Review – Le Corbusier: Mesures de l’homme

Cate St Hill

Blueprint

Le Corbusier: Mesures de l'homme

Pompidou Centre, Paris Until 3 August

and...

Le Corbusier: Panorama of a Lifetime's Work

Until 13 June Galerie Eric Mouchet, Paris

Until 25 July Galerie Zlotowski, Paris

Le Corbusier lived out his final days, almost always naked, in a tiny, spartan cabin - Le Cabanon - built on a rocky outcrop by the sea at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in southern France. A far cry from his white, open-plan villas - veritable symbols of modern architecture - and his post-war, concrete, vertical cities, the 15 sq m back-to-basics hut was wrapped inside and out in wood and contained just a slim bed, a table, hand basin and toilet. It was a few metres from here that he was found drowned following one of his daily swims in the Mediterranean in 1965.

Le Corbusier at Le Cabanon. Photo Credit: FLC, ADAGP, Paris, 2015
Le Corbusier at Le Cabanon. Photo Credit: FLC, ADAGP, Paris, 2015

Central to the design of the cabin, and much of Le Corbusier's other work, was the essential, universal measurement of the average man - 183cm, or 226cm with one arm raised - The Modulor. And it is through the idea of human proportion that a new retrospective at the Pompidou proposes to refocus and reread the Swiss-born architect's prolific oeuvre, 50 years after his death.

The exhibition, encompassing some 300 pieces, highlights the omnipresence of the human figure - both geometrically and spiritually - in everything from the distorted female bodies of his colourful paintings, through the flexible, ergonomic furniture that was designed to adapt to the movements of the body, to the humanist city of Chandigarh that converged on a monument of an open hand.

Still lifes of everyday objects, 1919 and 1920. Photo Credit: FLC, ADAGP, Paris, 2015
Still lifes of everyday objects, 1919 and 1920. Photo Credit: FLC, ADAGP, Paris, 2015

With countless exhibitions, books and studies gone before, it is inevitably difficult to say anything new on the great architect - on the surface this looks just like any other gone-before retrospective. Yet while it covers well-trodden ground and ticks the boxes with familiar, crowdpleasing projects (Villa Savoye, Cité Radieuse, Ronchamp and so on), it does offer a journey through the thinking behind Le Corbusier's work as architect, urban planner, furniture designer and painter.

Still lifes of everyday objects, 1919 and 1920. Photo Credit: FLC, ADAGP, Paris, 2015
Still lifes of everyday objects, 1919 and 1920. Photo Credit: FLC, ADAGP, Paris, 2015

Decades after his reputation was blighted by criticism and controversy over the isolating effects of his monolithic high-rises, the exhibition paints him as a measured, perceptive man, concerned with human gestures and thought. Moreover, it shows how he made a profound impact on not only the appearance of modern architecture but also, perhaps more importantly, the way it is inhabited.

The sequence of 10 rooms begins with a look at the purist movement Le Corbusier spearheaded with Amédée Ozenfant, in which they advocated an 'industrial, mechanical and scientific spirit'. Their intentions were encapsulated in their periodical, L'Esprit nouveau -- published 28 times between 1920 and 1925 - in which Charles-Edouard Jeanneret used his pseudonym Le Corbusier for the first time.

Etude pur la cheminee (1918). Photo Credit: FLC, ADAGP, Paris, 2015
Etude pur la cheminee (1918). Photo Credit: FLC, ADAGP, Paris, 2015

Still-life paintings of everyday objects, with their geometric forms and smooth, ordered lines, were designed to be easily read, predicting the spatial compositions of Le Corbusier's architecture - in particular the early villas (Villa La Roche, Villa Savoye, and so on), themselves a manifesto for the seamless movement of the body through space.

Le Corbusier the artist at work on Femme. Photo Credit: FLC, ADAGP, Paris, 2015
Le Corbusier the artist at work on Femme. Photo Credit: FLC, ADAGP, Paris, 2015

The central room dedicated to the Modulor presents 50 or so drawings as well as the nifty, rolled-up measuring tapes Le Corbusier made to ensure his buildings complied to the straitjacketed human-scale system, regulating a standard across his work.

Presenting his sculpture Femme. Photo Credit: FLC, ADAGP, Paris, 2015
Presenting his sculpture Femme. Photo Credit: FLC, ADAGP, Paris, 2015

Here and there, little Modulor men are stamped on to drafts of technical drawings or roughly hinted on sketches. They informed studies of apartment buildings and housing units that ultimately took shape in his 'bottle crate' structure of the Unité d'habitation in Marseille.

Deux Femmes (1948); Taureau (1956); Deux femmes nues à la plage. Photo Credit: Courtesy Galerie Eric Mouchet and Galerie Zlotowski © FLC/ADAGP, 2015, Copyright Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris, 2015
Deux Femmes (1948); Taureau (1956); Deux femmes nues à la plage. Photo Credit: Courtesy Galerie Eric Mouchet and GalerieZlotowski © FLC/ADAGP, 2015, Copyright Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris, 2015

That said the exhibition is at its best when it moves away from monochrome architectural models and drawings towards Le Corbusier's lesser-known artworks. He dedicated half of every day across a 45-year period to painting. His wife, Yvonne, was his favourite model. One captivating room is dedicated to paintings from his so-called 'Women' period - vivid, contorted female figures, sliced and recomposed, almost make you feel like you've accidentally stumbled into a Picasso exhibition. Sometimes Le Corbusier would abandon the canvas and work directly on to the wall, as shown by a previously unseen (to the public) mural taken from the wall of his friend and architect Jean Badovici's house in Vezelay (1936) (though, there's no mention of the infuriation this technique caused at E-1027 with its architect Eileen Gray...).

Deux Femmes (1948); Taureau (1956); Deux femmes nues à la plage. Photo Credit: Courtesy Galerie Eric Mouchet and Galerie Zlotowski © FLC/ADAGP, 2015, Copyright Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris, 2015
Deux Femmes (1948); Taureau (1956); Deux femmes nues à la plage. Photo Credit: Courtesy Galerie Eric Mouchet and Galerie Zlotowski © FLC/ADAGP, 2015, Copyright Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris, 2015

Le Corbusier's artwork is also the subject of another small but perfectly formed exhibition not to be missed, spread across Galerie Zlotowski and Galerie Eric Mouchet just across the Seine. Here off the beaten track and away from the crowds you can get another, more intimate, glimpse of his collages, tapestry cartoons, paintings and engravings. Depicting music-hall dancers and racy nudes, they show another side to the multifaceted architect, seemingly at odds with the purist picture he set out to create at the beginning of his career.

Deux Femmes (1948); Taureau (1956); Deux femmes nues à la plage. Photo Credit: Courtesy Galerie Eric Mouchet and Galerie Zlotowski © FLC/ADAGP, 2015, Copyright Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris, 2015
Deux Femmes (1948); Taureau (1956); Deux femmes nues à la plage. Photo Credit: Courtesy Galerie Eric Mouchet and Galerie Zlotowski © FLC/ADAGP, 2015, Copyright Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris, 2015

Back in the Pompidou show, works from his 'acoustic' period entitled Ubu and Ozon feature bizarre characters resembling giant ears. They continue with the idea that the senses come together in a spatial experience that produces a feeling of harmony. While everything in Le Corbusier's world was measured, including his image, another mural - this time from his own Rue de Sevres studio (1947) - shows the creative possibilities outside the self-imposed constraints of the Modulor. Black lines curve freely around the canvas and blocks of brilliant, primary colours shout for attention. This is Le Corbusier unclothed.