Stars fell on architecture during the 1880s, the decade when most of the central characters of the Modern movement were born. Their centenaries have occasioned an unbroken series of commemorative celebrations and critical reevaluations, but no other observances have approached the scale of those surrounding the hundredth anniversary of the most important Modernist architect of them all: Le Corbusier, born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret on October 7, 1887, in La-Chaux-de-Fonds in the Swiss Jura. The leading polemicist of the generation that sought to establish a rational aesthetic order out of the unprecedented technical advances of the Age of Industrialization, Le Corbusier defined the Modernist imperative in the most influential of his thirty-eight books, Vers une architecture (first published in 1923, translated into English in 1927 as Towards a New Architecture and available once again in a facsimile edition). His language recalls Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s earlier assertion that new materials would give birth to a new age:
The history of Architecture unfolds itself slowly across the centuries as a modification of structure and ornament, but in the last fifty years steel and concrete have brought new conquests, which are the index of a greater capacity for construction, and of an architecture in which the old codes have been overturned. If we challenge the past, we shall learn that “styles” no longer exist for us, that a style belonging to our own period has come about; and there has been a Revolution.
The “purification” of architecture—moving it away from dependence on the eclectic historicism of the late nineteenth century and toward a structural and formal vocabulary based on the new engineering principles of that epoch—was Le Corbusier’s initial goal. At the same time he attempted to direct these principles toward human aims. He achieved his program with stunning swiftness and completeness during his so-called Heroic Period, the years between his permanent move to Paris in 1917 and his fundamental architectural redirection in the early Thirties.
His most famous works of that decade and a half of intense research, experimentation, and construction were the sixteen houses thoroughly documented in Tim Benton’s The Villas of Le Corbusier: 1920–1930. These were the “machines for living in” that became the basic source of imagery for modern domestic architecture for decades to come. (Indeed, some present-day architects, especially Richard Meier, continue to use the Corbusian repertoire of motifs and materials of the Heroic Period as their basic point of reference.)
Those villas of the Twenties (several of them built for expatriate Americans who knew Gertrude Stein; her brother Michael was a patron of one of the most important of Le Corbusier’s houses, the Villa Stein/de Monzie of 1926–1927 at Garches) were as startling as their designer’s philosophical writings. Even now, long after they have ceased to shock, they still manage to impress with their clarity of line, intensity of contrast, equilibrium of proportion, and above all their simplicity of means. Dispensing with traditional ornament, pattern, texture, and most color (even though his “white architecture” of the Twenties was far from monochromatic, employing many colors lost in black-and-white photographs), Le Corbusier dared to make the most extreme challenge with the most minimal of means. He would re-create architecture—and, by implication, the way of life pursued in it—absolutely and completely, as fully as Renaissance architecture supplanted the medieval, and his Twenties villas were the dazzling evidence that he could. In those buildings Le Corbusier convincingly carried out his belief that “architecture is the skillful, correct, and magnificent play of volumes assembled in light.”
But there must have been a great deal more to it for him than that, for how else does one explain the profound change Le Corbusier embarked upon almost immediately after the completion of his Villa Savoye of 1928–1931 at Poissy, the house in which his imagery of the machine is most pronounced (see illustration on page 50). Benton’s meticulous study (originally published in French in 1984 and since then the definitive word on that extraordinarily sustained series of Modernist themes and variations) demonstrates both the exceptional range Le Corbusier achieved and the ultimate limitations he encountered with his Purist approach. As the architect wrote in his 1930 book Précisions sur un état présent de l’architecture et de l’urbanisme:
simplicity is not equivalent to poverty; it is a choice, a discrimination, a crystallization. Its object is purity. Simplicity synthesizes. A ragged agglomeration of cubes is an accidental event, but a synthesis is an intellectual act.
This attitude is rather different from those of other early Modernist architects who were attempting, like Le Corbusier, to reshape the man-made environment in the aftermath of the destruction and chaos of World War I. Unlike the members of the De Stijl movement in Holland, who cherished transcendental philosophy, or the Russian Constructivists, who believed in their designs as the architectural embodiment of the revolution, Le Corbusier was largely without a specific spiritual or political program. During the Twenties he thought pure reason was enough; when it proved inadequate to the level of emotional expression he wished his buildings to convey, he embraced an increasingly primitivist style, whose characteristics at first glance seem like an open repudiation of his Purist aesthetic of the Twenties. What could be more different from the Villa Savoye—cubic and hovering lightly over its meadow like an alien spacecraft—than Le Corbusier’s pilgrimage chapel of Notre-Dame du Haut of 1951–1955 at Ronchamp (see illustration on page 53)—irregularly sculptural, with a sensuously curving roof and seeming to grow out of its hill in response to the landscape?
In fact, both halves of Le Corbusier’s easily divisible career drew from the same Mediterranean vernacular sources, though the forms were much more abstracted in the architect’s work before 1930 than they became afterward. In the indispensable catalog for the major retrospective held in London last spring, its organizer, the preternaturally productive Tim Benton, traces the signs of Le Corbusier’s growing interest in the primitive during the late Twenties. Between 1926 and 1928 the architect’s paintings—in which he worked out much of his thinking about form—became noticeably more primitive in their subject matter. He moved away from the exacting still lifes of his Purist phase and became preoccupied with the biologically inspired (“biomorphic”) forms of his later graphic works, turning away from inanimate objects and toward human and animal figures with overtly sexual and mythic connotations. His travels, especially to Barcelona in 1928 (where he encountered the defiantly idiosyncratic architecture of Antoni Gaudí) and to South America a year later, made him aware of new possibilities far different from those he found on his extensive European tours as a young man.
Even then, however, Le Corbusier’s susceptibility to the instinctive element inherent in the design process was clear. Here is his reaction to his first prolonged exposure to Mediterranean vernacular architecture during his 1911 Wanderjahr in Greece, Turkey, Italy, and the Balkans, recorded in his Journey to the East:
The art of the peasant is a striking creation of aesthetic sensuality. If art elevates itself above the sciences, it is precisely because, in opposition to them, it stimulates sensuality and awakens profound echoes in the physical being. It gives to the body—to the animal—its fair share, and then upon this healthy base, conducive to the expansion of joy, it knows how to erect the most noble of pillars.
This is an observation far different in feeling from the popular image of Le Corbusier as the detached, icy theoretician of an architecture of denial and sublimation.
Historians differ over which of Le Corbusier’s buildings was the first to reflect his dramatic transformation. Some make a case for the Villa de Mandrot of 1929–1932 near Toulon, closely related to the houses of the Twenties in its overall configuration, but using for the first time the masonry rubble wall that was to become a hallmark of his new primitivism. Others suggest the Pavillon Suisse of 1930–1933 in Paris, with its rubble wall and plastic handling of mass and volume in exposed concrete—for the first time left in its natural color and not covered over in white-painted stucco like the Twenties houses—pointing toward Le Corbusier’s high-rise schemes of a decade later. All are agreed that with the construction of the architect’s own Petite Maison de Weekend at La Celle-Saint-Cloud in 1935 the change was complete. Its freestone walls, vaulted portals, and sod roof make it, in the words of Deborah Gans in The Le Corbusier Guide, “a cave-like shelter appropriate to a modern-day, ornamental hermit.” A vastly underappreciated landmark in twentieth-century architecture, it acknowledged a loss of faith in Modernist absolutism at least thirty years before it became prevalent in the profession at large.
But as was always the case with Le Corbusier, there were a number of practical factors that bore on his artistic decisions in addition to his larger conceptual concerns. For example, the muscular columns supporting the Pavillon Suisse (forerunners of the even more massive ones he later used in his Unités d’habitation) were a reaction to specific site conditions, in this instance the discovery of an abandoned quarry on the plot that necessitated a stronger footing for the five-story structure. And as Tim Benton pointed out in his superb paper, “The Maisons Loucheur Question” (delivered at a centennial symposium1 held in conjunction with the minor but nonetheless interesting exhibition in New York), when Le Corbusier specified stone walls in his unexecuted plans for the workers’ housing estate of 1929, he was stimulated by more than his growing interest in indigenous building techniques. In response to political pressure from the masons’ union, which had supported the “Loi Loucheur” creating this government-sponsored project, a concession was included in the law requiring that at least one wall in each house be made of masonry—a kind of architectural featherbedding.
The persistent and parallel interest Le Corbusier maintained in the intellectual and the intuitive, the technological and the hand-crafted, the theoretical and the pragmatic, was the underlying constant in a career of enormous breadth and astonishing ambition, fully justifying the accolade of “Architect of the Century” bestowed on him by the title of the London exhibition. In Benton’s judgment, “his dedication to the real was always qualified by his willingness to believe in the ideal,” and it is precisely that complementary, rather than contradictory, duality that gives the architecture of Le Corbusier, both early and late, a complexity far more interesting than the monolithic image of it put forth by many of his revisionist detractors.
According to the centennial bulletin issued by the Fondation Le Corbusier in Paris (the archive established after his death in 1965), there have been no fewer than forty-four exhibitions on Le Corbusier in thirteen countries, with some of those shows traveling to several cities. Their various accompanying publications (and the encyclopedia issued in lieu of a conventional catalog for the big Paris retrospective) further swell the avalanche of books issued and reissued not only to capitalize on the timely event and to reflect the extensive recent research of an emergent generation of Le Corbusier specialists, but also to correct the distorted image some critics have put forth of Le Corbusier as the primary source of most of the evils of Modernism.
The strong, not to say irrefutable, evidence in support of Le Corbusier’s supremacy among the makers of Modern architecture has also led to his being held largely responsible for the failures of the new order he promulgated, proselytized for, and put into practice. Typical of the animus against Le Corbusier for his central role in overthrowing an architectural tradition that had remained intact almost since the Renaissance is the assessment by the English architecture critic Colin Amery, in his brief review of William J.R. Curtis’s Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms:
[Le Corbusier’s] mad polemics have rebounded upon his own head and it is not unfair to say that, outside the architectural profession, he carries much of the blame for urban dereliction and decay and the absurdity of point blocks, piloti and pollution.2
But Curtis himself comments that although disasters there certainly have been in the wake of Le Corbusier’s example:
It is really too facile to blame the banality of imitations upon the prototypes that they imitate: by this logic one ought also to blame Palladio for every mock-classical suburban house using fake columns and pediments.
Similarly, as Norma Evenson writes in “Yesterday’s City of Tomorrow Today,” her excellent essay on Le Corbusier’s urbanism included in Le Corbusier (the welcome compilation of articles until now available only in the thirty-two-volume Le Corbusier Archive, edited by H. Allen Brooks and issued by Garland Press between 1982 and 1985):
One is sometimes led to believe that Le Corbusier is directly responsible for every present-day example of misapplied functional zoning, destructive motor expressways, insensitive urban renewal, overscaled urban parkland, regimented apartment housing, and monotonous glass-walled skyscrapers. Le Corbusier, after all, originated none of these things.
In the United States, the onus for what went wrong with Modern architecture has been borne largely by our most commanding “form giver,” Ludwig Mies vander Rohe, whose characteristic steel-framed, glass-walled, flat-roofed office and apartment towers established the new format for American urban construction during the unprecedented building boom from the end of World War II until the recession of the early Seventies. Le Corbusier’s influence—aside from his popularization of such basic technical innovations as reinforced concrete-slab construction (his Dom-Ino system, patented in 1916)—has been much more pronounced elsewhere.
Most notably, Le Corbusier’s ideas have taken hold in third world countries, where he designed important buildings (such as his dozen structures in India, beginning in 1951) of had active disciples (such as Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, for whom Le Corbusier acted as consultant for the Ministry of Education and Public Health of 1936–1943 in Rio de Janeiro). The impact of Le Corbusier’s later career has been singularly consequential in poor countries, with his emphasis on mass housing, relatively low-tech building methods employing concrete and masonry far more often than steel, taking advantage of the plentiful cheap, unskilled labor available there, and particularly with his search for a new kind of civic symbolism, important in those developing nations eager to cast off the architectural signs of colonialism (even while turning to a Western architect to provide an alternative). In India especially, Le Corbusier’s insistence that a new formal vocabulary could be extracted from the humble components of peasant life resulted in public buildings at Chandigarh (see illustration on page 54) still more powerful in effect than Sir Edwin Lutyens’s Mughal-cum-Classical capital at New Delhi of forty years earlier, whose style Le Corbusier found “flawless but deadly.”
But Le Corbusier’s intense interest in urbanism, largely confined to his work during the Twenties and Thirties—bold, often megalomaniac schemes for the transformation of the modern cityscape—have had their strongest effect in industrialized countries, especially those needing extensive reconstruction after World War II: West Germany, Holand, and especially Great Britain. The later is the subject of Adrian Forty’s sensible, corrective reevaluation, “Le Corbusier’s British Reputation,” in the London catalog. Given the rising tide of architectural conservatism in England today, this essay, and indeed the exhibition itself, make a brave, unapologetic case for Le Corbusier.
Before World War II, the continental brand of International Style Modernism received little support in Great Britain, oddly enough since so many advances in materials, technics, and town planning took place there during the nineteenth century, when much of Europe lagged behind the engineers, theorists, and reformers of England. But the need for rapid restoration of the devastated cities of Britain after the war conferred advantages on an already formulated model, and Le Corbusier’s proved the most accessible one. Modernism, and specifically Corbusian Modernism of his so-called Brutalist phase (frombéton brut—“rough concrete”—his favored material after World War II) became the unofficial architectural style of the British Welfare State, as well as the prevalent attitude among the new generation of architects educated in postwar England. The wholesale application of his ideas in the rebuilding of Great Britain after the Blitz resulted in his becoming, in Forty’s phrase, “Modernism itself as far as the British are concerned.” The results, as in the case of the huge concrete Hayward Gallery, which lacks natural light in some of its exhibition space, were sometimes heavy and unhappy.
In the United States, acceptance of Le Corbusier’s ideas was less widespread, but still sufficient to make a mark on the skyline. The largest of the ambitious slum-clearance programs of the late Forties, Fifties, and early Sixties—such as Stuyvesant Town in New York, Cabrini Green in Chicago, and the infamous Pruitt-Igoe project in St. Louis, the demolition of which has come to symbolize the failure of Modernist architecture to some of its critics—took many of their cues from Le Corbusier’s most controversial proposals: his Contemporary City for Three Million of 1922, the Voisin Plan for Paris of 1925, and the Radiant City of 1930.
Intentionally provocative, Le Corbusier’s chilling visions of tall, uniform towers widely spaced amid vast greenswards and reached by broad superhighways are among the most unforgettable—and misunderstood—images in all of twentieth-century architecture. Le Corbusier saw his city plans as preemptive strikes, as it were, acceding to the inevitability of a new urban scale but hoping to improve the quality of city life by the preservation (or creation) of large quantities of open space for light, air, and recreation. But they were far from unique. High-rise renewal schemes were common both among the popular press (one skyscraper fantasy in a Paris newspaper of the Twenties was headlined “Si Paris S’Americainisait“) and high-style architects. In fact, some designers, including the German Ludwig Hilberseimer and the Austrian-born American émigré Richard Neutra, produced Modernist city plans even more frightening in their rigidity and regularity than Le Corbusier’s. As Norma Evenson observes:
If Le Corbusier’s visionary urban designs became better known, and thus more influential, than those of other modernists, it is because they were more comprehensively developed and had far greater visual appeal.
Unsettled political conditions in France during the Thirties and the war years of the Forties delayed execution of Le Corbusier’s tall tower schemes until the beginning of the Fifties, by which time his utopian ideas of the Twenties had begun to have a major effect in the United States. In 1952, Lewis Mumford bitterly wrote to his English town-planning colleague Frederic J. Osborn:
In this country housing officials, who have barely heard of Le Corbusier, nevertheless imitate his Voisin Plan in every new project between New York and Los Angeles, with only a few lone voices, like…mine, to protest against it. That the intelligentsia of Britain should have gone in for the same absurd formula is sickening.3
Actually, that is somewhat of an exaggeration. Though the adoption of the high-rise, rather than the low-rise housing format which Mumford and Osborn preferred, became widespread in America between 1945 and 1965, it was by no means employed in every scheme from coast to coast. The frustration Mumford and Osborn felt over their ideas, based on the English Garden City model, being shunted aside in favor of those of Le Corbusier must be taken into account. To them, and many other critics of the Corbusian city, the plans of the Twenties and Thirties were Alphaville avant la lettre, celebrating the eradication of existing buildings and the discontinuity among them, two of the deepest and most common fears in this destructive, fragmented century. But the urban setting that gave birth to those drastic proposals needs to be considered in any balanced assessment of what Le Corbusier was trying to accomplish. Furthermore, the low density of the Garden City type—which, interestingly, Le Corbusier applied with almost textbook correctness in his unbuilt Cité Jardin Aux Crétets of 1914 for La-Chaux-de-Fonds—was not a suitable solution for one of the greatest of all metropolises.
The Paris Le Corbusier came to know as a young firebrand still harbored many pockets of disgusting squalor. The attempts of the Salvation Army, which was notably active in France, to break the vicious circle of indigence, poverty, and decay in Paris resulted in one of Le Corbusier’s most audacious, if problem-plagued, designs, the City of Refuge of 1929–1933. That fascinating, flawed building is the subject of a well-rounded monograph by Brian Brace Taylor, first published in Italian in 1979 and now available in English. With some justification, Le Corbusier believed that a spectacular proposal to sweep away the blight was most likely to capture the indifferent public’s imagination. After all, Baron Haussmann’s Procrustean plan to cut diagonal boulevards through Paris had been completed little more than a half-century before; not only were the protests over the dislocations and disruptions it caused long forgotten, but the city had since become the pride of the civilized world. Might not the same be done by Le Corbusier?
Though his great urban schemes were never built, Le Corbusier’s three major city plans have done more to foster opposition to their designer’s ideas than all his other works combined. Le Corbusier’s suggestions for the restructuring of Paris in his Voisin Plan were indeed shocking but they have often been portrayed as even more extreme than he stated them. For example, he did not call for leveling all of central Paris, but only a part of it on the Right Bank, leaving historic monuments such as the Louvre complex and the Palais Royal intact. The sixty-story skyscrapers that dominated his new City of Light were not residential, as some critics have contended, but were meant solely for offices; apartment housing would have been provided in six-story “immeubles-villas” on the periphery of the high-rise business district. Nonetheless, block after block of the familiar Paris milieu, with its long-accumulated texture of flats, shops, offices, cafés, and neighborhood relationships—the vie de quartier—would have been demolished. The Voisin Plan in that respect presented the single most upsetting prospect advanced by a Modernist architect.
The closest Le Corbusier ever got to erecting a skyscraper were the oblong, slab-shaped housing superblocks—the Unités d’habitation—he executed in Marseilles (1947–1952), Nantes (1953), West Berlin (1957–1958), and Briey-en-Forêt, France (1961). The most famous of them was the first (see illustration on page 58), executed as part of the government-sponsored reconstruction of France after World War II. The Marseilles Unité is a logement prolongé (“extended dwelling”) containing 337 units in twenty-three configurations, from one-room to duplexes, housing 1,600 people. Its elevations are the antithesis of his taut, minimalist façades of the Twenties: the exteriors of the Unité are richly shadowed by the deep reveals of the brises soleils (“sunbreakers”) and are brightly painted. Offering no fewer than twenty-six services, including shopping, a gymnasium, and day care for children, it has turned out to be one of the most popular of twentieth-century avant-garde housing developments, despite all the dire predictions that it would foster lunacy and promote social turpitude. For the past thirty-five years it has been for many a highly desirable and pleasant place in which to live. As Tim Benton notes:
At Marseilles, the experiment has been successful, albeit in the rather special circumstances of relatively affluent professional inhabitants…. There are plentiful signs of active community life…. The place buzzes with children, the lifts seem to work and there are no graffiti and little deterioration.
That willing acceptance of a radically new form of housing might be ascribed to the adventurous tendencies of educated French professional people. (Some early Modernist housing intended for Berlin workers has lately become fashionable among professionals there, just as at least one such estate, Bruno Taut’s Hufeisen Siedlung, had become popular among intellectuals soon after it was built during the Twenties.) However, the publication of a new edition of Philippe Boudon’s classic 1969 study on Le Corbusier’s Quartier Moderne Frugès of 1925–1928, a worker’s housing development at Pessac, near Bordeaux, is a reminder of the fundamental flexibility of Le Corbusier’s domestic architecture, even as inhabited by the less-educated people for whom it was designed.
Amply illustrated with instructive before-and-after photos Boudon’s report on what happened during the years after Pessac was first occupied documents the amazing alterations made to the stark white stucco row houses emblematic of Le Corbusier’s Purist period. The original flat housetops have been replaced in some instances with pitched roofs, often tiled. The hallmark Corbusian fenêtres en longueu (“ribbon windows”)—one of his anonical “Five Points of a New Architecture”—frequently have been filled in to create smaller windows generally with shutters and embellished with applied ornament. So many change have been made during the six decades since its completion that it is a rare unit among the 135 that retains its original appearance. It is interesting to speculate what Le Corbusier’s response would have been to this imposition of the present-day vernacular onto his largest built housing scheme of the first half of his career. He admired the vernacular in its “pure” peasant form but no doubt would have had much less patience for this manifestation of it. The sentimental idealization of peasant architecture and the concomitant contempt for its contemporary style, whether in suburban shopping centers or tract houses, would remain a feature of high-style architecture until the “gentle manifesto” of Robert Venturi in his Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture of 1966 validated the popular and the commercial vernacular as other legitimate sources of architectural inspiration.
When Boudon’s remarkably unbiased study of Pessac was first published three years after Venturi’s watershed work (often cited as the second most influential book on architecture in this century after Vers une architecture), anti-Modernist feeling was rising in opposition to the waning hegemony of the late International Style. The Pessac report was thus cited by some as proof that Modern architecture was an inhuman abstraction requiring symbolic as well as practical modifications to make it tolerable to the average person. Since then, Pessac and its ad hoc permutations have been appreciated as just the opposite: evidence that Modernism at its best has been adaptable enough to absorb even kitsch surface decoration while retaining its integrity as a revolutionary architectural concept. Providing healthful, affordable workers’ housing was the primary social aim of the early Modern movement, and Pessac has proved the validity and endurance of that vision.
Some of Le Corbusier’s buildings have been subjected to remodelings no less startling than at Pessac, as noted in The Le Corbusier Guide, a very useful compendium of practical information on the sixty-nine extant landmarks of the master. It gives clear, detailed directions (including maps) on how to find them and what to expect when one gets there, as well as dining and lodging advice and other personal observations. It will be particularly helpful to students and travelers dependent on public transportation, and will ease the shock of recognition for those who have treasured mental pictures of Le Corbusier’s most memorable works in their fleeting, pristine prime.
One of the richest concentrations of Le Corbusier’s earliest work is to be found, understandably enough, in his home town of La-Chaux-de-Fonds, which during his youth was the center of the Swiss watchmaking industry. Le Corbusier’s Neo-Palladian cinema and six villas there—ranging from the Art Nouveau-cum-folkloristic Villa Fallet of 1906–1907 to the Villa Schwob of 1916–1917, threatening to explode into full-blown Modernism—are the subject of a monograph containing solid essays by Geoffrey Baker on the buildings themselves and by Jacques Gubler on the larger regional setting that had a very formative effect on the architect’s future direction.
The education Le Corbusier received at the Ecole d’Art, under the remarkable Charles L’Eplattenier, a broadminded pedagogue open to the most advanced reformist thinking of the day, was unusually sophisticated. L’Eplattenier was especially partial to the legacy of John Ruskin and William Morris, no doubt accounting for Le Corbusier’s tendencies toward both utilitarianism and nature worship. If we try to explain the combination of self-confidence and urgency Le Corbusier always had in regard to his missionary program for recasting world architecture, we can find some of the sources in this art school in the Jura.
Perhaps only slightly less important in shaping the mind and eye of Le Corbusier were his youthful travels to the architectural monuments of the Mediterranean and Near East, recorded in Journey to the East, his illustrated diary of 1911. First issued in French in 1966 and now available for the first time in English, it was initially printed, in part, at the time of the trip through the Balkans, Turkey, Greece, and Italy in La Feuille d’Avis, a paper in La-Chaux-de-Fonds. Even though there is evidence of plagiarism in his accounts of Istanbul (taken from Claude Farrère’s L’Homme qui assassina) and the Parthenon (Ernest Renan’s Prière sur l’Acropole), there is no doubt that the twenty-three-year-old Le Corbusier had precocious powers of observation and both the pictorial and verbal skills to convey his experiences to others with a high degree of immediacy.
His ardor in absorbing the timeless culture of the Mediterranean and the Near East has a contagious, if occasionally callow, charm. He was surprised by the strong, direct architecture of the folkloristic buildings he was on his journey. Some of his reactions foretell his eventual rejection of his machine aesthetic of the Twenties in favor of the primitivism of his later career:
There is nothing I know more lamentable than this mania today to disown tradition for the sole purpose of creating the coveted “new.”
That attitude will come as no surprise to those mindful of Le Corbusier’s constant respect for history—if not historicism—and the inspiration he took from the indigenous architectural forms of North Africa and Greece in his formulation of his white, flat-roofed, unornamented architecture of the Twenties. (Some residents of Pessac seem to have intuited those references, since in their interviews with Boudon they frequently used the word “African” to describe Le Corbusier’s style there.)
Le Corbusier’s best sketches from his Mediterranean trip are vivid evocations of mass and space, proof of his voracious scenic appetite. A number of those travel drawings were displayed at the exemplary retrospective exhibition in Milan that opened the centennial year. Admirable for its lack of thematic gimmickry and its comprehensive scope, the exhibition was rich in original material from Le Corbusier’s first three decades, before he settled in Paris at the age of thirty. There he came under the influence of the painter Amédée Ozenfant and began to take his own painting considerably more seriously than he had before. It was also at Ozenfant’s instigation that the architect adopted his pseudonym—a variant of an ancestral name, Lecorbésier—in 1920.
The Purist art of Ozenfant and Le Corbusier—who together wrote the book La Peinture moderne, published in 1925—is best understood against the so-called Rappel à l’ordre, the “call to order” that sounded through the arts in France after World War I. An attempt to reestablish the “traditional” French virtues of clarity and reason, the Rappel à l’ordre had certain right-wing political undertones echoed later in the Twenties by the burgeoning Redressement Français movement that Le Corbusier supported and vice versa. The uncontrolled “excesses” of Cubism were frowned upon, and Purism was intended as a return to order from the extremes reached by Picasso and Braque, with out rejecting some of the basic perceptual discoveries made by those two pioneers. Indeed, the work of Picasso himself was to undergo a conservative retrenchment during his White Period of the Twenties, and if the placid monumentality of Ingres hangs heavily over his paintings of that decade, it is not surprising that it is also present in those of Le Corbusier.
In any event, although Le Corbusier continued painting and drawing nonarchitectural subjects throughout the rest of his career, his most fertile phase as a painter was limited to the decade between 1919, when he executed his first Purist canvas, and 1929. The selection of paintings and sculptures from all decades of Le Corbusier’s career shown in Venice and handsomely reproduced in that exhibition catalog give further proof of his early strength and late weakness.
The finest of Le Corbusier’s Purist still lifes of the Twenties—impeccably arranged groupings of the utilitarian objets-types he loved: machine-made bottles, glasses, and plates, as well as those old Cubist favorites, the pipe and the guitar—can hold their own with many of Léger’s similar compositions done at the same time. Le Corbusier’s table-top landscapes do a great deal to elucidate his contemporary architectural concerns—his emphasis on the frontal effects of buildings, on achieving transparency through the elimination of heavy loadbearing walls and the extensive use of glass, and his introduction of a rotating viewpoint through imaginative circulation patterns. Those pictures were certainly an important means for him in working out his thinking before applying such ideas to his buildings.
In later years the subject matter of Le Corbusier’s paintings would again parallel motifs also found in his buildings—for example the forms of voluptuous nude females during his shift to a biomorphic approach in the Thirties, or the recurrent open hands, ox carts, and horned bulls during his work on the Punjabi capital city of Chandigarh in the Fifties. But the connections between painting and architecture would never be as geniunely reciprocal as they had been in the Twenties. It was almost as though once Le Corbusier had resolved his creative crisis as an architect, rejecting the limited expressive spectrum of Purism in favor of the freedom of a new primitivism, his painting ceased to function as a sounding board for his architecture, which in turn became far less cerebral and much more sensuous.
One suspects that Le Corbusier was aware and deeply resentful of his diminished powers as a painter after 1930. Even as he won immense praise for his architecture he became increasingly obsessed with gaining recognition for his pictures; there is pathos in the spectacle of a master in one medium yearning fruitlessly for acceptance in another at which he could never excel.
Le Corbusier’s limitations are quite clear in the collection of 250 of his drawings and paintings assembled by the Swedish collectors Ulla and Theodor Ahrenberg, 190 of which are being shown in a traveling exhibition that was first on view in Switzerland. Though the title hints at forbidden delights, the pictures are for the most part predictably zaftig female figure studies that the aging architect took endless delight in limning. Despite all the writhing flesh (including many femmes à deux and that pornographic staple, wrestling women) only one drawing, Sex en Groupe of 1934, might be said to be obscene. Unfortunately more revealing is the Ahrenberg collection’s sad tracing of Le Corbusier’s descent into hollow Picasso-like and Légerian mannerisms even as the quality of those artists’ work began to slip as well.
Le Corbusier’s success in advancing his architectural ideas derives in no small measure from his skills as a promoter. His many books—tracts, really—are testimony to his tireless determination to use the printed word to win converts to Modernism. Format was extremely important to him, never more so than in his design for Vers une architecture. It is still a breathtakingly arresting book: large type, short sentences, spacious margins, snappy slogans (including the famous “a house is a machine for living in”), and unexpected juxtapositions of photographs, especially the appropriate if irreverent pairings of motor cars and Greek temples. Vers une architecture has all the potent appeal of the most effective revolutionary propaganda: blunt, catchy, prescriptive, and, above all, well-timed.
Composed of articles that originally appeared in L’Esprit Nouveau, the avant-garde journal Le Corbusier edited (and mostly wrote himself) between 1920 and 1925, Vers une architecture was followed by a sequel two years later, L’Art décoratif d’aujourd’hui of 1925. Similar in concept, though more verbose and therefore less gripping, it is now translated for the first time into English as The Decorative Art of Today. It is a significant addition to Le Corbusier’s published works in English and is much more than (in Reyner Banham’s dismissive opinion) “a polemical work of only local interest.”
Le Corbusier’s articles on product and furniture design were conceived as a frontal assault on the establishment viewpoint of the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. Today best remembered as the show that later gave Art Deco its name, the exhibition was intended to recapture French dominance in the design of luxury consumer goods, which had shifted to Austria and Germany in the decade and a half before World War I.
Le Corbusier was as appalled by the governmental promotion of the labor intensive, largely useless objects for the rich in that exposition as he was by the items themselves. “Modern decorative art is not decorated,” he proclaimed in one of his more oxymoronic axioms. To illustrate his point, he depicted massproduced examples he approved of—Michael Thonet’s simple bentwood chairs of circa 1850, the Roneo office filing system, the fuselage of the Farman-Goliath airplane—as well as those he scorned—a grotesque Lalique brooch in the form of a cock’s head devouring a huge gem, the showy pictorial glassware of Emile Gallé, and the ponderous haut bourgeois furniture of Süe et Mare. A thoughtful analysis of Le Corbusier’s writings for L’Esprit Nouveau can be found in the evocatively designed catalog of one of the four centennial exhibitions held this year in Zürich, organized by Stanislaus von Moos, author of what remains the best survey of the architect’s career.4
One of the greatest ironies of Le Corbusier’s achievement is that this idolater of technology had such trouble in making it work for him. Daunted by the unavailability of ready-made components with which to realize his perfectionist designs, Le Corbusier had to resort to costly handcraftsmanship to attain the sleek, machinelike look he craved. Tim Benton’s litany of the architect’s customary cost overruns—often more than twice his estimates—and his systematic deception of his unusually forebearing clients underscore the romantic nature of Le Corbusier’s infatuation with mechanization.
The Mies centennial of 1986 was rife with speculation on what might be revealed about that architect’s rumored relations with the Nazis. Given his opportunistic complicity with the Hitler regime during its first four years, it seems incredible that Mies was later able to pass himself off in the United States as the hero who valiantly closed the Bauhaus rather than knuckle under to the pressure of the SS. It is nearer to the mark that he finally left Germany in 1937 not out of political conviction but because his employment prospects there from the all-controlling state had reached a dead end. (The fact that Mies had once worked for the Communists, designing the memorial for Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, surely did him no good.)
Le Corbusier, like Mies, was suspected of having Communist tendencies because of his work for the Party, in his case the Centrosoyus building of 1926–1927 in Moscow. Also as with Mies, Le Corbusier’s actual political beliefs were very much tied to the expediencies of getting commissions for his costly, experimental buildings, and led to his collaboration with the Fascists after they came to power, which had equally little effect on his ability to find work in the postwar period.
During his years of struggle in trying to win acceptance for his new program for world architecture, Le Corbusier entertained the idea of an omnipotent ruling “Autorité” to help smooth the way for his radical reformation of architectural production. The international economic depression encouraged him to join the Syndicalist movement in 1930. As William J.R. Curtis explains in the best chapter of Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms, dealing with the architect’s politics and their effect on his work between 1929 and 1944:
Syndicalism was attractive to intellectuals who saw capitalism failing, who feared Fascism but also recoiled from the idea of ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Among them was Le Corbusier…. At the same time he could not accept communism, perhaps sensing that it might interfere with his élitist stance as philosopher-artist and that it might disallow his cherished urban ideas to flourish…. For this Syndicalism seemed to hold out some promise. Its doctrines were an eclectic mixture of élitism and egalitarianism, technocracy and organicism, conservatism and progressive thought.
The ambiguities implied by that position seem to have vanished after the fall of France in June 1940. Fleeing to an obscure town in the Pyrenees, Le Corbusier eventually cast his lot with he collaborationist government and went to Vichy. It caused a break with his two closest co-workers—his cousin and architectural partner Pierre Jeanneret, and Charlotte Perriand, with whom he had designed his classic furniture during the Twenties and Thirties. His colleagues joined the Resistance while he tried to get work from the Pétain regime.
Through connections with former members of the Redressement Français and the Syndicalist movement now in the puppet government, Le Corbusier was named to a panel meant to determine the new architectural direction of the defeated nation. That his appointment was terminated as early as July 1941 was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to him. He then went not to Paris, where his compromised position would have been far too visible, but back to the Pyrenees, where he sat out the rest of the Occupation in salubrious anonymity, directing his restless energy to his writing and his art. As Curtis writes:
[Le Corbusier’s] actions were also influenced by his self-image as a prophet, his crude environmental determinism, and his historicist belief that a new era…was about to dawn. In this scale of utopian values, the first duty lay in the realization of the plan, because this was for the greater social good over a long period: it did not occur to Le Corbusier that a pact with the devil might besmirch him and his architecture.
In view of the humiliating penances meted out to collaborators in France after the liberation, it now seems amazing that Le Corbusier got off so easily. Especially surprising is the source of his most important patronage in the immediate aftermath of the war: the Ministry of Reconstruction, which commissioned him to build the Marseilles Unité d’habitation in 1945. Le Corbusier was reunited with his architect-cousin Pierre, and upon the completion of the Marseilles project in 1952 was presented with the Légion d’Honneur by the then Minister of Reconstruction, Eugène Marius-Petit, a decorated hero of the Resistance who later in the Fifties gave Le Corbusier two commissions in his home town of Firminy. After his death while swimming in the Mediterranean, Le Corbusier’s body lay in state in the Cour Napoléon of the Louvre, where he was eulogized with great emotion by another Resistance fighter, André Malraux.
One explanation for Le Corbusier’s blameless rehabilitation and effortless integration into the mainstream of French architectural affairs (he had received no such public jobs before the war) was that he had a gift for making certain aspects of his career invisible, much as he had a far more obvious talent for publicizing his frequently praiseworthy activities on behalf of architecture for social betterment. There can be no doubt that Le Corbusier’s attempts to ingratiate himself with the Vichy government must have been known subsequently to at least some of his French clients, one’s war history being of great relevance in that classification-obsessed society. But his overriding genius was surely the mitigating factor that made his numerous shortcomings—political, professional, and personal—matter far less than his extraordinary strength of vision, invention, and consolidation.
Le Corbusier was the most influential architect in the four centuries since Palladio, another master publicist who synthesized the architectural direction of an entire age. In our own century, Le Corbusier’s career bears comparison with that of Picasso, whose combination of formal innovation, stylistic evolution, unceasing research into the communicative potential of his medium, and demonic vitality made him as formidable and pivotal a figure in painting and sculpture as Le Corbusier was in architecture. The broad compass of the recent scholarly investigations into the legacy of Le Corbusier indicates the wealth of ideas he generated.
One final parallel between Picasso and Le Corbusier has occurred only in the decades since their deaths. Both artists had been long appreciated as the greatest in their respective fields, but the full measure of their accomplishments, now becoming apparent through the latest research, reveals that they were even more important than we had accepted. They were indeed the modern-day counterparts of those giants of history they so self-consciously posed themselves against: Picasso as the heir of Titian, Velázquez, and Rubens, and Le Corbusier as nothing less than the twentieth-century Vitruvius.
December 17, 1987
“Le Corbusier Between the Wars Architecture and Ideology,” The Museum of Modern Art, New York, April 25, 1987. ↩
The World of Interiors (July August, 1987), p. 48. ↩
Michael Hughes, ed., The Letters of Lewis Mumford and Frederic J. Osborn: A Transatlantic Dialogue, 1938–1970 (Praeger, 1972). ↩
Le Corbusier: Elements of a Synthesis (MIT Press, 1979). ↩