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The building of a reputation

Photographer Lucien Herve found his subject in the buildings of Le Corbusier. A new exhibit captures a poetic high point of the men's work.

August 03, 2003|Hugh Hart | Special to The 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 emigre born Lucien Laszlo who adopted the code name Herve when he fought in the French Resistance during World War II. Herve discovered his true calling in 1949 at age 39, when, in a single day, he snapped 650 photographs of Cite Radieuse, an enormous Marseille apartment complex designed by Le Corbusier.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Architecture photographs -- A Sunday Calendar article incorrectly reported that the Getty Research Institute acquired 180,000 Lucien Herve negatives of Le Corbusier-related images. The correct number is 18,000.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 10, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Architecture photographs -- An article in the Aug. 3 Sunday Calendar incorrectly reported that the Getty Research Institute acquired 180,000 Lucien Herve negatives of Le Corbusier-related images. The correct number is 18,000.

Herve sent his photos to Le Corbusier, who responded: "You have the soul of an architect."

"From that point on Herve 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 Herve 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 Herve" 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 Herve'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 Herve's own artistic sensibility comes through most vividly in five painstakingly cropped prints. "I think in Herve's mind, he paints with photographs," Safe says. "Herve 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 Herve 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."

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