Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Barbican Centre, Barbican

Thursday 21st May, 2009

The Bitter: A gift shop selling a set of salt and pepper shakers for £60

The Sweet: The sunlit terrace, replete with wandering mallards and all kinds of people to watch

5. From Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris to Le Corbusier

A colleague and I were talking the other day about what we had done before coming to our present jobs, and she mentioned working for several architecture firms in New York before she arrived in London. I mentioned a fleeting relationship with one particularly analytical architect, and although it was a relief to not be with someone so critical, I confessed I missed the opportunity to learn from someone who was passionate about his surroundings. I liked that a walk was never just a walk with him, but a tour of all the little details I’d never notice on my own. I was encouraged to look up at the city around me; and to keep thinking, always thinking, about why and how and when.

In theory, I like the idea of being with someone both creative and (mildly) critical and ordered; someone who has a keen sense of what they do and don’t like, but is open-minded enough to try new things. I can imagine that architects, like all other creatives, must need to be on the lookout all the time for new ideas and inspirations – something I find incredibly appealing.

Much more importantly, my newly single colleague was rather keen to check out the architectural talent here in London, so we decided to catch the Le Corbusier exhibition during its last weeks at the Barbican.

I didn’t know anything much about Le Corbusier except that he designed some iconic chairs (that and what I managed to wikipedia a couple of hours before the exhibition), but culture is so important to me, and has been such a big part of my life since escaping the cultural black hole of Orpington (I blurted it all out here) - that I am always more than happy to surround myself with art in all forms, whether I know I’ll get it, or not. The most interesting fact I found on the great man's wiki entry was that his name was a pseudonym:

in 1920, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret adopted Le Corbusier, an altered form of his maternal grandfather's name, "Lecorbésier", as a pseudonym, reflecting his belief that anyone could reinvent himself.

What a twonker, I thought. But then, hardly any writers use their real names, so I should stop being such a judgemental cow. And it's true - anyone can reinvent themselves. Just why though, do people want to?

We went during the late night opening on a Thursday and the place was heaving. A queue formed from the ticket desk all the way out to the lifts, full of quirkily-dressed designers in black thick-rimmed glasses. Maybe I was tired. Maybe I wasn't in the right frame of mind. I'm probably just a philistine. I tried my best to look at his early works - paintings that seemed to ape Picasso (although they were probably earlier);

sculptures that looked like children's toys;

the wooden models of Chandigarh, and the Unité d'habitation in Marseilles, and feel something for them, but I was left cold. The standout point of the exhibition for me was seeing the heinous 'Plan Voisin' for the beautiful Marais and feeling angered and relieved all at once that this pretentious man with the 11-letter pseudonym hadn't gotten away with it (good work, Parisian planners).

My colleague was noticeably more interested in our fellow exhibition-goers than the works, so we took the lightest of tours, cooed at the chaise longue, and then headed for the gift shop, where we saw a pair of exorbitant salt and pepper shakers for £60. They looked a little like dumbbells, but that was it. They were still just salt and pepper shakers.

They, in some neat way, summed up the entire evening surrounding the artist himself - just a little bit bloody ridiculous. Why did M. Jeanneret feel the need to change himself anyway? Why did I? I might not have understood the point of much of that exhibition, but what was pulling at me to go and see it anyway? Who was I still trying to impress?

The two glasses of wine that followed, sipped on a sunny terrace, (watching our fellow culture vultures discuss the works they'd seen like their lives depended on it, then seeing the mallards waddle by, oblivious), made everything seem right again.

Reinvention? Who needs it, anyway...?

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