Jay Merrick finds obsession and epic potency in a new exhibition of images of Le Corbusier’s buildings by photographer Richard Pare
The frieze of cacti and succulents, the narrow path, the roughly laid stone wall, the tiny, apparently incidental cabin on the hillside above Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. Richard Pare’s image – one of 26 on show at the PM Gallery and House in Ealing, along with others concerning Konstantin Melnikov – is surely too beautifully composed to suggest anything profound, or even memorial. And yet it is hard to resist the idea of the cabanon as Le Corbusier’s equivalent of Queequeg’s coffin in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick – a coffin so beautifully crafted that Queequeg, the chief harpooner aboard the whaler Pequod, decided that it should be used instead as a life-raft.
There is no obvious sense of death-in-life about Pare’s image of the Cabanon on its arid altar above the amniotic, rebirthing waters of the bay; and in terms of atmosphere or graphic quality, it is almost postcard trivia compared to his views of the hypostyle room in the Assembly Building, Chandigarh, or the interior of the Sainte-Marie de La Tourette monastery at Eveux-sur-l’Arbresle.
There is something of the search for Moby Dick, the great fictional white whale, in Pare’s images, something of Captain Ahab’s furious search for both faith and death. The obligatory shock of the Modernist new coexists with a sense of decay, of bodies stripped to sinews and bone. Consider the flayed concrete sinews of Pare’s shot of the main hall of the High Court in Chandigarh.
Every work by a self-consciously great architect is automatically a memorial of greatness – a link in a chain of legacies that must, even before the architect’s death, have a postmortem quality. What is the last thing the architect will do, see, think, or feel? The early works announce a fusion of possibilities and a sense of eternal verity; the latter must feel the strengthening swirl of an undertow of conclusion.
In Le Corbusier’s case, there was a crossing-point between these two conditions. He completed the Unité d’Habitation in 1952, and the chapel at Ronchamp in 1954; the former is regarded as the most brilliant statement of his original ideas, the latter a numinous mystery of formal and emotional meanings and effects. It is tempting to see the Unité as the Pequod, aloft on a huge wave, navigating towards its communion with the mystical white whale, the Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut, cleaving upwards out of that swelling hillside in the Jura.
Ishmael, the narrator of Moby-Dick, describes how he and Queequeg wove a rough mat: ‘So strange a dreaminess did there reign over all the ship and over all the sea, only broken by the intermitting dull sound of the sword, that it seemed as if this were The Loom of Time and I myself were a shuttle weaving away of my own Free Will into these unalterable threads. The fixed threads of the warp seemed Necessity – and here thought I, with my own hand I weave my own Destiny. Meantime, Queequeg’s impulsive, indifferent sword hitting the woof, first one way, then another – this savage’s sword must be Chance. Aye – Chance, Free Will, and Necessity – all interweavingly working together.’
Richard Pare’s photographs recall another of Ishmael’s musings: ‘Such an incantation of reverie lurked in the air that each silent sailor seemed resolved into his own invisible self.’ The postcard-like image of the Cabanon has a lingering potency, after all. It is Corbusier’s final, abandoned life-raft.
Jay Merrick is architecture critic at the Independent
Living Laboratory: Richard Pare on Le Corbusier & Konstantin Melnikov.
PM Gallery and House, Mattock Lane, Ealing, London W5
Until 11 May