Five years ago, Robert Moses got a thorough revisiting – you could even say his reputation was in some measure was rehabilitated – in a sweeping multimedia exhibition organized by Columbia University, the Museum of the City of New York, and the Queens Museum.
This summer, the Museum of Modern Art is staging a show on the architect who might be described as a chief inspiration for Moses: Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier.
Like Moses, the Swiss-born visionary of modern architecture is also widely disparaged, by New Urbanists and traditionalists involved in any way in the world of urban planning and urban design. Le Corbusier is blamed for the "towers in the park" of ill-fated public housing projects in cities across America, the devastating slum clearance of mid-century urban renewal, and elevated urban freeways that are being systematically dismantled to this day.
"Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes," on view from June 15 to September 23, is an engaging packaging of the career of this innovative designer and artist, tracing a journey from a watchmaking capital in northwest Switzerland to Paris, South America, the Soviet Union, India, and beyond. It may not change the minds of those who believe that his ideas led to permanent damage for the American city, but the sweeping exhibition provides important insight into the puzzles Le Corbusier was trying to solve in the first place.
Having changed his name while immersed in the bohemian vanguard of Paris in the 1920s, Le Corbusier surveyed conditions in Paris and other major cities and saw a "bankruptcy" in decent housing, public health, and a general sense of order. He advocated clearing out wide swaths of the cluttered, shabby city and essentially starting over, with 60-story towers spaced at regular intervals in green space, the better to allow in light and air. At MoMA the schemes are laid out in all their terrifying beauty – the City for Three Million People, the Plan Voisin (named for a carmaker he hoped to partner with), the Ville Radieuse; as well as un-executed plans for Algiers, Rio de Janiero, and Buenos Aires.
The towers and superblocks seem by any measure misguided now. The modernist project is associated with failed public spaces like the Albany capitol complex or Boston’s City Hall Plaza: blank walls, windswept plazas, and God help the pedestrian. The citybuilding mantra of today is "mixed-use," not the strict separations that Le Corbusier advocated.
But just when one is convinced he got so much wrong, there is the dapper, bow-tied architect, who became a French citizen and lived in Paris and the Cote d’Azur, drawing perfect proportions with charcoal on tracing paper, predating certain aspects of green building and the power of the sun by 50 years, and above all, trying to accommodate millions of city dwellers with decent, efficient housing. The cells at the monastery of La Tourette, the rooms of Unite d’Habitation in Marseille, and his own tiny cabanon at the hillside Mediterranean town where he ended his days — re-created as part of the exhibition, and the first thing visitors see — aren’t too different from the micro-housing apartments so many large cities are clamoring for today.
And there are the villas, the individual homes crafted as a blend of indoor and outdoor space – and places with an intentional relationship with the landscape all around, as the show most successfully makes clear – that inspire in the way that even skeptics of modern art admire a Mondrian. The exhibition also includes Le Corbusier's modern furniture and extensive painting, from early watercolors to purist still lifes, that reveal a prolific artist at work through six decades of the 20th century.
One leaves the show with a thorough sense of the man, and that may be its greatest accomplishment. Well-studied by an elite group of scholars and revered by generations of architecture students, Le Corbusier is certainly less well-known than Moses, even taking into account his extensive influence on architecture and cities. Despite Kanye West, of all people, having cited Le Corbusier in an interview published this week about artistic inspiration, the star has dimmed even in the architectural schools.
A fresh look was clearly the aim for Barry Bergdoll, the Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA, who organized the exhibit with NYU's Jean-Louis Cohen. There is a history here: MoMA, prior to opening its current midtown location, invited Le Corbusier to New York back in 1935 and staged the first major installation of his work.
And indeed, in New York, the history extends to many other places. Across from the AIA center on LaGuardia Place is Washington Square Southeast, the superblock apartment buildings orchestrated by Moses, with their density and mass straight out of the Ville Radieuse. A bike-share ride away is the United Nations compound at the East River, essentially Le Corbusier’s design, now undergoing a $2 billion energy and security retrofit and restoration. The lanky architect with the round black glasses is all around, even if many may not realize it.
Top image: Plan for Buenos Aires. 1929