The Magazine

Ideas in Concrete

The law of unintended consequences applies to architecture.

Feb 23, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 22 • By JAMES GARDNER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.