What Le Corbusier and James Turrell Can Tell Us About Working with Nature

Lessons in humility and connecting with nature from two modern masters

Two current exhibitions in New York combine to provide some insights into 21st century design thinking.  One is the comprehensive Le Corbusier retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, the other is James Turrell’s magnificent installation at the Guggenheim Museum.

For those of us who were brought up on the mother’s milk of the modern movement, seeing the work of le Corbusier in one place, our profound modern master, turned out to be somewhat disheartening: It’s a kind of aide-memoire of his haughty and often dehumanizing approach to architectural design and urban renewal. In spite of his impressive accomplishments, we’re left wondering exactly who our mentor was actually planning and designing for. Certainly not the residents of Paris who, to their credit, roundly rejected some of his most arrogant and insane visions; or the modern day residents of Chandigar and Brasilia, designed by his disciples Lucio Costa and Oscar Neimeyer. And least of all the millions of public housing residents and other urban dwellers who eventually fell victim to his failed urban planning ideologies.

As I wandered in silence among the 60 objects, I had to remind myself that in spite of these shortcomings, Le Corbusier was still a modern master, a maker of “machines for living in,” a “poet in three dimensions,” in the words of New York Times architectural critic Michael Kimmelman. But the urban planner in me thought: yes, but at what cost?

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Two days later, on upper Fifth Avenue, I walked with my daughter Anya into a room full of folks who were spread out horizontally on a giant circular cushion, gazing upward into Turrell’s experiential artwork that fills the Guggenheim’s entire atrium. The quiet chatter of a hundred conversations reverberated throughout the space.  And then, of course, there was the light. A full spectrum of bandwidths melds and morphs from one to another with the protracted four-dimensional tempo of an eloquently elongated sunset. A sign says “no photography,” but everyone was doing it anyway—texting, liking, wallowing in the experience and instantaneously sharing it with friends.

Upstairs, at the end of the museum’s long ramp, groups of ten or so people formed to gaze together into a dark room, at an object that changes, depending on how you look at it, from a two dimensional rectangle to a fog filled three dimensional void. The psychology of this experience is tied to the physiology of how our brain works: poetry in multiple dimensions. This nexus of natural phenomena is at the core of Turrell’s work, and for that reason even the untrained observer can engage with his inquisitive spirit, and his sense of natural, even universal, design thinking.

At the end of the Corbu exhibition is a model and some beautiful photographs of his picturesque mountaintop Chapel Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp.   It is perhaps the one building for which he is almost universally admired. A crab shell that he found late in life at his Mediterranean retreat inspired the chapel’s form. Here it was nature, and not machines, that crafted this tightly composed masterpiece. Each building elevation relates in part to the movement of the sun, vistas to the horizon and other native elements of the site. Perhaps it is in these clues, the ones that connect to a more innate and less mechanized set of design principles, that we will find our path for the future.

Roden Crater

Courtesy misionmisericordia.com

“People often are taken aback by contemporary art,” Turrell once said. “They feel it’s kind of in their face in some way, and they are not so willing to submit to it and enter the realm created by the artist, so for me that’s a very important step, is to make something that people want to submit to, but that there is some reward for having done that.”

In a land far, far away from MoMA and the Guggenheim, near Arizona’s painted desert and the resplendent Grand Canyon, is Turrell’s most important work. Here, operating with visual phenomena that have enthralled man since the dawn of civilization is Roden Crater, where he intends “to bring the light of the heavens down to earth, linking visitors with the celestial movements of the planets, stars and distant galaxies.” So between Ronchamp, a fog filled three-dimensional void and Roden Crater, there are important lessons to be learned about the modern movement.  A greater respect, perhaps, for the principles of the natural world, or a crash course in humility if we truly believe that our civilization, or even our planet, can survive us.

Steven Bingler is the founder and president of Concordia, a New Orleans based firm that focuses on the planning and design of a wide range of community-based environments for living and learning. Concordia’s research alliances include the MIT Media Lab, Harvard University’s Project Zero, the University of New Mexico, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Thornburg Institute, the Appalachian Education Lab, and the West Ed Lab.

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