By Helen A. Harrison
On a summer afternoon in 1951, the Swiss architect, artist and theorist Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris — known professionally as Le Corbusier — found himself on an East Hampton beach in the company of the Nivola family. In New York to work on an ill-fated commission for the United Nations headquarters, he had first visited the Nivolas the previous year, when he painted two murals in their house on Old Stone Highway. Evidently he was intrigued by the sand-casting technique that his host, the sculptor Costantino Nivola, had developed while playing on the shore with his kids. By hollowing out shapes in the wet sand and filling them with plaster, Nivola created reliefs that, with Corbu’s encouragement, evolved into large architectural installations. Corbu himself experimented with the process, creating a cast-plaster panel that is now on display in “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes,” at the Museum of Modern Art.
I am far from alone in pointing out that the exhibition’s problems begin with its title. In Archinect, Ross Wolfe describes the theme as “superfluous and tacked on,” while Martin Filler, in the New York Review of Books, notes that no amount of curatorial emphasis on how Corbu framed the landscape in views from ribbon windows can counter “his reputation as a megalomaniacal city planner” whose enormous apartment blocks epitomize all that went wrong with 20th century urbanism. Writing in The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman called the show’s premise “tendentious,” since Corbu’s early landscape paintings and the few natural objects he collected, which apparently inspired some of his structural forms, do little if anything to revise his image as a doctrinaire formalist whose buildings often stick out from their surroundings like geometric sore thumbs. Nature was far too chaotic for his taste. Indeed, as envisioned by Corbu, the modern landscape was a product of human intervention, shaped in the service of the built environment.
Why not just forget the title and take in the vast scope of Corbu’s accomplishments, presented here in MoMA’s first-ever comprehensive survey? I think that makes sense, although there are still other weaknesses in this panoramic overview of the master’s career. One is the contradictory character of his apparent aims. Adopting a pseudonym derived from a family surname, as Le Corbusier he co-founded an art movement known as Purism, which advocated clarity and rationality. But the paintings on view are hardly distinguishable from the Cubism he denounced as decorative. This reductive impulse translated more effectively into his architectural designs. Although he maintained that the architect creates “in observance of the laws of nature,” he was talking about gravity, tension, weight, and other such physical laws. Nature was a force to be reckoned with, but more as an adversary than an ally.
Corbu’s famous concept of a building as a “machine for living in” had worldwide impact, not only on his own commissions — from single family homes like the Villa Savoye to an entire planned city in the Punjab — but on modernist architects’ fundamental approach to design problems. He is often blamed for the destruction of rundown but vibrant urban neighborhoods in favor of sterile towers, although his own plans for such monoliths remained on the drawing board. Those plans are in the show, together with many fascinating original scale models, concept sketches and other documentation, period films of Corbu explaining himself, and beautiful contemporary photographs (mounted way too high) of several notable buildings. It’s hard to get a sense of scale and proportion without actually visiting the buildings themselves, and a few reconstructed rooms do little to conjure the experience of place, but the insights into Corbu’s thought process more than compensate. This is, after all, an exhibition, not a house tour.
Given his penchant for unadorned structures, amply illustrated at MoMA, it’s hard to understand Corbu’s interest in Nivola’s sand-casting technique. After the solitary experiment in 1951, which he left at the Nivola house, it seems he never tried it again or chose to use anything like it to embellish his buildings. But even as an anomaly the plaque is interesting, although why the curators chose to display it flat is anyone’s guess. It was intended to be a wall piece, but at MoMA it’s lying on a raised base, looking more like a lumpy coffee table than a bas relief. As I was pondering this decision, without any prompting from me a nearby group was debating the same question. Nevertheless, it was created horizontally, exploiting the inherent qualities of wet beach sand, and in its modest way it represents the closest Corbu ever got to conforming to nature’s dictates.