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Correcting Corb: How Ove Arup reminded his architect friend about gravity

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AJ EXCLUSIVE: Research for a V&A exhibition has unearthed previously unseen correspondance between two titans of 20th-century design: Ove Arup and Le Corbusier

‘…You had an idea which most architects have that if you have some sort of concrete shell you can do almost anything. I agree that you can do many amazing things with concrete shells, but they are still subject to the laws of gravity….’

So the 20th century’s greatest engineer, Ove Arup, wrote to the pioneer of Modernist architecture, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier), about one of the architect’s most famous projects, the Indian city of Chandigarh.

These letters are the ‘first concrete evidence’ that Arup advised Le Corbusier on Chandigarh

The comment is from one of more than 60 little-known letters, mostly in French, between the go-to man for reinforced concrete and one of its biggest advocates, which curators at the V&A consulted when researching the first retrospective on the philosopher-engineer. They claim these letters from the Fondation Le Corbusier archives, dated between 1959 and 1965, the year of Le Corbusier’s death, provide the ’first concrete evidence’ that Arup advised on Chandigarh and the architect’s iconic concrete pilotis for his unrealised Unité d’Habitation at Meaux in France.

It is unclear from these ‘sounding board letters’ whether Le Corbusier paid Arup for his work. ‘It sounds like pro bono brain-picking,’ says V&A curator Zofia Trafas White.

The exhibition, Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design, which opens on Saturday (18 June) as part of the V&A’s engineering season, is divided into sections examining Arup the man, him and his firm, and his legacy. The opening section includes a lithograph with collage by Le Corbusier of the wispy-haired engineer who, after finishing his studies, was inspired by the architect’s 1923 collection of essays Vers une Architecture.

Being shown in public for the first time, the colour portrait from the Arup family collection features a handwritten dedication in French, dated 1 March 1962, in which Le Corbusier says it is a testament to their friendship. The picture was hanging in the engineer’s London office at the time of his death in 1988.

‘[The portrait] I think really captures my father very well - the pose, the way the hands are folded and so on is very typical of how my father would sit often, thinking about things,’ says Karin Perry, 75, the youngest and only surviving of Arup’s three children, who knew of his relationship with Le Corbusier but had not seen the letters. ’It’s very good.’

Colour lithograph portrait of Ove Arup by Le Corbusier

Colour lithograph portrait of Ove Arup by Le Corbusier

Source: Private collection © FLC, ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

Colour lithograph portrait of Ove Arup by Le Corbusier

The portrait prompted Trafas White and co-curator Maria Nicanor to dig further into Arup’s relationship with Le Corbusier. The discovery in the Arup company archives of four uncatalogued sketches done by Arup in 1959, examining loading conditions for the pilotis at Le Corbusier’s planned Unité d’Habitation at Meaux, near Paris, and travelogues showing he visited the French capital in mid-October that year, led the curators to contact the Fondation Le Corbusier, after they failed to find more details in the Arup estate or firm archives.

The foundation provided more than 60 letters between Le Corbusier and Arup, which are not part of the exhibition, with carbon copies showing both sides of the correspondence.

Photograph of Le Corbusier by Rogi André, c1937

Photograph of Le Corbusier by Rogi André, c1937

Photograph of Le Corbusier by Rogi André, c1937

After getting his address from fellow architect Jørn Utzon, Le Corbusier wrote to Arup on 5 October 1959, seeking advice about his pilotis, setting out 10 problems. Arup attended a meeting with engineers in Paris later that month and wrote to the architect on 11 November with a summary of his conclusions on the concrete columns at Meaux. ‘When we fed this back to Arup, they could not believe it because there’s no record of this as an Arup job,’ says Trafas White.

In another letter, on 3 March 1962, Le Corbusier informed Arup he had made him a picture and urged him to pick it up or organise transport. The letter caught Arup at a time when he was delayed in Austria due to illness, says Trafas White, so his secretary responded saying Arup would try and arrange collection. However it was only when Arup’s firm sought a contribution from Le Corbusier for a special publication for the engineer’s 70th birthday in 1965, featuring comments and illustrations from his famous friends, that the portrait made its way to London. A copy of Le Corbusier’s portrait graced the birthday booklet’s cover.

Ove Arup with bas relief of Le Corbusier's Modulor Man, unite d'habitation, Marseille during the C.I.A.M. 9, Aix en Provence

Ove Arup with bas relief of Le Corbusier’s Modulor Man, unite d’habitation, Marseille during the C.I.A.M. 9, Aix en Provence

Source: Riba Collections © FLC, ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London

Ove Arup with bas relief of Le Corbusier’s Modulor Man, unite d’habitation, Marseille during the C.I.A.M. 9, Aix en Provence

Having studied at art school in Switzerland, Le Corbusier was a gifted artist. ‘It was a gift that he bestowed on select people,’ says Anthony Flint, a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Massachusetts and author of Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow. ’Being completely honest, many of them were beautiful women and women that he may have just met. He might give them a watercolour or sketch or portrait.’

Flint says people had to meet ‘pretty high intellectual standards’ for the ‘temperamental’ Le Corbusier to respect them. ‘He burnt through many friendships and relationships over the course of his lifetime and he was pretty picky about who he really devoted time to in terms of building up a relationship … It’s quite a testament to Arup that Le Corbusier clearly would have so much respect for him. He must have been doing something really right.’

So right that Le Corbusier contacted Arup about another of his famous designs, for the city of Chandigarh. Arup’s involvement is not surprising: in his biography, Ove Arup: Master Builder of the Twentieth Century, Peter Jones suggests Arup was interested in the plans and received letters about it from project architects Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew.

It’s quite a testament to Arup that Le Corbusier clearly would have so much respect for him. He must have been doing something really right

Le Corbusier wrote to Arup on 17 January 1962, seeking advice about the design for a roof garden and amphitheatre at one of the buildings, suggesting the engineers working on it were not up to doing the calculations. Le Corbusier, who sent Arup original drawings, flattered him, writing of his engineering talent.

Type 13 housing in Chandigarh

Type 13 housing in Chandigarh

Type 13 housing in Chandigarh

Consultation ensued over the following months before Arup wrote to the architect in English on 28 June 1962 (see below), saying the architect’s wishes were unclear and proposing solutions to issues that had arisen. It is in this letter that he made the comment about the laws of gravity.

This is ‘typical Arup’, says Jones, who did not know of the letter. ‘He was fearless about telling people what he thought,’ he says. Of course he’d offended an enormous number of people but strong-minded, independent people like [Berthold] Lubetkin, Corbusier and [Walter] Gropius, they took it very well.’

’Arup was fearless about telling people what he thought’

The biographer says ‘it is entirely natural that these two who have in many ways overlapping interests in terms of aesthetics and design’ corresponded. He says Arup and Le Corbusier were in touch from the 1930s and that these letters ‘certainly wouldn’t have been the first’ between them, although he cannot remember whether he saw earlier examples during his research.

As Jones notes in his book, Arup was a member of the MARS (Modern Architectural Research) Group, founded in 1933, which was affiliated to CIAM (the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne), founded in 1928 by architects including Le Corbusier. Jones also refers to Arup having meetings with Le Corbusier in 1946 about the competition to rebuild London’s Crystal Palace.

The V&A’s Nicanor says it is interesting to see Arup, who redefined the relationship between architects, designers and engineers, correcting Corbusier. ‘You need to really know what you’re talking about to correct Corbusier and he talks about it in these terms that we’re very much using for the exhibition … of the relationship between the architect and the engineer,’ she says.

Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design is at the V&A until 6 November

Exhibition view of Engineering the World

Exhibition view of Engineering the World

Source: V&A

Exhibition view of Engineering the World

Creative exchange: letters from 1962

Extract from a typed letter written in Paris by Le Corbusier to Ove Arup on 17 January 1962 about his project in Chandigarh. Translated into English from the original French by Manon Mollard with permission from Fondation Le Corbusier:

… I am sure that we can make something ravishing. The talent of an engineer is required; I do not have any of that myself. I would therefore ask you, dear Mr Arup, to please be willing to draw this small construction…

The Engineers of Chandigarh are absolutely not able to carry out these calculations. All the Chandigarh work is selfless work; the money is unable to leave India (I would know something about this!!!), but that does not matter at all. These people are extremely kind. I have established a bond of friendship with Mr Nehru. It has now been 10 years that I have worked on Chandigarh, among extravagant difficulties (the budgets are extremely low). I am only in charge of the Capitol buildings and some of the roads with ‘imposed architecture’. Chandigarh’s Capitol will be a selfless labour of love and friendship.

Dear Mr Arup, I would be very pleased, on this occasion, to make useful contact with you and to benefit, in the future perhaps, from your immense talent as an engineer.

Needless to say that this is absolutely urgent…

[Correspondence between the pair continues over the following months]

Extract from a letter in English from Ove Arup to Le Corbusier, typed on Ove Arup & Partners headed paper and dated 28 June 1962:

Dear Monsieur le Corbusier,

Amphitheatre at Chandigarh

I am sorry that I have not replied to your letter of the 29th May before but circumstances were against us. I myself have not completely recovered from my illness and am not back at my office yet, and my Associate Mr. Poul Ahm, who was dealing with the matter, was away at a Conference in Rome when your letter came.

It is of course very difficult to deal with a matter like this by letter. You say that you have made your wishes perfectly clear in your first communication but I must confess that they were not quite clear to me, except that you want ‘une chose ravissante’. I thought that what you wanted was a kind of sculpture which would at the same time fulfil a certain function as an amphitheatre and stage rolled into one, and further, that you had an idea which most architects have that if you have some sort of concrete shell you can do almost anything. I agree that you can do many amazing things with concrete shells, but they are still subject to the laws of gravity and other natural restrictions which impose certain conditions. If a slab is to act as a shell it must be stiffened at certain points and it must have a sufficient curvature of the right kind in certain places. The ‘shell’ which you show did not in itself satisfy the conditions and could not span any long distances. It would really have to act as a slab and it was a fairly simple calculation to find out the maximum moments for the various points of the slab…

Credit: ©FLC/DACS, 2016 

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