Interview William J. R. Curtis (I) | bRijUNi

In the year 2015, coinciding with 50 anniversary of the death of the prolific teacher Le Corbusier, the publishing house Phaidon re-edited the extension of the book Le Corbusier. Ideas and Forms by William J.R Curtis, historian of the architecture, critic, writer, painter and British photographer.

William J.R Curtis is specially known by his critique of the history of the modern architecture and his reflections never stop indifferent.

“The whole world finds in Him Corbusier what is searching, whatever it may be.”

William J.R Curtis

William J. R. Curtis, Villa Savoye, 2011
William J. R. Curtis, Villa Savoye, 2011

This second edition of Le Corbusier. Ideas and Forms carries major changes on the first one, not only with regard to the size of the book, and its larger dimensions, but mainly because you add part IV within five new chapters in it. Being this the main change and reason for this second great edition, along with the review of ideas and arguments that have been underlined or, if so, the contrary, as you pose in the preface, what other reasons pushed you to tackle this task of reviewing the book and how would you help others who already know the book to look into this new one?

The second edition of Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms has involved a complete transformation of the book on all levels, content, form, illustrations, captions, end material, bibliography. It was my aim to preserve the soul of the first edition of 1986 while expanding in a disciplined way the body. At all times I was concerned with literary quality and balance. You mention the four new chapters at the end in the section ‘Principles and Transformations’. These represent an unprecedented reflection upon the basic themes and central ideas of Le Corbusier’s creative universe. But there are numerous other revisions and amplifications throughout the book, for example the Villa Savoye at Poissy now has a detailed chapter of its own which goes into much greater detail.

The full record and argumentation for changes is given in the Preface to the second edition and in the Bibliographical Note at the end which discusses the restructuring of the book in great detail including the use of over one hundred and thirty of my own photographs and countless high resolution reproductions of Le Corbusier’s original drawings. With time and with the perspective of over a quarter of a century it became obvious that a new edition was merited, even if the first edition was sometimes referred to as a classic. Fortunately the reviewers of the second edition seem to approve and this version has even been referred to as a definitive work.

Croquis de Le Corbusier en
Le Corbusier´s sketches in “Le Corbusier. Ideas and Forms”

This year (by 2015 when the interview was held) there are many acts and symposiums celebrating Le Corbusier´s life and work since it is the 50th anniversary of his death. You mention a “temporal eclipse” in the reputation of Le Corbusier when the first edition of Le Corbusier Ideas and Forms was published, only twenty years after Le Corbusier passed away. Why do you think that thirty years after that first edition his figure and ideas have been again valued and we see a blossom of works, readings and new interpretations of his life and work?

 

When the first edition was published in 1986 there were many distorted views in circulation concerning Le Corbusier. Some of these stemmed from the rhetoric of post modernism which tended to demonise him and to blame all the ills of disastrous modernisation and urbanisation on him. He was treated as a rootless functionalist. So the first edition placed Le Corbusier in a much longer historical perspective which avoided the vagaries of fashion and among other things revealed the depth of his understanding of the past.

In many of my writings in that period, including of course Modern Architecture Since 1900, my monographs on Denys Lasdun and Balkrishna Doshi, my writings on Louis Kahn, Alvar Aalto, Alejandro de la Sota and so many others, as well as my articles in critical journals such as the Architectural Review and Architectural Record, I insited on the complexity and durability of a modern tradition in architecture in which primary statements were being re-read and transformed by followers. In the 1990s there was a shift in favour  a reinterpretation of the so called modern masters and their legacy. At the end of the first edition I insisted that it is the timeless levels in Le Corbusier’s work which guarantee his lasting presence and relevance.

I think that history has proved me right!

The penultimate chapter of this segued edition “On Transforming Le Corbusier” deals, among other themes, with Le Corbusier’s influence on some coetaneous architects, some modern architects and some architects of our contemporariness. It is profusely illustrated with images and examples of it so that these references and linkages are pretty clear, even obvious in some particular cases. What are, in your opinion, the reasons of this incredible influence of Le Corbusier’s works that does not occur, however, in any other architect of his generation of later?

Chapter 20 ‘On Transforming Le Corbusier’ is a completely fresh addition to the literature on Le Corbusier. In this chapter I avoid simplistic definitions of ‘influence’ in favour of multiple re-readings of Le Corbusier’s examples by others over a period of a century and in many parts of the world. At several points I refer to Le Corbusier as a mirror and as a lens. A mirror, because others find their identity by reflecting upon his primary works; a lens, because through these same prototypes they perceive basic problems of the times in new ways.

Le Corbusier has had this vast impact for several reasons. First of all he addressed many of the problems of industrialisation through powerful propositions in his buildings, unbuilt projects and writings. Second because he endowed his exemplary statements with unprecedented formal strength. Each generation can return to Le Corbusier’s examples and find something inspiring and relevant in them. Sometimes the same example is interpreted in contratsing ways, because Le Corbusier emnbraced polarities in his syntheses. This process of creative transformation continues today.

William J. R. Curtis, Marseille
William J. R. Curtis, Marseille

With regard to the last question and your book Modern Architecture Since 1900, also published by Pahidon, Jean-Louis Cohen1 explains how that book takes into account for the first time the global expansion of modern architecture as it includes areas such as Asia or Latin-America almost for the first time in the histories -western mainly though- of architecture. Do you think that the fact that Le Corbusier worked in Asia, America and Europe has some kind of relationship with the heterogeneity and subsequent influence of his work? 

Yes of course, even the first edition of Modern Architecture Since 1900 published in 1982 was well ahead of evrybody in taking into account the diffusion and extension of modern arhitectural ideals inthe so called developing world. In the 1980s I spent long periods in India, South East Asia, North Africa and Mexico, investigating architectures ancient and modern. I was deeply interested in issues of national and post colonial identity and in the fusion of the general and the local. Also with the interaction between universalising models and particular pasts.

The second and third editions of Modern Architecture Since 1900 (1987, and 1996) placed key works produced in India, Africa, Latin America etc in both local and global contexts. My knowledge of these places and these works was first hand and I refused to fall into some of the usual clichés about the so called third world. My writings on Balkrishna Doshi, Raj Rewal, Indian modernism, Luis Barragan, and emerging architectures in the Middle East all appeared in the 1980s and have proved to be seminal. So obviously when revisiting Le Corbusier and his world wide impact, I was well prepared. Chapter 20 in fact develeops the very notion of a modern tradition, comparing it to a delta with many streams.

Still Life, Le Corbusier
Still Life, Le Corbusier in “Le Corbusier. Ideas and Forms”

The penultimate chapter of this segued edition “On Transforming Le Corbusier” deals, among other themes, with Le Corbusier’s influence on some coetaneous architects, some modern architects and some architects of our contemporariness. It is profusely illustrated with images and examples of it so that these references and linkages are pretty clear, even obvious in some particular cases. What are, in your opinion, the reasons of this incredible influence of Le Corbusier’s works that does not occur, however, in any other architect of his generation of later?

Rather as Picasso reinvented the visual world of painting, so Le Corbusier reinvented the world of architecture. He was radical in the full sense: revolutionary but returning to roots. He himself stated that the past was his only true master, an astonishing declaration for the ‘pope’ of modern architecture. But of course Le Corbusier penetrated the substructures of diverse world tradiotions and then transformed these into the language of his modern architecture.

This process of metamorphosis is one of the central themes of my book, indeed of all my work on Le Corbusier starting with my first studies and books over forty years ago. Another basic theme is that of the genesisi of forms. An entire chapter is devoted to this in the new part 4 of the book on ‘Principles and Transformations’, but in fact the whole book has always been concerned with Le Corbusier’s processes of invention and his interactions of ideas and forms. The Conclusion has been expanded to say a lot more about Le Corbusier’s return to fundamentals and about his use of basic features of the medium of architecture such as light and space.

… The interview will continue, the second next week and last part of the interview…

bRijUNi architects (Beatriz Villanueva and Francisco Javier Casas Cobo).
Riyadh (Arabia Saudí), January 2017

Nota:

1 What Jean-Louis Cohen says exactly on Curtis’s book is this:

“took into account the global expansion of modern architecture, a perspective rooted in his own experiences in Asia and Latin America”

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