There is no way this post will escape judgement from the architectural fraternity. Corbusier is a name that sparks debate. Either you are sold on his work or you don’t care for it at all. For some, liking or disliking Corbusier is about defending or critiquing modernism itself.
I would not take it that far. Personally, its quite simple. Being a student of architect in the 90s meant a fair amount of exposure to the work of the Modern Masters, and I remain enchanted by their confidence, their mastery over form and their bold use of the materials and technology of their times. And so, when a fellow delegate attending a conference in Lyon, France proposed a quick visit to Firminy to see some of Corbusier’s buildings, I did not hesitate to join the expedition.
The trip was an adventure from the get go. The three of us — a senior architect and academic from Kerala, a young French speaking architect of Indian origin, and me — decided to skip lunch to get on the next train out of Lyon, and ended up making a desperate dash to catch it. It rained constantly as we rolled out of the city into the countryside, and the landscape of fields and woodlands interpersed with dying de-industrialising towns passed by. And when we got off at Firminy, our colleague and guide on the trip discovered he had lost his phone!
Not to be deterred, we grabbed a quick bite to restore our somewhat flagging spirits, and headed out in the pitter patter to the Corbusian landmarks that the town is clearly famous for. We started with the Saint-Pierre church, with its intriguing frustum-like form placed on a square base. Luckily for us, it happened to be France’s National Day for Architecture, so entry was gratis. I have to say it felt pretty good that a country appreciated its architects enough to have a day in their honour!
Looking at these images weeks afterwards, its hard to describe the feeling while standing there in front of the structure. The terrain is hilly and at different points, one finds oneself viewing the church from varying eye levels. The base is punctured with fenestration, the top is solid and heavy, the funnel shape saving it from looking disbalanced.
The interiors, though, are another story. Here, the fluidity of moving through spaces is aided by the light effects caused by the juxtaposition of glass and concrete. We wandered in a bit of a trance through what are now exhibition halls, which showcased a lovely exhibit about Corbusier’s longstanding collaboration with interior designer Charlotte Perriand, whose work relationship with Corbusier makes for an interesting story about the gender struggles of the times. The exhibition emphasized Corbusier’s experiments with lighting, architecturally and in collaboration with interior designers like Charlotte, and the many images of Chandigarh on the walls made me smile!
The trance intensified into a heart-stopping moment as we climbed into the heart of the church. I stood there gaping for a few heart stopping and goosebump-y moments as I took in what Corbusier had done with the lighting inside that space. From the square base, the sheet of concrete morphs into a cone, with the top chamfered off at an angle. Light comes in indirectly, reflecting off coloured sheets and water, to shimmer in geometric patterns across the ceiling. A pity we were there on a really grey day and couldn’t see the full effect. Even so, it was a magical space, and very unorthodox indeed for a catholic church. The pictures below do no justice at all!
What’s really special about Firminy, however, is the special grouping of Corbusier’s work, which includes the Saint-Pierre church and an arts and sports centre collectivelly called the Site Le Corbusier. The Maison de la Culture, which we walked to next, is part of his collective works that are listed by UNESCO and includes Chandigarh’s Capital Complex. A completely different experience from the church, the Maison de la Culture sports a jaunty facade on its shorter side, owing to the upturned vault roof create through strung a system of strung cables. It long facade is a series of vertical windows, with the famous ‘music notes’ fenestration he designed in collaboration with composer Iannis Xenakis. Many other classic Corbusian features are visible in the Maison de la Culture like the ‘Modulor’ furniture by Pierre Guariche and his centrally hinged windows. It is easy to get lost in the details of the building, and helpfully there are models and drawings to explain some of this.
But the brilliant details apart, it is the absolute confidence in the way Corbusier visualizes his buildings within the landscape that is striking. Some hideous new buildings have kind of marred this, but it is not hard to that Corbusier saw his modernist concrete forms juxtaposed against the rolling hills behind. We caught a glimpse of this on a day when the mist particularly accentuated this contrast.
Firminy is a sleepy town and mainstreet was already shutting down as we headed back to the station, only to discover that our adventures were not yet done! The trains were on strike! And two of us were catching flights back to India the next morning. Sigh! Fortunately, there were some emergency services still running and we had to kill an hour and a half drinking beer and chatting before getting onto a crowded train back to Lyon. Bone tired, at the end of a crazy day, I was glad I could squeeze into my schedule what can only be described as the architectural version of a pilgrimage!