Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, the architect who renamed himself Le Corbusier, was blessed when it came to his formation as a thinker, designer and theorist of the modern world. He came from Switzerland, the land of watchmakers, and grew up in a region that was both remote and beautiful, but no backwater. He traveled extensively as a young man, absorbing ideas from both the north and south of Europe, and from its “edge” zones, including the east, where the clash and cohabitation of civilizations yielded an endless variety of aesthetic and cultural forms. He was born before the Wright brothers’ flight, but lived well into the jet age. He both traveled extensively and was deeply rooted in beloved places; he was at various times a regionalist, an urbanist, a kind of futurist, a proselytizer, an author, a painter and a megalomaniac. And he intersected with, and sometimes adopted, the myriad isms of the 20th century, from artistic movements to the uglier political manias of the 1930s and ’40s: He built in Moscow, courted the collaborationist government of Vichy during World War II and at one point embraced Mussolini.
A new exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art surveys the career of Le Corbusier with a curious twist: Parallel to its chronological path through Le Corbusier’s protean career, “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes” argues that the architect was also deeply sensitive to landscape and place. This is decidedly counter to the way most people remember the architect, who once proposed a plan for rebuilding Paris that would have decimated much of the historic center of the city. But it turns out to be both a provocative and productive way to reexamine Le Corbusier’s career, and in the process, think more specifically about what, exactly, landscape means.