The three most important innovators that changed the landscape of the 20th century are Henry Ford, Bill Gates, and Le Corbusier. The first two are well known to the public for their contributions to transportation and information technology, but Le Corbusier is relatively less famous in Korea, even though he introduced groundbreaking changes to the lives of the urban homeless by creating apartment buildings. The Le Corbusier Special Exhibition, held at the Hangaram Design Museum in Seoul Arts Center, illuminates every aspect of the great architect, from his childhood sketches to his philosophy towards art, architecture, and life itself.
Looking at the countless concrete buildings in urban cities, all similar in size and shape, one may feel suffocated by the dryness of their design. However, at one point in history, the whole transformation process into the current city design was an innovation. Unlike the coldness of modern concrete jungles, Le Corbusier— a Swiss-French painter, writer, and modern architect—attempted to make every living space worth living for humans, especially the impoverished. With 17 of his projects listed as United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage sites last year, now is the time to go and meet Le Corbusier.
Divided into eight sections, the exhibition is structured like an autobiographical movie. It starts with Le Corbusier’s death and achievements, showing a black-and-white video clip of his funeral in Louvre Palace and a list of memorial speeches from prominent figures. Then the story flashes back to his childhood experiences as an artist studying watch manufacturing under his real name Charles-Édouard Jeanneret. The exhibition traces every moment of his life until the exhibit circles back to his death again, with his small holiday cabin reenacted in a corner of the hall. It is cleverly structured so that visitors can observe his internal growth and changes in artistic style throughout his lifetime.
With approximately 500 works, the exhibition is extensive enough for visitors to spend hours appreciating them. It includes his travel sketches, still-life paintings, sculptures and architectural models, with 140 of them never shown outside his foundation before. Planned by Covana Contents, a culture-art company which previously organized exhibitions for Andy Warhol and Chagall, the immense number of pieces are displayed using maze-like fake walls, creating stories within them.
▲ Photographs of UNESCO-designated buildings designed by Le Corbusier.
Some may find it odd to see a vast number of paintings and sketches instead of a whole lot of blueprints and architectural models from Le Corbusier, the father of modern architecture. However, Le Corbusier has always highlighted the close connection between fine art and architecture. “If anyone sees a strength in my construction work, it lies in my secretive effort to draw every day,” he said. Early in his career, he drew countless sketches to find inspiration from classical structures and to truly digest the shapes of the subjects. His sketches at first appear to have little resemblance to his actual buildings, but his artistic Purism ultimately merges with his architecture to form the one and only style of Le Corbusier.
Although Le Corbusier was a close friend of Pablo Picasso, the founder of the Cubist movement, Le Corbusier refused to fully accept Cubism and championed a more rational approach to simplify and clarify the form. Indeed, one of his best known projects, the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, which was completed in 1954, clearly showcases his belief that architecture must fulfill its original purpose. While many traditional churches, such as La Sagrida Familia by Antoni Gaudí, were sophisticated in their ornamentation, Le Corbusier’s work is simple and modern, built with a mix of straight lines and curves. As one of his last projects, the church and its conciseness resembles the paintings drawn throughout his life.
The philosophical approach Le Corbusier took to his architecture and paintings is another important message he sends to contemporary architects. The exhibition is not only full of his work but also his thoughts, illustrated as quotes on the walls. He throws philosophical questions at the visitors, such as what architecture is and what the purpose of space should be. He comes up with a definite answer that, whatever the building is, it must always be for people. His ideas on the Five Points of Architecture and his various projects, like Villa Savoye and Unité d'habitation (Housing Unit), show his love for humanity and his dream to provide shelters for people who lost their homes during mass industrialization, urbanization, and destructive wars.
The exhibition is enjoyable not only because of Le Corbusier’s achievements, but also thanks to the meticulous planning of its curator, Covana Contents. For example, in Section One, black-and-white photog raphs of Le Corbusier’s UNESCO-designated buildings are printed on the wall, with the edges illuminated. The lights elevate his projects, add vivaciousness to a room full of grey, and also put visitors under the illusion that the lights are coming out from the artwork as sunlight does from window frames.
While the exhibition should satisfy most people, there are some minor points that may make visitors uncomfortable. As it tries to include as many works as possible by building fake walls to display everything, the room for each section is quite small and it easily becomes crowded with only a few people. This can annoy visitors who would like to fully appreciate the art without much disturbance. In addition, it does not provide explanations in languages other than Korean. It is understandable why the director chose not to provide them in English, as the hall was already cramped with quotes, but it does seem necessary as many famous architects and artists from around the world visit the exhibition.
Though Le Corbusier became famous after designing many modern buildings, one may still criticize his work, saying that he damaged the urban living environment by shoveling a large number of people into limited spaces. However, his sense of duty and love for humanity can easily be found in every one of his paintings, writings, sculptures, and buildings. In the man’s own words, “The mission I have assigned to myself is to protect people from misfortune and disaster, and bring them the happiness and pleasures of everyday life.”
Name: Le Corbusier Special Exhibition
Period: December 6, 2016 – March 26, 2017 (closed on Mondays)