ArtsATL > Art+Design > Q&A: In photographing the work of master architect Le Corbusier, Richard Pare breaks the mold

Q&A: In photographing the work of master architect Le Corbusier, Richard Pare breaks the mold

Richard Pare: interior of La Tourette
Le Corbusier's Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp (Photos by Richard Pare)
Le Corbusier’s Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp (Photos by Richard Pare)

Architectural photographer Richard Pare has made his mark translating the spirit of spatial experience into the confines of two dimensions.

Perhaps best known for his extensive photographs of Soviet modernist architecture, Pare turned his attention to the architecture of Swiss modernist master Le Corbusier at the behest of the Museum of Modern Art for its recent exhibition “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes” and the eponymous publication. Organized by architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen, the exhibition and Pare’s photographs approach Le Corbusier’s buildings in a new way, presenting them not as objects but as figures in the landscape, a perspective that is bound to alter the way one thinks about his work.

Photographer Richard Pare
Photographer Richard Pare

Pare lectured in Atlanta during Atlanta Celebrates Photography, and ArtsATL spoke with him at Lumière gallery, which is exhibiting his Le Corbusier photographs through November 23.

ArtsATL: How did you come up with this new way of photographing Le Corbusier?

Richard Pare: I went to Jean-Louis’ lectures at [New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts]. This broadened my understanding. I’ve known the work all my life, but Jean-Louis is a really good scholar and a really interesting mind. He was mapping the territory for the [exhibition and] book through those lectures.

We were talking about the idea of context and landscape, and he knew that it was something that people hadn’t paid attention to. He sowed that seed, but I probably would have dealt with the larger idea of the complete set of pictures in terms of context anyway.

For places like La Tourette [Le Corbusier’s Dominican priory near Lyon, France], it seems absolutely vital that the building be located in the environment so you have a sense of where it stands in the landscape. A few of the older photographs do that, but they don’t give you the kind of atmospherics of the place in the same way that I’m trying to do. It’s one of the reasons that I’m traveling at funny times of the year as well, because it breaks you out of the canon.

Richard Pare: Sainte-Marie de La Tourette Dominican monastery (1955-60), 2011.
Le Corbusier’s Couvente Sainte-Marie de La Tourette

ArtsATL: The relationship of the building and the landscape says so much about the building, the feeling of being there.

Pare: Corbu talked somewhere about designing it from the roof down. When he chose the location of the building on the site, he thought about the relationship of that meditation space on the roof as being the key; and from that point he evolves the rest of the scheme beneath it. And it makes sense.

When my teacher talked about that some 50 years ago, I got the impression that the parapet was set at a height where you could not see anything but the sky, and, because he hadn’t been there, he was extrapolating what he understood from looking at [architectural critic] Colin Rowe’s piece that appeared in Architectural Review.

The way it’s actually set is at an average eye level. So you see the distant landscape, but you are divorced from the immediate surroundings and the disruption of [everyday life]. [This isolation] reinforces a connection to the kind of universal idea.… It’s wonderful; it’s an amazing space.

I was up there for hours, waiting and waiting for the sun to come through the storm clouds so I could do the [image of] the campanile  and the bell, with the sun at dusk sliding across the top of the parapet at the last possible moment. It was just enough for my exposure.

ArtsATL: In your lecture you talked a lot about Corbusier’s work being an architectural promenade, and I guess as one way to experience that with photography, a series of stills.

Pare: That’s one thing I was trying to do with the sequence of images in my lecture. It wasn’t the complete cycle by any means; in the book there will be about 250 pictures, but I’m thinking about constructing passages and sequences in the book that give that sense of the unfolding of space.

Villa Savoye, built in 1928-31
Villa Savoye, built in 1928-31

ArtsATL: When your photos were juxtaposed with Corbu’s sketches in the MOMA exhibit, they were almost exact matches.

Pare: It’s pretty eerie. It’s an acknowledgement of his power to insist that that’s the place. It’s possible that I knew them [the sketches] in the back of my mind somewhere, because I’ve looked through the Oeuvre Complete at various times in my life, but when I saw the Villa Savoye drawing on the wall underneath my photograph from the same point of view, it was kind of mind blowing.

ArtsATL: In a way it says something about your eye, too.

Pare: There are a lot of buildings that insist, in a way, on the point of view, which is why a lot of the Corb pictures are so canonical. Inevitably, I’ve repeated some of those pictures. The Villa La Roche image of the entry Hall …  mine’s a bit wider than the conventional one that’s reproduced from that point on the balcony looking across the atrium toward the window. It’s the best place to stand, so you accept it and do it sometimes. But other times I feel I can break the mold and do something that’s more directly my own response to the subject.

ArtATL: That has to be a huge challenge when somebody like Corbu has been photographed so much.

Pare: When I began I was very nervous, because I didn’t know if I would be able to make a significantly different contribution to what already exists, but I think it’s moving in the right direction.

ArtATL: Did you learn anything about Corbu or his work through this project?

Pare: The general view is he’s a tyrant, which comes from the craziness of his city-planning schemes. Yet there’s a wonderful sense of humanity and scale in the buildings themselves.

ArtsATL: In your lecture you talk about using photography as architectural research. Can you expand on that idea?

Pare: It is, for me, just by the fact that I spend a lot of time [observing buildings], watching the light shifting. It’s enormously illuminating about the nature of the buildings.

ArtsATL: So I guess spending countless hours in the building, observing the light, that’s how you see the buildings in a way you wouldn’t have otherwise. Like sitting and sketching, sort of like another way of looking.

Richard Pare: Villa Savoye, Poissy (1928-31), 2012.
Another view of Villa Savoye

Pare: Yeah, that’s [right]. …. [Architect Alvar] Alto was lecturing at Harvard, and somebody asked him, “What’s the most important thing for an architecture student?” So he took a pencil out of his pocket and said, “Draw, draw!” [Laughs.] But I think it’s really important, still.

[Tadao] Ando [whose work Pare photographed for the monograph The Colors of Light] draws all the time. He’s a compulsive drawer.

ArtsATL: Architecture is mostly produced on computers nowadays.

Pare: Of course, Ando uses computers to work out details. He draws it in three dimensions as well, instantly. The original concept sketch is suddenly exploding on paper. It’s phenomenal the key drawings that he produces.

ArtsATL: What is your approach to lighting?

Pare: I’ve always had a confrontational attitude toward the commercial photography of architecture. It tends to be hammered into a kind of formula that suits magazines, journals … and requires a minimum amount of thought to produce and sell. People are taking in lights and lighting spaces so it looks like everything else.

Richard Pare: Maison La Roche, Paris, (1923-25), 2012.
Maison La Roche, Paris (1923-25)

There’s no additional lighting [in my photos]. It’s all ambient. You’re changing the nature of the space once you bring in lights and flash. One of the things that I think sets apart the way that I approach architecture as subject is that when I was eight years old I was a chorister in Canterbury, and my whole existence was about creating sound in space, so this attitude of architecture as space is something that’s persisted all my life. Most people who photograph architecture think about architecture as mass. I think about architecture as mass enclosing space; it’s about the space between things. My pictures are a two-dimensional interpretation of a three-dimensional space.

ArtsATL: That’s what makes your photographs so exceptional — that and the fact that you are the antithesis of photographers who rearrange everything, put on a filter, clean everything up.…

Pare: That’s why I don’t do that. Flowers on the table, the “Ezra Stoller” approach as I used to call it. But he’s got some pretty good pictures too. I love his Johnson Wax pictures. Everybody has their moment.

ArtsATL: When I went to architectural school, there were four gods of architecture: Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. One sees the usual canonic buildings but not the early work, such as what you called “the bourgeois houses of Corbu.” In your lecture, you talked about his sudden, incredible kind of leap [from the early work to Maison La Roche].

Pare: There was no precedent, really. It was like an overnight transformation, which he kept doing again and again. After Maison La Roche, there’s Ronchamp and La Tourette, and the end is an amazing kind of creative transformation. There’s no other word for it. There’s this kind of outpouring of genius. It’s astonishing.

Richard Pare: interior of La Tourette
An interior at La Tourette

Corb’s color is fabulous. I mean now the Maison La Roche is back to its original color scheme inside, and that whole entry lobby is this beautiful warm cream. He was using paints with tons of pigment; there’s a real depth to them.

They’ve just finished [restoring] the interior of the chapel in La Tourette. When I was there they were bringing it back to the original color scheme. You could see back down to the original first layer of the red paint on top of the white painted substrate. The way the white illuminates the color from behind gives a completely different effect; there’s a kind of life to them that’s amazing. That’s the sort of thing that’s almost impossible to convey in a photograph. You can come close, but still, it’s a photograph.

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