Vitra Design Museum/NAI/RIBA Trust, 398 pp., $168.00
Despite the inherently social nature of architecture and city planning, personal histories of master builders were uncommon before the last century, and are still greatly outnumbered by biographies of painters and sculptors. A turning point in the public’s perception of the building art came with the publication of Frank Lloyd Wright’s An Autobiography of 1932, a picaresque narrative that captivated many who hadn’t the slightest inkling of what architects actually did. Wright’s self-portrait as a heroic individualist served as the prototype for Howard Roark, the architect-protagonist of Ayn Rand’s 1943 best-seller, The Fountainhead. But the novelist transmogrified Wright’s entertaining egotism into Roark’s suffocating megalomania, an image closer to that of another contemporary coprofessional: Le Corbusier, the pseudonymous Swiss-French architect and urbanist born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret in 1887, twenty years after Wright.
Le Corbusier was the only one of Wright’s competitors who matched his flair for self-promotion. However, Le Corbusier’s posthumous influence has outstripped that of the greatest American architect. His schemes were often less specific to their sites than Wright’s, and thus more adaptable elsewhere. Le Corbusier’s work in South America and India won him a third-world following Wright never attracted. And his “Five Points of a New Architecture” of 1926 became a modern “must” list that could be copied by almost anyone, anywhere. It included thin piloti columns on which buildings could be based; ribbon windows; open floor plans; façades freed from load-bearing structure; and roof gardens. Such formularization was also central to the steel-skeleton, glass-skin high-rise format later perfected by a third contemporary, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, but it did not offer the recombinations possible with the “Five Points.”
During Le Corbusier’s lifetime, his reputation did not derive solely from his vast corpus of designs, which still astonishes in its inventiveness and boundless implications. His renown was enormously enhanced by the more than fifty books and pamphlets through which he promulgated his radical vision of a new building art for the modern age—everything from city planning to interior design. For example, to replace the tightly knit, medium-rise urban neighborhoods Le Corbusier deemed insalubrious and oppressive, he proposed residential skyscrapers widely spaced amid parks and highways. To modernize domestic interiors cluttered with ornate furnishings and cocooned in fabric, he advocated rooms as sparse and easy to clean as a tuberculosis ward. And rather than reiterating the dull gray masonry of northern European cityscapes, he favored the gleaming white stucco of Mediterranean villages, regardless of climatic suitability.
Le Corbusier was electrified by the feedback he got when he expounded his controversial proposals in public, whether to lay audiences or fellow practitioners. His need for attention (the source of which is finally established in the first full-length Le Corbusier biography, by Nicholas Fox Weber) was fed by the heavy schedule of speaking engagements he kept up for decades. This important aspect of the architect’s program is analyzed in depth in The Rhetoric of Modernism: Le Corbusier as …