Mesures de l'Homme:
Le Centre Pompidou
29 Apr to 3 Aug, 2015
1 Jul 2015 | James Dunnett
Le Corbusier lives! The exhibition of his work at the Pompidou Centre was exceptionally well attended and showed that even fifty years after his death, of which it was a marker, his commitment and the breadth of his vision continue to draw crowds, despite five decades of vilification across the whole spectrum of media opinion. Nevertheless, while it had a worthwhile new theme - 'Le Corbusier and the Human Body' or 'and Human Measure' - it remained essentially an historical exhibition, rather than asking whether his ideas have any applicability today.
What might the crowds attending have learnt that might help them manage their lives? What indeed might Le Corbusier have thought about the present architectural, cultural, or social scene, or about the Pompidou Centre building itself, in which the exhibition was held? From its top storey one gazes out across the skyline of central Paris very little changed from his own time – almost uniquely among European capitals and certainly most unlike central London. Have the supposedly revolutionary French after all proved to be the most conservative – or what values have they been asserting?
Le Corbusier sought to embrace the industrial age but to humanise it by setting it within space and nature, by making it ordered, and to bring harmony to its products with a set of dimensions intimately derived from those of the human body. For some of us this remains a compelling programme, nowhere near realisation. The vast and shapeless agglomeration of cities accelerates and 'new cities' like the City of London and Canary Wharf show neither space, green, nor order. As regards his almost mystical conception of proportions based on the human form, it is hard to imagine anything further from the aspirations of the succeeding 'High Tech' generation. But it was his ability simultaneously to hold in play both the rational and the imaginative, the contemporary and the historical, the geometric and the biomorphic, that inspired so many. The human body was biomorphic form par excellence. It could be argued that Le Corbusier was one of the great sculptors of the twentieth century manqué: the figures on his architectural perspectives often have astonishing sculptural power, as do his drawings for the 'Man of Brazil' seated figure sculpture intended to adorn the garden of the Ministry of Education in Rio de Janeiro, or the portrait sketch of his mother aged 90.
Docomomo.UK members who recall our 2013 event celebrating the centenary of the founding of the British Dalcroze Society may be interested to learn that the Pompidou Centre exhibition started with a focus on Le Corbusier's involvement with the Eurhythmic Movement of his fellow Swiss, with original film clips of performances from Hellerau, and even excerpts (though hard to hear) of a recorded interview with Dalcroze late in his life. From this it seems a small step to Chenal's film of dance and gymnastics on the roof of Le Corbusier's Villa Church of 1928-9. The many paintings exhibited from this period featuring gigantesque female figures, impressive though they are, do not for me quite gell, rather as Michelangelo's painted figures look as though they would have been better carved.
The architectural and urbanistic aspect of Le Corbusier's work was of course not neglected but interleaved with the drawn and painted, and it was good to see the original model for the Cartesian Skyscraper that I have never seen before, one of his most impressive theoretical projects. The 'Human Body' theme continued with the ergonomic studies for furniture with Charlotte Perriand, and finally with a presentation of the Modulor – almost a shadow of the missing sculptures. This was an intelligent new look at Le Corbusier's work from an extra-architectural viewpoint. There is still a need for an assessment of its relevance today.
First published in Docomomo.UK Newsletter 30