Friday, 18 February 2011


Le Corbusier (Princeton University Press, $19.95), a collection of fifteen essays from the Le Corbusier Archive is not new (they appeared in less accessible form in 1982-85), it is too large in format to be a vade mecum like Deborah Gans’s book from the same publisher, and is widely inconsistent in tone and perspective (it runs from near hagiography of a faithful co-worker like Andre’ Wogenscky to the rueful scholarly post mortem of Vincent Scully). Nonetheless it is an asset for all attempts to comprehend the probably incomprehensible, Charles Eduoard Jeanneret, painter manqué, failed visionary.
There are useful takes on his beginnings in La Chaux-de-Fonds; his unachieved projects for the League of Nations, and the Palace of the Soviets; the Villa Savoye; his ideas about mass housing; their practical (sometimes) embodiment in the Unite’ at Marseilles; Ronchamp (the only building of his for which I have no quibbles); the monastery at La Tourette (which I failed to see because I went unwittingly to St. Etienne on Pentecost weekend and there was no room for me in any of their inns!’ but I Eurail backtracked and tasted the glories of Colmar the next morning, an experience which makes you want to demand less from Corbu); two essays on Chandigarh; and three speculative essays on his urban speculations.

Some of what I read astonished me: Scully discusses the physiological implications of his losing his left eye in 1918; if that doesn’t cast the white villas and beton brut in a bright and not wholly flattering light, then his definition of architecture as the “play of forms under light” is as defective as his adult vision.

I confess to being something of a crank about Corbu and his boo boo’s. My first experience of a Corbu building was the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard shortly after it opened—at a film festival, where the clerestory he had devised made the viewing of the films miserable. Prattling about the program in modern architecture is rather hollow when a leading practitioner of our art fails so totally to take into account needs of the great twentieth century art of the cinema. Such insensitivity borders on hubris, which as the Greeks whose greatest buildings he so much admired, is a tragic flaw.

Last May I spent three weeks on a Eurail pass inspection of most of the 44 exhibitions in honor of his centennial, and most importantly, feeling the buildings around me rather than simply doing an Ezra Stoller on them. The Hayward Gallery exhibition in London which began my odyssey was the most illuminating—and its catalog is a much better investment of time and money than the book under review.

In it I learned of his youth in the Jura mountains and a visit to his home town persuaded me than, except for Ronchamp, he never created a more satisfying work of art than the Villa Fallet, done with the construction help of Rene’ Chapallaz (it stunned me to learn he knew nothing about building; his mentor Charles L’Eplattenier was satisfied that he was an exterior decorator). At Courseaux, outside Vevey, the procrustean bed of a home he made for his retired parents on Lac Le Man, the concrete cracked so soon he had to sheath it later in aluminum. At the Unite’, most of the inhabitants have eschewed his mezzanine concept, “prolonging” the second floor to the wall line, leaving the few unchanged suites with the curious architectural term, pas prolonge’!

In short, like the other pioneer modernists Mies and Gropius, who began their careers propagandizing for better housing for the European masses, Corbu ended up making grandiose gestures and, faute de mieux, mucking up our urban cores for the next century. When you pass a housing project in Philly, you usually don’t think Corbu—but you should. His political innocence (shared alas, by succeeding generations of architects throughout the industrialized world) led us down a cruel cul de sac. It was the measure of the Pittsburgh conference on “Remaking the Cities” (March 1988) that it took small but steady steps away from Corbusian mess.

So as churlish as it must sound to hiss at a centennial celebration, hiss I must, agreeing with Vincent Scully, that Corbu’s urbanism “cannot help but be judged as faulty in conception and highly destructive in practice, especially as we have seen it more or less universally carried out in American redevelopment and the French ‘New Towns,’ not to mention at Chandigarh itself, at Brasilia, and elsewhere.” (p. 47)

An honest empiricism demands that we call a footing a footing, and a failure a failure. His zeal and energy were admirable, but in the service of defective ideas. May God help us do better in the post-modern world.

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