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© Courtesy of the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

Le Corbusier unleashed

by Joy Neumeyer at 01/10/2012 19:44

‘Le Corbusier: The Secrets of Creativity between Painting and Architecture’

Runs until Nov. 18 at the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, 12 Ul. Volkhonka, m. Kropotkinskaya, www.arts-museum.ru

In 1928, Le Corbusier arrived in Moscow to feverish adulation. His arrival was heralded by an editorial on the front page of Pravda; he was met by cultural luminaries including Sergei Eisenstein; he gave a packed-to-the-rafters lecture at the Polytechnic Museum.

Le Corbusier’s innovative entry for the Palace of Soviets competition was mocked by Pravda as a ‘congress hangar’

© Courtesy of the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

Le Corbusier’s innovative entry for the Palace of Soviets competition was mocked by Pravda as a ‘congress hangar’

By 1932, Pravda had mocked his design for the Palace of Soviets competition as a “congress hangar.”

Now, 80 years after his fall from Russian grace, Le Corbusier is returning to Moscow in a sweeping new exhibition at the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. “Le Corbusier: The Secrets of Creativity between Painting and Architecture” is the first major treatment of the architect in Russia. Designed specifically for the Pushkin Museum, it contains more than 400 plans, paintings, models, furniture designs, sculptures and photographs.

“We use the notion of his painting as a secret laboratory, not only as a hobby, but a structural part of his architectural invention,” said curator Jean-Louis Cohen, a professor of architectural history at New York University and the Sorbonne.

Le Corbusier was born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris in 1887 in provincial Switzerland. After settling in Paris, he adopted his famous pseudonym in 1920 in the journal “L’Espirit Nouveau.” After experimenting with Cubist still lifes, he made his first forays into architecture with a series of villas for private clients.

“The transparency and overlapping volumes in his paintings had direct effects in his villas of the 1920s,” Cohen said. 

The ground-breaking Villa Savoye was built between 1928 and 1931 out of reinforced concrete. It appears at the Pushkin Museum in sketches, models and photographs.

The architect began his career with experiments in Cubist painting

© Courtesy of the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

The architect began his career with experiments in Cubist painting

A short film Le Corbusier made about the villa plays in the center of the exhibition. “The airplane is a machine for flying!” it begins, showing an airplane propelling across the sky. By the same principle, it declares, “the house is a machine for living in!” A man puffing a cigar strides out of an automobile and through the front door.

The Villa Savoye was the first articulation of the “Five Points” that Le Corbusier would develop for the rest of his career. Features such as horizontal ribbon windows and elevated support columns (or “pilotis”) became the architectural expressions of an age obsessed with movement and efficiency. He developed these ideas on a broader scale in a series of urban planning projects.

Le Corbusier’s many internationally renowned designs—from the Notre Dame du Haut chapel in Ronchamp to the entire city of Chandigarh, India—appear in early sketches and models, photographs by Swiss photographer Rene Burri and present-day shots by British photographer Richard Pare. Visitors also see furniture, such as the iconic 1929 chaise lounge, as well as books and journals he designed (including “L’Espirit Nouveau”).

Most intriguingly, the exhibition features a special section devoted to Le Corbusier’s experiences in Soviet Russia.

The architect served as a cult figure for the Russian avant-garde, and his influence appears strongly in such projects as Moisei Ginzburg’s 1928 Narkomfin building. Between 1928 and 1932, he made three trips to Russia, designing the building for the Tsentrosoyuz building on Myanitskaya Ulitsa (see box).

His 1931 entry for the Palace of Soviets competition is often seen as an unrealized masterpiece. It appears in the exhibition in models and drawings, including two fascinating sketches of its singular arch soaring near the Kremlin on the city skyline.

Le Corbusier’s flirtation with Russia would end in disappointment. By the time the Palace of Soviets competition ended, Stalin had decreed the shift to socialist realism, and his modernist style was officially out of favor.

A shot by Richard Pare of the court building in Chandigarh, India

© Courtesy of the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

A shot by Richard Pare of the court building in Chandigarh, India

In the long term, however, Le Corbusier would have a lasting influence on Russian architecture. After Stalin’s death, his ideas about form and urban planning were once again embraced in trends like designing buildings on “legs,” which were essentially pilotis.

“I wouldn’t say he’s the father of the microrayon, because this comes largely from Germany,” Cohen said. “But certainly his language of form was extremely influential in the architecture of the 1960s and ’70s.”

The architect’s experience in Moscow would shape his own creative development as well.

In response to the “Green City” development plan proposed by Constructivist architects in 1930, he devised his own radical “Ville Radieuse,” in which he proposed the destruction of much of the  historic center and the creation of separate “cities” for administrative, academic, industrial and other functions.

When Le Corbusier’s designs were introduced, they were radical; over the course of the century, they became mundane. The communal housing projects that seemed ingenious in 1920s architectural models, for example, would become associated with poverty and urban decay in inner-city America. But his influence on modern art and architecture is hard to overstate.

“He understood that life had changed, and offered new ways to organize it,” said Irina Korobyna, director of the Shchusev State Museum of Architecture.

Le corbusier in Moskva: Tsentrosoyuz

Le Corbusier’s Tsentrosoyuz building is reopening to visitors

© RIA Novosti. / Alexander Polyakov

Le Corbusier’s Tsentrosoyuz building is reopening to visitors

A real-life work by Le Corbusier stands only a few metro stops from the Pushkin Museum: the Tsentrosoyuz building at 39 Myasnitskaya Ulitsa. Now home to the Federal State Statistics Service, it was the architect’s only project realized in Russia.

Le Corbusier won the competition to design the building for Tsentrosoyuz (or the Central Union of Consumer Cooperatives) in 1928. The design incorporated many of his basic principles, such as pilotis, an open floor plan and ribbon windows. Rather than the traditional office design anchored around a courtyard, it featured three glass prisms and a central hall.

“In 1928 [Le Corbusier] had never built a big public structure, so in a way it was his first large building ever implemented,” curator Jean-Louis Cohen said.

The project was troubled from the start. Construction experienced multiple delays due to supply shortages; the innovative mechanical ventilation and pipe insulation systems were left unrealized due to a lack of materials.

By the time the project was completed in 1936, Le Corbusier’s style was seen as “an embarrassing development from a previous stage,” Cohen said.

As Cohen recounts in his book “Le Corbusier and the Mystique of the USSR,” many of the architects who had greeted Le Corbusier with enthusiasm several years before turned critical. Sergei Kozhin deemed the project “cold, monotonous and disagreeable.” Others, however, remained positive, such as artist Alexander Vesenin, who hailed the project as “Moscow’s best building in the last hundred years.”

Closed to the public for decades, the building is reopening to visitors this month after a round of renovations. According to some experts, however, the latest restoration did more harm than good.

“They’ve used aluminum in a very vulgar way,” Cohen said. “It’s an outrage. It’s totally disfigured.”

Cohen will give a lecture on the building at 2 p.m. on Oct. 6. At 3 p.m., architect Denis Romodin is to lead a tour about Tsentrosoyuz and the other modernist landmarks on Myasnitskaya Ulitsa, such as Alexander Shchusev’s Narkomzen building. For more information see gks.ru.

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