The Magazine

Ideas in Concrete

The law of unintended consequences applies to architecture.

Feb 23, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 22 • By JAMES GARDNER
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Le Corbusier

A Life

by Nicholas Fox Weber

Knopf, 848 pp., $45

No one man has exerted greater influence on the way the world looks today than Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, known to history as Le Corbusier. From the rotting remains of the Cabrini Green projects in Chicago to the slums of S o Paolo and the state buildings in Chandigarh, it is hard to avoid the improbable influence of this rebellious scion of humble Swiss Calvinist stock.

Though there has never been a lack of books about Le Corbusier, even while he lived, this new biography claims to be the first to cover in detail his entire life, which began in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1887 and ended in 1965 with his drowning (possibly self-willed) in the waters of the French Riviera.

Weber, who has previously tackled the lives of Matisse and Balthus, among others, has not written a scholarly biography of his latest subject. Because Le Corbusier's urban and architectural ideas have been so widely discussed already, the author's treatment of these issues feels perfunctory. Rather, the strength and novelty of this book, nearly 850 pages long, is that it thoroughly mines the architect's correspondence with his mother, to whom Weber had unique access. And because she died at nearly 100 years old, those letters cover most of Le Corbusier's career. The abundant citations have been ably translated by Richard Howard.

Without being hostile to his subject, Weber depicts Le Corbusier as something of a hustler whose entire career was an ongoing overcompensation for his sundry insecurities, his fear of impotence and his desire, even when he was 60 and world famous, to impress his mother. The result of such an approach is to turn Le Corbusier into a charming rogue, all too human in his foibles and his naked ambition. But this impression is largely a consequence of the author's relying so heavily on Le Corbusier's correspondence with his mother. And while Weber draws on other sources, readers would have benefited from seeing Le Corbusier a little more from the outside, as a public man.

Biographers often need to be reminded that the public man and the private man are two halves of the same human whole, that the former is not (as writers like Weber are inclined to believe) merely the mask of the latter. That said, Weber deserves credit for allowing his readers, when they lay down his lengthy book, to feel as though they now know Le Corbusier.

Le Corbusier's success challenges the notion that one's childhood has anything to do with one's subsequent career. Le Corbusier's impish bohemianism, his ardent sensualism and acrobatic self-promotion ran completely contrary to his Swiss Calvinist upbringing, which seemed to have been designed to suffocate any creative urge before it could ever arise. Both his mother and his father, a watchmaker, seemed satisfied with their modest lot in life, and they viewed with gravest misgivings the artistic aspirations of douard and his older brother Albert, a composer.

The one thing that Le Corbusier grasped from a young age was the need to get as far away from La Chaux-de-Fonds, and as quickly, as possible. The first order of business, on graduating from high school, was to reinvent himself. A tall, striking figure with cropped hair and jughead ears, he soon started calling himself Le Corbusier, a variant of the name of one of his ancestors, Lecorbésier. He also began to wear those goofy round glasses that became his signature and that, four generations later--for no particular reason--continue to influence the eyewear of "progressive" architects around the world.

By his early twenties, he was traveling extensively around Europe in his determination to become a great painter, as well as a great architect. He worked briefly with Peter Behrens in Berlin, and then with Auguste Perret in Paris, the city he would call home for most of his life.

This distance from his birthplace had the beneficial result of compelling him to provide a running commentary on his career in the form of his correspondence, first with both parents and then (at his father's relatively early death) with his mother alone. Though he does appear to have had a deep affection for his parents, his openness in writing to them about his sexual insecurities is so startling, even today, that one can almost believe he was trying to provoke them. As soon as he had any money he began, in Weber's recounting, to frequent brothels with rare zeal. And as his fame grew, he would have many amorous affairs--with Josephine Baker, among others--though his philandering does not appear to have disturbed his long and happy marriage to his frequently inebriated wife, Yvonne.

Inevitably, the aspiration of a book like this is to shed light on Le Corbusier's architecture through revelations about his character. But to that end, the character that is revealed here is rife with paradox. At the most superficial level, the pale, denuded façades and the structural austerity of Le Corbusier's most classical works, like his Villa Savoye (1929), might seem to have something to do with the austerity of his Calvinist background. And yet his latest works, such progenitors of Brutalism as the chapel at Ronchamp (1954) and the Monastery at Sainte Marie de La Tourette (1960) attest to a willful and wayward individualism that is diametrically opposed to the impersonal machine aesthetic of his earlier works.

One of Weber's most useful revelations is that, even as Le Corbusier was designing his austere Villa Savoye, he was no more given to personal or emotional austerities than Picasso had been when, two decades earlier, he pioneered his arid brand of Analytic Cubism. For Le Corbusier, no less than for Picasso, the rejection of sentiment and the corresponding embrace of a machine aesthetic, far from being a rejection of emotion, were the passionate forms in which (at least in the 1920s) he expressed his contentious personality. That same spirit would express itself, in terms closer to Le Corbusier's true character, in the Brutalist works from the end of his life.

The one element of his career that seems plausibly "Calvinist" is his indefatigable industry. One hesitates to call this a work ethic, since he labored less out of any moral conviction than out of a deeply felt need to be always busy. Surely few people in the 1930s and 1940s traveled as often in ships, planes, and even dirigibles as Le Corbusier, who visited Brazil, India, the United States, Algeria, Japan, and any other place that held out the promise of a client, often a government ministry, that would let him build.

For a man as passionate about most things as Le Corbusier appears to have been, it is odd that he seems to have been essentially apolitical. To some of his more traditionally minded opponents, Le Corbusier was a dangerous figure because he had visited the Soviet Union and, being Le Corbusier, strove mightily to ingratiate himself with any commissar who would let him realize his grand projects. But to those on the left, Le Corbusier was equally suspect, not only because he built villas for wealthy clients but because he had few scruples about working (or, some might say, collaborating) with the Vichy government during World War II.

Even if Le Corbusier's most seminal ideas were articulated a generation before that conflict ended, it was in the aftermath of the war that his influence reached its zenith. This influence was threefold: It consisted in developing the modernist villa as an architectural typology, in fostering the aesthetic of both the International Style and Brutalism, and in creating the theoretical foundations for the dominant form of Modernist urbanism in the West and in the developing world well into the 1970s.

The emergence of the modern villa is of marginal importance, while Brutalism has dwindled into a period taste, and the International Style had many authors beside Le Corbusier. It is rather in his urbanism that Le Corbusier was most transformational. Curiously, perhaps tragically, the roots of his ideas can be seen as profoundly anti-urban. Influenced, in large measure, by Ebenezer Howard's Garden City movement at the end of the 19th century, Le Corbusier rationalized that the ideal city would integrate the space and greenery of the country in the form of his signature tower-in-a-park complexes. Corollary to this was his stated aim, in the infamous Plan Voisin, to bulldoze much of Paris out of existence to make way for such towers. Mercifully, that never happened in the French capital; but how many other urban areas, including Manhattan under Robert Moses, fared far worse.

The defining aspect of Le Corbusier's urbanism, like much of his own architecture and the architecture he inspired, is that it all looked plausible enough on paper, especially before it was ever put into practice. Perhaps it was only by having these ideas made flesh that we could come to understand just how dreary and soul-crushing a concrete structure can be, just how menacing to the social fabric a community, divorced from the life of the street and the larger shape of the city.

But now that such structures have been realized, there can no longer be any doubt.

James Gardner is the former architecture critic for the New York Sun.