Jean-Louis Cohen on Rethinking Le Corbusier's Legacy for Summer MoMA Blockbuster

Jean-Louis Cohen on Rethinking Le Corbusier's Legacy for Summer MoMA Blockbuster
A wood, aluminum, and plastic model of the Villa Savoye in Poissy-sur-Seine, France.
(Courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / FLC)

This June, the Museum of Modern Art will present the largest exhibition on Swiss/French architect Le Corbusier (né Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) ever produced in New York City. “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes” will offer another opportunity to assess the oeuvre of one of architecture’s most feted figures. Through original paintings, drawings, models, and rarely seen films, MoMA guest curator Jean-Louis Cohen seeks to construct new narratives about the man who not only pioneered novel architectural forms but also re-engineered the very concept of the discipline and the role of its practitioners. Le Corbusier’s early engagement with painting, his experiments with building typologies, his polemical forays into urban planning, and his evolving relationship with mass media and the globalizing impulses of modernity reflect an extraordinary personal journey that has had sweeping implications for architecture and culture at large. We recently sat down with Jean-Louis Cohen to discuss how and why we should continue to revisit the life and career of Le Corbusier.

The exhibition at MoMA is called “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes.” Can you explain how you arrived at the title and the concept of landscape as a way to thread together Le Corbusier’s diverse body of work?

For me, it has come a long way. I’ve been working on Le Corbusier since the late ’70s, and I realized that there was a blind spot in the overabundant literature on the architect. With the exception of some scholars, there was almost no consideration of his relationship to site, to geography. His work was sometimes limited to what I would call generic projects, projects created with no site in order to be moved from site to site, with some exceptions of course. So I had the idea of looking at the entire range of attitudes of Le Corbusier in respect to landscape, from his early observations of the Jura Mountains in his home country, to his discovery of the world and to designs that were tailored to specific landscapes.

The concept of the Atlas goes back to the ancient world — the figure of the giant called Atlas who was carrying the Earth on his shoulders — and also to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, which were named so because they were high and allowed for a view of the Mediterranean area. We use the notion of Atlas to deal with the way in which Le Corbusier worked at perceiving and representing geography, while being at the same time probably the first global expert. We are familiar now with architects who travel and make plans and build on several continents. They didn’t exist before Corbusier. Some French architects had built in Buenos Aires, for instance, some American ones had built in China, but it was still very preliminary. No one had the range of intervention that Le Corbusier would reach worldwide.

Do you think this show might change some popular notions about the architect?

I’m convinced that people will discover new drawings and films and start thinking in different terms about his major projects. If we look at his three best-known projects — the Villa Savoye of 1931, the Marseille housing block (Unité d'Habitation) of 1952, the Ronchamp Chapel of 1955 — they’re very closely connected to specific situations. They were conceived in order to create visual relationships with these situations, with the suburban orchard landscape around Savoye [in Poissy], with the Provençal landscape in Marseille, and the hilly horizons of Ronchamp. I’m not pretending that this interpretation will replace all the existing ones, but I think the show will unveil details of the making of many of these designs that will present a new, different Le Corbusier.

That’s interesting because when I was first learning about Le Corbusier, I saw him as someone who was very considerate of site. What comes to my mind first is the window on the rooftop of the Villa Savoye that frames a particular view of the surrounding landscape.

Yes, but it’s not always the case. It’s true that some of his projects were generic ones that could be moved from site to site. But if you try to understand the way he simply moved through space and through landscape, you realize how his perception changed from when he was a student walking in the streets of Florence, and how the automobile, the ocean liner, the train, and of course the airplane changed his way of looking at the world. It’s interesting to see how the mediation of the machine changes his relationships to landscapes.

Was it clear to you which facets of Le Corbusier and his work you wanted to show, or were there specific narratives that you wanted to avoid?

There are narratives I don’t want to discuss. I’m not interested for this particular project in the issue of technology, the architecture of reinforced concrete. I’m not interested in the question of housing per se, or the mythical component of his architecture. It would be impossible to cover all this in one show. If you use this notion of the architectural promenade Le Corbusier proposed, the show will operate as a promenade through sites, through places he looked at and through places he reshaped. This is my understanding of the exhibition, a narrative in which visitors are taken through a series of scenes that have been composed. It’s different from a book because you can look in three dimensions and relate things that would be in different chapters in a book, and it is different from a film because you can compose your own viewing sequence.

Do you think a figure like Le Corbusier could exist today?

When I’m thinking about the work of someone like Rem Koolhaas, I find some echo of him in Rem’s way of looking at cities, in the way he has to address public opinion and make statements not only about his own work but on the transformation of the world today. I’m convinced that there is a partly self-conscious, partly un-self-conscious relationship to Le Corbusier. I think what his work demonstrates is that architecture is not only about making buildings, it’s also about observing and interpreting the world. That’s what I really want to show in this exhibition.

"Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes" will be on show at the Museum of Modern Art from June 9 - September 23, 2013.