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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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.