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Architecture, starkitecture

Phil Griffin loves the 20th century building blocks of Le Corbusier

Published on October 8th 2008.

Architecture, starkitecture

ARCHITECTS go big on Le Corbusier. “Genius,” they say, with no uncertainty about it.

Which is part of the reason why a big exhibition on the life and work of the self-styled Swiss Renaissance Man is one-way traffic. The synopsis is simple: Le Corbusier, he of the bow tie and big round glasses, was the most influential architect of the 20th century. Unfortunately, his influence was indiscriminate, for good and bad. Most people in Britain, where he never built anything, would associate Le Corbusier with all that is bad about 1960s council flats. This is not what this exhibition in the crypt of the Metropolitan Cathedral is about. This exhibition is an extension of Brand Corbusier.

With Swiss aptitude for design, marketing and refined exclusivity, Le Corbusier invented a name, a logo, a look and a philosophy. Where architects gather there will always be a certain essence of Corbusier.

What’s novel about this latest show is the tension between exhibition and exhibition space. The crypt of his massive plan for a new Catholic Cathedral is all that architect Sir Edwin Lutyens saw built. Had his cathedral been completed it would have overshadowed its Anglican contender down Hope Street and easily gobbled up St Paul’s. The only bigger building anywhere in the world would have been St. Peter’s in Rome. Sir Edwin Lutyens, the greatest British architect of the 20th century, never got to build his masterpiece (it would have taken 2 centuries anyway). Post-war austerity and Le Corbusier saw it off.

Lutyens was a Christopher Wren fan; a craftsman-architect who loved art and gardening. His Viceroy’s Palace in New Delhi (now the Indian President’s residence) is pink, curvy and classical, with a hint of Asia. When Le Corbusier built Chandigarh, the new capital of Punjab, he splashed his rectangular buildings with colour. Corbusier (1887 – 1968) was inspired by aeroplanes and automobiles. He kicked Lutyens (1869 – 1944) and his post-Victorians back into the 19th century. His clean white villas, such as Villa Savoye (1928) is lifted on slender pillars. You reach its flat roof terrace up a gently inclined ramp. The ribbon of windows runs round the building. You might not like this modernist prototype, but you wouldn’t knock it. His apartment block, Unite d’Habitation in Marseille (1952) however, is still blamed for most of the mess of 1960’s UK council housing.

Unite d’Habitation is ‘streets in the sky’, the architectural inspiration for deck access flats and tower blocks that blighted 1960’s Britain. Or so it seems to most people who delight in seeing them blown up. Corbusier is the villain of post-war housing. He is also the architect who, more than any other, forced his contemporaries to look at new technologies and urban patterns and to put them together in new forms.

This is what you will see in the crypt of Liverpool’s Catholic Cathedral. Le Corbusier came close to doing for architecture what Picasso and Braque did for art in the 20th century. After them, it was different.

There is a certainty about the Corbusians that can be worrying. Nowadays everyone who owns a Corbusier recliner is inclined to hold architectural opinions. Which is fine, except that the architecture isn’t finite. Corbusier himself, when asked about the fact the residents in one of his early housing schemes had extensively remodelled the building over time said, “Life is right, the architect is wrong.”

Not many people who would sooner see the Park Hill estate in Sheffield or the Everton Park towers or Hulme Crescents consigned to history will be converted by this exhibition. It is big and reverential. There are some beautiful things, not least the original wooden models of Notre Dame du Haut Ronchamp (1954) and Chandigarh (1952 to 59). What makes it worthwhile (and the £6 ticket) is the unique tension set up between Corbusier and Lutyens.

The RIBA Trust has brought this Vitra Design Museum exhibition to Liverpool. It is subtitled, rather meaninglessly, ‘The Art of Architecture’. It has been (expensively) installed in the Lutyens crypt. The subtitle gives no clue of this, though there is one poster offering the snappier title ‘Corb in the Crypt’.

I would have liked much more to have been made of this unique exhibition venue. It could have framed and informed the show itself: the back catalogue of a great architect housed in a little known masterwork by another great architect. And the bonus: both of these lie below the extraordinary post-Corbusier building by Sir Frederick Gibberd, the magnificent Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King.

Link the three together and you really do have a show. The next thing I want to see is a major exhibition of the work of Sir Edwin Lutyens housed in a building by Le Corbusier. Notre Dame Ronchamp would be nice.

Le Corbusier: the Art of Architecture runs until 18 January 2009, and is located in the crypt of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Liverpool. The exhibition is opened Mondays to Fridays from 11am till 6pm. Tickets are £6, £4 for concessions.

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