Lecture date: 2001 10 23
Best known as a historian, writer and critic, William Curtis also takes photographs and produces abstract drawings, reliefs and paintings that he terms mental landscapes. These works draw inspiration from multiple sources - Aboriginal bark paintings, textiles, twentieth-century abstraction and maps - and are suggestive of the sea, clouds, rock strata. However, they deliberately evade description and categorisation and this is reflected in Curtis's reluctance to give his pieces titles. In this lecture he discusses the motivation for these works, and the techniques he uses in their conception and execution.
William Curtis begins his lecture on architecture in India, discussing both ancient and contemporary examples. He attempts to identify basic streams that connect architecture through the eras such as climate concerns and the relationship to the body. Curtis is less interested in the monumental, and integrates both rural villages and urban slums into his research. The vernacular types in India are important to Curtis. He gives a brief history of the role of architecture in the transition from British rule and speaks about Le Corbusier, his project at Chandigarh, and it's relationship to traditional Indian architecture.
Curtis continues with a few examples Indian architecture of the 1970s. He identified a move away from modernist references and back toward traditional Indian building principles. He goes over several examples including a meeting/education center for rural farmers as well as the Belgian embassy building. He details one particular project which he describes as an aggregate vernacular architecture which integrates rhythms of courtyards, volumes, sleeping porches and many additional architectural elements. Curtis then segues into examples of contemporary Indian architecture.
Curtis continues his lecture looking at a new Indian architecture, starting with Ahmedabad and the work of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. He discusses the textile industry in the region as well as the diverse religious influences on the place. Curtis sees the city of Ahmedabad as one of the most vital cities in Asia for architecture and attributes it to a culture composed of forward thinking groups. He discusses the relationship between the work of B. V. Doshi in Ahmedabad to that of Le Corbusier, siting the application of Corbusian techniques by Doshi but identifying elements that connect Doshi's work to Indian realities. Thus Doshi takes regional Indian architecture in a new direction.
Shelly Kappe introduces William Curtis, who studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art and Harvard, and has taught architectural history and theory in England, the United States, Australia, and Asia. His books include Modern Architecture Since 1900 and Le Corbusier: Ideas and Form.
William Curtis proposes to take a long view of Le Corbusier, approaching him as if he is 100 years away in order to bypass what he calls the “modernist and postmodernist fungus.” For Curtis, the modernist fungus is a distorted view of the last sixty years that concentrates on functionalism and rationalism at the expense of the extremely complex mythical substructures of modern architecture. The postmodernist fungus is an equally distorted attempt to demonize modern architecture, and blame it for everything wrong in the world.
Curtis argues that a good place to start might be the 1920s, a period when all of the rules of architecture changed. Curtis discusses Le Corbusier’s travels to the East, where he studied mosques in Istanbul and works of classical antiquity. His sketches reveal him reducing classical works to their basic geometric forms, which he applies to his own work. In this way he fuses a variety of classical forms and typologies while remaining a resolute modernist.
According to Curtis, memory was an essential part of Le Corbusier’s creative process. But his memory was not literal, and displayed a re-interpretive power that strikingly contrasted the ancient form from its modern interpretation. Curtis argues that Le Corbusier’s process was not simply a matter of influences getting expressed directly. He cites, for example, the roof of Ronchamp which reflects simultaneously a crab shell and an airplane wing, both completely transformed.
Curtis talks about the influences on Chandigarh, and especially Le Corbusier’s fascination with the buildings and plan of Jantar Mantar, the ancient astronomical observatory at Jaipur.
Curtis argues that Le Corbusier’s architecture is multi-layered, and investigating his work requires attention to many different fields of meaning and connection. He characterizes his research and scholarship as an effort to rescue Le Corbusier from the platitudes that so often encrust him. Le Corbusier is much more interesting than Sigfried Giedion makes him out to be.
Lecture date: 2008-11-28
Le Corbusier gave his only formal lecture in the UK on 18 December 1947, coinciding with the AA's centenary year. To commemorate this unique occasion the AA and RIBA have jointly organised this event: a gathering of Le Corbusier experts and respected postwar architects examine the content and context of the lecture, and the impact of his theories within the AA and for a whole generation of postwar British architects.
Stephen Macfarlane & Jill Lever - A Happy Accident and its Aftermath: A Case History of Architectural Archiving
Tim Benton - 'C'est triste pleurer': Le Corbusier's Views about Britain
William J R Curtis - Transformation and Invention: On Re-reading Le Corbusier