William Curtis: Le Corbusier: Nature & Tradition (March 9, 1987)



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.

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