European Capitals of CultureΠοιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Le Corbusier exhibition in J1

Poster for the exhibition

Curator: Jacques Sbriglio.

Producer: Marseille-Provence 2013.

In collaboration with the Fondation Le Corbusier. Partenaire grand projet : AG2R La Mondiale. With support from ProHelvetia.



        Ship dock with J1 Hangar in the background (19.10.2013)

When standing outside the entrance to J1, Ulrich Fuchs had already said that we shall be crossing an international border when entering the exhibition. For beyond the fence begins international territory. It makes visible the Schengen agreement and underlines what Nicole Immerle said about Marseille being one of the first European Capital of Culture cities which is located at a border. Until recently border cities were avoided. At least as long as Bob Scott was chairman of the selection committee. He did not wish to have the ECoC title be designated to a border city; rather a city should be the representive of the nation and its culture. Nicole Immerle observed further that even border cities tend to move away from the notion of being at the periphery and towards the middle. Likewise Marseille! This has a conceptual reason. Even though the exhibition of Le Corbusier is shown in a space beyond the EU border, and many commentators refer to this exhibition refer as if Le Corbusier was returning home and to the Mediterranean region, the latter is a concept not thought through well enough to bring about that needed cultural dialogue. Still, the exhibition is a tribute to an amazing architect who wanted always to build in Algier and instead ended up realizing his 'brutal concept' in Marseille and Berlin.



     Location of J1 and view of the port of Marseille


Dream like are azure streaks of artistic thoughts when they reflect light as a need to equip buildings accordingly. What used to be ancient wisdom is repeated in the architectural designs of Le Corbusier, only he translates that into a new functional way. Even though he started out with drawing heavily decorated houses and buildings, he always did so with the thought, they would be better off without such decorative details. Still it took some time before he found his own forms.


Guide giving a first introduction to participants of the conference "cultural encounters: mosaic of urban identities" held in Marseille Oct. 17 and 18, 2013

As the guide explained, Le Corbusier was not only an architect, but as well a painter and sculpturer.









The exhibition in Marseille tries to bring this out while confining it to what the curator believed to have been his most creative phase in life, namely from 1945 until 1965. It is said that Le Corbusier was then no longer preoccupied so much with theory, but much more with the arts and poetry. (1) It was self evident in his wish to go to Algiers.



Our guide explained that Le Corbusier had the wish to build a skyscraper in Algiers which would capture the light but also adjust the angles created by balconies and other overhanging slates of beton to provide shade in the summer months, while in the winter when the sun would stand more horizontal, it could shine into the apartments and warm them. That can be noticed on hand of one model on display in the exhibition.



Interestingly enough, Le Corbusier never managed to have his idea be realized in Algiers, but in Marseille, almost as unconscious dedication to this architect, there was constructed a skyscraper to give the harbour an overtowering everything else landmark.


    View from J! hangar towards Zaha Hadid's skyscraper as landmark of the port

Michael Kimmelmann describes this view from the hangar after having visited Marseille in October a second time to see what has happened to the city in terms of renovation but also whether or not the city has kept its main characteristics alive:

"J1 is another one of the remodeled old piers, its empty top story of concrete pillars and floor converted last year to make room for yet more exhibition spaces and a restaurant. The architect is Catherine Bonte. She took me to the windows to see the ferries and the sea wall. The view was spectacular." (2)

Walking through the hangar, it can be seen and felt that this exhibition was well thought through. It includes even special exhibition spaces marked by selected colour to give the visitor a feeling what aesthetical components are involved when architects design not only a building, but start to include colours and forms which they have taken like Corbusier did from their own artistic expressions in the form of own paintings and sculptures.

         Exhibition spaces coloured

                        - aesthetic of experience







What the exhibition does not problematize is that Le Corbusier's architectual concept lead to the 'Plattenbau'-Type of construction in former East Germany.

Also no mention was made of him being the main driving force behind the 'Charta of Athens' signed in 1933, and which was replicated later on when Brazilia as new capital of Brazil was constructed. One guiding principle for such a link between architecture and city planning was that everything should be reachable on foot. The fact that this was in complete contradiction to the use of the car can be seen onhand of over simplified solutions he advocated without anticipating the alientating impact of the car on any kind of mass settlement. His tall buildings, often with apartments having two floors, create their own shadows which do not even go away when the sun is shining. They overtower and remove any sign of sweetness or gentleness in a setting totally opposed to nature. Its anti nature statement means it is up to steel, cement and glass to do the talking, while even the lesson of proportion is only observed in a systematic way which tends to reproduce the same mistake over and again as if unable to correct it. Even in villas he build people had to move out once the children had grown and their room was simply too small for them.

The city plan he could realize was in Pujab, India. Symbols and signs for it he took from the surroundings. It included abstractions from the horns of cows and becoming a part of a roof. The wide range was linked to central symbolic buildings. In that sense, he anticipates the significance of outstanding buildings by which another orientation in space and time is created.


City plan model for Pujab (done in the 1950s)

Detail of a city

The only evidence of his constant effort to make his ideas be known was a manifest he published when first settling into Paris in the 1020's. It was the result of him confronting Cubism and seeking his own 'pure' form. Linked to many other influences is the development towards a preference to combine steel and cement. Called 'le brutalisme', it stands for simple, functional and mass production form easily to be applied to a single villa as much as to a large housing estate.



Basically 'Brutalism' meant "introducing the world to raw concrete - béton brut - with its texture defined by the wooden planks shaping it when it was poured. This unwitting prototype for the New Brutalism to follow came from necessity: not only was there insufficient steel in post-war France for a steel construction, but there was insufficient skilled labor for consistent, precise construction. Le Corbusier made a virtue of this necessity:

'...I have decided to make beauty by contrast. I will find its complement and establish a play between crudity and finesse, between the dull and the intense, between precision and accident. I will make people think and reflect, this is the reason for the violent, clamorous, triumphant polychromy of the facades.'" (3)


He would realise this for the first time in Marseille:

"The Marseille unité d'habitation brings together Le Corbusier's vision for communal living with the needs and realities of post-war France. Up to 1600 people live in a single-slab 'vertical village', complete with an internal shopping street halfway up, a recreation ground and children's' nursery on the roof, and a generous surrounding area of park land made possible by the density of the accommodation in the slab itself." (4)

Aside from large scale buildings and entire cities, he would design individual houses with very much the same components.




     Design of a house with small space for children's room


When walking through an exhibition like this, and that at a time when Marseille is European Capital of Culture, no wonder that articles about it have in their title the word 'retour': the architect coming back to the city which he had known and framed with his design. Knowing that this design has by now many copies, what exciting outlook for architects does this entail? One could go perhaps to Cologne, Germany and walk there along the river Rhine, for not only similar apartments are standing there, but also three similar types to Villa Mediterranea. They echo Le Corbusier's overlapping hybrid boxes to allow for apartments to have two floors both connected by a single window pane, That emphasizes again the importance of outlook even though the weather there might be dismal at times. Still, the need to face the source of light, that is natural light governs very much modern architecture with similar mistakes by ignoring what it puts into the shade. A most crucial dimension is the social question, and what buildings often cannot do but rather than encourage they disturb the flow of communication. In any case, disturbances are often too easy to find. It matters, therefore,as well where the building is located and in what sense it makes a difference at the level of illusion whether it is now one of luxury or of dismal nature. The latter are those massive buildings created in Socialist times and called in East Germany 'Plattenbau': a loose imitation of Le Corbusier's idea.


     Le Corbusier's painting in his Paris studio

Le Corbusier had naturally already in his life time many followers, or those who were keen to be surrounded by his works. The guide which took us through the exhibition explained that those who worked at his studio in Paris became impatient with him when he saw where he had left his paintings while there they had none. This prompted Le Corbusier to make a special painting for the studio in Paris. Looking at it, there can detected similarities with Picasso and with Cubinism, but aside from that amazing is his use of colours. They do not merely cover spaces but take on a form of their own. This sense of volume of a body makes clear here an architectural idea was behind such a painting. It is a kind of summing up a convulsion and revulsion at a world filled with many objects and yet not brave enough to come up with some formal, equally simple solution. When studying the flow of communication and compare it with air circulation that follows often or not the light, then special spaces can be made out when drawing imaginary lines to mark this flow. A free flow of information done fore mostly by the colours indicates the type of solution he was seeking in his architectural design.


           The guide

The guide for viewing the exhibition was exceptional. She had studied Le Corbusier and learned to explain his life, works and ideas within a context of such mature understanding, that it was possible to relive the steps he took. She smiled naturally when she remarked he loved a lot of women as made explicit by some of his paintings. Whether the female body was a substitute or not for something else, she did not explain, but there is no allusion to anything than Le Corbusier having been a man who like Picasso and other artists wanted this experience of love both as source of energy and of an erotic vision guiding one towards pleasure.


      Le Corbusier, naked women   (the poor quality of the photo may be excused. HF)

The guide represents as well something else what can take place during this one year of European Capital of Culture. She got this job to become a guide in a most important exhibition which marks the end of that special year. She hopes this will open up for her new doors to future jobs. The cultural sector has been valued especially since KEA came out with this report published by the European Commission in 2007 of having value for the economy, and therefore being a vehicle to create jobs. Naturally the kind of jobs in need to be talked about are the ones which do not go without devotion, indeed love and compassion. To become knowledgeable of only one person like Le Corbusier demands a great deal more than just sitting down and filing away at one precision tool. The context of understanding requires an exploration of many fields. Alone the entire field of city planning encompasses more than just the design of a building, and reflects as well how history is being made when a country decides to create a new capital to mark a desire to break with the past and to start off completely new. Klaus Heinrich has called this the 'fascination of the line'. It is a spell under which all architects seem to come. They want to see in the buildings they designed and build those lines which reflect both creativity and genius. Unfortunately most often this is done in a most mystified way. It was relieve to hear the guide speak about Le Corbusier in a most sober way, free from any such tendency towards mystification.


     Part of the group shown around by the guide

The group could not thank her enough for the insights she gave. They had all participated in the conference organized by the University Network of European Capitals of Culture and which was held in Marseille Oct. 18/19. Hence it was a special occasion to be able to go the next day, that is a Saturday, to see the newly opened exhibition. Lasting impressions are those paintings whose images float over like invisible clouds of thoughts to those designs of buildings replicating those sculptures and what was afoot at the time when Le Corbusier lived.




Unfortunately the exhibition leaves out a deeply preturbing question about Le Corbusier. No where was to be seen any documentation about this involvement with the Vichy government. The latter was in power during the time of German occupation of France and reflects a highly ambivalent relationship to power. Apparently the architect thought he could ignore the political side. Likewise he could go to the Soviet Union and participate there in competition, create new architectural associations and continue in his own specific way while ignoring, so it seems, the existence of Stalin and the Gulags.

Many architects around his time who were fascinated by the totalitarian vision. They would design not only the house, but determine even the smallest details. Those who ended up living in such a house were not even allowed to move the couch to a different location. But Le Corbusier's collaboration with the Vichy government goes even further. It is known through a letter he wrote to his mother that he was convinced Hitler could do great work for Europe, provided one would let him. This remark came at signs of the Vichy government breaking up. Of interest is that his direct involvement did not affect so much the role he would play after Second World War.

He continued to be active until his unfortunate death for he drowned due to a heart attack while swimming in cold water although the doctor had warned him. Whether it was suicide or not, it is said he had difficulties in dealing with old age. Definitely the doctor had advised him not to go swimming on that day. Perhaps going out into the open sea was a way he could imagine putting a final touch on a life never complete even if one had designed some perfect buildings. 


Hatto Fischer

Athens 6.12.2013


1. "Le Corbusier kehrt nach Marseille zurück", Monopol, 27.11.2013.

2. Michael Kimmelman, Marseille, the Secret Capital of France in: New York Times, October 4, 2013


4. op.cit.








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