I’ve just started rereading the late Peter Blake’s slender 1960 hagiography of French architect Le Corbusier, born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret in Switzerland. A far better book on Corbu, as he is known by his many deluded admirers, is Le Corbusier: The Dishonest Architect (2017), but its author, Malcolm Millais, has not (and I’m sure will not) subsequently change his mind and write a book like Blake’s flip-flop, Form Follows Fiasco: Why Modern Architecture Hasn’t Worked, which he wrote in 1977. So it took Blake 17 years to come to his senses.
I have apparently read both of these books by Blake. I can’t recall my first encounter with Le Corbusier: Architecture and Form, but I underlined my copy so I must have read it; in fact, it was once owned by the late modernist architect Derek Bradford, my nemesis in matters of design here in Providence. I didn’t steal it from him; I bought it for fifty cents at a local library sale. By the way, Millais’s enduring defenestration of modern architecture, written eight years before Dishonest, is Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture.
Here are a couple of quotes from Blake’s book on Corbu. These should whet your appetite for quotes from his book Fiasco, which I will supply as I read it.
Here at Pessac [a suburban housing project near Bordeaux], as in many other places, Le Corbusier was to run head-on into violent opposition on the part of various authorities, and his buildings stood vacant for more than three years after they were completed because some benighted local bureaucrats, who objected to the uncompromising geometry of Corbu’s open and closed cubes, refused to issue the necessary occupancy permits. …
Here, as at Pessac, Corbu was to meet a degree of hostility hard to imagine today . … At the Paris exhibition, the hatred for Corbu’s pavilion was passionate and vitriolic; indeed, it is difficult to understand why he was asked to participate in the first place, and the authorities did everything possible to sabotage his efforts. They began by giving him the worst site in the entire exhibition, a spot practically outside the exhibition grounds. Next, they erected a fence some eighteen feet high all around Corbu’s pavilion to keep out visitors altogether. It took the intervention of a cabinet minister to have the fence torn down! Finally, when an international jury decided to award the first prize to Corbu’s pavilion, the French member of the jury succeeded in vetoing the proposal on the grounds that the structure “contained no architecture.”
This is music to my ears. I haven’t had such a glow on toward authorities in a long time. One of the book’s joys, in spite of Blake’s worship of his subject, is its brutal honesty in describing how officials detested Corbusier’s buildings. Of course, Blake no doubt considers the disdain of officials as feathers in his hero’s cap. As a young architect in the 1920s, Le Corbusier ran up against the fact that building regulators in those days were not marinated in the love of ugliness as they are today. They had the sensibility of normal people. It was not until four or five decades later, in the ’60s and ’70s, that architecture schools had purged the intuitive sense of taste from students who attended schools that formed the next generations of designers, who dominate what our cities look like today.
One of the reasons I was not altogether enamored of Form Follows Fiasco was that it was really more about city planning than architectural design. I don’t recall that Peter Blake ended up hating modern architecture as much as I wanted him to. He was a modernist himself and designed about 50 buildings during his career, and, as far as I can tell, they were all modernist. At some point he must have been designing what he knew most people would dislike, following principles he knew were hollow. How did he sleep at night?
He died in 2006, at which point I hope he was finally able to rest.