NEW YORK — Le Corbusier was one of the four or five greatest architects of the 20th century, and probably the most influential. He was born in 1887 in Switzerland, lived most of his life in France, and died in 1965. His birth name was Charles-Édouard Jeanneret. He invented the name Le Corbusier in his 30s, perhaps thinking it sounded more impressive. Even if you’ve never heard of him, you’ve doubtless seen images of his world-famous hilltop chapelat Ronchamp in France. His only work in North America — not one of his best — is the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard.
Corbusier is the subject of a major new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art here. It’s called “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes” and it’s unusual in two ways. One, it views the life work of the architect through the single lens of landscape and how the architect thought about it. Two, it’s organized like a biography, beginning with Corbusier as a youth and following him, chapter by chapter and gallery by gallery, as he grows and transforms himself over time.
All his life he carried a sketchbook in his pocket. We see first the early landscape paintings, most of them in pencil, ink, and watercolor, that the young Corbusier made of the dark mountains and pines near his birthplace in the Jura range of the Alps. Some early designs for houses, made while he was still a teen, have the woodsy character you’d expect.
Then the young man travels, a hiker with a backpack, and the sketchbooks fill with images of the Mediterranean and its cities, the Acropolis in particular. He works and draws in Germany. He moves to Paris, learns to love materials like glass and concrete, becomes a modernist, takes up oil painting in a late-Cubist manner, designs crisp white houses with flat roofs.
He writes books that define the meaning of modernism for a generation. But always moving on, he never stops reinventing himself. In his later years he’s making drawings from airplanes as he flies back and forth, to and from India, where he’s designing a whole new city called Chandigarh.
All his life, Corbusier was piling up visual memories. Part of the fun of this show is to notice how a motif from, say, a painting turns up again in a work of architecture. He amassed a collection of thousands of postcards of architecture and landscape.
The curators of the exhibition are Jean-Louis Cohen, a professor at New York University, and Barry Bergdoll, MoMA’s chief curator of architecture and design. They argue (I’m paraphrasing) that Corbusier had two ways of thinking about landscape. First, a building was a machine for viewing the landscape. It selected and shaped views by means of the placement and treatment of windows and other openings. By framing the landscape, the architecture made it into art. Second, a building was a work of sculpture to be seen as an object in the landscape, responding or gesturing to it in some way, as a performer might gesture to an audience. Ronchamp is a good example of that.
All his life, Corbusier was piling up visual memories.
Not everything here has all that much to do with landscape, though. The exhibit is a hodgepodge, a grandma’s attic of unexpected delights. There’s an impressive row of Corbusier’s paintings of the 1930s. There’s a full-size mock-up of the interior of a tiny resort cottage Corbusier built for himself on the Mediterranean. There’s a video of Corbusier lecturing while he sketches on a board. There are walls that have been painted in the exact bold, primary colors Corbusier preferred. There are drawings and models of every size and kind.
And there are odd survivals, like the original model, made in 1932, of a design for the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow. That design never got built, but sharp-eyed Bostonians may recognize it as an influence on the spidery roof design of Harvard’s Science Center. The Science Center’s architect, Josep Lluís Sert, as a young man worked on the Palace in Corbusier’s office.
This is not a collection of greatest hits. Many well-known buildings are missing and others are shown only in part. And like a lot of very creative people, Corbusier was uneven and often impractical. His “towers in a park” theories of city planning, which he espoused in the ’20s and ’30s, were totally misguided and had a huge and disastrous influence. He was the inventor of the style that came to be called Brutalism, which was powerful when done by him but less so when imitated by his followers.
In other words, this exhibition isn’t a set of examples of good design. It’s an exploration of the many sides of an incredibly diverse, flawed, and gifted human being. And for the diehard fan, there’s a beautiful accompanying book with essays by 30 scholars.
An exercise in placelessness
I’d like to end with a few words about MoMA, which is planning another in what seems to be an endless series of expansions. There’s a paradox here. MoMA has always been known for promoting good design in its collections and exhibitions, but the architecture of MoMA’s own building is a disaster. I was appalled by it when the museum reopened after its last expansion, done in 2004 by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi. It hasn’t grown on me since. With another expansion in the works, some rethinking is overdue.
A visit to MoMA goes sour from the start. You begin with a huge, block-long lobby that feels like an airline terminal, not a setting for art. You vaguely feel you should probably be disrobing for security.
The gallery floors are mazes in which you’re guaranteed to get lost. Searching for a particular exhibit, I always feel I’m a lab rat, hunting through an experimenter’s maze for the reward of a piece of cheese.
The monotonous walls, usually all-white, are completely without architectural detail. They don’t have so much as a baseboard. As a result, they don’t feel like solid walls, they feel like screens, and the paintings begin to look bodiless, like projections on those screens.
There’s pleasure in the art but there’s no pleasure in the architecture. You miss the joy of moving among varied and interesting spaces. The artworks have no context to relate to, nothing to be measured against.
To gain more room for its expansion, MoMA is now considering whether to demolish a neighbor. This is the building, now vacant, which opened only 12 years ago as the American Folk Art Museum. I wasn’t in love with the architecture of that museum, by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. But whatever its problems, it possessed one indispensable quality: It had character; it was memorable. It wasn’t an exercise in placelessness like the MoMA galleries.
The architect planning the expansion is the New York firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which designed Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art and much of the High Line in New York. I hope they’ll insist on saving the Folk Art building and incorporating it into the expansion. That would begin to relieve MoMA’s endless sameness. There’d be tension in the conjunction, of course, maybe even awkwardness. But those are among the qualities that make cities surprising and interesting. The late great critic Ada Louise Huxtable got it exactly right, as usual, when she once wrote: “I am no fan of perfection.”
Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.