Architectural sphinx

Monsieur Le Corbusier, meet Signor Palladio – how delightful to find you both in London. Sir Edwin Lutyens wants a word with you.

It was that blistering 40 degrees plus European summer of 2003 when – since we were on holiday in Alsace – I bundled a puzzled family into the car and headed off through the Vosges mountains of eastern France to look at a small church on a hill in a semi-industrial landscape. I had wanted to see this building for decades. We arrived panting, heat-struck, ill-tempered. But not for long. We had entered the presence of greatness.

Our destination was the pilgrimage chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, better known as Ronchamp after its nearest village. It is the best-known work of one of the most celebrated and reviled architects of the 20th century, Le Corbusier. Built in the mid 1950s, it marked a decisive break from his earlier machine aesthetic – what you might call the boxes-on-stilts look.

Ronchamp was and is weird, primitive, hand-crafted, powerful, It was the first postmodern building – before the term was coined – and the best. Critics have argued about it loudly and continuously from the moment it was completed. It receives many more architectural pilgrims than religious ones. But then, you come across a surprising number of people for whom Corb (or Corbu as the true believers call him) is God. And at least as many for whom – because of his provocative and influential early city plans full of skyscrapers – he is the very devil.

Corb, with his endless manifesto pronouncements and aphorisms (“a house is a machine for living in”), wrote the book when it came to architectural arrogance. “I don’t care about your church, I didn’t ask you to do it,” he coolly replied to the artist-priest who hired him at Ronchamp, Father Couturier. “And if I do it, I’ll do it my way. It interests me because it’s a plastic work. It’s difficult.”

At the time the Roman Catholic church, with Couturier in the van, was in one of its phases of embracing modernity. Corb’s prickly attitude did not dismay Couturier – he recommended his architect for the scarcely less celebrated later monastery of La Tourette, then died. It’s true what they say – great architecture only happens with great patrons. And Ronchamp, though of course it has its detractors, is without question great. You know that the moment you see it, walk round it, into it. It is a small building on an extraordinarily epic scale. It is condensed genius.

This, of course, presents a bit of a problem for architecture exhibitions. An ambitious exhibition on Le Corbusier is about to open at the Barbican Gallery in London while a wonderfully old-fashioned show on the Renaissance master architect Andrea Palladio is running at the Royal Academy. As with Corb, with Palladio you really have to experience the real buildings. No photo, model, drawing or computer fly-through can truly communicate the impact of Ronchamp, or of the heart-juddering way you suddenly catch a glimpse of Palladio’s Villa Capra (also known as “La Rotonda” ) commanding its hill outside Vicenza. Or for that matter the moment you first walk into his extraordinary Teatro Olympico in Vicenza itself. There too you know instantly that genius has been at work. Palladio was reinventing the ancient form of the amphitheatre for the modern world. He, as Corb was later to do, also reinvented the form of the church, and you see them dotted all over Venice.

Both exhibitions are big public ventures in what is the 175th anniversary year of the Royal Institute of British Architects, the 500th of Palladio, and, er, the 122nd of Corb. The RIBA invested heavily to bring the Corbusier show to Britain – first to Liverpool, now to the Barbican – and simultaneously supplied the RA from its unrivalled collection of Palladio drawings, the most complete in the world. It’s been quite a while since the capital has had two such big-hitting architecture shows running simultaneously in mainstream galleries.

These are anything but lazy crowd-pleasers. You have to work a little. When I saw the Le Corbusier show in its previous British incarnation in Liverpool – in the original Lutyens-designed crypt of the Metropolitan Cathedral there – it seemed slightly confused, assumed too much prior knowledge of the man and his work. In the Corb-influenced surroundings of the Barbican, with some extra curatorial input, it may feel more at home.

Let’s digress here for a moment. There are some interesting assonances to be found between Corb and Lutyens. Basil Spence, architect of Coventry Cathedral and former pupil of Lutyens, visited the Lutyens crypt shortly after seeing the then brand-new Ronchamp, and commented on the fact that both men were playing exactly the same game with the poetics of mass. Lutyens himself, though he died a decade before Ronchamp was built and plainly had more sympathy for neoclassical masters such as Palladio, had been surprisingly respectful when he reviewed Corb’s Vers une Architecture in the Observer newspaper in January 1928. He had no truck with the “machine for living in” schtick, but other things struck a chord. “As one reads this book one is always amused, sometimes excited, sometimes angry, at the boil of M. Le Corbusier’s emotions,” wrote Lutyens, “but one never doubts his sincerity.” In return, Corb was an admirer of Lutyens’ Viceroy’s house in New Delhi, and one can pick up echoes of it in his buildings in Chandigarh, post-imperial capital of the Punjab.

Back to the exhibitions. As with the Corb show, so with Palladio at the Royal Academy: there seems to be an assumption that visitors will be of a scholarly disposition, prepared to concentrate rather than flit. No danger of either show attracting charges of arrant populism. But the combined message is clear enough. Remarkable individuals working in remarkable times produce remarkable buildings. And while both Palladio and Corb were surrounded by talented contemporaries, they made sure they rose to the top and stayed there.

The differences? Fewer than you might think. Both men, nearly half a millennium apart, had a huge impact on the design of churches, houses, whole city districts. Both claimed to draw their inspiration from the ancient world and its mathematical proportioning systems for neoclassical buildings. Both were associated with particularly fruitful periods in fine art. Both wrote wildly influential books to disseminate their ideas and beliefs. Both broke the rules to produce individual masterpieces that are sometimes eccentric to the point of wilfulness. And both were known by nicknames – Palladio (“the wise one”) was born Andrea di Pietro della Gondola; Le Corbusier (“The Crow”) was really Swiss-born Charles Edouard Jeanneret-Gris.

The real difference comes with their followers. Arguably the later Palladian architects – particularly by the late 18th century in Britain and America – outclassed the master with their refined, progressive classicism. An English country house such as Holkham Hall in Norfolk is more Palladian than Palladio. But the disciples of Corb have so far mostly fallen far short. Corb did not wreck our cities in the postwar years- but those besotted by his early theories did, with chilling zeal. It’s like blaming Marx for Stalin. That was not the idea, at all, and Corb’s later town-planning exercises prove that he had changed his views utterly. He was always several steps ahead of his baffled adherents, right up to his death in 1965.

The pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp remains as a kind of architectural sphinx. It has been analysed to bits but we are no closer to really understanding the impulse behind it. As Corb said, it’s a plastic work, it’s difficult. In the end, it’s best not to try to understand. Just think of it as architecture that, like Palladio’s, is very close indeed to some kind of absolute truth.

Text and photographs © Hugh Pearman. An extended version of the article first published in The Sunday Times, London, on February 15, 2009.


Le Corbusier – the art of architecture: Barbican Art Gallery, London, from February 19 to May 24.
Andrea Palladio – his life and legacy: Royal Academy, London, until April 13.
RIBA online resource on Palladio:
“The Robotism of Architecture”: Lutyens reviews Corb in 1928: