Tim Benton visited Villa Stenersen to talk about Le Corbusier. He talked about the famouse architect's devotion for natural aspects of architecture and his fear of repeating himself.
Mia Thun, landskapsarkitektstudent, redaktør i nettredksjonen og Vaar Bothner, landskapsarkitektstudent, medlem i nettredaksjonen
An afternoon in the end of April a small group of people were allowed into the Villa Stenersen to listen to Tim Benton, a british professor of Art History who’s research interest includes Le Corbusier. The subject of the evening was Le Corbusier's architecture from 1929 to 1935.
The professor has studied Le Corbusier for several decades, has written two books about him, and has a great knowledge and devotion for his work and life. In a conversation with KOTE the professor gives an accurate story of Le Corbusier in this period of his career. Revealing quite a interesting story about the famous architect's way of working and private life.
Why are we still so interested in Le Corbusier?
- It’s interesting he still is someone we talk think about, although almost all his urban plans are unrealizable and has led to bad consequences, so why do we still go on talking about him? He thought, and I think I agree with him, that the modern world is made up of impossible contradictions. That the need for people to live together in cities is incompatible with these solutions for how they should live in cities. There are exceptions, but basically most of the the great cities in the world are not necessary horrible places but they have impossible conflicts, unresolved and unresolvable conflicts. Most architects and most critics just turn their back on these problems. Le Corbusier confronted them all the time and he changed his ideas I think that’s what make him interesting. It’s not the solutions that he came up with, but the way that he presents the problem. I think he still states the problem of the modern city better than anybody else.
How did Le Corbusier think of people, and how would he plan for them?
- There’s an interesting book by Simon Richards called “Le Corbusier and the concept of self”. I don't agree with all of it at all, but there is an interesting argument. He states that most architects in the 30th centurie believed in the social model, that people should live together in cities, apartment blocks and communities. An idea common for those who believed in garden suburbs. Le Corbusier did not believe in this collective thinking at all. He sees the aim of architecture in terms of purely individual. He created apartments that where perfectly isolated in sound, actually concrete elements that sit on led tabs to kill the sound in the transmission between the apartments. He was absolutely obsessed with the problem of sound pollution. Basically he gave people the space they needed, the view and the privacy. It´s the opposite of what he was criticized of by many critics which accused him of drawing human termite nests. He did the opposite, he meant that the aim of the architect is to provide adequate space, aesthetically exciting space, in the face of a beautiful view and in complete isolation.
An important subject of Benton´s lecture is about Le Corbusier´s enormous fear of repeating himself, which led to a remarkable change in his expression approximately every decade. In the end of the 1920s he focused a lot on the natural aspect of architecture. The connection between the landscape and the architecture was a central aspect, and Le Corbusier criticised a lot of architecture for not respecting the surroundings.
In this period of time, Adolf Loos, an Austrian modernist architect was an important inspiration to Le Corbusier. Benton describes how Loos disguise for ornaments affected Le Corbusier.
- Loos had some outrageous ideas. He was against ornament and wrote a famous article called “Ornament and crime”. He meant that in designing a house architects have no culture, they do not know how to design a house. Only a peasants who builds around his daily gestures, knows how to design a house. He describes the Austrian lakes, forest and chapels where everything is natural, everything fits in. But then there is one scar in the landscape, and that’s the architects villa. The architect destroys the landscape.
- Le Corbusier designed villas himself, but he agreed on Loos statement about architects.
Different experiences from his life was important in shaping his thoughts of architecture as something unnatural.
- Le Corbusier liked to take his holidays in a village nearby the atlantic coast of France. In the village there were a lagoon with oysters that attracted fishermen. The fishermen built shacks with the materials they found. Le Corbusier describes these shacks, characterising them as palaces. They are designed around the daily gestures of the people, they analysed the space, and found out where the sun falls and where the protection from the wind is. There they chose to hang their clothes for drying or build a bench. This is the opposite from how an architect works on paper.
This method of constructing inspired Le Corbusier, who admired the working class and spent a lot of time with workers and fishermen.
- Peasants and fishermen were the people he most admired. He says that «these are the people I seek out to do my research, because they are faced with the tasks of the everyday life.» Often he tries to get away from the city to study these people.
He did all sorts of things, ha was a painter, he did architecture, he made furniture and was an urban planner. Was he a genius or did he cooperate with other great people?
- He worked with lots of people. People came from all over the world to work in his office and paint. Some were young, some were established architects who came to Paris to work in his office to experience his way of working. Le Corbusier didn't draw very much architecture. He often communicated with the draftsmen verbally. The Villa Savoye for example he did one drawing, then left it to the draftsmen and did no more drawings at all. Just one big drawing with perspective views and plans. Later on you didn´t even get that. The very important design of the Venice hospital that he did at the end of his life, which is an extraordinary project, is based on a conversation with one of his main architects where he did a little sketch. The sketch shows the copy of a painting of the Dream of St. Ursula by Carpaccio. This conversation they had was enough to create a design that is referred to as a fundamental change in urban planning.
- If you worked for Corbusier you adopted the whole country, you learned to draw like him, you learned to think like him. He would come with a little sketch and you would know exactly what you were supposed to do, and then he would come in and change it all. It was an important part of his design process to have this creation/criticism cycle. It’s like when an artist paints, he makes a mark and then stands back. This is particularly marked with the way Le Corbusier worked partly because he was terrified of repeating himself. He attacked the academicians and he attacked the idea of style. If you know how things are going to look out before you start then you have finished. So all his life he tried to change and he used the people he worked with to do that.
Can we as architects learn from Le Corbusier today?
- Well, if you say what is the reality of city dwelling for most people? It’s not a social reality, mostly people rarely know each others names. If you live in an apartment block, how many people do you know in that block? Nobody. The dream of the garden suburb where everybody knows each other, that has happened, probably quite a lot in Scandinavia. And there are some modern architects who design for that kind of social existence. But mostly whether you live in Paris in a 1900 century building like I do, or you live in a building built in the 1960s the reality is that people you know are not linked by the way you live but by other connections, so you know people from the university, family, friends and so on. You don't live with people you know. So if this is true, then why not accept his idea that the only thing you can do is to provide the best space with the best view.
- This is not an argument most architects would accept. Almost all architects and schools have some ideas of the collective, like common spaces where you can bring people together. Architects are obsessed with this, which is a nice thing, but the reality of architecture is not like that. So if this is true you might as well create the most beautiful and acceptable spaces that you can for people to live in. He quotes from Pascal, the french philosopher, who said most of us will be better of if we spent a bit more time quietly alone.