The Sketchbooks of Le Corbusier


Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts/Cambridge

(Originally published in Art New England, Volume III Number 1, December 1981.)

The publication of the sketchbooks of Le Corbusier (1887-1965) allows us to get inside the mind of one of the greatest architects of our century and to witness the growth of his architectural forms. Lucidly organized by William Curtis and designed by Roger Brandenberg-Horn, Fragments of Invention celebrates the bringing to light of more than seventy sketchbooks, which the architect used to carry in his pockets at all times to record his impressions and ideas.

Eight of these worn, hand-sized, spiral carnets de poche, bound in cardboard and numbered by Le Corbusier late in his life, are opened to show his intense, transparent drawings. They reveal the fierce concentration of Le Corbusier’s thought and his pure, sure line. These revelations are echoed in several photographs of the architect drawing, which show the intense furrow of his brow and the absolute authority of his hand. Enlargements of pages from other sketchbooks, photographs of the architect and his architecture, working drawings, and other works on paper elucidate the movement of his thought.

We see a metamorphosis occur from the lyrical curves of hills by the sea on a voyage to Rio de Janeiro, the prow of a boat, sensual folds of the robes of Algerian women, and seashells, to the roof of the chapel at Ronchamp. Repeated images of a bull’s horns and his own open hand are transposed through sketches of oxen and the wheel of an oxcart seen in India and the powerful shape and brilliant adaptation of the lighting system at Chandigarh. Even the first glimmerings of an idea project a striking spatial placement of the drawing on the page and determine the choice of colored pencil or crayon. Undulations of landscapes, dreams of viaducts, a sphinx among the pyramids, Mount Fuji, drawings of his dying wife’s last hours, images of his own feet and the heads of birds all filter through his genius to reemerge as architectural form.

One of the sketchbooks is open to show his first drawings for the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Le Corbusier’s only building in America. It is thrilling to stand at the center of his realized creation and see its conception in this tiny sketch. The ramp in the sketchbook is a yellow line, a pure idea creating space. Looking up, we see through a glass wall the undulating ramp itself cutting through and creating the space of the Carpenter Center. Our ideas of architectural space are challenged and transformed as the ramp moves with the motive force of an idea made form.

Notes on this sketch include the word exposition. The ramp leads to an exhibition space, a harmonious complexity of planes of polished concrete, wood, and glass riveted by concrete columns, called pilotis, which describe a three-dimensional grid throughout the building. Planes of glass at times reflect the room like a wall of mirrors, extending the space, which is lit up at night to give an inside-out view of the exhibitions.

“I’m fortunate to have this marvelous space,” says Roger Brandenberg-Horn, curator of exhibitions at the Carpenter Center, who has designed and installed over a hundred shows there since 1968. He has interpreted the space as the field or laboratory for his own inventions. Concentrating on color, light, and the proportions and placement of exhibition furniture of panels, platforms, and cases of his own design, he has created an astonishing variety of moods, textures, and delineations of space within this space.

Brandenberg-Horn rarely uses his model of the exhibition space and never makes drawings before beginning to design. He prefers to work intuitively, at full scale, at human scale, as Le Corbusier envisioned. “My mind is the space,” he affirms.

To show the musical notations of John Cage and other abstract composers, Brandenberg-Horn made the room seem dense and cerebral in black and white by building extra columns and wrapping the notations around them. The random notes of continuous electronic music were echoed in the movement of visitors disappearing and reappearing in a forest of pilotis. For Wedding, a documentary photographic exhibition authored by Barbara Norfleet showing two hundred years of American wedding portraits from obscure studios, he painted the room yellow. The photographs were hung on a white ribbon of panels flowing through the space, made light and airy by pathways of white lattice screens. An enormous wedding cake construction with a column at its center, on which were hung portraits of seven generations of brides in the same wedding dress, made the whole room spiral and curl out.

To show Le Corbusier’s drawings and plans for a mass housing project at Pessac in the South of France, he made the space seem enormous by placing titled cardboard podiums, painted in different colors on each side, on a diagonal grid. He chose orange, gray-green, yellow, and pale blue, based on the architect’s own paintings and prints. “Le Corbusier was not a hard-edged purist,” he says.

This installation recreated the feeling of dynamic order and movement that made Pessac great. For Fragments of Invention Brandenberg-Horn painted the walls and panels earthy pink and gray. He placed the notebooks at the spine of the exhibition, spatially analogous to the spirals binding the sketchbooks together. The ribbon of text, photographs, and related works on paper flows along two walls then breaks into panels like the pages of a book flipping open. The awesome little sketchbooks, the portraits of the architect at work, and the text are brought together, lifting us up to follow his transformations. The installation, intimate as a book and spatially complex as architecture, gives us the sense of images folding and unfolding, with the pure, expansive movement of ideas taking form, taking flight.

Fragments of Invention shows us how Le Corbusier created his own myth through the organic generation of forms. His genius constantly renewed itself, pulling new phenomena into the orbit of his thought and recreating them in the purified, monumental yet human forms of his architecture.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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