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Exposing the soul of a thinker at MoMA

The MOMA's exhibit of Le Corbusier opens on a defensive note. Jean-Louis Cohen, the show's curator, wants to "re-skew Le Corbusier from his bad reputation of constructing generic buildings." Cohen aims to prove that the Swiss architect, often blamed for the brutal, "towers in the park" style of public housing, was actually a sensitive soul in perfect tune with the landscape. Whether you accept Cohen's conclusion may depend on what you expect from an urban planner. Regardless, this is a dense and rich show, an entertaining look at the mind of a major thinker.

We start out with the architect as a young man, sketching landscapes in his native Swiss mountain village and on his first trips abroad to Germany and the Near East. These are extraordinarily precise pictures, all straight lines and tidy notations. There's little sign of youthful daydreaming here, and it comes as no surprise that Le Corbusier's first building, a home for his parents in their village, is an immensely practical, minimalist house with plenty of light and little furniture. It's an appealing little house, built for mountain views and clean living, and it speaks clearly of the architect's love for his parents.

As Corbusier got older his buildings got bigger. Cohen argues that the architect was always sensitive to his surroundings. He built airy courtyards for private houses; he designed broad buildings along beaches and tall towers in crowded cities. Corbusier traveled the world, producing what he thought were ideal urban plans for Buenos Aires, Paris, and Chandigarh, India. And in many cases, his buildings curve with the surrounding hills, or rise in neat perpendicular lines against flat plains. This is beauty on a large, conceptual scale.

But Cohen never manages to show that Le Corbusier thought much about the needs of the people who would live in his buildings. Some of his ideas are irreproachable: clearly, skyscrapers with small apartments make sense for crowded cities. But the hulking structures Corbusier proposed are frankly frightening. Take the great uniform towers of his Plan Voisin for Paris, which called for razing the city center. The tower's residents are far from the street, far from any greenery, and the narrow stairwells suggest rabbit warrens in the sky. There's a certain callousness here, considering how much thought Corbusier put into designing terraces and roof gardens to make life sweeter for his wealthier clients. If only the great man had thought so carefully about the rest of us.

Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes runs through September 23 at the Museum of Modern Art.

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