“Le Corbusier: The Complete Buildings” Shines New Light On 20th Century Classics

“Le Corbusier: The Complete Buildings” Shines New Light On 20th Century Classics

A title like Le Corbusier: The Complete Buildings suggests an encyclopedic guide, and the heft of the new book only furthers that impression. Inside, though, Cemal Emden’s photographs constitute a more subjective tour through virtually all of the extant structures designed by the seminal Swiss-French architect.

Emden’s relationship with Corbusier’s buildings is like Man Ray’s relationship with Lee Miller, or the collaboration between Herb Ritts and Cindy Crawford. He doesn’t approach the buildings with a clinical eye: he looks for the most revealing moments. Whether inside or outside or, typically, both, Emden waits for just the right time of day and finds precisely the right angle to capture the busy swarm of carefully-organized activity in Usine Duval, or the dynamic galleries of Tokyo’s National Museum of Western Art.

Though some images are monumental — for example, the organic concrete form of a tower from Unité D’Habitation, rendered in black and white — the overall effect is profoundly humanizing. People themselves rarely appear in the photos, but by attending to human-scale details and surprisingly warm interior spaces, Emden constantly reminds us that Le Corbusier intended his creations to be functional and inviting.

It’s an engaging journey through Le Corbusier’s masterworks, with stops at many of his lesser-known (and, often, less characteristic) buildings. For text, Emden and editor Burcu Kütükçüoğlu take an interesting approach, first used in a 2016 exhibition of Emden’s work. Each of 19 writers selects a single image, and then pens an essay about that image.

The essays, then, are both about Emden’s work and about Le Corbusier’s — specifically, what Emden’s approach reveals about the buildings. The results are often illuminating, sometimes even charming. Such is the case with, for example, Tim Benton’s reflection on the cozy foyer of Villa Fallet. “How wonderful to live without lies,” writes Benton. “Isn’t this what we all want: the embrace of warm materials, a plan shaped around daily routines and gestures, the pleasure in caressing a well-made thing?”

In some cases, though, the writers don’t add much. İhsan Bilgin chooses a photograph of a single ladder-like stairway against a blank wall in Maison Guiette, and just about gives himself a hernia analyzing it. “It is impossible not to wonder what that prismatic flowerpot is doing under the stairs,” writes Bilgin, “and the unnecessary contrast of the sunlight illuminating the point under the stairs likewise bothers the eye.”

I’m all for the close appreciation of art and architecture, but what I found it impossible not to wonder, reading that passage, is whether the world doesn’t have any bigger problems to worry about. Fortunately, Emden’s photographs are unfailingly eloquent. Pick your own favorite, and say about it what you like.

Jay Gabler