Art: Corbu

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He had become the inseparable companion of an artist named Amédée Ozenfant, and at the advanced age of 31, Jeanneret began to paint too. The two friends published a manifesto called After Cubism—"an optimistic, lyrical song on the beauty and lesson of machines, on buildings for use, and on the part played by science in an art worthy of our time." To spread their new credo of Purism, Jeanneret and Ozenfant started the magazine L'Esprit nouveau. The most important pieces were those on architecture, on which the two editors often collaborated and which Jeanneret signed with an old family name, Le Corbusier, in order to acquire a separate identity as an architect. The articles were the basis in 1923 of Le Corbusier's Towards an Architecture.

Feather on a Head. What is architecture? It was, said Le Corbusier in his book, something that went far beyond style. "The styles of Louis XIV, XV, XVI, or Gothic, are to architecture what a feather is on a woman's head." Essentially, architecture was the "masterly, correct, and magnificent placing of masses brought together in light. Our eyes are made to see forms in light. Cubes, cones, spheres, cylinders or pyramids are the great primary forms which light reveals to advantage."

In the machine age, said Le Corbusier, the architect must take his cue from the engineer. "We have the American grain elevators and factories, the magnificent First Fruits of the new age. The American engineers overwhelm with their calculations our expiring architecture." He drew observations from everywhere: "The airplane shows us that a problem well stated finds its solution," but the "problem of the house has not been stated." Then, in his most famous dictum, he said that a house "is a machine for living in." The statement was not so inhuman as it sounded. Only architecture of "passion," he added, could live and last. "Passion can create drama out of inert stone."

A Very Odd Specimen. Even in his person, he tried to be true to the "new spirit." One day in Paris, a friend of the painter Fernand Leger said to Leger: "Just wait. You're about to see a very odd specimen. He goes bicycling in a derby hat." Leger waited. "A few minutes later," he recalled, "I saw coming along, very stiff, completely in silhouette, an extraordinary mobile object under the derby hat with spectacles and a dark suit. He advanced quietly, scrupulously obeying the laws of perspective. The picturesque personage was none other than the architect Le Corbusier."

At that point the picturesque personage had built hardly anything at all. But Le Corbusier's reach was always to exceed his grasp. He was thinking of architecture not only in terms of this or that building, but of everything within the building— 'every detail of household furnishing, the street as well as the house and the wider world beyond." With an artist's bland disregard for the inertia of others, Le Corbusier drew up a master plan for a "Contemporary City of Three Million Inhabitants."

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