The Architect as Totalitarian

By Theodore Dalrymple in the City Journal:

Le Corbusier was to architecture what Pol Pot was to social reform. In one sense, he had less excuse for his activities than Pol Pot: for unlike the Cambodian, he possessed great talent, even genius. Unfortunately, he turned his gifts to destructive ends, and it is no coincidence that he willingly served both Stalin and Vichy. Like Pol Pot, he wanted to start from Year Zero: before me, nothing; after me, everything. By their very presence, the raw-concrete-clad rectangular towers that obsessed him canceled out centuries of architecture. Hardly any town or city in Britain (to take just one nation) has not had its composition wrecked by architects and planners inspired by his ideas.

Writings about Le Corbusier often begin with an encomium to his importance, something like: “He was the most important architect of the twentieth century.” Friend and foe would agree with this judgment, but importance is, of course, morally and aesthetically ambiguous. After all, Lenin was one of the most important politicians of the twentieth century, but it was his influence on history, not his merits, that made him so: likewise Le Corbusier.

Yet just as Lenin was revered long after his monstrosity should have been obvious to all, so Le Corbusier continues to be revered. Indeed, there is something of a revival in the adulation. Nicholas Fox Weber has just published an exhaustive and generally laudatory biography, and Phaidon has put out a huge, expensive book lovingly devoted to Le Corbusier’s work. Further, a hagiographic exhibition devoted to Le Corbusier recently ran in London and Rotterdam. In London, the exhibition fittingly took place in a hideous complex of buildings, built in the 1960s, called the Barbican, whose concrete brutalism seems designed to overawe, humiliate, and confuse any human being unfortunate enough to try to find his way in it. The Barbican was not designed by Le Corbusier, but it was surely inspired by his particular style of soulless architecture.

At the exhibition, I fell to talking with two elegantly coiffed ladies of the kind who spend their afternoons in exhibitions. “Marvelous, don’t you think?” one said to me, to which I replied: “Monstrous.” Both opened their eyes wide, as if I had denied Allah’s existence in Mecca. If most architects revered Le Corbusier, who were we laymen, the mere human backdrop to his buildings, who know nothing of the problems of building construction, to criticize him? Warming to my theme, I spoke of the horrors of Le Corbusier’s favorite material, reinforced concrete, which does not age gracefully but instead crumbles, stains, and decays. A single one of his buildings, or one inspired by him, could ruin the harmony of an entire townscape, I insisted. A Corbusian building is incompatible with anything except itself.

The two ladies mentioned that they lived in a mainly eighteenth-century part of the city whose appearance and social atmosphere had been comprehensively wrecked by two massive concrete towers. The towers confronted them daily with their own impotence to do anything about the situation, making them sad as well as angry. “And who do you suppose was the inspiration for the towers?” I asked. “Yes, I see what you mean,” one of them said, as if the connection were a difficult and even dangerous one to make.

I pointed the ladies to an area of the exhibition devoted to the Plan Voisin, Le Corbusier’s scheme to replace a large quarter of Paris with buildings of fundamentally the same design as those that graced the outskirts of Novosibirsk and every other Soviet city (to say nothing of Paris itself and its alienated banlieues). If carried out, the plan would have changed, dominated, and, in my view, destroyed the appearance of the entire city. Here, the exhibition played a 1920s film showing Le Corbusier in front of a map of the center of Paris, a large part of which he proceeds to scrub out with a thick black crayon with all the enthusiasm of Bomber Harris planning the annihilation of a German city during World War II.

Le Corbusier extolled this kind of destructiveness as imagination and boldness, in contrast with the conventionality and timidity of which he accused all contemporaries who did not fall to their knees before him. It says something of the spirit of destruction that still lives on in Europe that such a film should be displayed to evoke not horror and disgust, or even laughter, but admiration.

Le Corbusier was born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret in 1887, in the small French-Swiss town of La Chaux-de-Fonds, where his father was an engraver of watchcases and his mother a musician. His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps; but as an adolescent, Le Corbusier showed precocious artistic ability, attended the local school of fine arts for a time, and then wandered Europe for several years in a program of aesthetic self-education. His extraordinary abilities were evident in the brilliant draftsmanship of his early (and conventional) drawings and watercolors. He also made furniture of great elegance before the bug of intellectual and artistic revolutionism bit him.

Le Corbusier adopted his pseudonym in the 1920s, deriving it in part from the name of a distant ancestor, Lecorbésier. But in the absence of a first name, it suggests a physical force as much as a human being. It brings to mind the verb courber, to bend, and, of course, Le Corbusier was a great bender of townscapes to his own will. It also brings to mind le corbeau, the crow or raven, not a conventionally beautiful bird in plumage or song, but one that is simple and unornamental in both and therefore, metaphorically speaking, honest and undeceiving, as Le Corbusier claimed his architecture to be. In French, le corbeau has a further meaning: that of a bird of ill omen—and perhaps that is the architect’s little joke upon the world. He was certainly of ill omen for the cities of Europe and elsewhere.

Le Corbusier’s influence came about as much through his writings as through anything he built—perhaps more. His mode of writing is disjointed, without apparent logical structure, aphoristic, and with frequent resort to the word “must,” as if no sentient being with an IQ over 50 could or would argue with what he says. Drawings and photos often accompany his writing, but sometimes so cryptically in relation to the text that the reader begins to doubt his own powers of comprehension: he is made to think that he is reading a book by someone on a completely different—higher—intellectual plane. Architecture becomes a sacred temple that hoi polloi may not enter.

André Wogenscky of the Fondation Le Corbusier, prefacing an anthology of Le Corbusier’s writings, claims that his master’s words are not measurable by normal means: “We cannot simply understand the books; we have to surrender to them, resonate, in the acoustical sense, with their vibrations, the ebb and flow of his thinking.” The passage brings to mind what the poet Tyutchev said about Russia: one had to believe in it because no one could measure it with his mind. In approaching Le Corbusier in this mystical fashion, Wogenscky is, in practice, bowing down to a peculiarly vengeful god: namely, reinforced concrete, Le Corbusier’s favorite material.

Le Corbusier managed to communicate this elitist attitude to his followers, apologists, and hierophants. Here, for example, is a passage from a book about him by the architect Stephen Gardiner:

Le Corbusier remains, for many people, an enigma. Probably the chief [reason] is the vastness of architecture, for this means that it is an art that is difficult to comprehend. . . . And, while buildings are large, cities are even larger: here, before us, is an immensely elaborate patchwork threaded with a multiplicity of strands that lead in from all directions. At first it seems quite impossible to see a clear picture where there is, in fact, order, shape and continuity: all we see is a jumble. Yet it is at this point that one may make the discovery that the pattern is not possible to follow because a crucial piece of the jigsaw is missing. . . . In the twentieth century, Le Corbusier provides it.

Has anyone ever stood, overlooking, say, the Grand Canal in Venice, and thought, “What I need in order to understand this is the missing piece of the jigsaw with which only an architect can provide me, and only then will I understand it”? Gardiner is a true disciple of Le Corbusier in his desire to intellectualize without the exercise of intellect, in his failure to make elementary distinctions, and in his use of words so ambiguous that it is difficult to argue conclusively against him.

In fairness to Le Corbusier, three extenuations can be offered for his life’s appalling work. He came to maturity in an age when new industrial materials and methods made possible a completely different architecture from any previously known. The destruction in northern France during World War I, as well as social conditions generally, necessitated swift rebuilding on a large scale, a problem that no one else solved satisfactorily. And he had grown up at a time when bourgeois domestic clutter—heavy, elaborate gilt-and-plush furniture; knickknacks everywhere—was often so outrageous that an extreme revulsion against it in the form of militant bareness and absence of adornment was understandable, though not necessarily laudable (the diametrical opposite of an outrage is more likely itself to be an outrage than to be a solution to it).

Nevertheless, Le Corbusier’s language reveals his disturbingly totalitarian mind-set. For example, in what is probably his most influential book, the 1924 Towards a New Architecture (the very title suggests that the world had been waiting for him), he writes poetically:

We must create a mass-production state of mind:
A state of mind for building mass-production housing.
A state of mind for living in mass-production housing.
A state of mind for conceiving mass-production housing.

Who are these “we” of whom he speaks so airily, responsible for creating, among other things, universal states of mind? Only one answer is possible: Le Corbusier and his disciples (of whom there were, alas, to be many). Everyone else has “eyes that do not see,” as he so tolerantly puts it.

Here are a few more musts:

We must see to the establishment of standards so that we can face up to the problem of perfection.

Man must be built upon this axis [of harmony], in perfect agreement with nature, and, probably, the universe.

We must find and apply new methods, clear methods allowing us to work out useful plans for the home, lending themselves naturally to standardization, industrialization, Taylorization.

The plan must rule. . . . The street must disappear.

And then there is this similar assertion: “The masonry wall no longer has a right to exist.”

Le Corbusier wanted architecture to be the same the world over because he believed that there was a “correct” way to build and that only he knew what it was. The program of the International Congress for Modern Architecture, of which Le Corbusier was the moving spirit, states: “Reforms are extended simultaneously to all cities, to all rural areas, across the seas.” No exceptions. “Oslo, Moscow, Berlin, Paris, Algiers, Port Said, Rio or Buenos Aires, the solution is the same,” Le Corbusier maintained, “since it answers the same needs.”

Le Corbusier’s imperatives apply to more than building or even city planning, for he was nothing if not a totalitarian philosopher, whose views on architecture derived at least in part from his self-appointedly omnicompetent viewpoint:

We must create farms, tools, machinery and homes conducive to a clean, healthy well-ordered life. We must organize the village to fulfill its role as a center that will provide for the needs of the farm and act as a distributor of its products. We must kill off the old voracious and ruthless kind of money and create new, honest money, a tool for the fulfillment of a wholly normal, wholly natural function.

There is to be no escape from Le Corbusier’s prescriptions. “The only possible road is that of enthusiasm . . . the mobilization of enthusiasm, that electric power source of the human factory.” In his book The Radiant City, there is a picture of a vast crowd in Venice’s Piazza San Marco, with the legend, “Little by little, the world is moving to its destined goal. In Moscow, in Rome, in Berlin, in the USA, vast crowds are collecting round a strong idea”—the idea being, apparently, the absolute leader or state.

These words were written in 1935, not a happy period for political thought in Moscow, Rome, or Berlin, and one might have hoped that he would have later recanted them. But in 1964, on republishing the book in English, Le Corbusier, far from recanting anything, wrote as an envoi: “Have you ever thought, all you ‘Mister NOS!,’ that these plans were filled with the total and disinterested passion of a man who has spent his whole life concerning himself with his ‘fellow man,’ concerning himself fraternally. And, for this very reason, the more he was in the right the more he upset the arrangements or schemes of others.”

Among these fraternal plans were many for the destruction of whole cities, including Stockholm. (Other cities he planned to destroy: Paris, Moscow, Algiers, Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Antwerp, and Geneva.) In The Radiant City, Le Corbusier provides an aerial photograph of Stockholm as it was, an astonishingly beautiful assemblage of buildings that he saw only as “frightening chaos and saddening monotony.” He dreamed of “cleaning and purging” the city, importing “a calm and powerful architecture”—that is to say, the purportedly true variety that steel, plate glass, and reinforced concrete as designed by him brought with them. Le Corbusier never got to destroy Stockholm, but architects inspired by his doctrines have gone a fair way toward doing so. As the blurb to the 1964 edition of The Radiant City prophetically puts it, the book is “a blueprint for the present and the future . . . a classic work on architecture and city planning.”

A terminal inhumanity—what one might almost call “ahumanity”—characterizes Le Corbusier’s thought and writing, notwithstanding his declarations of fraternity with mankind. This manifests itself in several ways, including in his thousands of architectural photos and drawings, in which it is rare indeed that a human figure ever appears, and then always as a kind of distant ant, unfortunately spoiling an otherwise immaculate, Platonic townscape. Thanks to his high-rise buildings, Le Corbusier says, 95 percent of the city surface shall become parkland—and he then shows a picture of a wooded park without a single human figure present. Presumably, the humans will be where they should be, out of sight and out of mind (the architect’s mind, anyway), in their machines for living in (as he so charmingly termed houses), sitting on machines for sitting on (as he defined chairs).

This ahumanity explains Le Corbusier’s often-expressed hatred of streets and love of roads. Roads were impressive thoroughfares for rushing along at the highest possible speed (he had an obsession with fast cars and airplanes), which therefore had a defined purpose and gave rise to no disorderly human interactions. The street, by contrast, was unpredictable, incalculable, and deeply social. Le Corbusier wanted to be to the city what pasteurization is to cheese.

When one recalls Le Corbusier’s remark about reinforced concrete—“my reliable, friendly concrete”—one wonders if he might have been suffering from a degree of Asperger’s syndrome: that he knew that people talked, walked, slept, and ate, but had no idea that anything went on in their heads, or what it might be, and consequently treated them as if they were mere things. Also, people with Asperger’s syndrome often have an obsession with some ordinary object or substance: reinforced concrete, say.

Le Corbusier’s hatred of the human went well beyond words, of course. What he called the “roof garden” of his famous concrete apartment block in Marseilles, the Unité d’Habitation, consists of a flat concrete surface in which protrude several raw concrete abstract shapes and walls. Le Corbusier wanted no other kind of roof henceforth to be built anywhere, and wrote passionately denouncing all other “primitive” kinds of roof. One might have hoped that Le Corbusier’s characterization of this concrete wasteland as a garden would have occasioned derision; instead, pictures of it are reproduced as evidence of his inventive genius.

The only city Le Corbusier ever built, Chandigarh in India, is another monument to his bleak vision. In the London exhibition, pictures of it were shown to the sound of beautiful classical Indian music, as if some intrinsic connection existed between the refined Indian civilization and ugly slabs of concrete. Le Corbusier’s staggering incompetence—the natural product of his inflexible arrogance—was revealed, no doubt unintentionally, by pictures of the large concrete square that he placed in Chandigarh, totally devoid of shade. It is as if he wanted the sun to shrivel up the human insects who dared to stain the perfect geometry of his plans with the irregularities that they brought with them.

His ahumanity makes itself evident also in his attitude toward the past. Repeatedly, he talks of the past as a tyranny from which it is necessary to escape, as if no one had discovered or known anything until his arrival. It is not that the past bequeaths us problems that we must try our best to overcome: it is that the entire past, with few exceptions, is a dreadful mistake best destroyed and then forgotten. His disdain for his contemporaries, except those who went over to him without reserve, is total: but a stroll through the Parisian suburb of Vincennes, to take only one example, should have been enough to convince him, or anyone else, that right up to World War I, architects had been capable of building differently from, but in harmony with, all that had gone before. These architects, however, were not mad egotists determined to obtrude their names permanently on the public, but men content to add their mite to their civilization. At no point does Le Corbusier discuss the problem of harmonizing the new with what already exists.

In denouncing Gothic architecture, for instance, Le Corbusier says:

Gothic architecture is not, fundamentally, based on spheres, cones and cylinders. . . . It is for that reason that a cathedral is not very beautiful. . . . A cathedral interests us as an ingenious solution to a difficult problem, but a problem of which the postulates have been badly stated because they do not proceed from the great primary forms.

So now we know why people like Chartres and Rheims Cathedrals! They solve badly formulated problems! Le Corbusier reminds me of the father of a Russian friend of mine, a man who was the greatest Soviet expert on plate glass, who, on visiting London for the first time, looked up at a modernist block of Corbusian design that ruined an eighteenth-century square and said, referring to some aspect of its plate glass, “That is an interesting solution to the problem.”

The most sincere, because unconscious, tribute to Le Corbusier comes from the scrawlers of graffiti. If you approach the results of their activities epidemiologically, so to speak, you will soon notice that, where good architecture is within reach of Corbusian architecture, they tend to deface only the Corbusian surfaces and buildings. As if by instinct, these uneducated slum denizens have accurately apprehended what so many architects have expended a huge intellectual effort to avoid apprehending: that Le Corbusier was the enemy of mankind.

Le Corbusier does not belong so much to the history of architecture as to that of totalitarianism, to the spiritual, intellectual, and moral deformity of the interbellum years in Europe. Clearly, he was not alone; he was both a creator and a symptom of the zeitgeist. His plans for Stockholm, after all, were in response to an official Swedish competition for ways to rebuild the beautiful old city, so such destruction was on the menu. It is a sign of the abiding strength of the totalitarian temptation, as the French philosopher Jean-François Revel called it, that Le Corbusier is still revered in architectural schools and elsewhere, rather than universally reviled.

Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His most recent book is Not with a Bang but a Whimper.



One response to “The Architect as Totalitarian

  1. It should not be forgotten that Corbusier lived at a time of Aspiration. “Brave New World”, “The Shape of Things to Come”,the Russian Revolution,
    all pointed to a new era. Corbusier’s target surely was those dreadful slums which infested cities the world over, breeding disease and despair in equal measure. Inadequate maintenance is at the root of London’s experience because fundamentally this is still a class issue and the wealthy are reluctant to contribute to the well being of their less fortunate citizens. The author does not touch on Corbusier’s more delicate chapels etc. which give pleasure to many people.
    Mistakes are easy to make in architecture as in any walk of life, but those who aspire to better things should not be so readily pilloried.

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