Le Corbusier, a founder of modern architecture, traveled in 1935 on his first trip to America. A Frenchman born in Switzerland, he thought New York City would receive him like a god and was mistaken.
Here I am pleased to present a couple of excerpts from Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow, by Anthony Flint, of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, in Cambridge. The prose crackles, the story hums, and I intend to review it at greater length after I’ve finished reading it. For now it is a roller-coaster ride as the author seems to sing veritable hosannas to my bête noire, nay, seems to eager to excuse by faint damnation the multiplicity of what Flint seems to consider Corbu’s foibles and peccadilloes – but then, time and again, the author is forced to lay bare the awful truth.
The nitty-gritty on that is to come, but I have to say I enjoyed the pain Flint seemed to feel at having to relate the details of Corbu’s visit to America. I like to think that Flint is setting his readers up, and that as the book reaches toward its conclusion the boom will be laid upon the truly nasty Corbusier. We will see. For now, enjoy his failed first trip to America:
“Skyscrapers Not Big Enough, Le Corbusier Says at First Sight,” read the headline in the New York Herald Tribune, above a picture of the architect looking up through Coke-bottle glasses, owlish and goofy, even slightly depraved. He later claimed the flash surprised him and couldn’t understand why the assembled photographers weren’t interested in his studio portraits from back in France, which he offered to them for the bargain sum of five dollars each. … Le Corbusier pocketed the pictures, looking slightly injured.
The accompanying article, by a young Joseph Alsop, an Ivy League-educated skeptic of modern architecture who would go on to become a noted national political columnist, described the visitor in unflattering terms and is thought to have coined the term “egghead” in the process.
Alsop, along with his brother Stewart, had already reached the pinnacle of the Washington commentariat and was heading down when I was a kid in the District of Columbia. Flint continues:
In the subheadline, Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” was translated as the “Town of Happy Light,” like an absurd item on a Chinese takeout menu. With the dubious Alsop at the keyboard – who spoke perfect French, favored bow ties, and in later years wore round eyeglasses exactly like Le Corbusier’s – the outmatched Parisian didn’t stand a chance.
Ah! Knowing that the last laugh would be Corbu’s, the details of his disappointment in America early on warm the cockles of my heart. Thank you, Anthony Flint.
But I cannot abandon this post without quoting Mencken from an editorial called “The New Architecture” in The American Mercury three years earlier, in 1931. Very sad. How wrong, how dreadfully wrong, he was:
The New Architecture seems to be making little progress in the United States. … A new suburb built according to the plans of, say, Le Corbusier, would provoke a great deal more mirth than admiration.