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Interview with Sunand Prasad

Sunand Prasad

To celebrate the opening of the Le Corbusier exhibition, Sto talks to the president of RIBA about the visionary architect.

What does RIBA wish to achieve by staging this Le Corbusier exhibition?

Ultimately, the RIBA mission is to promote architecture and discussion about architecture of a high quality.

Le Corbusier continues to be a towering figure in architecture and his influence is great. His large-scale town planning work is out of date, but we can separate that from his ability as a poet of architecture and his incredible three-dimensional imagination. He designed buildings of everlasting significance.

It has been 21 years since RIBA last staged an exhibition of Le Corbusier's work in the UK (1987). Le Corbusier had an ability to invent new space and forms and it is always good to remind new generations of architects about this.

Le Corbusier was an amazingly inventive architect and many say they are still "inspired by Corbusier". With the Salvation Army building, for example, Le Corbusier taught us about place-making and what would now be called urban design.

Of course there are many bad copies of Le Corbusier's work. Where people's legacies are not their responsibility, then it is important to highlight the original.

How do you believe Le Corbusier achieved his vision of architecture? What significance does this have for contemporary architecture?

Typically Le Corbusier was a bit of an authoritarian with his opinions and the word "correct" is meaningless in the quote. It is important to look at his works, and not dwell too much on his statements when they need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

A number of buildings do come to mind when recalling this famous quotation. Le Corbusier was a master of creating exciting and pleasurable spaces – something that is far more difficult than creating functional spaces.

"The play of volumes in light" – this is just one, but an essential, aspect of architecture and sculpture. Think of Sydney Opera House (by Danish architect Jorn Utzon) and more recently O'Donnell & Tuomey's Lewis Glucksman Gallery in Cork (Stirling Prize nominee 2006) and Caruso St John's Brick House in London.

The RIBA Trust is holding this year's Le Corbusier UK exhibition in Sir Edwin Lutyen's crypt in Liverpool. Can you comment on the irony of this, when in 1928:

1. The RIBA Journal judged the book "Toward an Architecture" to be as "annoying" as it was "stimulating", and expressed regret over the "confusion of thought".

2. Lutyens takes issue with ideas propounded by Le Corbusier in the book "Robotism of Architecture". Lutyens declares "to be a home, a house cannot be a machine" and that houses promised in the book can only be for "robots without eyes – for eyes that have no vision cannot be educated to see".

Lutyens' reactions to the "house as a machine" quotation were strong, but it is another example of where Le Corbusier says one thing and does another. His actual buildings are only like machines in a very narrow sense of the word and they are far from robotic: look at the nursery of the roof of Unité d'habitation in Marseille; the Mill Owners Building in Ahmedabad, India; les Maisons Jaoul or the Chapel at Ronchamp.

Le Corbusier designed a number of similar projects but he was re-inventing all the time. Lutyens may be right in his reading of Le Corbusier but really needed to look at the projects at the same time. Yes, Le Corbusier could be "annoying", especially with his town plans; again this is only one part of a massive legacy of his oeuvre. Inevitably there is an element of marketing and spin in Le Corbusier's theories. And we cannot forget his moral ambivalence in targeting potential clients, the Vichy regime in particular.

At the same time we should remember that Le Corbusier was an artist in a way that few architects can be said to be. He created divinely beautiful drawings and fully understood the movement of people in spaces. The human form was at the heart of his work. He was a sensual human being and very intuitive. His built legacy is more important than his written legacy, fascinating though that is.

In your opinion, is there a higher level of understanding of architecture amongst today's clients, and if so, how and what has helped this development?

Nowadays there is much more information available; people read more, they have more leisure time, and travel more. Travel is perhaps the biggest factor, which has impacted on clients as they now have a greater understanding of architecture of other cultures. That was only just starting in Le Corbusier's time.