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Colourful Foreign Body: Centre Le Corbusier in Zurich (2019)

Le Corbusier’s last building begun in his lifetime and posthumously completed seems odd and yet familiar, making an odd impression not only in the midst of the late 19th-century villas along Bellerive road but also in the architect’s oeuvre. In both respects, lacquered paint instead of béton brut and metal panels instead of rendered facades make it unique. And yet much is familiar. The shade-providing canopy roof, seemingly detached from the volume below, is something we know from Le Corbusier’s 1950s buildings in India, and the colourful façade panels recollect his Unité d’habitation in Berlin and the community centre in Firminy.

It was apparently at the prompting of his client, the interior designer and gallerist Heidi Weber, that the architect turned to steel-glass architecture late in his life. Also visible at the pavilion is the ductus of Jean Prouvé, with whom Le Corbusier first developed a modular system for holiday homes in 1949, and which found use in further-developed form in Zurich.

Detail has reported on the exhibition pavilion twice: in 1968 to mark its completion and again in 2019 for its 50th anniversary following the building’s complete restoration. In the first article Jürg Gasser described the pavilion as follows: “This complex of spaces erected on a concrete basement is made up of cubes sized 226 x 226 x 226 cm (Modular scale) and formed out of bent steel frames bolted together. The walls and floors are inserted into the steel frames and likewise bolted into place. As in a car, window glass is clamped between rubber seals, custom-produced for the project.  ... The roof consists of two square connected parts … the steel structure, welded out of mainly 5 mm thick metal sheets, is about 40 tons in weight and rests on three supports with a pipe cross-section and six larger-dimensioned supports with a rectangular cross-section.”

The restoration work on the pavilion by the architects Arthur Rüegg and Silvio Schmied was an object lesson in modern archaeology: the façade panels and glazing were retained as well as many original neoprene window seals and a large proportion of the cabling. Renewal was definitely required, however, for the concrete-encased underfloor heating, which gave up the ghost back in 1982. Plus the interior furnishings were fully reproduced, as Heidi Weber, by now 90 years of age and unable to agree with the City of Zurich on the pavilion’s further use, had all furniture and even the fitted lamps removed before restoration work began.

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