Wherefore art thou, Corbuseo?


Correspondent Malcolm Millais, author of Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture (2009) has sent me a 29-minute BBC clip of a radio show, “Great Lives,” starring the modernist Sir David Chipperfield rattling on about Le Corbusier, one of, no, perhaps the founding modernist. I am going to “live blog” this curious bit of radio, so to speak, beginning, mere moments into the broadcast, with Chipperfield’s relevation that one of Le Corbusier’s houses outside Paris, probably the Villa Savoye, has to be rebuilt every five years because it keeps “crumbling.”

c-53:25 – Chipperfield: “It’s alien, a disconnect from history. It’s wiped clean of texture, a poem of modernity.” Interviewer Matthew Parris: “Where is it?” DC: “It’s just outside of Paris.” MP: “It still exists?” DC: “Yes, they rebuild it about every five years because it literally crumbles. He had a terrible relationship with his clients because it always leaked and – typical architect stories – but it’s still there and remains an inspiration. … [But] those poems of of beauty of the early modern architecture have been transformed by the 1970s into faceless social housing blocks or mundane corporate architecture in city centers.”

Yada yada, yeah, we all know that, though Chipperfield still seems to think Corbu’s work was inspirational. What a drooler!

Well, let’s try to find Corbu himself on this thing.

4:35, Corbusier, speaking in a French accent (he was Swiss): “Man, woman and children of the world live a life they should not live, work a work they should not work. And the answer is the major problem of today and tomorrow. You must take 2,000 people together and build a big house with one entrance only for 2,000 people so they will be quickly in their own home where they will find silence and total solitude.”

Okay. Does that make sense? I listened again and again and that is what I heard and have transcribed. Well, so what? It’s the sound of the voice of the master – that is all. Totally.

Well, before you know it, Parris brings in Flora Samuel, a professor of architecture at Sheffield University, who (5:20) absurdly claims that Corbusier was trying to bring architecture back to nature when in fact he was channeling this whole machine-culture thing (“A house is a machine for living” and all that). Shall I labor to put down her words? No! Go to the tape if you want to hear her, and meanwhile I will try to track down more Corbusian gems.

Corbusier's 1925 Plan Voisin to rebuild Paris

Corbusier’s 1925 Plan Voisin to rebuild Paris

But first, Chipperfield again, who is asked by Parris whether Corbusier wanted to change architecture to fit people or change people to fit architecture: “Clearly he was a megalomaniac as well, and his pretensions to have the ambition to reshape cities – well, one would not even consider it now. I mean, his proposal to destroy half of Paris could be seen as tongue in cheek but I don’t think it was.”

How disingenuous, by the way, to introduce the notion that we really cannot be sure that Corbusier was serious in proposing his Plan Voisin, to demolish the Marais district and replace it with 60-story towers in a greensward riddled with highways. This plan of his and its totalitarian seriousness is well established. But let’s see if we can find any more Corbu on tape.

I have become an expert in a small way on documentaries about modernism that seem to praise their subjects in terms most of us would find more akin to condemnation. Nothing I’ve seen – and I’ve done two posts of this sort lately – matches in that sense the degree of this radio interview. At one point, Chipperfield notes that after World War I Corbusier was “thinking of rebuilding cities before they needed [after WWII] to be rebuilt.” What a brain! Good grief. … On I plow through this tape, and soon after that I find a snippet of Corbusier on tape again:

Corbusier (14:30), about his Plan Voisin or his Villes Radieux, not sure which: “So the cities will be green, the distances will be reduced, and the traffic will be organized. The automobile will be totally separated from the pedestrian.”

Immediately after, Flora Samuel leaps in to note, as nonchalantly as she can manage, that it didn’t really work out very well where it was tried around the world. She actually suggests that the Plan Voisin was really just a huge publicity stunt. And she actually believes that it was the rich people that Corbusier “experimented” on.

At about 20.00 Parris askes his panelists “how concerned we should be that he [Corbusier] worked for Mussolini, expressed hopes for what Hitler could achieve, he collaborated with the Vichy regime, does it matter? Does it reflect on the value of his work?”

Professor Samuel replies that it reflects on the man but not the work. Sir David dodges the question but suggests that at bottom Corbu was focused on the individual. The conversation is suffused with the moral niceties of working in world architecture today – would you build a police station in Tibet? (No, says Chipperfield, somewhat dubiously). It comes as almost no surprise that Corbu’s being “unkind” to his wife is a throwaway line of Chipperfield’s after Samuel describes his supposed forays into feminism. This is becoming monotonous!

I do recommend listening to the interview, linked above. It really pops the eye (or the ear). It is hard to wrap your mind around the fact that these three people are on radio to praise Corbusier, and probably even believe that this is what they are doing. What do you think?

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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1 Response to Wherefore art thou, Corbuseo?

  1. Thanks for the link David. While I do really admire much of what he was trying to do (in a freshman level cardboard sense only), it is amazing to me how people can so obviously adore a person like Corbu and spend most of the time apologizing for his errors in professional work and personal ideology, enabling the legend of a megalomaniac. “I am alone in my category.” Yes sir, you are. Again, thanks. He is a fascinating person to expose and understand.


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