To Corb or not to Corb

Corbusier promotes new building. (Swiss video)

Le Corbusier promotes new building. (swiss.info.ch)

I am at this moment watching a Swiss video called Le Corbusier: Why he is adored and detested. The screenshot from the video atop this post captures his pitch to build another of his machines for dying in (yes, that’s what they look like), and also the curl of his lip as he pushes it on a gullible group of design mavens. A few scenes later, the narrator notes that the architect opened a studio in Paris. Then she describes his Plan Voisin, proposing the destruction of the Marais district in central Paris. “He wants,” she asserts, “to improve living conditions for the residents of the crowded city.” How can she tell? I can’t wait for the video to get to why he is also “detested.” …

I enjoyed the video’s interview with the German curator of an exhibition in London dedicated to Corbusier. Arthur Ruegg wears a diminished version of Corbu’s distinctive round black spectacles. Funny. But then, with dark music in the background, the narrator intones that Corbusier’s “political allegiances have cast a dark shadow over his architectural achievements.” She notes his collaboration with the Vichy regime set up by the Nazis, and quotes one of his letters to his mother, in which he states his belief that “Hitler and Vichy rule would bring about what he called ‘a marvelous transformation of society.’ ” Indeed, he was hired under Vichy as a city planner but his proposals, such as his plan to destroy Algiers, reminiscent of his plan to destroy Paris, were rejected. (Ah, the protective cloak of the total state!) She then declares that he later denounced the regime, and adds that some say he was merely “cozying up to those in power in order to win commissions.” The video cuts to architecture critic Deyan Sudjic saying that Corbusier tried to get audiences with Mussolini and Stalin.

But no worries! Great architecture, Sudjic adds, has always depended upon a close relationship between architects and the occasionally unsavory rich and powerful. YouTube’s description of the video reads: “Le Corbusier was an internationally influential Swiss artist, architect and designer. His dubious associations with totalitarian regimes have failed to diminish his reputation as one of the most inspirational artists of the 20th century.”

Indeed, alas, they have. So does it do any good to raise questions about Corbu’s political allegiances, or those of Mies van der Rohe, the Bauhaus leader who tried to persuade the Nazis that modernism would make a good design template for the Third Reich; or Walter Gropius, who merely sought commissions from the Nazis but who, after emigrating to the United States, set about purging architecture education at Harvard of traditional themes; or the American architect Philip Johnson, who accompanied the Wehrmacht into Poland and set up his own pro-Nazi organization in America after, not before, he had curated the Museum of Modern Art exhibit that introduced modernism – the “International Style” – to his country’s intellectual elite, and admitted that architects were “high-class whores”?

Since Corbusier is the most revered of this set of founding modernists, attacking him is at once the most rewarding and the most perilous of strategies in the fight against modern architecture. With the centennial of the great master’s birth coming up in August, against the backdrop of a Corbu protectorate in full drool, two books will by then be published in France that focus on his totalitarian bent. A review of the two books in the London Times by Matthew Campbell, “Critics demolish Le Corbusier as an anti-Semite,” quotes one of the authors making a most salient observation: “The most shocking thing is not that the world’s best-known architect was a militant fascist. It’s the discovery that a veil of silence and lies was thrown over this reality.”

Malcolm Millais, the British writer and resident of Portugal whose excellent Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture was published in 2009, has written Nothing But Lies: The Shocking Truth About Le Corbusier, soon to be published. I am in the midst of reading it. It may be the most comprehensive assessment of the architect’s many flaws, not only his political allegiances but the extent to which voluminous internal contradictions mar the record of his achievements and the validity of his own thinking on architecture, planning and cities. Brutal stuff. To say the least.

The goal of this literature, which carries forward a line of march that causes even some classicists to blanche, is not to persuade the establishment and the practitioners of modern architecture that Corbusier was evil and hence modernism is wrong. They live in a bubble. There are many examples of how shifts in attitude have resulted from attacks over time on the conventional wisdom and established practice. Smoking is a great example. Wearing seat belts and driving drunk are others. Take the rise of Hush Puppy shoes from fusty to fashionable and the sudden drop in the sky-high crime rate of New York City – to cite two examples from Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point. Change is a cumulative phenomenon. A host of factors are always contending to put the last straw on the camel’s back.

A majority in most nations already doubts the validity of modern architecture. The shift away from modern architecture and back to a more beautiful, sustainable and popular architecture has already begun. When it will reach a critical mass is unknowable, but direct action can speed it up. Indifference will slow it down. A shift in the correlation of forces is already such, it seems to me, that attacking Corbusier can only help. Those who find it beneath their dignity can leave the dirty work to others.

Challenging the Corbusier hegemon is just one tactic in a strategy that can and will lead to the victory of beauty over ugliness, conservation over waste and affection over disdain. The AIA, on the run and crouching in its Corbu Corner, says “Look Up!” I say “Look It Up!” The facts about Le Corbusier are out there, and they are as damning as they can possibly be. In any other field, someone with such transcendant flaws would be frog-marched out of the profession. Happy birthday, Corb. Your time has come.

 

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. 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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and 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 invest your prose with even more style and clarity, 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.
This entry was posted in Architects, Architecture, Architecture Education, Architecture History, Video and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to To Corb or not to Corb

  1. Timing is everything. Collapse is near, particularly with this silly “look up” campaign that is reactionary to massive tumult from within, finally reacting to human beings all over the world. To add, Justin Shubow has frightened them all. They want to know “Who is he?” now.

    I am in Rome currently at the American Academy and had an evening tonight not dissimilar to what Nikos describes. Corbu got me in big trouble. I then asked if the scholars had ever heard of the ICAA. One had, sort of. I then asked if any of them were aware of the Pritzker Prize. All, of course, said yes. I asked if any had ever heard of the Driehaus Prize. None had. I told them that due to the Duany’s philanthropy when accepting their Driehaus Prize, (they donated it to publishing of Leon’s and others works so more beauty could get out there), that this so moved Richard Driehaus that he doubled the Driehaus Prize purse (at the time the same as Pritzker) to $200,000. I was in the room and let out a Rebel yell I have never succeeded in doing before… (I am from Georgia)….Andres heard me and looked my way and laughed.
    I asked the AAR Fellows, did it concern them that they had no knowledge of the largest purse for Architecture in the world? Relative to me, they are young.

    We are meeting tomorrow.

    Thanks Niko. You are not alone.

    Like

  2. Soundslike says:

    I doubt it would be possible to find Jeanneret-Gris (self-styled “Le Corbusier”) more unappealing than I do. I find him detestable as a person, for his opportunistic politics, for his greed, for his egomania, for his middle-finger prose, etc. I find it disturbing that he seems to be a personal hero (beyond a design hero) for many minds ossified by the Modernist academic cult and to the young minds they bend. So while I think it’s perfectly OK to point out all the ways he was an ass, it’s important to remember that his architectural and urbanistic legacies are not dangerous because he was bad, but because the principles and intent and effect of his ideas and work have been so destructive.

    This is important because many Modernists (including Jeanneret) liked to prove the guilt of all traditional architecture–and especially Western Classical architecture–by association with individuals in whom they rightly saw many social, political, and personal failings. The old “rich old imperialist white people built these buildings that everybody loves, so we must destroy them in order to destroy their ideas”. The great thing about traditional architecture and urbanism throughout the world and human history is that it continues to speak to us, and to teach us many things that are Good, even if the builders of the architecture failed at being ideal human beings.

    The regressive perpetual revolution of the Modernists like Jeanneret and his ilk has failed not because they were all jerks–probably they were, but so too were many of their Roman and Gothic and Renaissance and Beaux Arts and Arts & Crafts predecessors. It has failed so abjectly because the work itself has never succeeded even on its own terms, much less on the terms regular people and coherent cultures seek like beauty, utility, and durability. It has failed because the ideas and the work run counter to everything that sustains good architecture well beyond the lives of its mere architects.

    So tease Modernists for their foibles, expose them when they’re fascists or sycophants or illusionists or dim-witted, sure–their vanity is probably the only chink in their century-old-fashioned suit of armor they live in. But we have to keep the focus on the architecture, on the places, not on the personalities. A multitude of forgotten architects produced the great mass of quality every-day architecture and urbanism that we live in (if we’re lucky) and learn from every day, and it’s telling that we generally don’t know who they were, because they produced from living traditions that allowed people of average talent with a little more than average dedication to produce at a remarkably high level. Modernists threw out these traditions in for obsession with individual greatness and virtuosity and novelty–so personal attention, like a petulant child, is what they crave. Ignore them individually, focus on the emptiness of their collective contributions to society, and they’ll wither and die.

    Like

    • Soundslike sounds a lot like me! You are correct in every point. I would only add that I do one, two, sometimes three posts a day, almost all of which embrace the strategy you suggest. A swipe at Corb now and then is, you might say, my reward! Anyway, his flaws as a man almost always dovetail with the flaws of his architecture.

      Like

  3. David,

    My most unpleasant experiences in architectural circles come from an association with Le Corbusier, although they cannot be blamed on him. On several occasions I have been enjoying a lecture presentation, giving a lecture myself, engaging in a conversation, even having a fine dinner with friends and wine, when I have unwisely criticized Corbusier. What happened next was extraordinary: sensible, mature professionals start to shout uncontrollably, turning hostile and rude and even physically threatening!

    The first time this happened I was shocked. On subsequent occasions I have been equally frightened but at least I should have expected it. Needless to say, further contact or collaboration with those persons offended by my remarks is impossible. Everything stops. Projects, courses underway, and plans for future conferences are canceled. This irrational reaction led me to research dangerous cults in deepening my understanding of what drives contemporary architecture. The results are alarming.

    Best wishes,
    Nikos

    Like

    • Your theory of modern architecture as a cult explains this perfectly. I would add that they get that upset because they understand perfectly the validity of your charges against the great man.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s