Corbusier’s nasty drivel

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Model of Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin, targeting Paris. (quadrant.com.au)

Anthony Daniels wrote in 2015 a masterful defenestration of modern architecture’s chief founder, “The Cult of Le Corbusier,” for Quadrant, an Australian magazine. I offer this one quote, along with my assurance that the essay in its entirety will comfort all who recognize the despicable in Corbu and his work. He is a man venerated who should be shunned:

For a man for whom abstract ideas were so important, he wasn’t very good at thinking. His ideas were to real thought what doggerel is to real poetry. You never have to go very far in his books (and his literary output was prodigious) to find ex cathedra statements that combine inaccuracy, looseness, laziness and self-serving mendacity, all covered in a thick sauce of absolute self-confidence. Here, for example, is something from page 4 of Quand les cathédrales étaient blanches, published in 1937:

The cathedrals were white because they were new. The cities were new: they were built all of a piece, in order, regular, geometric, according to plans.

This will no doubt come as news to medievalists. And to imply some kind of aesthetic equivalence between, say, Rheims Cath- edral and the Unité d’habitation (or anything else that he built) is breathtakingly arrogant, to put it mildly. On page 163 we read:

Manhattan repeats a natural history lesson: man is an ant, with precisely the same life habits, a uniform behaviour. By wanting to “free” man from his biological realities by an urbanisation extended in space, our snake-oil salesmen have rendered cities ridiculous …

The solution is obvious: to hand over total control to Le Corbusier, so that uniform man can live in uniform buildings that are efficiently conformable to his uniform behaviour and his “biological realities”.

Le Corbusier wrote thousands of pages of this unpleasant semi-intellectual drivel.

The illustration atop this post is a model of Corbusier’s Plan Voisin, involving the destruction of a large swath of central Paris. Daniels’s essay provides information on this plan and the so-called thinking behind it. The plan was rejected by Paris, fortunately, but much of its program was carried forward on behalf of the poor in public housing, housing estates and banlieus around the globe. The essay describes Corbusier as “a man, deeply autistic, who could never tell the difference between his own dull metaphors and reality.”

Corbusier’s own renderings of the Plan Voisin and his book The Radiant City put his fascistic tendencies on open display. Daniels describes the cult-like will to ignore of attendees at a Corbusier exhibition at (of course) the Centre Pompidou in Paris:

Many normal people do not see it, however, among them the thousands who trooped respectfully through the exhibition, not one of whom (as far as I could see) reacted with anything except awe to what was exhibited. Corbusier’s ideas, all of them gimcrack and third-rate, have struggled with good taste and common sense, and triumphed in the struggle. Of course, the visitors were a self-select- ed group; but the thoroughness with which the myth of Le Corbu- sier’s architectural genius has been propagated can be gauged from the story that Marc Perelman, an architectural critic, relates in his recent book, Le Corbusier, une froide vision du monde. In 1986, he says, he published another book critical of Le Corbusier, and it put an immediate end to his career in French architectural schools.

Daniels quotes one fawning critic’s appallingly accurate description of Corbusier’s most famous work, the Villa Savoye:

The most limpid and most structured of his works. A fragile edifice, all but uninhabitable, abandoned immediately, ruined by leaks, its plaster constantly cracking, but incontestably a masterpiece.

Of course, it was impossible for me to print only a single passage from Daniels’s brilliant essay. But just one more. He quotes another recent book critical of Le Corbusier, Le Corbusier, un fascisme français, by Xavier de Jarcy. It ends:

The most appalling thing is not that the most famous architect in the world had been a militant fascist. It is the discovery that a veil of silence and lies has been thrown over not only this reality, but also over the fascism of a part of the French intellectual, artistic and industrial elite. It is to feel the thickness of the curtain of forgetting that has concealed the facts for so long.

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.
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11 Responses to Corbusier’s nasty drivel

  1. Pingback: Built environment – Gadyna Organism

  2. I was seduced by the looks of the Corbu Chaise Lounge and requested one as a birthday present about 20 years ago. It currently serves as a repository for clean clothes on their way back to the closet or drawers. It’s certainly not suitable for seating.
    At first, laying in it is pleasant enough, but then It forces you into a single posture, and after about half an hour you need to get up to relieve the stiffening of your muscles. You then discover that it’s very low and has you pitched too far backward, and getting out of it is a real scramble. In many ways it seems to match his preferred political system….

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    • Ha ha, Peter! I’m afraid I cannot verify your observations because I have never had the pleasure of sitting in it. But as Daniels says in his piece, all you have to do is look at his drawings of the Plan Voisin and the Radiant City to see that once Corbu has you in his chair, he does not want to let you out. If you do not agree, then get thee to the re-education camp!

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  3. Thank goodness the complex wasn’t built. It might have been called the “Jerry Lewis”.

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  4. David,

    Theodore Dalrymple has a wonderfully succinct explanation (in the paper you quote) as to why a formerly-great nation descended into cultural degeneracy.

    “[Le Corbusier’s] malign influence has left the French, after one or even two thousand years, completely unable to build so much as an aesthetically pleasing house, let alone a decent public building.”

    Cheers,
    Nikos

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    • Yes, he is remarkably to the point, and unafraid. So why does he use noms de plume? Is his real name Theodore Dalrymple, Anthony Daniels, or what? I am very familiar with his writings – largely about the plight of poor teens amid Britain’s social disintegration – in City Journal, among other places.

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      • His real name is Dr. Anthony Daniels, his nom-de-plume Theodore Dalrymple. He is following the great literary tradition of Fernando Pessoa and Jorge Luis Borges, who also signed their writings using several different names.

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  5. Pingback: Corbusier’s nasty drivel | psychosputnik

  6. Daniel Morales says:

    Always reassuring to hear such clear and honest analysis free of politics. Thank you.

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  7. I know the feeling. I have also unavoidably debunked Corbu’s nonsensical statements since they clash with the real science that my group of friends is working to re-integrate into architecture. But the reaction from seemingly sensible people is alarming: they turn into nasty, hostile, bullying fanatics — when just a moment ago they were nice and even charming individuals. Apostasy from the Corbu cult is not permitted under any circumstances! Pauvre Monsieur Perelman, I don’t wonder why his career was destroyed by the architectural régime. This happens all over the world et pas seulement en France.

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