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The human factor: fifty years after Le Corbusier's death, an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou this April examines the controversial Swiss architect's under-recognised legacy as a humanist thinker and artist.

When people have looked at some of the most famous images produced by Le Corbusier (1887-1965; Fig. 1)--the most frequently used for this purpose are those of the 'Contemporary City' of 1922, or the 'Plan Voisin' of 1925--one of the phrases that always comes up is 'inhumane'. Both of these images, taken from speculative city-plans, feature a forest of high-rise towers in green open space; the latter of the two imposes this on a chunk of central Paris. In some of the drawings, attenuated peoploids wander around the greenery on their way from office block to high-rise flat, but mostly the scene is placid to the point of emptiness. The work of the Swiss architect, and especially the work of his imitators, has always been criticised for lacking something called the 'human scale'. What this usually means is that in the designer's many, usually unimplemented, town-planning projects, the buildings are very big, and spaced very far apart, creating a sense of scale which is considered to 'dominate' the tiny and fragile human being; the human scale, by contrast, is considered to be a matter of small, often ornamental details, small streets, little squares --gee-gaws to measure ourselves against in a non-intimidating way. This is ironic, given that Le Corbusier spent much of his career trying to define what a 'human scale' was. Typically, he even designed and patented such a scale.

This 'scale', known as the Modulor (Fig. 2), forms one of the points of departure for 'Le Corbusier: The Measures of Man' (29 April-3 August), an exhibition at a very un-Corbusian building, the Centre Pompidou, whose anti-classical mesh of machine parts is the antithesis of a designer who was obsessed for most of his life with reconciling, without compromise, classical values and modern technology. The development of the Modulor in the late 1940s was the result of a long-running interest in the scales and sequences developed by Renaissance humanists--the 'Golden Section', which he had already used on several buildings, plus a fixation with Fibonacci numbers, and a desire to unify opposing means of proportion; the Modulor was an attempt to create a scale somewhere between metric and imperial measurements --he liked the latter because of their relation to the human body ('foot', 'digit', and so forth).

Le Corbusier's drawing of the 'Modulor Man' is an example of this lifelong self-promoter's uncanny ability to create instantly recognisable logos out of abstract ideas--a strong yet willowy man of six feet, inspired, apparently, by the 'always tall' heroes of English detective stories, raising his arm and bending his hip. This figure was to be the measure of the contemporary city, and it would be the specific measure for lots of his buildings; it can be found, imprinted like a corporate brand, on his buildings from Harvard to Marseille, from Berlin to Moscow. It is hard to say that it is any more domineering or inhumane than the classical scales used in an average 19th-century art museum, whose vast halls imply people even taller than the Modulor Man himself. Although it can be criticised on all manner of grounds for ignoring the existence of women, for instance--the Modulor is not really what people are talking about when they lament Le Corbusier's inhumanity.

That usually rests on one of his most celebrated and notorious slogans, that a home should be 'a machine for living in'. This is almost ritually misinterpreted, as if the idea was that people should live in something resembling the interior workings of a washing machine or a blast furnace; a misunderstanding which is surely deliberate, given that the meaning of the statement is obvious, particularly given the context in which it was made. It is a criticism of the houses and apartments of the 19th century, which were faulted for being all about aesthetics--the grand frontage, displaying your wealth, status and/or taste to the street--rather than actually useful virtues such as comfort, warmth, sunlight, reliable shelter, air, the things that would make a dwelling 'work' for what it is designed for. That said, when Le Corbusier is talking about machines, there is always something strange going on. He was enthusiastic about the precisely engineered technologies of the 'second industrial revolution', and published a book of photographs of Aircraft in 1935; in his most famous book-manifesto, Towards an Architecture (published in English in 1927, tellingly and misleadingly retitled Towards a New Architecture), he illustrated aeroplanes, ocean liners and grain silos and cars, and placed them next to the heavy, ornament-encrusted buildings of Europe and America to shame their architects, arguing that the clarity and grace of the Parthenon could be found much more in the Model T than in New York's neoclassical skyscrapers. These ideas come from the movement of which Le Corbusier was a part in post-First World War Paris: Purism.

Part of the 'return to order'--good old French neoclassical rationalist values--after the chaos and destruction of the war, the Purists were enthusiastic Platonists. As painters, Le Corbusier and his collaborator Amedee Ozenfant were obsessed with the apparent perfection to be found in certain, often--if not exclusively--machine-made objects, which they proselytised for in their magazine L'EspiritNouveau. InLe Corbusier's Purist paintings, such as Nature morte a la pile d'assiettes et au livre (1920; Fig. 4), the sort of objects that were set in motion and made fragmented and kaleidoscopic by the Cubists are heavy, pure solids: a guitar, bottles and a jar are admired for the purity and elegance of their volumes. This is the approach that would be taken to the design of buildings, first in a series of private houses for aesthetes in and around the Paris suburbs, then in a workers' housing estate in Pessac, and then, a sequence of houses, blocks of flats, offices, dormitories and pavilions all over Europe, combined with a barrage of propaganda in the form of those extreme-rationalist city plans.

This approach is tested in one of the buildings that combines the two functions of 'propaganda' and dwelling, the L'Espirit Nouveau pavilion at the Paris Expo in 1925 (Fig. 3). This was basically one unit of a speculative, unbuilt block of maisonettes Le Corbusier had proposed, the immeublevillas, a small house of glass and wood (made to look like concrete) furnished with the sort of mass-produced furniture that the Purists thought approached Platonic perfection in its elegance, clarity and lack of fuss--bentwood Thonet chairs, American standard-issue office cabinets, Maple leather armchairs, icons of an ideology where massive technological change was expected to create almost permanent forms rather than inbuilt obsolescence. It featured dioramas of those horror-inducing planning schemes, both the Contemporary City and the Plan Voisin, the latter of which, funded rather tellingly by a motoring magnate, would make the architect famous as crazed technocratic demiurge, bent on 'rationalising' Paris as a demented super-Haussmann. This reputation would for a time crowd out all the others, and one of the aims of the Centre Pompidou exhibition is to rediscover Le Corbusier as a humanist thinker and, probably even more controversially, as a painter.

After the Purist paintings of the early 1920s, made under the influence of the more talented painter, his L'Espirit Nouveau colleague Ozenfant, Le Corbusier made a sudden and permanent shift into what Ian Nairn disdainfully, and usually accurately, called 'dreadful faux-naif art'. The precise still lifes are, from the mid 1920s onwards, replaced with daubs of bright colour, leaves and vegetation, and an endless series of lovely ladies cavorting around the canvas. You can see this as early as the sketch dated 2 April 1925, with its part-woman, part-bird figure, painted in bright, artificial colours (Fig. 6); the exhibition also includes a rare sculpture in this vein, Femme, from nearly 30 years later, a folk art-influenced female idol, all exposed breasts and organs. These figures--while not, unlike the rangy Modulor Man, intended to serve as the universal measure of the buildings of the future--appear to have gradually influenced his architecture, which, in the 1930s, would become ever more 'organic' in its rhetoric.

The concrete that was always his main material would go from machine-made smoothness to rough, shutter-marked 'beton brut', the grids of his buildings would become thicker and looser, and the forms of the exposed staircases and services that formed part of his aesthetic would be more and more expressive, more and more physical and biological in appearance. One of the most striking ways of seeing this, as a one to one comparison, is in the Cite Universitaire in Paris, a strange architectural expo serving as a giant student dormitory only about 20 minutes away from the Centre Pompidou on the RER. Facing each other are the 1930 Pavilion Suisse and the 1957 Maison du Brasil. Both are small, of around five storeys, with one-storey ancillary buildings housing their cafes and entrance halls, and both are raised on pilotis, the usually floor-height pillars that raised most of Corbusier's buildings from the ground. But the Pavilion Suisse is 'normal' modern architecture, a glass grid encased in limestone--rational, pure and clear. Something naughty is happening there, though, in the heavy, bone-shaped pilotis, something which, 27 years later, would take over. In the Brazilian Pavilion the material is a rough, brisdy brown concrete, the balconies of the dormitories are painted in blaring reds, yellows and blues, and the climate seems to have warmed by 10 degrees. This change can be taken as a move towards a reconciliation of the 'human' with nature rather than purely with technology, a move towards brightness and sensuality; or it can be seen as a subtle serving of national stereotype (Swiss: rational, Brazilian: sensual)--itself a sharp move away from any idea of universally applicable Platonic types.

The Maison du Brasil is essentially a miniature version of one of the most famous of Le Corbusier's 'organic' buildings, the Unite d'Habitation in Marseille, a monumental block of flats planned as a 'social condenser' with community and leisure facilities (Figs. 7 & 8); the other is the Notre Dame du Haut church at Ronchamp in eastern France (Fig. 5). Described by the architect as a 'monument to nature', the church is unreproducible, a fine art product, made solely for that site, and--despite the architect's professed atheism ('I don't care about your church, I did it because it's difficult,' he said of the project), it is designed as a peasant chapel of rough concrete and stained glass, managing to be 'church-like' without referring to any particular historical precedent. For many, this is when a 'good' Le Corbusier emerged from the ideological destroyer and planner of high-rise, streetless cities; an organic architect, dedicated to the eternal values of beauty. It is ironic that he becomes 'humane' by serving religions positing something higher and greater than human beings, something which Le Corbusier always rejected.

The Unite is more interesting, in that it brings together his preoccupations. The monumental, thigh-like pilotis and the abstract roofscape of this immense slab block are in the new 'organic' manner, but the rest of it is the ultimate machine for living, designed to give its (initially working class, later intelligentsia) residents the finest in modern comforts, space, light, air and views, linking their flats with social facilities. Several Unites were built--in France, in Nantes, Briey and Firminy--and there is another in the outer western suburbs of Berlin--but their reproducibility has been across different territories, not, as would have been the case in the ideal plans of the 1920s, across one city, where these would have formed the building block for an entire Ville Radieuse. Because of this, we can convince ourselves that a city made up entirely of things as useful, social and beautiful as the Unite d'Habitation would be less humane than the one we live in.

Owen Hatherley's latest book, Landscapes of Communism, will be published in June.

'Le Corbusier: Measures of Man' is at the Centre Pompidou from 29 April- 3 August (
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Author:Hatherley, Owen
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Apr 1, 2015
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