institution’s first exhibit devoted to the archmodernist in over fifty years. As such, it’s already managed to generate a great deal of buzz amongst members of New York’s architectural community. Corbu enthusiasts from up and down the East Coast have thus flocked to the show, turning out in droves. But its impact extends well beyond just the fanboys and devotees, whose attendance might be taken for granted. Many from the general public with only a passing interest in architecture have also made pilgrimages, hoping to catch a glimpse of what once seemed imaginable. Name recognition alone cannot account for this success, however. Part of it has to do with the timing of the exhibition.

In terms of overall curation, the sheer volume of works amassed at the MoMA show is enough to make it worth a visit. Each phase of Le Corbusier’s legendary career is laid out in incredible detail, with multiple models, sketches, and photographs accompanying individual displays. Breadth finds itself matched by depth, as the architect’s corpus is examined across a variety of media. While the exhibit unfolds chronologically — beginning with his youthful pastoral depictions of the Jura mountainsides up through his post-Cubist collaborations with Ozenfant, then on to his first buildings and forays into urbanism — the astonishing scope of Corbusier’s travels and commissions is conveyed throughout. This was very much the way Jeanneret operated, keeping several fires going at once. At the height of his creative output, while he was writing La Ville Radieuse (1930-33), the book’s subtitle grants a sense of just how far his projects ranged: Algiers, Antwerp, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Geneva, Moscow, Montevideo, Nemours, Paris, Piacé, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo. An atlas of modern landscapes chronicles Corbusier’s journeys through space over time, in a chronotopic manner of which his friend Giedion, the “official historian” of modernism, would no doubt have approved.

Cutaway revealing the interior to Le Corbusier's Villa Cook, 6 Calle Denfert-Rochereau, Boulogne-sur-Seine (1926)

Cutaway revealing the interior to Le Corbusier’s Villa Cook,
6 Calle Denfert-Rochereau, Boulogne-sur-Seine (1926)

Of course, the curatorial intelligence exhibited by the show’s selection and presentation of pieces should not surprise anyone familiar with the process by which it came together. Assembly was carried out under Jean-Louis Cohen’s encyclopedic gaze, with contributions also coming from numerous other scholars and academics. Cohen, whose brilliance has for too long gone now unrecognized in the Anglophone world, has finally begun to enjoy some success of late with the release of his sweeping historical overview, The future of architecture since 1889 (2012), and supervision of MoMA’s blockbuster Corbusier expo. His fingerprints can be seen all over the show. Its contents are not merely exhaustive — they are definitive. For a figure on the order of magnitude of a Le Corbusier, this is an impressive feat. Continue reading

The spatiotemporal dimensions of abstract art and the genesis of modern architecture


Read Ross Wolfe’s “The Graveyard of Utopia: Soviet Urbanism and the Fate of the International Avant-Garde”

Modernist Architecture — Positive Bases

The theory and practice of modernist architecture were positively based on two primary phenomena that developed under capitalism: the abstract sense of space and time created by the internal dynamic of capitalism, and the more concrete process of industrialization that took place in Europe over the course of the nineteenth century. The former of these developments, the abstract side of capitalism’s spatiotemporal dialectic, first manifested itself spatially in the medium of Cubist and post-Cubist abstract painting (Neo-plasticism, Purism, Suprematism) and temporally in the simultaneous representation of motion and light by movements such as Futurism and Rayonism. This abstract temporal dimension was deepened and refined by the avant-garde’s appropriation of Taylorism, the system of “scientific management” in industry founded in America just prior to the First World War.[211] A discussion of Taylorization’s impact on modernist architecture will lead into a more general discussion of the inescapable influence that European industrialization had on its overall development. Specifically, it will examine the modernists’ fascination with machine technologies, efficiency, and the principle of standardization. All these aspects of modern society had been brought into existence by nineteenth-century capitalism in the shift from more primitive manufacturing techniques to full-blown industrialism. In this way, modernist architecture can be seen in its positive connection to the forces and logic unfolding out of capitalist modernity, in addition to its negative bases that were outlined in the previous subsection. Modernism captured in its architecture the greater project of “rationalization” that was taking place throughout the Western world during this time, as theorized by thinkers such as Weber, Adorno, and Horkheimer.

A tertiary influence may be cited alongside these two main positive bases of avant-garde architecture: the working class. In some sense, the modernists’ identification with the European proletariat can be traced to their general disgust with bourgeois society, coupled with the widespread leftist idea that the working class could play a revolutionary role in the construction of a new and more rational society. But in another sense, the modernists’ valorization of working class must have stemmed from its association with industrial production, which held an obvious positive appeal for avant-garde architects. Though this affirmation of the laboring masses of Europe thus had its sources in both positive and negative aspects of modern society, its general character should be seen as positive. Either way, the avant-garde expressed its solidarity with workers in its quest to provide them with adequate dwelling conditions, and, more broadly, to overcome the chronic shortage of urban housing. The modernists’ efforts to this end can be seen in their commitment to the creation of a standard Existenzminimuml’habitation minimum, Kleinstwohnung,or “minimum dwelling.”[212]




































FIGURE 1: The Spatiotemporal Dialectic of Capitalism and Architecture

Before detailing this more social component of modernist architectural ideology, it is proper to examine the formal properties imparted to it by the abstract spatiotemporal dimension of capitalism. Referring back to the characteristics established beforehand as belonging to the abstract forms of space and time manifested under capitalism,[213] the extent to which these qualities were expressed by modernist art and architecture will be made clear. The scientific, cyclical, and synchronous character of its temporality; the geometric, centrifugal, and global/international character of its spatiality; their mutual homogeneity — all these categories will be important to bear in mind moving through the following analysis. For these traits, generated by the inherent dynamism of modern society, would embed themselves in the artistic unconscious of a generation of painters and architects. These then would bubble to the surface in the works of the modernists, which expressed the new spatiotemporal sensibility of their age. Such expressions of this new aesthetic orientation should be seen as manifestations of the latent social dynamic of capitalism, however, mediated perhaps by the genius of individual artists.[214]

Ivan Kudriashev’s “Construction of a Rectilinear Motion” (1925)

Iakov Chernikhov’s “Architectural Fantasy 11” (1925-1931)

In his groundbreaking 1938 lectures on Space, Time, and Architecture, the modernist and insider historian of the avant-garde movement Sigfried Giedion credited the rise of the new architecture to a newfound sense of “space-time” that congealed around the turn of the twentieth century. According to Giedion, this modern aesthetic[215] sensibility described an abstract, four-dimensional unity of temporalized spatiality, much like the kind outlined in physics by Albert Einstein in 1905. This placed a heavy emphasis on the notion of “simultaneity.”[216] Giedion could have easily added the work that was taking place in philosophy in the writings of Henri Bergson around the same time.[217] In either case, he claimed that explicit awareness of this new sense of space and time appeared first in the works of abstract art, years before the artists’ insights were later taken up and applied by modernist architects. In the first decade of the century, Giedion asserted, “[p]ainters very different in type but sharing a common isolation from the public worked steadily toward a new conception of space. And no one can understand contemporary architecture, become aware of the feelings hidden behind it, unless he has grasped the spirit animating this painting.”[218] Continue reading