Friday, 20 February 2009

Le Corbusier: Cubist Art and No Buildings

With exhibitions about architecture, you always get the sense that there is an elephant in the room that no one will mention. Or rather, there should be several massive elephants in the room but they couldn't be moved from their natural habitat and they wouldn't have fit in the gallery anyway. In other words, where are the finished buildings? 

Sure, there are many practical reasons why this is a no brainer but there is no other arts discipline in which you would see the workings out but not the final answer. Could you a fashion house holding a retrospective without a single dress on display? Or a sculpture exhibition based on nothing but sketches and maquettes? You can't help feeling that architecture is at a serious disadvantage in gallery terms.

The Barbican's new Le Corbusier exhibition, The Art Of Architecture, steps around the elephant by filling their two floors with the Swiss architect's many other artistic pursuits: pre-Ikea leather-and-steel-tube furniture, back issues of his Modernist mag L'Esprit Nouveau, the odd tapestry and a wealth of Cubist-style sculpture and paintings. Of course, this does mean that your enjoyment of the show hinges on whether you can get excited by some deft Picasso-esque murals but it makes for a varied and often unexpected collection. 

And maybe that is the point of exhibitions about architecture - that they can and should only ever be a colourful appendix to the buildings themselves. Having already been lucky enough to explore both Corbusier's Villa Savoye near Paris and the Maison Blanche in his home town of Le Chaux de Fonds, these art works simply helped to signpost his inspirations that bit more vividly.

Femme et coquillage, 1948

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