Corbu’s rant at Neimeyer

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Design of United Nations Headquarters (1949) from later stage of process, memorialized by Hugh Ferriss, hired by U.N. to sketch work of panel of designers as project proceeded. (U.N.)

Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian architect who died in 2012 at age 104, is best known for designing Brasília, the sterile über-modernist new capital city that arose in the Brazilian outback in something like three years in the late 1950s. Its design mostly abandoned the curvaceousness that was the best quality of his work, and which makes him among the least unbearable of the early modernists (or the late ones, for that matter).

He also participated in the design, perhaps his second best known, of the United Nations Headquarters along the East River in the Turtle Bay district of Manhattan. Of course, the U.N. could not have been designed by anything but a committee, and the prima donna Le Corbusier was lead architect on a multinational team of ten members. Nevertheless, Niemeyer produced the design for the complex that the committee strongly preferred.

I was aware that Corbu and Niemeyer butted heads during this contentious process. I was still astonished to read Martin Filler’s description, in Makers of Modern Architecture (Volume II, 2013; Volume I, 2007), of their spat. Filler’s chapter on Niemeyer, after describing the positive reaction of the committee to the Brazilian’s proposal, continues:

Le Corbusier disagreed: in his notebook he labeled a thumbnail sketch of his own proposal “beau” and Niemeyer’s “médiôcre” [sic], though in fact it was quite the reverse. As the oldest, most eminent member of the panel, Le Corbusier pulled rank and at one meeting, according to [design committee chairman Wallace Harrison’s assistant George A.], Dudley, “blew his top and shouted, ‘He’s just a young man; that scheme isn’t from a mature architect.'” Though Le Corbusier could not get his own proposal [for a single tall building] accepted, he cowed the twenty-years-younger Niemeyer into altering his configuration, eliminating the open areas between buildings the Brazilian had called for, and thereby grievously diminished the ensemble’s spacial qualities. … Though the participants had agreed that the U.N. Headquarters would be credited as a group effort, Le Corbusier tried to claim sole authorship, and evidently altered and backdated his sketches to support that fraudulent impression.

This behavior on the part of Le Corbusier is entirely predictable for those who have read Malcolm Millais’s Le Corbusier, the Dishonest Architect (2017). But it probably would surprise anyone whose familiarity with Corbu comes from the groaning shelves of hagiography published over the years that treat him as a god with no hint of clay feet. It is indeed surprising that Filler, though unblushingly reverent toward almost everything by any modernist upon whom he has bestowed the blessing of a chapter in his book, would include something as catty as this. Good for him.

(The image up top is by noted architectural renderer Hugh Ferriss, who was hired by the United Nations to sketch work of architects stage by stage during design process. I was unable to locate the sketches in Corbusier’s notebook mentioned in the passage above. If any reader has such a sketch, please send it, or a location for it, and I will put it in.)

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Brasilia, Esplanade of Ministries. (photo by Vesna Petrovic/Getty)

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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others 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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