With his heavy modernist hand and love of concrete, you wouldn’t really think of architect Le Corbusier as someone who communed with nature. Yet in the current MoMA exhibition Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes, there is among the architectural drawings and cubic models a small case of natural objects like a pinecone, a bone, worn stones, a crab with no legs, and a nautilus shell (with an old label from a French natural history museum still stuck inside).
These “objets à réaction poètique” as he called them, or “objects of poetic reaction,” were part of Le Corbusier’s eclectic collection of objects from nature that he used to examine ideas of structure.
And while there may not be anything obviously natural about his stern designs with their heavy forms that seem to clash more than work in harmony with their surrounding landscapes, there is hidden inspiration from these natural objects in his architecture.
Here are five examples of these objects influencing his architecture of space, light, and order.
The Crab Shell
While Le Corbusier was roaming a Long Island beach in the 1940s, he came across an emtpy crab shell. He’s said to have kept the shell on his work desk, and it later came as a stroke of unusual inspiration for his Chapelle Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, built between 1950 and 1955. There the sweeping roof recalls the angles of the crab, reaching in inversion to the sky and giving a structural lift to the concrete form.
The Nautilus Shell
Le Corbusier was all about the golden ratio, even making his own measurement system called “Modulor” that merged it with the needs of life on the human scale. He was especially drawn to the ratio in the span of the chambered nautilus shell, and even in his most blocky of buildings you can usually find at least one sweeping spiral edging into the lines, such as the curves and chambers of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard.
The Bee Hive
While there was no preserved bee hive mingled with the “objects of poetic reaction” in the MoMA exhibition, it’s hard to believe that Le Corbusier wasn’t inspired in some way by the communal, insular living for his hive-like Unité d’habitation built between 1947 and 1952. While it strongly inspired the very unnatural Brutalist architecture that came after it, there is the same idea of using pocked space to hold an impressive amount of the living in uniformly aligned structures, which could replicate indefinitely to meet needs.
The Pine Cone
And speaking of the Unité d’habitation, Le Corbusier was also drawn to pine cones, seeing them as another example of an ideal geometry of space. Like a pine cone, many of his buildings appear to be dense barricades against sunlight, but actually, also similar to a pine cone, the layered patterns of staggered concrete are open portals to let in light and air.
Corbusier had some tree branches in his collection, and the idea of branched space is definitely a regular feature of his architecture, but one of his structures actually incorporated this “object of poetic reaction” into the building. His Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau, built in 1925 for the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris was one of his first works to get international attention, and it was built around a tree that flourishes through a circular opening within the building. It was a surprising touch that definitely caught some eyes, but also showed that modernist architecture can bring nature in even if its forms seem against it, and mix the emerging standardized materials of industry with the nature that already exists in our landscapes.
Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes is at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through September 23.
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