Le Corbusier, the man and his architecture.

There must be some unspoken 50 year rule before historians start probing what really happened in the previous generation.  All at once there are revealing books and articles purporting to explain what really happened 50 years ago, and in the process raising doubtful things that had been ignored, suppressed or misunderstood.

My generation of architects finished high school during the war so our understanding of the development of modern architecture in pre-war Europe largely came from post war books like Siegfried Gideon's 1947  'Space, Time and Architecture'.  The Bauhaus was shut down and a bit old hat by then and Gropius was in the US teaching at Harvard.

 The only direct continuation from the Thirties was Le Corbusier, and Peter Smithson once explained that while 'The German Movement was rational and severe more than anything else …. ……It was certainly not one which would make a man leave home and start a new life, which I hold Le Corbusier's work would.'

It's a bit like that quip about socialism. If you weren't in love with Le Corbusier at twenty you had no heart, and if you didn't have reservations about his urban ideas at forty you had no head.  He was my hero and I couldn't get to Europe quick enough to see his buildings and who knows, maybe even work for him at 35 Rue de Sevres!

So who was this Le Corbusier who promoted himself as Mr Architecture-of-the-future?  He had changed his name in the Thirties from Charles-Edouard Jeanneret to Corbusier, but instead of taking a given first name had called himself Le Corbusier.  The definite article 'Le' that preceded the name gave him a certain objective stature as if he were a 'universal heroic type' and allowed him to write and talk about himself in the third person as if he were the representative of all architects. It was part of his relentless promotion of himself and shortened to Corb he became the best known modern architect after 20 year older Frank Lloyd Wright.

By the time I became a student of architecture in 1950, Corb was entering his most creative post war phase.  He moved on from the crisp pre-war machine white walls of the houses of the Thirties with a string of buildings over the next 15 years till his death in 1965 that changed the course of architecture.

These changes started tentatively with the Maison Jaoulin 1952, a house at Neuilly-sur-Seine in Paris, where for reasons of economy he used the commonest and crudest of building materials such as common bricks and a vaulted roof with tiles as permanent shuttering, a vernacular construction common in Southern Europe.  It was a revelation how well it all resonated after the faux machine precision of houses like the Villa Savoie.

Then came the Unite' d'Habitation, a 17 storey, low income apartment building in Marseilles (1947-52) with ingenious split level apartments that went right across the building.  It was intended as a model for post war housing, and several improved versions were built in Berlin and at Firminy after his death.  When I visited in 1954 I was not only impressed by the split level plan and the sculptured roof forms with its crèche and running track, but also the way he was usingbeton brutconcrete with the rough pattern of the timber formwork showing.

Each month we pored over the Architectural Review when it arrived in Seidler's office and I clearly remember when the first crude wire frame model of the Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp (1950-54)) appeared in AR.  It was a puzzle to us, leading Harry to declare that the old man had lost it, and only later when we could appreciate the final photographs, did we realise what a work of genius it was. 

His other later religious building, Sainte Marie de la Tourette near Lyon (1957-1960), is based on the traditional plan of a Carthusian monastery and has the same magic spaces and feeling as Ronchamp.

After the partition of India in 1947, Pandit Nehru asked le Corbusier to design a new capital for the Punjab at Chandigarh and the major buildings created over the next few years, the High Court, the Secretariat, and the Assembly Building to only mention a few, along with a plan for the new town, were a major achievement. And there were also other great buildings such as the Pavilion Suisse in Paris and Carpenter Centre for the Visual Arts at Harvard University completed after his death. 

By the time we had assimilated his innovations he had moved on; his buildings always seemed to be a jump ahead.  Not bad for someone in his seventies, but then many architects do their best work in their later years, often because it's only then that they get the opportunities!

As part of his 'Le' persona Corb also developed a number of town plans to show how cities should be reconstructed after the war.  But once the megalomanic scale of his Plan Voisin for Paris was revealed, most people started to distance themselves from his urban ideas.

There had always been some vagueness about Corb's relationship with the Vichy government during the war, and Charles Jencks' book,  'Le Corbusier and the Tragic View of Architecture' (Harvard 1973) provides a plausible overview of those confused and troubled times.  Corb flirted with joining the communist led Popular Front against Fascism and ended up designing a monument to one of their leaders.  In characteristic fashion he had turned a political platform into a building programme for himself!  Jencks explains how,

'All that Le Corbusier did in a reactionary sense was to go to the Vichy government in 1941, and try to work with them for a year.  In many people's eyes this was collaboration and enough to condemn him but we should remember that it occurred in 1941 when things with Vichy were still rather ambiguous.  He worked for the Petain government not to construct edifices, but rather self built houses for uprooted refugees… and it was laughed out of court.

 In 1942 he was sent by Vichy to carry out some planning proposals for Algiers-among other things his skyscraper project, which remains to this day one of the most radical solutions.  But his presence wasn't welcomed by the local CIAM architects, who were embarrassed by his connection with Petain, or by the local government, which was concerned about his alleged communism and threatened to arrest him. Quickly Corbusier returned to France and spent the remaining years of the war in extreme destitution, painting and organising plans for future reconstruction.

 Jencks observes that,'Le Corbusier was really trapped with his brand of apolitical politics in a vicious polarization between the Communists and Vichy.  There was no room for a man who would collaborate with an authoritarian government in order to set up libertarian reforms.'

 This may be a gloss on what happened but it sounds plausible and there are obvious similarities with Gropius, Mies and the Nazis in the optimistic and ingenuous belief they all had that architecture could override politics!

 My old friend Bal Saini, Professor Emeritus at the University of Queensland, has forwarded a '50 years after' article entitled 'Why politics matter: Le Corbusier, Fascism and UBS'* that raises similar questions to those about Gropius and Mies and their relationship with the Nazis.  Le Corbusier was born in Switzerland and all the above politics were raked over the coals recently when the Swiss Bank issued banknotes with Le Corbusier on them.

Le Corbusier Swiss Note

A Jewish group Schweiz-Israel successfully petitioned the Bank to withdraw the notes and not use his portrait because of his anti-semitic views.  Letters written by Le Corbusier were tendered as evidence that he had also harboured Nazi sympathies. 

There appears to be no doubt about his anti-semitism, which he shared with the Vichy leaders and most of the French petit bourgeois class at the time.  But the rest seems to me to be too influenced by 'present-ism', the judging of past events in the light of present day ideas and our knowledge of what actually happened.  Our attitudes to anything to do with the early Nazi days are based on our unavoidable awareness of the horror of the holocaust that was to come, but Corb's comments were made when Hitler had just legally come to power and he simply speculates whether Hitler might lead to the rejuvenation of Europe.

 It certainly isn't unequivocal evidence that he was a Nazi sympathiser and in any case does it matter now except for historical accuracy? One can examine whether his extreme political views and anti-semitism were reflected in his work in an unacceptable way, and although there are rigid authoritarian aspects to his planning, none of these things can be found in his buildings. 

TheUnite' d'Habitation radiates common sense allied with a robust aesthetic where the facades have been varied with a pattern of coloured reveals to avoid mindless repetition, and the church atRonchamp distils a transcendent feeling that also affects people without religion. 

The simple fact is that Corb was an architectural genius in the sense of being a guiding spirit showing the way forward.  His political views are not relevant to his buildings and have little bearing on them unless you are an historian writing a biography; in my opinion his architectural influence will continue among architects. 

I shamelessly adapted and improved his cross-over maisonette plan for English conditions when I worked at the London County Council and his example inspired the plan and split level cross section developed for my Woolloomooloo housing scheme.  His Unite', suitably adapted 50 years later for Australian conditions, would be a desirable model for the Fishermans Bend redevelopment.

I feel sad of course that one of my youthful heroes has been revealed to have feet of clay.  Corb died in 1965, and I would probably have been more upset if I'd known all this 50 years ago, but none of it lowers my undiminished regard for his buildings and the influence they have had and will continue to have.  He was arguably the greatest architect of the 20th Century, alas now also revealed to be a frail mortal with some of the worst prejudices of our times. 

Don Gazzard LFAIA
Mid April 2015

* Jacobson, Samuel. "Why Politics Matter: Le Corbusier, Fascism, and UBS" 10 Aug 2011. ArchDaily.