PARIS — It has been 50 years since the death of Le Corbusier, the Swiss-born architect, artist and writer considered by some to be the most influential force in the way modern cities are designed and built.
To mark his life and work, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris has dedicated an entire exhibition to the works of the famous architect, whose given name was Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris.
Through a thoroughly planned chronological progression, "Measures of Man" focuses on the concept of human proportion in Le Corbusier's work. The exhibit also makes us see how the space occupied by the body became a universally accepted principle that determines the interior and exterior dimensions of human projects, as well as the lives of those who live in them.
The exhibition has received a fair share of criticism for leaving aside Le Corbusier's ideological positions, which some have characterized as leaning toward fascism. The Parisian museum has vowed to tackle that subject in a symposium planned for next year.
But already, one can see in "Measures of Man" an implicit answer to those questions.
The choice to have a chronological presentation encourages visitors to observe in detail the important materials that document the exhibition. The inventory is huge, with architectural drawings, books, objects, plans, models, films, photographs — but also in particular the paintings and sculptures that provide precious tools for understanding Le Corbusier's work.
The demonstration begins with a short film. In the same "Rhythms and Patterns" section, visitors can discover the Swiss composer and educator Emile Jaques-Dalcroze (1865-1950), who created a method in which the musical ear relies on the entire body's experience in a relationship that involves the space around it. He evokes "a perfect rhythm and harmony for children all over the world."
In the 1910s, the institute Dalcroze, established in the garden city of Hellerau, Germany, attracted a number of important artists, among them Le Corbusier. There, the pioneer of modern architecture grasped the idea of "space dynamics and aesthetics determined by rhythm and movement, with the idea of a body that perceives the world around it," the guides explain. These concepts were a huge influence on Le Corbusier.
Pure and simple
After World War I, a simple drawing of a white cube (La Cheminée, 1918) synthesized for him this perpetual and cognitive unit of an architectural volume that laid the foundations of the purism movement.
According to this principle, Le Corbusier, together with painter Amédée Ozenfant, applied himself to develop a view of things in which objects are submitted to a strictly regulated drawing, outside of all human figure. While Picasso was turning his Harlequin upside down, Le Corbusier's way of ordering shapes and colors was leaving no room for disturbances or any excess. It was a form of civilized cubism built on "an industrial, mechanical and scientific frame of mind," its authors said.
Formulated by poet Guillaume Apollinaire, this new approach claimed to inherit from the classics a "sense of duty that strips the feelings or rather limits their manifestations." This "new spirit" embraced by Ozenfant and Le Corbusier gave its name to L'Esprit Nouveau, the review published by the two with Paul Dermée between 1920 and 1925. That same year, the Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau created by the architect and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret was part of the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts.
The furniture designed by Le Corbusier became "equipment," as the tubular metal structures holding his armchairs and other objects were intended to adapt to different ways of sitting and moving. In a 1928 photomontage shown in the exhibition, Charlotte Perriand, Le Corbusier's accomplice in this domestic adventure, details an Ergonomic study of furniture in relation to body positions.
First conceived of in the 1940s, and realized 10 years later, the measures of man reached their peak with the Modulor, which defines the size of the average man: 183 centimeters or 226 centimeters with arms raised. "Universally applicable to architecture and to mechanics," the architect introduced it as philosophically, mathematically and historically self-evident. After that, all of his creations were submitted to the authority of this benchmark, the exhibition's center of gravity.
At the same time, Le Corbusier moved away from the implacable determinism to which he had until then been submitting his vision of architecture and entered what he called the "ineffable space." Fed by the research he conducted with cabinetmaker and sculptor Joseph Savina during his so-called "acoustic" period, the colorful volumes took on previously unseen shapes which, for the first time, were inspired by human modelings.
According to Le Corbusier, these works were "projecting in the distance the effect of its shapes and, in return, receiving the pressure of these surrounding spaces." Built between 1953 and 1955, the chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut in Ronchamp, in eastern France is the most singular and also poetic expression of this now freed vision.