It’s been 21 years since there was an exhibition dedicated to Swiss architect Le Corbusier in the UK, which why is the RIBA Trust thought it was about time to revisit the master modernist. And what better place to do so than in Liverpool during its 2008 reign as European Capital of Culture?
Taking over the never-before-opened crypt of the city’s Metropolitan Cathedral, designed by Edwin Lutyens in 1941, the exhibition traces Corb’s early work: from villas created for his family in his hometown of La Chaux-de Fonds through to his journeys in South America, Russia and Algeria, and his days running a studio in Paris.
Keen to show that Corb was more than just a modernist architect, the exhibition makes much of the fact that he was also a painter, writer and sculptor, and includes many of his artworks, writing, films and ephemera including pipes, shells and stones which he often used as motifs.
There’s furniture he designed with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand in the 1920s, pastiche Picasso-influenced paintings and abstract sculptures he created in the south of France during the war, and then there’s the architecture.
As well as building incredible detached houses such as Villa Savoie in the 1920s, which bought him international fame, Corb also came up with crazy masterplans for cities around the world. Buenos Aires was to have a crown of skyscrapers, Rio de Janeiro’s housing crisis solved with a giant inhabitable viaduct, and for Algiers, he devised a 20km-long residential block, with cars running along its top, which would stretch along the coast and into the hills.
None of these, thankfully, ever came to fruition, but they illustrate the extent of his vision and radicalism, and when he finally did get to masterplan the city of Chandigarh in India in the 1950s, he proved more than up to the job.
Although he never actually built anything in Britain, here his name is synonymous with high-rise post-war tower blocks, which he saw as the answer to the housing shortage and the route to more humane cities. His Unité d’Habitation built in the 1950s in Marseille may have been a successful interpretation of this theory, (the show features a fantastically detailed kitchen from one of its apartments), but elsewhere in the world, similar complexes have been deemed a failure.
For this reason, the curators of the show are keen to portray Le Corbusier as thinker, artist and craftsman, as well as architect. In this it only partially succeeds, because, sure as eggs is eggs, Le Corbusier will always be associated with concrete and Brutalism. Where it does work though, is in providing a thoughtful and entertaining show that even those who don’t know much about him can enjoy.