The Barbican – does any other London landmark divide visitors more dramatically? – is hosting Le Corbusier – The Art of Architecture until May 24 2009.
As usual, just finding the exhibition is a vintage Barbican experience – it’s badly sign-posted, the lifts have their own set of rules and the vast estate is almost deserted, despite its central location. The only people you pass on the windy terraces and dark walkways are bewildered souls anxious to find the centre before their performance starts. It’s all a bit post-apocalyptic until you eventually reach the buzzing foyer, which is full of people necking wine and chatting on the red leather benches and trying to find the loo before their show starts.
Tip: If you do visit the Barbican in the future, just follow the yellow line painted along those dark, endless walkways (it really is a yellow brick road) – and you’ll get to there eventually.
Le Corbusier, according the exhibition brochure, was the most important architect of the 20th century, his built legacy unparalleled. The Barbican is the logical place to host such an exhibition – he would have felt right at home among the concrete walkways and looming tower blocks.
Scattered among his many drawings, sculptures and models are some original, now rather tatty, prototypes – chairs and even an entire kitchen from an apartment block he designed in Marseille. I liked the postcards he’d sent from hotel rooms around the world, and snapshots of him at work. There is even one of him with Albert Einstein at Princeton, both of them looking quietly chuffed.
There is a wooden model of his beautiful church in Ronchamp, which I have visited and will never forget. In real life it’s much larger than it looks in pictures, with a roof that’s based on the form of a crab shell. Built from concrete, it has stained-glass windows that reflect watery blue-green lights across the curved walls. It’s a little like being in an vast underwater cave, and very peaceful. If you’re ever in the Alsace region of France it’s worth a visit – you can also drink lots of Riesling and overdose on Münster cheese, but beware of ticks. The only unfortunate part of the journey was that one of our party was bitten by a one carrying Lyme’s Disease and ended up seriously unwell. But I think even he would agree it was worth it.
Anyway – slight digression. This exhibition is worth visiting if you are at all interested in architecture and design. You are left with a clear sense of just how influential his work – and that of his many colleagues – was. His designs look modern now – its incredible to think he was producing this work close to a hundred years ago.
It does seem, though, that there is something missing. For an exhibition about a single person it is a little starved of biographical detail, and I would have liked more about his private life, the person behind the image. Perhaps he lived almost entirely for his work, which enabled him to be so prolific and influential. Or perhaps the curators just didn’t think his personal life was relevant. And it is also strange that the exhibition does not address the end of his life at all, and his death by drowning. You move from some of his later drawings straight into the shop and bar area, where you can buy a Le Corbusier vodka cocktail, or some £200 Corbusier-inspired spectacles. After following the story of his life’s work this felt – to me, anyway – a little abrupt.
Le Corbusier: The Art of Architecture, 19 February – 24 May 2009-02-28, The Barbican Centre Art Gallery, http://www.barbican.org.uk/lecorbusier
Photography: Felix Oefelein ©