Le Corbusier Comes to Cranbrook

On November 21, 1935, celebrated French architect Le Corbusier arrived in Detroit and promptly demanded to be taken to Henry Ford’s River Rouge Complex. That one of the world’s leading modernist architects wanted to visit Ford’s factory shouldn’t have been too surprising, as for the previous two decades Le Corbusier—born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret—had been advocating for a revolution in architecture like Ford’s revolution in transportation.

In his groundbreaking 1923 book, Toward an Architecture (or, as it was titled in its first English translations, Towards a New Architecture,) Le Corbusier made the famous claim, “A house is a machine for living in.” As he believed, “Machines will lead to a new order both of work and of leisure.”

Le Corbusier told reporter Florence Davies of the Detroit News that “Detroit is the logical city for the production of the houses of tomorrow, the pre-fabricated efficient mass-production house.” He went on to claim that it would be automobile manufacturers, not architects, who would “undertake the production of the homes of tomorrow” because they understood the problems of mass production.

But while Ford may have attracted Le Corbusier to visit Detroit during the his one and only trip to America, it was Cranbrook Academy of Art and its president Eliel Saarinen that played host to the great architect.

Le Corbusier, with pipe, and Eliel Saarinen at Cranbrook, November 1935. Richard G. Askew, photographer. Cranbrook Archives.

After seeing the Ford complex and a making a few stops downtown, Le Corbusier wound his way up to Bloomfield Hills. On display in the Cranbrook Pavilion (now St. Dunstan’s Theater) were twenty-four enlarged photographs, a selection of movies, fourteen building and city plans, and a single model documenting his work. These items were part of a small show on the architect open from November 19 to November 22. But the main event was Le Corbusier’s lecture at 8:00pm on November 21, 1935.

Delivered in French and translated by his American associate Robert Jacobs, Le Corbusier enthralled an at-capacity audience with his theories of architecture. He spoke of his work in Europe, including the recently completed Villa Savoye in Poissy. The focus, however, were his theories of city planning and mechanization. Le Corbusier used a sheet of tracing paper some 8- to 12-feet-long and pinned along the wall to execute large, colorful pastel sketches that illustrated his ideas of architecture and planning. This drawing was saved by the Academy, though it has since, sadly, been lost.

Installation view of Modern Architecture:
International Exhibition
at the Museum of Modern Art with Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye at center and in photographs on left, February 9–March 23, 1932. While no photographs of Le Corbusier’s lecture or exhibition at Cranbrook survive, it was likely similar to this installation. MoMA Archives.

Le Corbusier lectured throughout most of his career as an architect. As he told an interviewer in 1951:

I never prepare my lectures…Improvisation is a wonderful thing: I draw, and when you draw and speak at the same time, you create something new. And all my theory—my introspection and retrospection on the phenomenon of architecture and urbanism—derives from my improvisation and drawings during these lectures.

After the Cranbrook lecture, Le Corbusier was the guest of the Academy of Art’s Executive Secretary Richard Raseman and Instructor in Interior Design Rachel DeWolfe Raseman. The couple had both studied architecture at Cornell (Rachel Raseman was Cornell’s first woman architecture graduate) and resided at Academy Residence #3 across Academy Way from Saarinen House. In the morning, Le Corbusier continued by train to the next stop on his cross-country journey.

As the Detroit Free Press reported November 22, “With a few deft strokes Thursday, Le Corbusier, the famous French modernist-architect…sketched the vision that he sees through what is perhaps the most ponderous pair of eyeglasses ever fabricated.”

Le Corbusier in his famous eyeglasses at Cranbrook, November 1935. Richard G. Askew, photographer. Cranbrook Archives.

Alongside an earlier lecture in April 1935 by Frank Lloyd Wright, the visit to Cranbrook by Le Corbusier was one of the highlights of the Academy’s first decade. Reflecting in his Annual Report to the Cranbrook Foundation, Richard Raseman wrote that:

The Le Corbusier lecture, although delivered in French, was a good show, and as he is a world figure we were well satisfied…the public must have agreed with us as these lectures [by Wright and Le Corbusier] were by far the best attended of any of our functions…men of this caliber are rare indeed.

To learn more about Le Corbusier and his visit to Cranbrook, sign up for the Center’s History of American Architecture: Cranbrook Visitors Lecture Series! For the next five weeks, I will be discussing visitors, like Le Corbusier, who have lectured at Cranbrook since the Academy opened in 1932. From Le Corbusier, Wright, and Alvar Aalto in the 1930s through to Jeanne Gang, Greg Pasquarelli, and David Adjaye in the 2010s, I will tell the story of American design through architects who’ve spoken at Cranbrook. Learn more and sign up on our website. “See” you Monday at 11:00am or 7:00pm EST for our first virtual lecture!

Kevin Adkisson, Associate Curator, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Balthazar Korab and his Island of Serenity

A great portion of the time I’ve spent as an archivist at Cranbrook has focused on our photo collections. It would be impossible for me to choose a favorite photo, but I definitely find that one photographer in particular always comes to mind when I get a photo request or when I conjure up an image of campus.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, architect and photographer Balthazar Korab (1926-2013) documented life and work here at Cranbrook for several decades. His iconic images continue to be some of our most requested.

Korab at work at Eero Saarinen and Associates, 1957. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Korab at work at Eero Saarinen and Associates, 1957. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Korab studied architecture at the Polytechnicum Jozsef Nador in Budapest until he felt the necessity to escape his country’s communist regime in 1949. He opted for France, where he continued his education at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, and received his degree in architecture there in 1954. During this time, Korab worked throughout Europe as a journeyman with notable architects, including Le Corbusier.

In 1955 he came to the United States and was hired by Eero Saarinen to work at Eero Saarinen and Associates (ESA). While Korab was worked there, he saw how Saarinen built models of his designs. Korab volunteered to use his knowledge of photography to develop techniques for dramatic photos of the models. This took him off the drawing board and he soon began to get assignments from other architects. What followed was an illustrious career photographing the works of many of the most significant architects world-wide, including: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Gunner Birkerts, Minoru Yamasaki, Frank Lloyd Wright, and many others.

Yamasaki's model of the U.S. Pavilion at the World Agricultural Fair, India. Photograph by Balthazar Korab, ca 1959.

Yamasaki’s model of the U.S. Pavilion at the World Agricultural Fair, India. Photograph by Balthazar Korab, ca 1959.

Korab was introduced to Cranbrook during his time at ESA. In an interview for the Observer and Eccentric in June 1995, he said: “Arriving from a war-torn Europe, I soon was involved with Eero Saarinen’s GM Tech Center, a marvel of the dynamic, brash, wining face of America. It left me in awe and admiration. But my love went for the other Saarinen marvel, a then-middle-aged beauty, Cranbrook. It became a place of refuge and comfort, a source of nutrients for my severed roots to take hold in this strange soil. Its radiant aura was my inspiration.”

Oriental Garden bridge, Fall 1980. Copyright Balthazar Korab/Cranbrook Archives.

“Oriental Garden” bridge, Fall 1980. Copyright Balthazar Korab/Cranbrook Archives.

In the early 1980’s Korab was hired as one of several contract photographers here at Cranbrook. Over the next three decades, his images provided breath-taking panoramas, as well as minute details of the grounds, art, and architecture of this campus. The beauty of his work cannot be over-stated.

Gina Tecos, Archivist

Editor’s Note: In an July 1998 article in ambassador magazine, Korab referred to Cranbrook Educational Community as his “island of serenity.”

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