Few buildings have resolved the challenge of interior lighting with more mastery than the church of Saint-Pierre in Firminy, Le Corbusier’s “newest”, a project which was conceived after the architect’s death but whose production then took several years, so many, in fact, that the completed church is now a 21st century building. With its lighting wells, its fascinating “sky map” and variations in intensity and colour depending on the season and time of day, Saint-Pierre in Firminy exemplifies, after prolonged research and bursts of instinct, the best constructive solutions derived from Christian antiquity and the Middle Ages.
It was therefore highly fitting to hold a captivating summertime exhibition on the church’s premises that once again pays homage to Firminy as a heritage site and that also focuses on of a pair of enlightened and trailblazing architects: working alongside the owner was the very independent and talented Charlotte Perriand – an early partner in the Le Corbusier & Jeanneret interior design firm. For both of them, the issue of lighting arose profoundly right from their earliest projects and all throughout their prolific careers: Le Corbusier was only 19 years old when assumed the responsibility of designing the Villa Schwob in La-Chaux-de-Fonds; the lamppost that he created for the occasion was directly inspired by street lighting. He immediately discovered that he shared a trait with Perriand; an enthusiasm for industrial objects whose restraint and efficiency, in their view, was much more suitable than the gratuitous and bland prettiness of baroque apartments. They never hesitated to use raw neon, to install car headlights to light an interior or to resort to using projectors identical to those found in cinema studios…
One of Charlotte Perriand’s famous lamps, which she created for her own home, was composed of nothing more than a postern made from two metal tubes fixed at a right angle and supported by a bulb without a lampshade. But the mobility of the whole structure made it easy to adjust the light and the bareness of the supports was an example of sheer inventiveness! Restraint and functionality, two fundamental design principles, are fully at play here. Perriand stubbornly pursued this kind of experimentation. She created brackets with hinged flaps that allowed the light to be adjusted and, even upon re-issue, are still quite popular.
Le Corbusier, post-war, had to think about “housing units” or public buildings which seemed to require making different choices. But one of the greatest aspects of the exhibition in Firminy is to show the apparent interchangeability among projects; the double cone lamp created for the Marseille apartments was repurposed, with slight variations, for the Palace of Assembly in Chandigarh. Nevertheless, perhaps through direct contact with nature afforded by trips to the “cottages” of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, drawing objects became softer and curves began to replace the hard angles of Le Corbusier’s early work. Volutes in the shape of snail shells could also be found in brackets (at UH in Firminy) as well as in monumental exterior lighting. Whether angular or round, concrete or steel, Perriand and Le Corbusier’s lamps share the same commitment to beauty through simplicity. Seeing them brought together and documented with such care is a wonderful opportunity to open a little known but fascinating chapter of 20th century Art History.
La Luce – église Saint-Pierre de Firminy – jusqu’au 3 novembre.
Title Image: Concrete beacon, Le Corbusier- Charly Jurine © F.L.C / ADAGP; 2: rotating table lamp, Ch. Perriand – reprint © NEMO; 3 : 365 Projector, Le Corbusier – Charly Jurine © F.L.C / ADAGP.
This article was originally published in French by Art Critique’s Alain Rauwel on August 5th. To read the original, click here.