Le Corbusier's Paper Utopias

Idea man

"You must be sympathetic to man's condition in his environment," the modernist architect Le Corbusier said in a 1957 film. "That's what interests me, and I've found in painting a way to develop this idea. It's an exciting way, but dangerous." With more than 300 objects, including drawings, paintings, photos, architectural models, and furniture, MOMA's "Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes" reveals the dangers of pursuing technocratic ideals for places where people actually have to live.

Le Corbusier (1887–1965) was born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris in French-speaking Switzerland; he adopted his pseudonym to front the provocative essays he wrote for the Parisian art journal he and two friends founded in 1920. The MOMA exhibition includes expressive student watercolors such as A Blaze (all roiling red skies over quickly brushed green mountains) and work from his 20s, when he traveled Europe sketching monumental buildings and ruins within their surrounding landscapes, describing the Acropolis as a "giant tragic carcass" and writing that the Parthenon was like a "block from another world." Le Corbusier became a French citizen in 1930, the same year that he "decided to try to establish a doctrine . . . for the machine city. It took 20 drawings." Perspective views of vast apartment complexes built on stilts, with unadorned concrete façades, indeed look like blocks from another world. He envisioned modular living units, sanitary and practical, the sprawling networks of buildings entwined with serpentine freeways that would replace the pedestrian's urban contemplation with the motorist's efficient speed. The utopian ideal of Le Corbusier's Radiant City was borrowed for the disruptive expressways and sterile housing projects that urban planner Robert Moses erected in New York City in the 1940s and '50s.

As the mockups and drawings prove, some of Le Corbusier's ideas—such as building vacation homes directly into steep slopes leading to the Mediterranean—would have elegantly combined landscape with functional habitation had they been realized. Some projects that were actually completed feature roof gardens that replace the greenery taken up by a building's footprint, as well as open floor plans and horizontal "ribbon windows" to bring sunlight and scenery into the home; these have become touchstones of enlightened architecture. But even a mannequin wouldn't be comfortable lying atop the jagged geometries of a chaise longue Le Corbusier co-designed, a classic case of an aesthete favoring form over function.

Technocratic dreams: Le Corbusier's plans for a "Vertical Garden City," 1935
Museum of Modern Art
Technocratic dreams: Le Corbusier's plans for a "Vertical Garden City," 1935

Details

'Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes'
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
212-708-9400, moma.org
June 15 through September 23

'Letha Wilson: Landmarks and Monuments'
Art in General
79 Walker Street
212-219-0473, artingeneral.org
Through June 29

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The seven decades' worth of work in the show—lithe, colorful, and carefree in its widely varying media—are a delight. Architects, though, are burdened with the physics of structural materials, zoning laws, and clients who want their square footage brought in under budget. Viewing some of these vivid sketches and paintings brings to mind T. S. Eliot's dictum, "Between the idea and the reality . . . falls the shadow." You might rather live in a Le Corbusier drawing than in one of his actual buildings.


'Letha Wilson: Landmarks and Monuments'
Art in General
79 Walker Street
212-219-0473, artingeneral.org
Through June 29

Like Le Corbusier, Letha Wilson finds ways to combine landscape, in this case the American West, with steel and concrete. In the witty Face Down (Sunset) (2013), Wilson has curled the corner of a large slab of rusty steel to reveal a triangular section of a photograph affixed to the other side. The color is warm and gradated but we have to take the artist's word that it actually depicts a sunset, since the heavy sheet lies flat on the floor. More than a few art-historical concepts intersect here, including Serra's hernia-inducing equipoise, Andre's lead tiles colonizing a gallery floor, and the obscured content of Duchamp's "Étant donnés."

In another piece, Wilson adheres a photograph of trees to a cement tondo that has been molded with accordion-like folds; elsewhere, a similar photo has been driven into the wall with a 10-foot length of two-by-four. These works are humorous, but with their violent collision of lovely images and rough industrial forms, they also summon notions of frontier ruthlessness and the eternal disharmony of civilization and nature.

 
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