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 Lecturer by Tim Benton, the foremost authority on the man he has termed “the architect of the century.”
With customary thoroughness and cogency, Benton presents yet another fascinating facet of an oeuvre that, like Picasso’s, yields more and more the deeper scholars delve into it. Le Corbusier attended many of the symposia convened by supporters of modern architecture to hash out their theories and establish a unified agenda. Those meetings could be contentious, for what we now call “the Modern Movement” was in fact an unruly scrum of competing factions with doctrinaire positions that often divided an allegedly common cause.
Most architects give lectures primarily to advertise themselves, and Le Corbusier was no less shy than his colleagues in basing his talks on his own work. What set his appearances apart was the way they prompted him to reexamine fundamental concepts—from the organization of metropolitan transport to the layout of the workingman’s house—as much for himself as for his listeners. Whatever his announced topic, he emphasized a constant theme: his version of modernism held unique promise for elevating mankind to unprecedented levels of bodily well-being and psychic stimulation.
Despite Le Corbusier’s interest in theory, his discourses were anything but cerebral abstractions, and conveyed a vigorous physicality thanks to the method through which he illustrated his thoughts. His visual aids were low-tech yet high-impact. On the wall behind him, the architect would unroll and pin up a swath of yellow tracing paper as wide as a movie screen. While he spoke, he used varicolored chalks or crayons and sketched a profusion of pictograms, scrawled a welter of catchphrases, and ended up with a dense calligraphic mural like a Cy Twombly drawing avant la lettre. Many such Corbusier lecture backdrops survive, intact or in tatters, thanks to souvenir hunters who swooped in and claimed them the second he exited the stage.
The prolific Benton has also revised and enlarged his definitive 1984 monograph on the houses of the architect’s so-called Heroic Period. The title of this new version, The Villas of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, 1920–1930, has been expanded from that of the first edition to duly credit Pierre Jeanneret, the master’s cousin and collaborator on the nineteen schemes (fifteen of them executed) for sites in or near Paris. When they were new, these starkly unornamented, defiantly uningratiating structures reminded many of factories. Le Corbusier took the analogy as a compliment and duly dubbed his new domestic conception the machine à habiter—“machine for living in.” Today, these houses accord with popular notions of Bauhaus architecture, even though Le Corbusier had no official connection to that German design school.
In tracing the evolution of the Heroic Period houses, Benton shows how the designers extracted a remarkable array of compositional variations from a narrow repertoire of forms—right-angled volumes, flat roofs, windows flush with wall planes—and a limited palette of materials—white-painted stucco, glass, and metal. Le Corbusier and Jeanneret were able to do so much with so little mainly because of the former’s genius for reconceiving space in novel ways, a gift he came into full possession of during this determinative decade.
The climax of the cousins’ astonishing residential sequence was the Villa Savoye of 1928–1929 in Poissy, in my estimation (and that of many others) the ultimate twentieth-century house (see illustration on page 34). Its vivifying counterpoint of geometric rigor (through the ancient proportional system known as the Golden Section) and spatial propulsion (through dynamic ramps in place of stairs) makes the structure exhilarating to move through every step of the way from front door to roof terrace. By the time this job was finished, the architects likely realized that they had pretty much exhausted their formula and could only repeat themselves if they stuck with it.
Le Corbusier soon began to move away from industrial perfectionism and toward its polar opposite in a nascent neoprimitive style, which emerged with his introduction of rough stone walls in several country houses of the 1930s, and culminated with his gloriously anti- rational Ronchamp chapel in France two decades afterward. However, though he abandoned the mechanistic approach of his Heroic Period, the Corbusian vocabulary would become so pervasive that its author’s main contribution might be seen as his codification of the closest to a true lingua franca that ever emerged from the babel we call modern architecture.
It was one thing for Pierre Jeanneret to collaborate with Le Corbusier, but quite another for Le Corbusier to collaborate with the Nazis. Years before France fell in 1940, Hitler’s hatred of modern architecture had spurred a steady emigration of practitioners whose careers in Germany had collapsed. Albert Speer, Hitler’s principal architect, urban planner, and wartime munitions chief, visited Paris to oversee his country’s pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair. After the war he acknowledged being familiar with Le Corbusier’s work, which perhaps informed his megalomaniacal plans to rebuild Berlin on a scale Le Corbusier had envisioned for Paris. But Speer’s Stripped Classicism and Le Corbusier’s minimalist Modernism were too disparate in essence for any middle ground.
Le Corbusier, oblivious (for once) to his international identity as vociferous champion of the very architecture Hitler despised, somehow imagined he could find a position with Marshal Pétain’s government. He moved to the provisional capital of Vichy, where he assiduously but fruitlessly lobbied for work. He was fortunate to have failed, which made it that much easier to hide this shameful episode after the Liberation, when he reopened his office in Paris as though the preceding four years had never happened.
During the second half of Le Corbusier’s career, following World War II, he designed many fewer single-family houses than before. Most important among his later private domestic commissions were the Maisons Jaoul of 1951–1955 in the Paris suburb of Neuilly. That pair of smallish villas, commissioned by a father and son, is the subject of a new monograph by Caroline Maniaque Benton, who is married to Tim Benton and here provides a worthy pendant to her husband’s likewise indispensable study of the Heroic Period houses.
The Maisons Jaoul are stylistically antithetical to the Le Corbusier– Jeanneret residences. Whereas the sleek Villa Savoye, with its main living areas lofted above the terrain on slender pilotis, seems barely tethered to its site, the compacted brick-and-concrete Jaoul houses feel immovably earthbound. The Savoye house, with its peripheral colonnade supporting an entablature-like piano nobile, encouraged comparisons to the Classical tradition; the fortresslike enclosure and monastic gravity of the Maisons Jaoul provoked references to the Medieval.
The Neuilly double houses quickly became touchstones of New Brutalism, a trend among young architects in mid-century Britain. They sought to inject much-needed energy into the waning conventions of High Modernism, as represented by carbon-copy commercial hackwork that sucked the marrow out of Mies’s “skin-and-bones” formula. The New Brutalists saw greater expressive potential in Le Corbusier’s favorite late-career material, concrete, though the effortful crudeness of their chunky forms and rough finishes often seemed little more than macho posturing. Paradoxically, although their hero Le Corbusier built nothing in Britain, he became the presiding spirit among Modernist architects there, especially during the massive postwar reconstruction, exemplified by Hubert Bennett and Jack Whittle’s Hayward Gallery of 1964–1968 on London’s South Bank, an inert concrete blockhouse.
Polarization of critical opinion on this divisive figure is instructively represented in Le Corbusier and Britain: An Anthology, a collection of more than fifty texts assembled by Irena Murray and Julian Osley (respectively, the director of, and a librarian at, London’s Royal Institute of British Architects library). The editors bring together several classic postwar essays—including the historian Colin Rowe’s “The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa: Palladio and Le Corbusier Compared” and the architect James Stirling’s “Garches to Jaoul: Le Corbusier as Domestic Architect in 1927 and 1953”—as well as obscure but impressive writings from the interwar period. Among the latter are Le Corbusier’s impassioned if impressionistic panegyric on Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace of 1850–1851 in London (written a few days after that founding landmark of Modernism was destroyed by fire, in 1936) and the great Classicist Edwin Lutyens’s cautiously appreciative 1928 review of Towards a New Architecture (the English translation of Le Corbusier’s most seminal text, Vers une architecture of 1923).