Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Observing Le Corbusier

A stolen moment. I caught a glimpse of this girl peering out a window of Corbusier's Villa La Roche, making a sketch of something across the alley. Photo ©Darren Bradley
It's probably impossible to talk about modernism in France without bringing up Le Corbusier... in the same way that it's pretty much impossible to avoid mentioning Frank Lloyd Wright in any discourse about modern architecture in the US. 

Villa Savoye in Poissy, France. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Swiss-born architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (aka "Le Corbusier"), who became a French citizen in 1930, is one of the founding fathers of the modernist movement. A lot has been said about him by far more knowledgeable people than I, so I won't attempt to say much here. 

Elevated courtyard at the Villa Savoye. Photo ©Darren Bradley
All of the photos in this first batch are from the same house, the Villa Savoye. It's quite a famous house, and most of you probably know it already. Lego even did a version of it! 

Living area of the Villa Savoye. Photo ©Darren Bradley
I personally love this house, and seeing it in person was a bit of an emotional moment for me. I really wish I could go back, because looking back at the photos that I took of it, I'm sure I could do better once I've gotten over my initial excitement of actually being there.

Sculptural staircase in the Villa Savoye. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Alas, the original owners, the Savoyes, weren't so crazy about it. I've read through the correspondence between Madame Savoye and Le Corbusier (when he bothered to write back, which was seldom.). The letters are full of complaints about unfinished and shoddy work, leaky roofs, bad electrical and plumbing installations, etc. Finally, the Savoyes were so frustrated that they even filed a lawsuit and more or less abandoned the property. When the Germans arrived, they felt it was suitable... for a supply depot and horse barn. A terrible shame, althought it would be amusing to see horses climbing those ramps... 
Photo ©Darren Bradley
The place sat abandoned for years and was threatened with demolition (a neighboring school bought it for the land, which they wanted to use for a playground. Later, the city of Poissy wanted to build tenement housing there). It was finally saved after a vigorous letter-writing campaign that included luminaries from around the world petitioning the State to save it. It's now a historical monument and museum, open to the public. 

But there are many buildings by Le Corbusier around Paris, and others are even open to the public, as well. For example, a smaller, more urban that predates his Villa Savoye is the townhouse of Mr. La Roche, a Swiss banker and collector of avant-garde art. You can see many of the same themes here that would later be further developed for the Villa Savoye. 

Villa La Roche by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret (1923-25). Photo ©Darren Bradley
Interior atrium of Villa La Roche. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Art gallery in the home of Raoul La Roche. Charlotte Perriand collaborated closely with Le Corbusier for the interior design, furniture, and subsequent additions/renovations. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Villa La Roche is now the home of the administrative offices of the Fondation Le Corbusier.
Art gallery for the Villa La Roche. Photo ©Darren Bradley
This woman kept photobombing my shots! ;-)  Photo ©Darren Bradley
A short - well, longish, really, but still doable - walk from the Villa La Roche is the architect's own apartment and office in the 16th Arrondissement, where the architect lived and worked from 1934 through the remainder of his life, in a building of his own design. 
Appartement-atelier Le Corbusier next to the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris. Photo ©Darren Bradley
What can you say? The man enjoyed a good spiral staircase. Photo ©Darren Bradley
The apartment is separated into his studio / public space and his private apartment. Here are some shots of his private apartment. 
Dining / living area with views to Paris's northern suburbs. The crane probably wasn't there at the time. Photo ©Darren Bradley
It's a surprisingly modest space for such a well known and successful man. 

The tiny kitchen. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Tiny, Japanese style sitting tub and washing area, en suite to the bedroom. I like the door cut out for the bathroom, but the top of it is only about 5-feet high. Photo ©Darren Bradley
And of course, there are also the University of Paris dorm buildings, including the Fondation Suisse that I've already mentioned, as well as the Maison du Brésil (below). At the risk of committing blasphemy, I have to admit that I much prefer his earlier, pre-war work. The concrete brutalism is sometimes a bit heavy handed for me. 

The Maison du Brésil is an example of how Corbu's style had evolved and he had fully embraced a concrete brutalist vernacular. There are a lot of similarities between this building and the Fondation Suisse, next door. They are both concrete structures elevated on columns that allow circulation beneath the building. But the Fondation Suisse building is far more elegant and refined in comparison, even though it's earlier. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Also more or less in my old neighborhood in Paris is the Salvation Army building. Notwithstanding the poor photo of it, you get the idea... It's in rough shape and in need of restauration. But given that it's a homeless shelter, I'm sure that every cent they have goes to taking care of people, which is admirable. 
This is a tough place to photograph and the years have not been kind to it. Photo ©Darren Bradley
And finally, it's not necessary to travel to Marseille to see his famous Unité d'Habitation towers. There is a complete 1:1 scale replica in the Paris Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine... 

This interior is a veritable "who's who" of the post-war French design world, including Jean Prouvé for the table and chairs and the staircase, Charlotte Perriand for the kitchen and other cabinetry and furnishings, Mathieu Matégot & Pierre Guariche for the lamps... 
Of course, I haven't forgotten about Le Corbusier's two most celebrated works - the convent at Sainte Marie de la Tourette and the monastery chapel at Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp. I know it's strange, since I spent a lot of time in Lyon (near La Tourette) and Switzerland (near Ronchamp). But I've just not had a chance to visit those places yet, myself. Hopefully soon for an upcoming trip.

I'll also mention that my friend, the very talented architectural photographer Boris Feldblyum, reminded me that there is currently an exhibit at the MOMA on Le Corbusier. I haven't seen it but it looks interesting.

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