“Le Corbusier and Color” Exhibition
Pavillon Le Corbusier | Museum für Gestaltung Zürich
May 07 – November 28, 2021
The 2021 exhibition at the Pavillon Le Corbusier, in the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, is dedicated to Le Corbusier’s handling of color. A universal artist, Le Corbusier used color as a spatially formative, iconic element in every phase of his career. This new exhibition retraces the development of his polychromy with photographs, originals, plans, and large-format installations. Le Corbusier (1887–1965) made color an integral part of his architectural concept and developed what he called “color keyboards” or claviers de Couleurs to match. His description of color in architecture as “a means as powerful as the ground plan and section” has forfeited none of its topicality, as is borne out by the hundred or so photographs, originals, and plans of his own show in the exhibition. These are supplemented by three large-format installations that offer visitors a deeply sensual experience of color.
The triumph of ostensibly “white” modernism from the 1920s onward was paralleled by the ever-greater use of color in both architecture and design, whether for interior zoning, to evoke the impact of certain materials, or to lend large housing developments a more “human” face. Without any color at all, a house is just a pot of cream, opined Le Corbusier in 1926, in the middle of the “Purist” phase that also saw him develop his first color scale. It was then that he put color to use as a way of bringing some walls to the fore and downplaying others, or deliberately painted all the walls of a room the same color to identify it as an integral part of a traditional living area. Thus he set a dialectic between the dissolution of space at one extreme and its containment at the other. Le Corbusier explained the theoretical underpinning of his “Purist” polychromy in his now-legendary Zürich Lecture of 1938. Color took on a new significance in his work after World War II. Henceforth, it would serve him as a means of animating large surfaces, becoming an ornament, in the broadest sense. Thus the architect began using bolder hues in conjunction with untreated materials such as concrete, brick, and wood. He also developed a second “color keyboard” and again cooperated closely with the Basel-based wallpaper manufacturer Salubra, which guaranteed “machine-prepared painting” of standardized quality. Le Corbusier further broadened the scope of polychromy in architecture by exploring the color of light, whether using colored glass, as in the chapel at Ronchamp (1955), or by projecting colored light into an interior, as in the Philips Pavilion for Expo 58 in Brussels. The Zürich Pavilion marks the culmination of his lifelong preoccupation with color in architecture. Here, the play of brightly colored enameled panels on the outside is answered by the natural oak cladding that dominates the inside.
The lower level of the Pavillon Le Corbusier retraces the creative use of color in Le Corbusier’s oeuvre and the various phases it went through. It starts with his first experiments in La Chaux-de-Fonds and the famous villas of the 1920s and moves on to the large developments of later years such as the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. It also sheds light on the process by which he conceived his ornamental wall designs and the tool he called his “color keyboards.” The high-ceilinged studio on the ground floor is dedicated to Le Corbusier’s only factory building, the Claude et Duval textile factory in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges, whose boardroom he endowed with an iconic wall design and furnishings by Jean Prouvé. The upstairs exhibits all have to do with the pigments that form the material basis of every coat of paint. The installation shown here, along with the pigment collection of Bauhaus master Johannes Itten (here exhibited for the first time), invites visitors to immerse themselves in the magic of color. Also installed upstairs (in the library) is the mini-exhibition of seventeen works by the Zürich-based Magnum photographer, René Burri (1933–2016), who produced his visual record of Le Corbusier at work, including in his painter’s studio, between 1955 and 1965.
Since its opening in 1967, the Pavillon Le Corbusier has been run as an exhibition space for shows that bring the work and ideas of Le Corbusier to a wide audience. True to this spirit, and mandated by the City of Zürich as the building’s owner, the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich has been running the Pavillon Le Corbusier as a museum open to the public since the spring of 2019. Visitors are welcome to enter the pavilion and discover it for themselves. With a total area of some 600 square meters spread over four stories, it invites visitors to look inside as well as out. The unobstructed views of the Zürichhorn and the lake from the little rooftop terrace are especially worthwhile.