Le Corbusier: Modernism’s High Priest of Architecture

It has been said that Le Corbusier’s buildings violate the street…

– Ada Louise Huxtable, On Architecture

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret known better as Le Corbusier gave us the shape of ideas in things, awakened out of stone, wood, glass, and a zoological plenum of other materials a new world of form and beauty. As Huxtable would say years later on seeing Harvard University’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts,

Le Corbusier’s buildings are a curious and characteristic blend of the deliberately rugged and the artfully primitive, from a mind of unusual subtlety and sophistication. This one is frankly a workshop; there are no slick finishes or rich materials to seduce the viewer. New England should not object; it shares, with the French, the tradition of austerity.1

As his biographer Nicholas Fox Weber remarked “Compassionate, arrogant, generous, selfish, Calvinist, hedonistic, proud, enraged, ecstatic, sad, Le Corbusier the man was as provocative, and unique, as the buildings with which he changed the visible world.”2 Most of what we know of the revealed self of Le Corbusier is from his letters to his mother Marie Charlotte Amélie Jeanneret-Perret lived to the age of one hundred. As Fox tells us these letters unfold the man: “The intimacy with which Le Corbusier wrote to her about his taste in women is extraordinary. The intensity of his program to change the world, the leaps and plunges of his spirit, the rapidity of his mood swings, and the relentlessness of his emotional needs and professional ambition: all these emerge unmasked.”

In the past week as I’ve been digging my way through my library, reforging links to books on art, philosophy, architecture, poetry, fiction… all the passions of the mind, I began to think of a central figure who best represented what Modernity entailed. Who best fit the profound inner contradictions of that age? I thought of the three great figures in modern architecture: Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Any of these three could be the fabled master of the modernist style, but ultimately I had to choose; and, of course, out of the three it was inevitable that the one man who incarnated the spirit of Modernity and Modernism was both its High Priest and its most controversial figure: Le Corbusier, the giver and shaper of Form. From the moment of the publication of his the publication of his manifesto Toward a New Architecture the world changed direction. “Begin at the beginning!” This was Le Corbusier’s cry and anthem, the law of his engineering of form and light into structures of material ideas. “Architecture to-day is no longer conscious of its own beginnings,” he barked. He set forth his reminders: Mass, Surface, Plan. Mass, which is the element by which our senses perceive and measure and are most fully affected. Surface, which is the envelope of the mass and which can diminish or enlarge the sensation the latter gives us. Plan, which is the generator both of mass and surface and is that by which the whole is irrevocably fixed. With these one could develop the harmony of Architecture: ”

Architectural emotion exists when the work rings within us in tune with a universe whose laws we obey, recognize and respect. When certain harmonies have been attained, the work captures us. Architecture is a matter of “harmonies,” it is “a pure creation of the spirit.”

Yet, there was a price to be paid, too. With the pace of modern life something was happening, a new world was arising, the old world was falling away, and with it the old values of the bourgeois family:

Disturbed by the reactions which play upon him from every quarter, the man of to-day is conscious, on the one hand, of a new world which is forming itself regularly, logically and clearly, which produces in a straightforward way things which are useful and usable, and on the other hand he finds himself, to his surprise, living in an old and hostile environment. This framework is his lodging; his town, his street, his house or his flat rise up against him useless, hinder him from following the same path in his leisure that he pursues in his work, hinder him from following in his leisure the organic development of his existence, which is to create a family and to live, like every animal on this earth and like all men of all ages, an organised family life. In this way society is helping forward the destruction of the family, while she sees with terror that this will be her ruin. There reigns a great disagreement between the modern state of mind, which is an admonition to us, and the stifling accumulation of age-long detritus.3

Le Corbusier sought something specific, geometric precision and a simplification of measure: – a universality that he could apply as engineering and architecture. So  he devised a workable unit of measurement, which he called the Modulor, or Golden Section. It was based on the height of a man with his arm upraised, and according to Le Corbusier, any structure based on multiples of this unit of measure would be beautiful and have a human scale. His own use of the Modulor, however, proved to be as personal as everything else he did. (Huxtable 56) Le Corbusier described it as a “range of harmonious measurements to suit the human scale, universally applicable to architecture and to mechanical things.”

Le Corbusier once said, in a statement usually turned against him, “You know, it is always life that is right and the architect who is wrong.” This was not a confession of error. It was the recognition of the validity of process over the sanctity of ideology. Few architects are capable of making that observation, because it speaks not to some fixed ideal, but to the complexity and incompleteness of architecture, to how life and art accommodate each other. (Huxtable 163) The modern movement is a story of high hopes, boundless optimism, (not so) innocent social idealism, and considerable hubris in which the artists, architects, and artisans of the world would make it a better place through a radical new kind of design. Change was necessary to reinvigorate a corrupt, exhausted, and war-weary society. “Architecture or revolution!” Le Corbusier proclaimed, not surprisingly settling for architecture to improve people’s lives. The machine was to be the symbol and instrument of salvation; mechanization and standardization would serve humanity through progressive political systems. Everything would be stripped down to its functional essence and reinvented, and this would lead to an aesthetic as modern as the message was messianic. Clear out the mess. Banish the past. Design for the future. Modernism was the original extreme makeover. Painting, sculpture, architecture, furniture, tableware, interiors, graphics, photography and film, theater, costumes, and clothing are all here to prove it. There are familiar icons and the unexpected from Paris, Berlin, Moscow, the Netherlands, the United States, and eastern Europe. These are the masterworks of modernism by Piet Mondrian, Fernand Léger, Kasimir Malevich, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Marcel Duchamp, Wassily Kandinsky, Naum Gabo, and Hans Arp, with buildings and furniture by Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Alvar Aalto, Erich Mendelsohn, and Gerritt Rietvelt, and photography and film by El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko, and Man Ray.

“A house is a machine for living in.” Le Corbusier would tell us. Le Corbusier insisted that “in building and construction, mass-production has already been begun; in face of new economic needs, mass-production units have been created both in mass and detail.” He saw that a “style belonging to our own period has come about; and there has been a Revolution.”  Le Corbusier’s claim to have been formed a willing slave to experience has a certain reasonableness. A largely self-made designer, he spent several apprentice years traveling to draw immortal models, including the classic temples of ancient Greece and Rome and the holy places of the fading Ottoman Empire, sketching, sketching. During this migrant phase, he worked for a time with protomodernists like Peter Behrens in Berlin and Josef Hoffmann in Vienna, to say nothing of the groundbreaking Auguste Perret in Paris. He was a serious painter, particularly in his early years, one among a small coterie of artists, the “Purists,” working toward a contemporary aesthetic of lucidity and simplicity. They demonstrated their current relevance, as modernists well might, with smooth, pleasing, subdued still lifes of domestic products like pitchers and cups, and— a tip of the cap to Cubism— guitars. Le Corbusier’s buildings were an integral part of his enterprise as a painter.4

As Peter Gay reminds us technology pervaded his prose no less than his designs. Hence seductive slogans appear and reappear in his writings: the modern private house as the architect’s precious conquest or the spiritual foundation of materialism were triumphant battle cries for which a routine-ridden world, Le Corbusier dejectedly believed, gave him all too few opportunities. But he never rested content with erecting manors for the prosperous, those uncertain gates to fame. Throughout his career, he indefatigably drew, and occasionally built, housing for the poor and the lower middle classes, projects that he had in common with most other modernists. He drew up comprehensive plans for city after city on three continents, one after the other rejected for a wide gamut of reasons: emotional conservatism, conflicting interests, and rational resistance to schemes that would have displaced thousands of city dwellers. But from his first venture into urban planning in 1922 until his death in 1965, Le Corbusier kept returning to his earliest, vast city schemes. In all of them he tried to trump the English garden city and related proposals for being too diffuse, too timorous.(ibid.) Yet, with all his supposed apolitical stance he formed a relation with the Vichy Regime. After France’s defeat by the Germans in June 1940, the country was largely run by the occupying forces. It became a time of cowardice, treachery, and demeaning compromises with the victor, ending only with liberation in 1944– 45. For Le Corbusier, this shattering catastrophe was an opportunity. A long-standing admirer of Marshal Pétain, he saw the Vichy regime as a potential patron, intelligent enough to recognize the talents of a great builder like himself, authoritarian enough to have its orders enforced. To Le Corbusier, who claimed to be unpolitical, Vichy enjoyed all the advantages of the French spirit with none of its defects; the squabbles of corrupt politicians that had made France so notorious (and Le Corbusier so impatient) seemed at an end.(ibid.) Peter Gay sums it up eloquently:

Vichy, then, promised what we know Le Corbusier regarded as a public architect’s most gratifying and most dependable ally: order. Early in 1941 he was appointed to a provisional committee devoted to reconstructing war-damaged France; during those heady days he maneuvered to enlist the authorities in his far-reaching plans for Algiers, a city he undertook to turn into a centralized, powerful capital of France’s colonial territories. Writing to General Maxime Weygand, then the country’s Governor General of North Africa, he did not conceal his authoritarian hopes: “In the present administrative state, only the highest authorities of the country can permit the necessary innovations, create the useful precedents, authorize the ignoring of old regulations, permit the Plan to enter into life.” What he was asking for, he said plainly, was “an order from above” and a “gesture of authority” that would cancel present plans and introduce a new one: Le Corbusier’s.  (Kindle Locations 4980-4987).

Toward the end of his life Malraux who had been a champion of Le Corbusier’s work and commissioned the architect to design a major new museum of modern art on the outskirts of Paris, although Le Corbusier had rejected the site. Other people in power had disdained Le Corbusier’s modernism or faulted his politics. Some had declared him pro-Soviet; others thought him fascist. There were rumblings that he had collaborated with Vichy. But Malraux was one of the few people who considered Le Corbusier’s genius more important than anything else about him, and he had been consistently loyal.(Fox 3)

At Le Corbusier’s funeral Malraux would honor his old friend, saying: “Le Corbusier has had great rivals, several of whom still honor us with their presence; the others are dead. But no one else has so forcefully signified the architectural revolution, for no one else has been so long and so patiently insulted. It is through disparagement that his glory has attained its ultimate luster.” Malraux touched on Le Corbusier’s achievements in painting, sculpture, and poetry. Those were the calmer realms. Le Corbusier’s battles were confined to issues of building and to urban design. “Only for architecture has he done combat—with a vehemence he has shown for nothing else, since only architecture awakened his impassioned hope for what might be achieved for mankind.” (Fox 4) 1. Huxtable, Ada Louise (2010-07-15). On Architecture. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. 2. Weber, Nicholas Fox (2008-11-08). Le Corbusier. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. 3. Corbusier, Le (2012-11-01). Towards a New Architecture (Dover Architecture). Dover Publications. 4. Gay, Peter (2010-08-16). Modernism: The Lure of Heresy. W. W. Norton & Company.

3 thoughts on “Le Corbusier: Modernism’s High Priest of Architecture

  1. “New England should not object; it shares, with the French, the tradition of austerity.1”

    Wow. I can’t believe she said that, and I’ve always agreed with her before. Austerity is surely only a small part of French ‘tradition’. They can’t even do it in their medieval cathedrals. There’s lushness for days, very often an Italianate voluptuousness. New England has a whole tradition of austerity, not to mention the sensibility that goes with it. Henry James was always juxtaposing the New England puritanism with the Parisianisme he worshipped but didn’t seem quite able to breathe in., whether in ‘The Ambassadors’ or ‘The Europeans’. Everything about ‘Frenchness’ is about pleasure and the ‘arts of living’, whadda they have in Boston, baked beans? Yes. Sure, they can get austere, but I think the word in that vein that more accurately describes French style in any of the arts is ‘severe’, which is often paired with ‘Gallic’. New England wants a small town with a steeple and some autumn colours.

    Thanks for linking me and doing a little snooping, I’m a very marginal figure in the bleugosphere, my only friend being ktismatics. Otherwise, I’m read by people in the Arts sometimes, and then sometimes nobody at all. I still write the most personal things in a notebook. I either have a terrible reputation or am ignored completely. I think I understand how you’re doing this work, and should have earlier Since you don’t always refer your researches to the novel, and I tend not to gravitate to the dystopian, but just write things about whatever specific figures or events interest me, I now understand i need not comment on some of that stuff, the ‘darkening tones’ which most successful philosophes and theorists do. Not especially ‘utopian’ except sometimes for poetry, but then I wait for a ‘euphoria’, and this came naturally, even though I especially liked E.M. Cioran saying that a ‘euphoria was the only authentic utopia’. That was simply brilliant. Euphoria is something you have to delimit, but utopia actually bores, but I’m still not all that dystopian. But, as I said, I see where your focus is now.

    No, the publisher and I have pretty much concluded our relationship, amicably enough, but there are a few copies of IDNYC at St. Mark’s Bookshop still. it was a limited edition, and all the sales to Swiss and French are sold out. The 3rd book was very lavish (much more than I thought necessary, and whose delay caused me enormous anguish, although I had little choice, since I’d never have such a chance again, and the result if beautiful, but they did it for their own ‘prestige product’ and were actually even angry that some volumes were sold at St. Mark’s for $29.95, when they were selling them to rich Swiss for $145, and the few hardcover editions for $450, of which I got nothing at all. It wasn’t ‘vanity press’ in the sense of my paying for its publication, which I didn’t. But there’s nothing there for me anymore.

    I definitely appreciate your quoting Peter Gay a good bit, and may want to read some more. He’s marvelous, and his bio of Mozart is THE best, esp. getting rid of all that ‘Amadeus’ stuff about Salieri foolishness that made everybody cry for the ‘crucified genius’. I also liked ‘Pleasure Wars’ a lot.

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    • Sorry for the long interlude of not replying… thanks for the info on your published work! Yea, I read Peter Gay’s work on the enlightenment many years ago and enjoyed it thoroughly. I read through a few of the volumes of his social history of the 19th Century which for a specialist would be fascinating reading as well. I’m currently working through Jonathan I. Israel’s multivolume work on the Enlightenment period, too. Great and interesting reading!

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