MARSEILLES – We may not think of architects as cultural heroes or game-changing innovators these days, in the way that Steve Jobs (or Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, for that matter) get appreciated for their creative genius. But those who have made breakthroughs in design and how we live in cities surely deserve recognition.
If there’s one American architect who is celebrated and broadly known, it is Frank Lloyd Wright. At Fallingwater, the modern architecture masterpiece built over a river in southwestern Pennsylvania, the visitors rival those flowing through the gates of Disneyland. Many more make the trek to Taliesan West in the foothills northeast of Scottsdale, a serene complex where the great master trained his apprentices. And in San Rafael in Marin County, the 50th anniversary of Wright’s civic center, one of his last buildings and his only public commission, is being celebrated this weekend with pomp and reverence.
A quirky and passionate man with a somewhat raucous love life, Wright is known for his fresh approach, clean lines and cantilevers, all intuitively recognized as something special that occurred beginning in the early 20th century. His buildings are embraced as a matter of pride and cultural heritage. When the sellers of a house Wright built for his son in Phoenix threatened to have the place bulldozed, the public outcry was immediate and earnest. It would be unthinkable to let his work fall into disrepair, much less be destroyed.
I was reminded of Wright during a recent trip to France, where a similar celebration of a famous architect is unfolding -- though the surprise is that Europe would wait so long for someone revered there even more, arguably, than Wright in the United States. Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, who renamed himself Le Corbusier, is Europe’s version of Wright and then some. If Wright was Bill Gates, Le Corbusier was Steve Jobs – hoping to change the way people lived through design, turning out villas and apartment buildings and government offices and churches that defined modernism and the International Style. He was a swaggering figure, had a similarly eventful love life, and exported his brand of modernism to South America, Russia, Japan, India, and beyond, traveling on dirigibles and ocean liners and the earliest jet planes.
France has showered him with awards and named streets after him, and Switzerland, where he was born, put him on a Swiss Franc currency note.
Le Corbusier’s buildings in France and the places he lived in Paris and on the Cote d’Azure are only recently getting some tender loving care, however. Renzo Piano designed a subtle new visitor center for the Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, in the forest region near Germany and Switzerland. Hotel and restaurant operators there hope the modernist masterpiece could become an even greater tourist destination – a bit more like Fallingwater, which has a visitor center and timed visits and docents, and, of course, a gift shop.
The convent at La Tourette outside Lyon is in the final stages of a badly needed multi-year restoration, winding up with a top-to-bottom rehabilitation of the church atrium set aglow by skylight barrels. In Marseilles, Unite d’Habitation -- at the time a revolutionary new approach to city living and efficient, dense housing, since duplicated around the world -- is also getting spruced up, even before a fire damaged one section of the machine for living in, as Le Corbusier once put it. One smart feature is the 26-room Hotel Le Corbusier and restaurant on the 3rd floor. It's essentially like the Hudson or the Paramount in New York, only a half-century earlier. Guests stay in the small apartment "cells" along with the many full-time residents who still live in the building.
Other places are a different story. The iconic Villa Savoye outside Paris is not well-marked, though part of the fun is finding one’s way to the site and discovering it. His cabanon in Rocquebrune-Cap Martin near Monaco, a super-efficient beach house that could easily be featured in the pages of Dwell magazine today, only recently got a fence and locked gate, after vandals walked in through what was before a completely open area. The studio next door to the cabin is pretty much as Le Corbusier left it when he died off the coast – drowned after an apparent heart attack while swimming in the Mediterranean – an empty drafting table overlooking the sea, cobwebs and spiders all around.
The French government has designated Le Corbusier buildings in its own historic preservation recognition program, and paid for the various restorations. The Fondation Le Corbusier, a kind of presidential library and archive housed in a pair of homes Le Corbusier built in the 16th Arrondissement in Paris, tried to take things to the next level by applying for World Heritage status by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The application was supported by 17 nations that are home to Le Corbusier buildings including the Carpenter Center at Harvard University, celebrating its 50th anniversary this month in Cambridge.
Foundation director Michel Richard said he was disappointed that the application was tabled. He is watching with great interest another UNESCO World Heritage application, being prepared for none other than Frank Lloyd Wright.
No one is suggesting that all architects can be enduring cultural heroes or the focus of national pride. Today we refer to active designers like Renzo Piano or Rem Koolhaas as "star-chitects," suggesting that their legacy is still very much of the moment, and perhaps fleeting. But Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier have earned a place in history, alongside the celebrities and artists and political leaders we honor. They represent true innovation in human settlement, busting loose from the norms of their time, and their creations can never come back if they are allowed to disappear or fall into disrepair.
It’s notable that the U.S. has recognized the special place of design in the cultural landscape, a rare case of being a few steps ahead of Europe.