A rather significant event occurred in the world of architecture in the last year—at least from the point of view of this writer. In the city Firminy-Vert, a historical mining community in France, a church initially designed by Le Corbusier was completed. It is the fourth Le Corbusier structure to have been realized in this town, the result of the architect’s fruitful relationship with its post-war mayor. The Church of Saint Pierre was realized by one of Le Corbusier’s numerous acolytes, Jose Oubrerie, who collaborated with the master architect in the last years of his life during the early 1960’s. More than 40 years after his death, the church is finally complete, and in spite of Oubrerie’s own influences, the design of the church of Saint Pierre is remarkably consistent of Le Corbusier’s later works. Many details in the design were the result of stricter building codes, as well as Oubrerie’s own aesthetic predilections, but the rest of the structure combines formal elements that have become the trademarks of Le Corbusier’s most celebrated projects, such as his monastery at La Tourette, his Assembly building in Chandigar, India, as well as from his Chapel at Ronchamp du Haut.
It is not unusual for an architect to die before the completions of designs for a few years afterward. It is rare to build based on plans from several decades before, often because it requires another architect to interpret the design intentions of the original designer, divining on what he was thinking. The best way at ascertaining this kind of intangible information was to rely on an architect’s protégé. Frank Lloyd Wright, who surrounded himself by many sycophantic apprentices who lived and worked in his large private compounds in Wisconsin and in Arizona, produced dozens upon dozens of architects who mastered and internalized his style so as to be indistinguishable from Wright’s own work. Such disciples probably helped in the completion of the one project that I’ve seen which was built many decades after Wright’s death: the Monona Terrace in Madison. Although most of the details and interior spaces are contemporary, the overall lines of the structure are unmistakably Wright’s.
Le Corbusier ran his Paris studio like a monastery workshop, with young ambitious architecture students from around the world coming to work on his projects for little or no pay. They eventually left and returned to their home countries and disseminate the ideas and practices of their master. Le Corbusier’s former apprentices would thus synthesize his ideas and idiosyncratic forms with cultural influences of their native countries, creating a more localized Modernist vocabulary. Examples of this are found in Oscar Niemeyer’s work in Brazil and Balakrishna Doshi in India. Because of this desire for synthesis, it is not easy to confuse an actual Le Corbusier design with one of his acolytes’. Contrary to most people’s general view of Le Corbusier as the standard bearer of a monotonous machine aesthetic and standardization, his architecture was progressed quickly toward radically different phases. As he matured as a designer, his light and purist structures gave way to heavier, rougher, more organic buildings. His works for sacred functions expanded his expressionistic style and use of symbols that derived from his painting. The more sculptural his designs became, the more mysterious imagery, recurring formal themes and various textures would emerge. Unlike the relative consistency of his earlier villas, which followed his ‘five points’ faithfully and would not elaborate them any further than necessary, Le Corbusier’s latter works juxtapose symbols, creating tense dialogues between them. They also incorporate curves , shapes , and numerological codes that reveal deeper meanings less related to the building’s function than to the wandering mind and soul of the atheist architect.
The Church of Saint Pierre reminds those who relegate Le Corbusier as simply the inventor of the cubist architecture on stilts that there was much more going on in his mind as his career evolved. It serves as a summary of where the master was near the end of his life, and is a testament to his unceasing inventiveness. When put in the context of the architecture produced today, the church stands out in though its lyrical and sculptural complexity. Its deliberate artistic qualities distinguish it from countless other contemporary buildings, which derive their meaning from their function and from the obscurity of their fancy exterior skins. The effect of the latter is for one to say that the building’s effect registers a ‘je ne sais quoi’ response. Le Corbusiers’s late works leave so many vague formal cues and symbols that one naturally responds with “where do I begin to try to understand this?” In my experience the layers of embedded meaning are many yet accessible to all who make the effort.
Le Corbusier sought to enrich formal language of Modernism, and Jose Oubrerie should be thanked for providing us another example of the Swiss architect's achievement towards that end.