Photographer Lucien Hervé found his subject in the buildings of Le Corbusier. A new exhibit captures a poetic high point of the men's work
August 3, 2003
By Hugh Hart, Special to The Times
Los Angeles Times
In 1944, Nazi bombs destroyed Notre Dame de Ronchamp, a chapel perched since the 11th century on a hill in rural France. In 1950, the Catholic Church hired Le Corbusier to put it back together again. Le Corbusier was an atheist, a socialist and a Modernist designer known for his unsparing grid-like structures, but the unlikely commission resulted in one of the most dramatic turnabouts in 20th century architecture.
Using ancient rubble from the ruins as fill for the thick concrete walls, Le Corbusier built a monument to spiritual resilience that would also stand as an apparent repudiation of the International Style he had spearheaded.
In contrast to the unornamented, rectilinear aesthetic he'd helped pioneer, Le Corbusier's reconstructed Ronchamp would feature curving walls bulging with confessional cavities and punctured with hand-painted windows, crowned by a billowing prow-like roof that appears to float above the foundation.
On hand to record the rebuilding of Ronchamp was Le Corbusier's Boswell, a Hungarian émigré born Lucien Laszlo who adopted the code name Hervé when he fought in the French Resistance during World War II. Hervé discovered his true calling in 1949 at age 39, when, in a single day, he snapped 650 photographs of Cité Radieuse, an enormous Marseille apartment complex designed by Le Corbusier.
Hervé sent his photos to Le Corbusier, who responded: "You have the soul of an architect."
"From that point on Hervé essentially became Le Corbusier's photographer," says Carl Safe, a professor at the school of architecture at Washington University in St. Louis. Safe spent three months in 1996 with Hervé and his wife, Judith, trying to organize nearly 500,000 photographs, piled floor to ceiling in the couple's modest Paris apartment. Safe eventually focused on Ronchamp and selected 45 photographs tracing the project through sketches, models and construction to completion.
"The Lens of Architecture: Ronchamp Through Hervé" runs through Sept. 18 at the A+D Museum in downtown Los Angeles. "The form of this chapel was heretical to a lot of modern architects," Safe says. "This was the building that sort of said to architects, 'Listen, this Modernist movement represented by Mies van der Rohe and the Bauhaus, this idea of slab buildings and less is more — forget that. You can start being expressive.' "
Ronchamp, chosen in an American Institute of Architects poll a few years ago as the most significant church building of the last 500 years, represented a startling shift in direction for Le Corbusier. "If you look at his previous work," Safe says, "he did these very stark towers, so the fact that he would get into this sort of poetic, formal manipulation for a church was pretty remarkable. Here is this man who was designing these relentlessly square and, I'm not kidding, mile-long blocks of apartment buildings that he proposed for Algiers and Paris, and all of a sudden he got poetic."
And like any good poem, the chapel at Ronchamp provokes a wide range of readings. Some believe the roof is shaped like the habits worn by French nuns; others feel it's intended as a metaphor for Noah's Ark. Safe has his own theory. "Le Corbusier always had a shell on his desk, and the structural idea behind it is very derivative of a double-sided shell with a bottom and a top with an open structure between it, and I think that's probably more likely." Even the Ronchamp gutter prompts speculation. Pointing to one of Hervé's pictures, Safe says, "This scupper where all of the rainwater comes off of the roof, people talk about [it as representing] a woman's breasts and the liquid of life coming out of the thing. I don't think Le Corbusier ever sat around and explained any of this to anybody, so we're free to interpret."
The Ronchamp photographs amply chronicle Le Corbusier's achievements, but Hervé's own artistic sensibility comes through most vividly in five painstakingly cropped prints. "I think in Hervé's mind, he paints with photographs," Safe says. "Hervé would assert that if you understand the textures, the shapes, the solids, the voids, the lights and the darks and the way these pieces come together, then you will know something about the whole."
Pausing in front of a picture depicting the intersection of stucco wall, concrete roof, shadow and sky, Safe says, "This is the kind of photograph Hervé is most interested in. He's interested in the geometry. Understand the spirit of these assemblies, and you will understand the spirit of the whole. He was less interested in the portrait of the whole thing than he was in the composition of pieces."
Wim de Wit, director of special collections and visual resources and curator of architectural drawings for the Getty Research Institute, last fall acquired Hervé's entire archive of Le Corbusier-related material, consisting of 180,000 negatives. "The Ronchamp photographs are a pretty good example of how Hervé is able to do the very straight kind of architectural photography, but there are also several photos where he looks at the details and you get so much more out of it than just, 'OK, this is what the building looks like.' You can almost feel the plaster and the texture of this rough stone that they used. That kind of photography is very special to Hervé."
Other architects appreciated Hervé's sensitivity to built forms. Oscar Niemeyer hired him to document the building of Brasilia. Richard Neutra, Marcel Breuer, Pier Luigi Nervi and Walter Gropius recruited Hervé for some of their projects. But Hervé clearly shared a special bond with Le Corbusier, who died in 1965, about the same time that Hervé was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Last month in Paris, De Wit visited Hervé, who at 93 continues to work with scissors, making collages and cropping photographs at his dining room table.
"I saw them for an hour or two, and Judith Hervé at some point said, 'For us, it's not before Christ and after Christ but before Le Corbusier and after Le Corbusier.' "
And why not? It was through the work of Le Corbusier, known for his
towering ego, that the self-effacing Hervé first extracted his own
vision of form and texture. Safe, lingering by the centerpiece photographs,
says, "Whether or not you happen to know that's Ronchamp or built by Le
Corbusier is not all that consequential. What is important is that these
are beautiful compositions that can stand on their own."
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