Le Corbusier: the Architect and the Brand

In Tokyo, nothing is where it really ought to be.

poster for

"Pavilion Architecture by Le Corbusier" Exhibition

at Galerie Taisei
in the Yokohama, Kanagawa area
This event has ended - (2007-02-05 - 2007-04-13)

In Reviews by David Willoughby 2007-04-05

You might go to the train station for a haircut, the roof to play golf or a shopping mall to learn English. When you go to see an exhibition about the French-Swiss Modernist designer and architect Le Corbusier, you naturally head for the 17th floor of a construction company’s headquarters in Shinjuku’s business district.

Ironically, Le Corbusier, who had little time for popular convention when it came to urban planning, would have approved of this concentration of cultural activity at the top and centre of the city. Famous for suggesting that Paris should be demolished and replaced by a grid system of tower blocks, his civic designs like the City For Three Million People were strictly rectilinear because only geometry, he claimed, could impose the order needed to curtail man’s natural barbarism. Le Corbusier wept at the state of the early twentieth century city, composed of so many curves and nooks where evil could shelter from his mighty architect’s wand. For him, the city epitomised the natural balance of power among people and his designs concentrated the important facilities at the centre and accepted only at their outskirts the clean, identical tenements in which manual workers would be grateful to reside.

Let’s put aside the urban planning for now though. The exhibition Pavillons de Le Corbusier at Shinjuku’s Galerie Taisei concentrates on just one aspect of the architect’s work: his designs for temporary structures. The most famous of these was his Philips Pavilion, a tent-like colossus that wowed visitors to the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair (see above photo, by Lucian Hervé). Designed to show off the audiovisual technology of the Philips corporation, the pavilion was the world’s first multimedia event: Le Corbusier’s architectural creation showcasing an eight-minute film about humanity he titled the Poeme Electronique which came with an experimental musical score by the composer Edgard Varese.

A model of the Philips Pavilion at Galerie Taisei

Whatever expectations visitors had of being entertained, they were made to sit stiff and obedient as the awesome audiovisual power of the Poeme was projected all around them. It was precisely this kind of singular, overbearing statement that Postmodernism set out to destroy. Ever the cold-blooded Modernist, Le Corbusier seemed to regard people as little more than food for the body of his buildings. For his Philips Pavilion, he envisaged a structure like an enormous stomach that would permit 500 people to enter, fill their heads with classical imagery and swell their chests with a utopian view of mankind’s future – consisting mostly of buildings designed by a certain Swiss architect – before processing them out the back door, presumably to buy a set of Philips speakers. He made some quick sketches of the form he wanted the building to take – a tent of hyperbolic parabaloid curves creating the warped interior walls onto which the Poeme Electronique would be projected – and passed them on to his assistant, the Greek architect Yannis Xenakis. The final product relied more on Xenakis’s designs for its feasibility and Varese’s chilling, avant-garde score for atmosphere while still packing a strong dose of Le Corbusier’s own idealism.

Galerie Taisei’s attempt to recreate the Pavilion experience unfortunately packs none of the ambition of the original. The reconstruction only covers one small wall of the gallery and the projection is too small to command the visitor’s full attention. Situational context also gets in the way. With the views from the gallery windows defined by the proliferation of skyscrapers around Shinjuku, it takes a hefty leap of imagination to gain a sense of what it must have felt like to cower under the audiovisual majesty of the Poeme amid the throes of Cold War paranoia and leave dazed and convinced that the only hope left for the world is to leave everything up to this man they call Le Corbu.

A model of the Pavilion des Temps Nouveaux, built for the 1937 Paris World Fair
.

What’s far more interesting than looking at Le Corbusier’s legacy through the limited information available at Galerie Taisei, is viewing it completely afresh through the brand new lenses of the Japanese experience. If you exit the gallery and take the elevator up to the excellent viewing lobby on the 53rd floor, you’ll see what I mean.

Tokyo seen from Galerie Taisei

This is the final flight of geometry from the city, the collapse of lofty Swiss management into urban free-for-all. Surely this overflowing jumble of concrete blocks repudiates Le Corbusier’s model of the future city. However, Livio Sacchi in his book Tokyo: City and Architecture concludes that Le Corbusier had the most profound influence on Tokyo’s development of any major Western architect. Despite his only contribution to the city being the National Museum of Western Art, the rationalist principles of the Corbusier style that the Museum introduced to Ueno Park in 1959 – sparse, geometric, ahistorical, easily assimilated – influenced much of Tokyo’s architecture in the 1960s and 1970s. Looking down from Galerie Taisei, you can glimpse a gesture of tribute in the sprawl below: Kenzo Tange’s National Gymnasium of 1964 beside Yoyogi Park – a structure that wears its debt to the Philips Pavilion on its sleeve, or rather, its roof.

Kenzo Tange's National Gymnasium

The tribute continues in the massive Kinokuniya bookstore behind a shopping complex called Times Square – named in homage to that other towering influence on Tokyo’s modern development, New York. In the fifth-floor architecture section an entire end-of-row display is devoted to dozens of books in Japanese about the Swiss master under a ceiling-mounted banner visible across the whole store. This is Le Corbusier, architect superstar, getting the store memorial usually reserved for dead rock stars.

This contemporary superstar treatment leaves us groping for conclusions in the face of a weighty paradox. How is it that a city with a layout so demonstrably un-Corbusien with its lack of symmetry, class stratification or a permanent centre continues to be such a champion of Corbusien ideas? A cynical explanation might be that this is just another triumph of branding; that this is Le Corbusier the brand – with his Philips Pavilion, chapel at Ronchamp and chaise longue as its crown jewels – vying for market share in a field of fellow architectural ubermensch. What’s certain is that Le Corbusier became one of the first human beings to brand himself when he ditched his born identity of Charles-Edouard Jeanneret and adopted an exotic pseudonym that still defies meaning. 

That act of self-branding could be why Le Corbusier is celebrated in countries that have sophisticated boutique design industries such as Japan and Italy – still the only country licensed to manufacture his trademark tubular furniture. Awareness of a brand permeates society deeper than an appreciation of a man’s legacy. Le Corbusier’s duality as architect and designer, man and brand, gives him a wide posthumous appeal. He’s the architect you can still aspire to own a piece of; the architect you can buy at auction; the architect you can sit on. The brand is based on a selective approach to the man, favouring the genius designer over the social tinkerer. To get the complete picture of the man, we need to know if his posthumous reputation extends to places such as Germany, Brazil and the former Soviet Union where his Modernist theories of urbanism were actually implemented. Or we might take the more radical step of postulating that the man (a complex figure with ideas both good and bad) never existed and that the brand (a simple signifier, immune from criticism) is really all we need.

David Willoughby

David Willoughby. Tokyo resident and writer for TABlog 2007-2008. » See other writings

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