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Le Corbusier picture book is weighty tome in more ways than one

Posted: Friday, August 15, 2008

"Le Corbusier Le Grand" is a formidable picture book that traces the monumental career of Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, the prophet of modern architecture and city planning known as Le Corbusier.

Weighty at 20 pounds, the bulky volume encompasses 2,000 photos of Le Corbusier's innovative structures and controversial building schemes, excerpts of his sketchbooks and treatises, examples of his art works and personal letters, with English translations from the French.

Striver, sycophant, savant, "Corbu" was an architect-colossus in the august company of German Bauhaus innovators Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe and American Frank Lloyd Wright.

Among his remarkable structures detailed in the book are Villa Savoye near Paris (1928-31), the Centrosoyuz government building in Moscow (1928-35), the Punjab government complex at Chandigarh, India (1950-62), Unite d'Habitation apartment block in Marseille (1947-53) and Notre-Dame-du-Haut chapel (1950-55) in Ronchamp, France.

Prickly and egotistical, Le Corbusier claimed sole credit for conceiving the high-rise U.N. headquarters in New York City even after stomping out of the group project. "To the end of his life he remained bitterly insistent that the building was based on his design," says the caption for a photo showing Le Corbusier at the United Nations in 1950.

Le Corbusier's penchant for self-promotion is underlined in snapshots of his meetings with other luminaries, including Einstein, Nehru, Picasso, Malraux, Mondrian, Leger, Eisenstein, van der Rohe and Josephine Baker, whom he sketched in the nude.

Le Corbusier (1887-1965) was responsible for 78 buildings in 12 countries, including the visual arts center at Harvard University (1958-63), his only U.S. commission, according to the book. Another 225 detailed proposals were never completed.

He was "truly protean" in a bewildering range of disciplines, historian Jean-Louis Cohen writes in the introduction. He was a painter and muralist in the Picasso mode, designer of household furnishings and automobiles, and the prolific author of books and treatises on architecture and urban planning.

Owlish in black-rimmed glasses and slicked-back hair, Corbu was far from ascetic. He had a succession of mistresses during his long marriage to Yvonne Gallis, a one-time French dancer, and his X-rated watercolors of prostitutes reproduced in the book document his patronage of Parisian brothels in 1917-18.

The son of a Swiss watchmaker, Le Corbusier adopted his pseudonym in 1920 after his architectural apprenticeship to gain resonance in Parisian art circles. By the mid-1920s, he had attracted wealthy patrons of avant-garde and eventually took French citizenship.

Corbu's seminal "Dom-ino" system (1914-15) proposed a stripped down-style of housing construction that exploited modern materials and technology. This led to his revolutionary "Five Points of a New Architecture" based on reinforced concrete floors and narrow, widely separated support columns to eliminate load-bearing walls.

"An end to our paralysis," he proclaimed about his Purism concepts that swept across Europe and eventually influenced American architecture.

Airy floor plans, rooftop gardens, rectangular profiles and stiltlike pylons were hallmarks of his futuristic white villas and apartments built for wealthy clients in and around Paris, such as Villa Stein-de Monzie, commissioned by American writer Gertrude Stein (1926-27).

A lightning rod for controversy, Le Corbusier was "unwise in his political affiliations, and he had an unfortunate knack for making people believe he was an ardent advocate of whatever they opposed," Tim Benton writes in one of his cogent chapter notes. In seeking building commissions, Le Corbusier tried to ingratiate himself with Mussolini's Italian fascist government, then courted the Nazi-installed Vichy regime after France's defeat. It took him years to overcome those missteps.



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