The relationship between Le Corbusier and New York City involved love and hatred, passion and resentment, and ultimately a quest by the architect for “revenge, recognition, and money, money, money,” according to Jean-Louis Cohen, the architecture historian who curated the new show at New York's Museum of Modern Art, Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes (June 15 through September 23). To mark the opening of the MoMA show, Cohen and others spent a day discussing the architect’s tortured affair with the city, during a symposium called “Le Corbusier/New York” at the Center for Architecture.
Even before his first trip to New York, Le Corbusier described Manhattan as “utterly devoid of harmony” and “a storm, a tornado, a cataclysm,” according to Mardges Bacon, a professor at Northeastern University. When he arrived in Manhattan for the first time, in 1935, he held a press conference at which he described even the Empire State Building as too small and claimed the city’s leaders were too timid to hire him. He later described the height of Manhattan’s towers as “nothing more than the manifestation of an inferiority complex.” He also wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times in which he claimed that “American skyscrapers have not attained the rank of architecture; rather, they are merely small objects such as statuettes or knick-knacks, magnified to titanic proportions.” In their stead, he proposed a city of buildings that “don’t try to outdo each other but are all identical,” with highways running right to their front doors—he believed the city’s grid system was obsolete in the automobile age. Le Corbusier met with many of the city’s power brokers, including Nelson Rockefeller, who was then running his family’s real estate business. Le Corbusier pitched an early version of his Unite d’Habitation, but after two months with no commissions, he returned to France, dazzled and disappointed.