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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, October 10, 2008
    Temples for a civilization yet to come
    Before today I guess that my view of Le Corbusier was the received one: that of the architectural pioneer of the twentieth century whose genius lay in his ideals and whose unfortunate legacy was the brutal post-war housing projects whose shadows continue to blight most Western cities.

    Fifty years ago this month Liverpool's Walker art gallery hosted Britain's first major Le Corbusier exhibition and in the years that followed, in the area just behind the Walker, the city's historic Scotland Road was razed to make way for a six-lane roadway which converged beneath a mass of concrete flyovers and walkways. Corbusian town planning - or a cheap imitation?

    Today I experienced Le Corbusier, The Art of Architecture in the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral Crypt, and so now I am convinced that Corbusier's genius lay in his designs too. 'Space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep', he once said. His remarkable houses - La Tourette, Villa Savoye - with their promenades and generous views - fulfil this marvellously. 'I still find the space in the flat beautiful,' says Gisele Moreau, 55 years a resident in Le Corbusier's Marseilles Unité housing project. A large scale model of the Philips Pavilion at the World's Fair, Brussels, 1958, is astonishing, and the film taken inside that venue - of vast layered projections filling the angular spaces above the silhouetted heads of an awed audience - looks like Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable or a Pink Floyd underground light show. But Corbusier created it a decade earlier.

    And that points to what I'll most take from this exhibition. I'd arrived expecting to see an interesting retrospective of twentieth century architecture. Two hours of Corbusier's work up close and I felt like I'd entered a portal to a surprising future. Some critics see Corbusier's work this way too:
    'Le Corbusier achieved an awe-inspiring monumentality which leaves a disquieting impression of a kind of inverse ruin; that the civilization for which these magnificent temples have been fashioned is yet to come.' (Sunand Prasad in the Sept 2008 Riba Journal)
    None more so, for me, than the Church of Saint-Pierre, Firminy, which took my breath away today. Mine and the bloke stood next to me as we found ourselves abandoning gallery decorum and declaring to each other our astonishment and admiration for the plans, photographs, film and scale model before us. Matilda Burn (also in the Riba Journal), says of the Church of Saint-Pierre, that
    The conical roof has square and circular openings that, painted in primary colours, let coloured sunlight pour into the sanctuary, illuminating the altar. The lower levels are only indirectly lit by slit-like gaps in the facade. The easterly wall of the church is perforated with fist-sized openings that correspond to the constellation Orion.
    At the heart of Orion are a trinity of stars known as the three kings, and though the church was only completed last year - over forty years after Corbusier's death and after much politicking - the architect got his wish that they should cast their natural light on the sanctuary.

    Matilda Burn reports that the Church of Saint-Pierre has been 'disowned by the church', that 'the building remains unconsecrated and is used mainly as an art gallery to display works by Le Corbusier and his contemporaries.' Does a place need to be officially sanctioned to feel sacred? Of course not, and especially when there's the touch of genius in it as there so clearly is there.

    TOP: Philips Pavilion 1958, from www.medienkunstnetz.de
    BOTTOM: Church of Saint-Pierre, Choir, from www.sitelecorbusier.com