Robert Venturi used to say that architecture is the most fragile art. So easily defaced by new users or simply torn down under real estate pressure. The World Heritage Sites, as officially recognised by UNESCO, are aimed at preserving the world’s cultural and natural legacy, architecture forming part of that. But for whatever reason, modern architecture has been quite marginal, barely making the list until very recently. For the first time, a network of projects, all by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, is setting a precedent. Seventeen buildings in seven different countries have made it onto the list after three application attempts spanning more than a decade. “It’s the first time that such a large group of works by a single architect has received such a recognition”, exclaims French architect and scholar Jean-Louis Cohen, aworld expert on Le Corbusier and member of the Fondation Le Corbusier board until 2010, who was involved in the first – failed – application attempt.
Le Corbusier’s foundation, together with the municipality of Poissy and the backing of other local authorities, has decided to create a permanent museum in the same spirit, dedicated to the architect’s work. It will host the archives, providing the broader public with a permanent collection of some 1500 square metres, along with changing exhibits. Cohen anticipates that an architectural competition will be organised in late 2018, with a view to achieving a completed building by 2022 or 2023. In the meantime, he and English photographer Richard Pare have produced a book on all of the architect’s built works, due for publication next year.
In terms of architectural conservation, Cohen sees the transformation of the landscape and the conservation of 20th-century buildings as a worldwide concern. “There are exemplary cases of successfully recovered structures by Frank Lloyd Wright, from his best houses to Unity Temple; by Mies van der Rohe; and by Alvar Aalto.” The importance of the World Heritage nomination is that it obliges the owner to maintain, restore, and open the building to the public. But the selection is also very political. “Important structures such as the Centrosoyuz Building in Moscow or the Carpenter Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts are missing, because the governments of Russia and the US have not been willing to jump into the project.”
The official list is partly illustrated with Richard Pare’s beautiful photographs, extracted from the upcoming book. Le Corbusier used to say that “cameras get in the way of seeing” but Pare’s images have a very special feel to them. Maybe you are not actually inside the space, but some kind of presence of the invisible is captured. They are very poetic and warm. “I think many people who photograph buildings only think about mass”, he says, “and architecture seems at least as much about enclosing space as it is about the actual mass of the structure itself.” This goes back to Pare’s early childhood when he was a chorister in Canterbury Cathedral. “I had all of this amazing space around me, dating back to the 10th century. And the whole idea was that you were creating sound in space; that kind of spatial aspect has remained with me ever since. I think it sort of informs the work."
Cohen and Pare have known each other since collaborating with architecture patron Phyllis Lambert, albeit on different projects. Pare helped her collect and amass a collection of 48,000 architectural photos over 15 years. “It was the perfect moment, when the photography market was just taking off. There was material there that nobody had looked at in at least a century. And it was suddenly all emerging.” Later he asked Cohen to help him with Lambert’s Russian project, consulting him about where to go. And six years ago, when Cohen was preparing his exhibition on Le Corbusier at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, Pare told him: “I want to make the pictures."
Cohen is currently writing Pare’s photography book on Le Corbusier’s built projects, which includes about 500 images. “No publication has ever been dedicated to the built work of Le Corbusier”, claims Cohen. “The Oeuvre Complète is essentially a propaganda instrument. The best of the recent books have focused on his drawings or his writings. So, giving a poetic account of the manner in which the buildings have weathered over time – more than 110 years, in the case of the oldest –is an important contribution, showing that an architect sometimes pictured as a soulless demiurge has, in fact, shaped some of the most touching spaces and landscapes."
In regard to their favourite buildings, Pare cites La Tourette: “The whole universe of the place in itself is just marvellous – it’s so ravishing in the way he uses space and how you move through it; sliding levels and ramps taking you from one level to the other. And then the idea of this extraordinary meditation space up on the roof, which is the origin of the project, has been worked out from the top down. It separates you from and connects you to the landscape. In mid-summer, the church is absolutely incredible. The light reaches far enough to the north, entering through the north transept and striking the two steel elements of the simple crucifix next to the altar; and it just turns into fire – an extraordinary use of religious theatre.” For Cohen, it’s more of a constellation: “I am interested in his early work, for instance Villa Jeanneret-Perret, which is so full of reminiscences of his youthful journeys; but also in the later buildings, such as Ronchamp and its fabulous collection of possible sources, and his houses from the 1950s – Maisons Jaoul and the two in Ahmedabad, where he finally engaged with the demands of everyday life. Anyway, all of Le Corbusier’s buildings have something to tell us.”
LE CORBUSIER PROJECTS ON THE WORLD HERITAGE LIST
Petite maison au bord du lac Léman, Corseaux, Switzerland, 1923-1924
Cité Frugès, Pessac, France, 1924
Maison La Roche-Jeanneret, Paris, France, 1923-1925
Maison Guiette, Antwerp, Belgium, 1926
Weissenhof Estate, Stuttgart, Germany, 1927
Villa Savoye + Loge du jardinier, Poissy, France, 1928
Immeuble Clarté, Geneva, Switzerland, 1930
Immeuble locatif à la porte Molitor, Paris, France, 1931-1934
Unité d'Habitation, Marseille, France, 1945
Usine Claude + Duval Factory, Saint-Dié, France, 1946
Maison Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina, 1949
Cabanon de Le Corbusier, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France, 1951
Complexe du Capitole, Chandigarh, India, 1952
Maison de la Culture, Firminy, France, 1953
Couvent Sainte-Marie de la Tourette, Eveux-sur-l'Arbresle, France, 1953
Musée National des Beaux-Arts de l'Occident, Taito-Ku, Tokyo, Japan, 1955
Notre Dame du Haut chapel, Ronchamp, France, 1950-1955
Le Corbusier: The Built Work, by Jean-Louis Cohen and Richard Pare, published by The Monacelli Press, is due to be released on 22 May 2018. monacellipress.com