Sunday, February 15, 2009

if we don't

Death is the exit door for each one of us. I do not know why we want to make it awful. It is the horizontal of the vertical: complementary and natural.

The Architect Le Corbusier in a letter to his assistant, Andre Wogenscky, on the death of Wogenscky's father. Wogenscky cites the letter in the context of Le Corbusier's passion for the right angle, in his book Le Corbusier's Hands.

The book, which I picked up at Powell's Technical Books in Portland and devoured in the first leg of the return flight home, is a impressionistic remembrance of the man the author worked with for twenty years, and is scattered with Le Corbusier's line drawings (he aspired to be an artist and felt architecture was a compromise), most of them of hands, rendered in squared off forms that are highly suggestive of Mayan hieroglyphics.

The chapters are usually two pages long; sometimes a few pages longer; often only one. The 83 chapter headings are just as brief: Height. His Hand. His Step. Touching. Taking. Body. Effort. Bitterness. Meanders. The Sea.

The author's deep feeling for his Master and colleague color every page. This isn't an academic assessment of Le Corbusier's work: it's an elegy to a dear friend and teacher who is lost and mourned. He remembers with tenderness the massive scale of Le Corbusier's hands; the quality of the warmth he radiated when he was pleased; the solitude and silence from within which he worked.

Martina Milla Bernad's translation is a little bit awkward, but only seems to add to the tenderness. A passage from (which is very nearly all of) a chapter called A Gift reads:

Architectural forms are like human beings; they can be beautiful or ugly, strong or weak, violent or gentle, aggressive or soothing. Le Corbusier's architecture is always strong, just as his hand was strong. Sometimes it is violent, but it is rarely aggressive, and almost always it is gentle and tender. Architecture is like people; only those who are strong can be calm and gentle.


The beauty of architecture is a generous gift. We can take it, make it ours, carry it with us. It will not be diminished by this. It is inexhaustible. Someone else can come after us and receive it and take it along as we did.

This is all because the shapes drawn by Le Corbusier's hand and conceived by him call us. If we don't shut up our thinking, they come toward us. When we find his architecture beautiful, it is not just that we like it. It is the architecture that seems to like us.

Le Corbusier's Hands
Andre Wogenscky
translated by Martina Milla Bernad
MIT Press (2006)

1 comment:

patrick said...

I heard a profile of Le Corbusier on NPR several months ago but couldn't find the program archived.

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