I’m going back to university!
Okay, that’s not strictly true but it feels like it. Because I’ve been reading a lot about Le Corbusier lately and it reminds me of when I studied him at university. It stikes me how different it feels now. At university, he was simply one of the many architects we looked at as we followed the linear development of architecture, from the first stirrings of the Arts and Crafts movement in England in the 1860s until the flourishing of Modernism in the 1930s. I’m not sure we went much further although we dabbled in the World Fairs of later years.
And we studied while sitting within the brand new Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, itself a wonderful expression of an evolution of Modernism called High Tech. The building was going through its teething problems, with louvres not quite working and external panels being moved to maximise sunlight. Its architect Norman Foster would arrive in his helicopter, landing outside on the pad just beside a reclining figure by Henry Moore, and prowl around the place in his polo-necked sweater, every inch The Architect.
Arriving there on a chilly winter’s morning, its cool aluminium walls were somehow welcoming. It was a machine for studying in. A hum filled the space and put you in an altered state as you opened your books in the tiny glass seminar rooms or stole away into the gallery for some peace, gathering your thoughts surrounded by the agonies of Francis Bacon paintings or the tribal artifacts of Benin. As an eighteen year old you take all this in your stride. Only looking back do you appreciate the wonder of it all.
The buildings of Le Corbusier seemed to me to belong to another dimension altogether, made more-so perhaps by the photographic slides we used to illustrate our seminars which showed the buildings in black and white, spanking new, in gardens yet to be made and with de Souzas and early Renaults parked outside. I always loved these shots. I felt that I understood Le Corbusier even when he came up with his Plan Voisin that proposed tearing down the centre of Paris. While everyone threw up their hands in horror, I ‘got’ what he was doing, trying to introduce a new age of modernity, away from the sentimentality of past centuries. The Plan Voisin was only ever meant as a starting point for a bigger conversation about big cities and what they should look and feel like, but it amazes me how people still think of Corb as a kind of philistine, tearing down the monuments. (He meant to keep the important ones, after all.)
Now when I read about him, I have experienced being within some of his buildings (and wanting to visit them all, especially his Unite d’habitation in Marseilles). I have the broader experience that comes with having walked within great buildings of all periods around the world. I still think Le Corbusier is a fascinating architect. Driving around some parts of Sydney I see many houses that could almost be his, with their flat roofs and white walls and strip windows. Except these have been built in the 21st century, almost a hundred years after his first Monol and Dom-ino designs that made such sense to me back in the 1970s.
It’s sentimental, I know, but one of the joys of growing older is revisiting the things you used to know more about and deepening your view on them all. Maybe I’m thinking about all this because it’s the beginning of October and that will always mean to me the start of a new academic year in England. And part of me would love to be that student walking again to the Sainsbury Centre for the very first time, wondering what I was in for. And seeing some of those buildings for the very first time.