It's Never Too Late to Reinvent Yourself

The light is amazing at Le Thoronet Abbey in France. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

In 1953, the architect Le Corbusier was working on the design of La Tourette, a convent for the Dominican friars. His client, Père Marie-Alain Couturier, recommended that the architect visit Le Thoronet Abbey, built in the 12th and 13th centuries in southeast France. Le Corbusier was impressed; Architect Susan Jones quotes him:

"The way stone is dressed takes into account every fragment of the quarry’s yield; economy coupled with skill; its form is always new and always different ... Light and shade are the loudspeakers of this architecture of truth, tranquility and strength. Nothing further could add to it."

Le Corbusier's work was transformed by the visit. He looked at materials differently, at craftsmanship, even at photography. It seemed like everything changed. He was 66 years old.

I just spent 10 days touring Le Corbusier's work on a tour organized by Docomomo US, "a non-profit organization dedicated to the documentation and conservation of buildings, sites and neighborhoods of the modern movement." This was not a press junket; I paid full price, joining a group of artists, architects and lovers of modern architecture. I learned a lot about Le Corbusier from Tim Benton, professor of art history, but I also learned a lot about living from others who were on the tour.

One important lesson I learned from Le Corbusier — and also from my fellow travelers — is that you don't have to stop learning; you don't have to stop changing and evolving.

Caroline with her book
Caroline Maniaque Benton with her book, 'Le Corbusier and the Maisons Jaoul.'. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Caroline Maniaque Benton, professor of the history of architecture and design at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture Normandie, wrote a book about Le Corbusier and his perhaps most life-changing work, Maison Jaoul, a celebrated pair of houses in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. She notes in the introduction, Le Corbusier has been described as "cold, austere, and puritanical." That's certainly how I thought of him, and it's one reason I think so many architects revile him.

Maison Joual
This looks warm and comfy, not at all like Le Corbusier's work was often described. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

In fact, he designed homes that Maniaque Benton describes as "an intimate space composed of warm materials and multicoloured wall surfaces, vaulted in brick and naturally lit through carefully place bay windows, with a handsome fireplace surrounded by niches for cherished works of art and crafts, the Maisons Jaoul hardly conform to the conventional image of the architect's 1920s machine à habiter (machine for living in.)"

broken bus
This bus should never have been on the road in the first place. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Similarly, the group I was traveling with hardly conformed to the traditional stereotypes of senior citizens on a bus tour. They were up for anything, and even the few who had mobility issues weren't complaining. Where I have heard of obnoxious tourists complaining about every small detail, this group faced obstacles with equanimity and aplomb. I might well have been the most impatient whiner and complainer in the group. Even when the bus broke down in the middle of nowhere and everyone had good reason to complain, it was met with humor more than anger.

Louis Vuitton Foundation
The Louis Vuitton Foundation art museum and cultural center in Paris sure looks like a building Frank Gehrey would create. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Many architects make their mark late in life, but by that time, they often seem to be repeating and refining their earlier themes. Think Frank Gehry, who's still doing the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, but now in glass and in Paris.

Le Corbusier didn't magically change into a warm and cuddly architect overnight after seeing Le Thoronet Abbey. He had started Les Maisons Jaoul a few years earlier. But as he aged, his work evolved, and most of his later work shows a humanity and warmth that wasn't as obvious before.

Unite rooftop
Ten times around this track in Marseille and you'll look at things differently. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Even his much-maligned brutalist concrete had a charm and friendliness, as seen on the roof of the Unite d'habitation in Marseille. I did my morning runs on the rooftop track, and it looked different with every lap I took as the morning sun rose and the shadows it cast constantly changed.

I learned a great deal from finally looking at Le Corbusier, with so much help from Tim Benton. But I learned just as much from traveling with 25 other people I had never met — how to travel without complaint, how to make friends and get along, how to adapt to aging, how to support each other and keep enjoying life when health issues intrude. How to never stop learning and never stop being excited by something new and different. Two couples particularly impressed me; Tom and Nancy had mobility issues and their partners, Jim and Claude, were always there, totally supportive and smiling.

Hat store
Do I care about hats? No, but my wife does. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

My wife has foot problems and can't walk fast for miles as I like to — a problem that often leaves me grumpy; it's one reason I did this trip alone. But when I was in Paris, I returned to the part of town where my wife and I stayed when we visited 10 years ago, where she so loved a particular hat store on the Left Bank. I discovered that the store was still there, and I wished she was with me; she would have enjoyed every minute of this trip. I ate up my phone plan talking to her about it.

I learned that there's more to traveling than just looking at stuff. Ultimately, I think I learned more from Tom, Nancy, Claude and Jim than I did from Tim Benton.

Thoronet abbey
Inside the abbey, with its amazing light. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Tim Benton noted that Le Corbusier reinvented himself every 10 years, but his transformation after seeing Le Thoronet Abbey at age 66 was particularly significant. I may still be bathing in the afterglow of that magnificent light, but I suspect this trip may have been transformational for me as well. Like Le Corbusier at 66, I am just getting started.

Painting Studio
Inside the painting studio at Le Corbusier's Cabanon. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

In 1938, Le Corbusier almost died while swimming off St. Tropez; he was run over by a motorboat and had his leg sliced open by the propeller. Some might give up swimming in the ocean after that, but not Le Corbusier. He loved swimming. In fact, when he died in 1965 at age 77, he was swimming at his summer cabin and painting studio, Cabanon. He drowned.

Some people never stop learning, and some people never give up.