Le Corbusier’s Secret Laboratory at Moderna Museet


24 February 2013

The Franco-Swiss architect, designer, and city planner Le Corbusier (1887-1965) spent almost seven years, from 1947 to 1953, composing a multi-partite poem devoted to the right angle.

One might snigger at the appropriateness of such a project given Le Corbusier’s fame as an early key proponent of functionalism, an architecture that made enthusiastic use of the right angle. But even a superficial examination of this Poème de l’Angle Droit and the lithographs accompanying it reveals a lesser-known side of Le Corbusier. The poem’s structure is based on the iconostases of the Eastern Orthodox church, and its cryptic imagery creates an orgiastic cosmology that centres around colour theory and alchemical mysticism.

Le Corbusier’s Secret Laboratory, one of the exhibitions currently on show at Moderna Museet in Stockholm, offers a similar peek under the sleek veneer of Le Corbusier’s outwardly style. The emphasis is on his paintings, sculptures, and tapestries; his studio being the alchemical laboratory to which the exhibition title refers. Architectural projects and city plans are also included, often illustrating the spillage of forms and ideas from the laboratory into the built projects. An example of this is the juxtaposition of organic objects collected by Le Corbusier throughout his career (sea shells, coral, bits of bone) and the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, the roof of which resembles the shell of a crab.

Many works displayed in the exhibition will be new even to those familiar with Le Corbusier. His post-Purist paintings were largely dismissed by the Paris art scene in the postwar period, the subjects of scathing reviews by the influential publisher Christian Zervos after a retrospective at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in 1953. But these paintings - especially the Picasso-inspired Bull series of the 1950s - reveal a subversive Dionysian element in Le Corbusier’s work that is rarely shown in his buildings.

The wooden sculptures, created in collaboration with the Breton carpenter Joseph Savina (1901-1983), are buoyant bulbous things painted in a De Stijl palette. Together with the 1960s tapestries, they raise the question of Le Corbusier’s relationship to craft and craftsmanship, a particularly interesting one given his championing of the machine aesthetic; arguably Le Corbusier’s most famous maxim is that “the house is a machine for living in,” a statement echoed in Pierre Chenal’s 1943 film L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui, screened as part of the exhibition.

The curator of the exhibition is the renowned Le Corbusier scholar Jean-Louis Cohen, who is also the curator behind the upcoming exhibition Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes at MoMA this summer. Acting as a primer of sorts to the more focused MoMA show, Le Corbusier’s Secret Laboratory presents a sweeping view of Le Corbusier’s multi-faceted output. It is simply a pity that Moderna Museet did not print a catalogue for the show; it could have been a useful resource for those interested in Le Corbusier’s more secretive activities.