Art: Corbu

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His moods are as unpredictable as his talent is unlimited. He can whisk off a sketch on something that seems little bigger than a postage stamp, and it will turn out to be almost exactly in scale. He has few close friends, and though he says he enjoys having people around to talk to, it is always a rather unilateral affair "Talking stimulates," he once explained. "You develop ideas when you have an audience. And anyway, you don't have to listen to what the others say." As for money —here the master is even more impossible. He is as miserly as a Swiss shopkeeper, while remaining as ingenuous as a child, and he has long been certain that the whole world has been out to rob him.

Most of the robbers, he eventually decided, live in the U.S. In 1935 Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art organized a major exhibition of work by Le Corbusier, and he came across the Atlantic to see it. From the early days when he had sung the praises of American engineers and envied American skyscrapers. New York had been "the fantastic city, the temple of the New World." The disillusion was total. He took one look at the crowded canyons and announced: "Your skyscrapers are too small!" The East and Hudson rivers were hidden; the mighty Atlantic was lost. Instead of innumerable "towers in a park," there was a jungle of masonry gouged out at the middle by the "no man's land" that New York prizes as Central Park.

Without Pity. A subsequent trip was an even greater disaster than the first. In 1947 he was invited to serve on an international committee of architects who were to design the U.N. headquarters. Setting up shop on the 21st floor of the RKO building, he threw himself into the job with his accustomed vigor; but Corbu was never a man to work with a team. From the beginning the direction of the project had been given to the more diplomatic Wallace Harrison, designer of Rockefeller Center. When the U.N. Building was finished, Corbu wrote: "A new skyscraper, which everyone calls the 'Le Corbusier Building,' has appeared in New York. L-C was stripped of all his rights, without conscience and without pity." True enough, the building was a somewhat compromised version of Corbu's plan, but no one ever thought of calling it the "Le Corbusier Building."

Corbu was to suffer a further disappointment in 1952, when the UNESCO headquarters in Paris was placed in the hands of Hungarian-born Marcel Breuer of the U.S., Bernard Zehrfuss of France, and Pier Luigi Nervi of Italy. Despite all this, Corbu was in fact entering the richest phase of his career. Plans that had been locked in his mind for years began tumbling out like coins from a treasure chest. Now came the Marseille apartment block of raw concrete (béton brut), on which the marks of the form boards were left visible. The Society for the Preservation of the Beauties of France denounced it; a large hardware firm refused to sell it locks or hinges, for fear of tarnishing the firm's name. But the experts knew better. "Any architect who does not find this building beautiful," said Gropius, "had better lay down his pencil."

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