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September 27th 2015 print

Anthony Daniels

The Cult of Le Corbusier

For an architect whose abstract ideas were, he assured us, very so important, he wasn’t much of a thinker. His notions were to real thought what doggerel is to genuine poetry -- a catalogue of inaccuracy, looseness, laziness and mendacity, all covered in a thick sauce of arrogant self-confidence

corbusier mugFrench fascism is alive and well, and its current headquarters (as I write this) are not in the offices of the Front National but, appropriately enough, in the ugliest building in the world in the most beautiful capital city in the world, the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It is here that has been held the completely uncritical exhibition to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Le Corbusier, the fascist architect, under the title Le Corbusier, Mesures de l’homme.

Not a word about his fascism has been allowed to obtrude on the almost religiously respectful thoughts and impressions of the visitors who troop through the exhibition with solemn or pious expressions on their faces, as if regarding something holy, though what is exhibited is often so extremely bad and incompetent in execution that it should evoke derision and laughter rather than the abject mental genuflection that it does in fact evoke. People, especially in France, have long been cowed into veneration by decades of propaganda to the effect that Le Corbusier was a great, possibly the greatest, architect, and that any revulsion from, let along mockery of, his work would reveal their own lack of understanding. It is certainly true that Le Corbusier was a master: but a master of propaganda and self-promotion in a credulous age, not a master of architecture.

The interest of the exhibition is mainly sociological. How is it possible, for example, for people to watch the propaganda film of Le Corbusier on the roof of the Unité d’habitation, the brutalist concrete flats that he built in Marseille not long after the Second World War, without laughing? He called the flat roof with a few concrete abstract shapes a “garden”: not a leaf or a blade of grass, let alone a flower, is in sight. It is as much a garden as the Empire State Building is a cottage; the film shows small children playing in or on it with all the spontaneity of a Nuremberg rally, the concrete perfectly disposed to scrape the knees and elbows of the little ones. Suddenly, as if at a signal, they rush over to Papa Le Corbusier, sitting in his chalk-striped suit on one of his concrete shapes. The children gather round him as if about to listen to a story; he reacts to them with all the emotion of a reptile. I have seen friendlier snakes; Hitler, indeed, was far better with children.

Why did people not laugh at this preposterous scene? We remain astonished that the absurd little figure of Hitler could so have mesmerised the best-educated population of Europe, but surely it is as least as astonishing that, for much longer, the figure of Le Corbusier could have mesmerised, and continues to mesmerise, a nation with a millennial history of achievement in architecture?

Mesmerised is the right word. Another film shown in the exhibition is of the construction by Le Corbusier of Chandigarh, the capital of the Indian Punjab. As with everything he built, the finish is crude and rough, the raw concrete horribly stained and deteriorated even before completion. The film shows a large space in the Capitol, hundreds of yards wide, between the Assembly and the Secretariat buildings, the ground covered in flat concrete.

“What incredible incompetence!” I said to the man and woman next to me, who were observing the film with the usual degree of religious devotion.

The woman opened her eyes wide, as if I had denied the prophethood of Mohammed in Mecca.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

Of the aesthetics of this hideous place I did not speak. “The temperature there is often forty-five degrees,” I said. “There is no shade.”

I claim no particular merit in having seen at once that in a very hot climate it is best not to have large open expanses without shade, expanses moreover paved in a material perfectly adapted to reflect and radiate heat. The interesting question is not how I saw this at once; but how my two interlocutors, both intelligent and no doubt cultivated, did not see it. Here truly was a dog that did not bark in the night-time.

That Le Corbusier did not see it, however, is not in the least surprising or inexplicable in the light of his character and life’s work: his blindness was of a piece with the complete inhumanity that he displayed for decades and that made fascism—indeed, any totalitarianism—so deeply attractive to him. And it is his inhumanity that makes him so much a hero still in French architectural schools, liberating the architect from the need to consider anything but brute technical feasibility (and, no doubt, his career, for the sake of which some startling but otherwise pointless innovation is advisable or advantageous).

For Le Corbusier, Man was no more than a machine for inhabiting a house, or rather a unité d’habitation. Everything was to be standardised, from space itself to teacups, with no individuality allowed or possible, because life for him was nothing but a technical problem to be solved by a single correct solution. It is hardly surprising that the Secretariat in Chandigarh bears so strong a resemblance to the flats in Marseille or the hideous Convent of Saint-Marie de la Tourette, all of which might just as well have served as the torture facility of an all-powerful secret police. His urbanism, whether applied to Algiers, Moscow, Stockholm, Rio de Janeiro, or Paris itself, was always the same: concrete, right-angles, highways, steel and glass.

Le Corbusier worshipped the machine and hated the street. The street was to him the source of all evil, his idea of hell, that he wanted to eliminate for ever in favour of multi-lane highways. Just as socialists want nothing to come between the individual and the state, so Le Corbusier wanted nothing to come between the highway and the home, that is to say a cell in a tower block. The street represented for him dirt, spontaneity, slowness, disorder, inefficiency, asymmetry, contradiction: the highway cleanliness, organisation, speed, order, efficiency, symmetry, unity. The former could never be planned, the latter to the last concrete slab. The propaganda films projected in the exhibition contrast the disorder of the roofs of Paris (which are supposed to appal us) with the “cleanliness” of his architecture (which is supposed to relieve us from the supposed oppression of disorder).

Men as Le Corbusier found them were incalculable, unpredictable, incomprehensible, disorderly; machines were the opposite, and therefore man must be made to imitate machine, which is his only saviour. In place of a crucifix over the door in the interior view of the Pavillon de l’esprit nouveau shown in the exhibition there hangs a model biplane, exactly in the form of a crucifix. With Le Corbusier, this is not a joke: Le Corbusier was a man, deeply autistic, who could never tell the difference between his own dull metaphors and reality.

corbusier paris re-make

For example, he repeatedly described the city as a sick organism requiring wholesale excision or extirpation by means of surgery. There was only one man for the job, of course. A recent exhibition of his work in London (but not that in Paris) showed a film of him in front of a map of the city with a heavy black crayon with which he scribbles dementedly to eliminate a whole quarter of Paris, like some maniacal precursor of Bomber Harris. The Marais, for example, would be pulled down to make way for motorways and tower blocks; it never occurred to Le Corbusier, not for a single moment, that the ancient area that he would unhesitatingly raze to the ground — his conception of a re-made Paris is above — might be restored and rejuvenated. He saw in it only disorder—or should I say lack of uniformity, for harmony in difference was far too complex, difficult and threatening a notion for him to handle—and could therefore think only of total destruction. As for the insects or digestive tubes (“The human being is a digestive tube”, he once wrote) who inhabited the Marais and the rest of Paris that he would demolish, his regard for them was strictly limited. In Destin de Paris, written in 1941 when he was living close, in more than one sense, to Marshal Pétain, he says:

Paris is composed of 1, 2 or 3 million people, the quality of whom demands examination. Paris must get rid of its inert crowds, of those who really have nothing to do in the city, and whose place is on the land or industries to be moved elsewhere.

The title of this opuscule, Destin de Paris, is significant in itself in that it implies a fate for the city that is not that of human choice but of something transcending such pettiness, a force of whose ineluctable laws Le Corbusier is only the instrument, rather like a Marxist revolutionary but in the field of architecture—though with the same intention, incidentally, of creating the New Man. Le Corbusier’s architecture was at least as concerned with the reform of society as with new methods of building.

Parisians surplus to Le Corbusier’s requirements or offensive to his taste would be transported to the countryside where they would not enjoy a traditional rural idyll but would be subjected to further Corbusian social engineering. “Strength through Joy”, was translated by Corbusier into “Joy through Concrete”. In his article on the rural equivalent of The Radiant City, the title of what is probably his most famous book, and which he titled The Radiant Farm, he says that “farms and villages are rotten with decay”. Therefore, “Let them collapse, let them die”, to be replaced by farmhouses of concrete, built on pillars, abutting on to concrete farmyards. For Le Corbusier, there was no human or social problem that could not be solved by his uniform plans, which according to him were founded on universal principles that were therefore applicable throughout the world in all situations.

It is obvious that the most faithful disciple of Le Corbusier in both his urbanism and his designs for the countryside, and who had precisely the same sensibility (if that is quite the word for it) was Nicolae Ceausescu. Under his Systematisation, concrete blocks of Corbusian inspiration were parked in the middle of muddy fields to replace villages; and the anarchic quarter of Bucharest in which seventeenth- and eighteenth-century churches among other manifestations of supposedly primitive planlessness were razed to the ground to make way for a “radiant city” in their place. True, Ceausescu favoured Cecil B. de Mille neo-Babylonian style rather than anything Le Corbusier would have proposed; but it is by no means certain that the result would have been better if Le Corbusier had had his way.

Le Corbusier suffered his entire career from what one might call hyper-theorism, from the belief that, where architecture is concerned, the abstract idea is more important than the appearance of the achieved building. In his writing Le Corbusier resorted frequently to the phrases “Eyes that see” and “Eyes that do not see”, by which he did not mean those that were sighted and those who were blind, but rather those that understood the idea behind the design rather than those that judged the actual results of the design. For him, the transposition of Rossini’s remark about Wagner’s music, that it was better than it sounded, would not have struck him as absurd. He would have defended himself against his critics by saying that his architecture was better than it looked.

FOR A MAN for whom abstract ideas were so important, he wasn’t very good at thinking. His ideas were to real thought what doggerel is to real poetry. You never have to go very far in his books (and his literary output was prodigious) to find ex cathedra statements that combine inaccuracy, looseness, laziness and self-serving mendacity, all covered in a thick sauce of absolute self-confidence. Here, for example, is something from page 4 of Quand les cathédrales étaient blanches, published in 1937:

The cathedrals were white because they were new. The cities were new: they were built all of a piece, in order, regular, geometric, according to plans.

This will no doubt come as news to medievalists. And to imply some kind of aesthetic equivalence between, say, Rheims Cathedral and the Unité d’habitation (or anything else that he built) is breathtakingly arrogant, to put it mildly. On page 163 we read:

Manhattan repeats a natural history lesson: man is an ant, with precisely the same life habits, a uniform behaviour. By wanting to “free” man from his biological realities by an urbanisation extended in space, our snake-oil salesmen have rendered cities ridiculous …

The solution is obvious: to hand over total control to Le Corbusier, so that uniform man can live in uniform buildings that are efficiently conformable to his uniform behaviour and his “biological realities”.

Le Corbusier wrote thousands of pages of this unpleasant semi-intellectual drivel. His tone varies between the ex cathedra and the imperative. I open my copy of The Radiant City at random and the first sentence upon which my eyes falls is (on page 151):

We must find our way back to the wellspring of human nature. We must take an inventory of its needs. Final aim: to satisfy those needs and those needs alone. [emphasis in original]

I cast my eye on the page opposite:

We must do away with all production designed to feed our greed for possessions and sterile consumer goods. We must halt production in these industries and set the productive labour forces freed in this way to a constructive task: rebuilding the city.

I turn again at random to page 118:

TO LIVE! To breathe.

TO LIVE! To inhabit.

Dignity, action, health, serenity, joy in living, all these can be part of our lives in the Radiant City.

Compared with this, the withering away of the state under Marxism is as certain as that the sun will rise tomorrow. “The object of our crusade, architectural and urbanist, is to put the world in order”, or “From now on nothing is contradictory. Everything, well ordered and hierarchical, is in its place”: these are typical examples of Le Corbusier’s cerebrations, which never quite rise quite to the level of thoughts. Of his five principles of architecture, he wrote, “These are not aesthetic fantasies or fashions, but architectural facts.” In other words, no one can build differently, because facts are facts.

It is not merely that Le Corbusier offers no argument for his assertions and injunctions, no argument could possibly be offered for them in the kind of language that he used. His writings read like an extended speech by Hitler on the subject of architecture. The wonder is that anyone ever took them seriously. Every suggestion, in effect, is a Führerbefehl, a Fuhrer’s order, which is perhaps why Le Corbusier welcomed France’s defeat by Germany in 1940: he saw in it the chance to take control of all the architecture and all the town planning, with no interference from those with eyes that did not see. It was only his due: after all, he had been a faithful supporter of fascist ideas since the 1920s.

Again, I claim no special merit in seeing a connection between his fascism, his architectural aesthetics and his urbanism. To me it is perfectly obvious that a man who believed that his fellow beings were but technically-sophisticated ants and that cities should therefore be anthills would design and build as he did. One does not look at the drawings of the Plan Voisin (his proposal to turn Paris into Novosibirsk-sur-Seine) and deduce the architect’s fascisant inhumanity; it is an immediate apprehension requiring no separate movement of the mind—at any rate, for those with eyes that see. When I gave The Radiant City to an intelligent young man who had never read Le Corbusier, he looked at a few of the pictures, threw the book down, and exclaimed, “But he’s a fascist!”

Many normal people do not see it, however, among them the thousands who trooped respectfully through the exhibition, not one of whom (as far as I could see) reacted with anything except awe to what was exhibited. Corbusier’s ideas, all of them gimcrack and third-rate, have struggled with good taste and common sense, and triumphed in the struggle. Of course, the visitors were a self-selected group; but the thoroughness with which the myth of Le Corbusier’s architectural genius has been propagated can be gauged from the story that Marc Perelman, an architectural critic, relates in his recent book, Le Corbusier, une froide vision du monde. In 1986, he says, he published another book critical of Le Corbusier, and it put an immediate end to his career in French architectural schools. Another recent book critical of Le Corbusier, Le Corbusier, un fascisme français, by Xavier de Jarcy, ends:

The most appalling thing is not that the most famous architect in the world had been a militant fascist. It is the discovery that a veil of silence and lies has been thrown over not only this reality, but also over the fascism of a part of the French intellectual, artistic and industrial elite. It is to feel the thickness of the curtain of forgetting that has concealed the facts for so long. Our country has always had difficulty in facing up to its history. I would like no further exhibition, no further book, devoted to Le Corbusier to fail to recall his place in the shade.

Fat chance! De Jarcy’s book, it is true, was on sale in the exhibition shop as you left the exhibition, but it was one among the hundreds—an astonishing outpouring!—of hagiographical works of this monster of architectural egotism who did so much to make the world ugly, and whose malign influence has left the French, after one or even two thousand years, completely unable to build so much as an aesthetically pleasing house, let alone a decent public building.

I have no full explanation of Le Corbusier’s predominance: I think his career would only have been possible in the wake of the First World War, with its terrible dislocation and loss of confidence in the civilisation of which it seemed to be the culminating event. The brilliance of the “eyes that do not see” slogan may also have played its part: it is the self-chosen metier of the intellectual elite often to see what is not there and not to see what is. In François Chaslin’s recent book, Un Corbusier, we read of the architect’s most celebrated individual house, the Villa Savoye:

The most limpid and most structured of his works. A fragile edifice, all but uninhabitable, abandoned immediately, ruined by leaks, its plaster constantly cracking, but incontestably a masterpiece.

Incontestably the acme of incompetence would be the judgment of someone not blinded by the reputation of the designer of this uninhabitable machine for living in (it looks like a laboratory).

IT WAS a relief to cross Paris after the Centre Pompidou to see an exhibition (in part) of the work of another enthusiastic, but much more interesting, measurer of man, Alphonse Bertillon (1853–1914). Le Corbusier used the dimensions of his pin-headed human abstraction, the Modulor, to determine the proportions of his later buildings, which in most ways were even worse than his earlier ones; but Bertillon, whose tomb with its verdigris bust I sometimes pass in the Père Lachaise cemetery, used the measurements of men, individual men, to catch criminals. He was the originator of the system known as Bertillonage, a combination of anthropometric measurements that was unique to each man, or at least vanishingly unlikely to belong to two men. These measurements permitted the identification of criminals (if they were already known and had been measured) much more surely than had ever previously been possible. The fingerprint soon superseded Bertillonage, but Bertillonage continued to be used to a certain extent.

Bertillon, as cold personally as Le Corbusier, was a man of real ideas and, the most technically accomplished photographer of his age, he also invented a form of crime-scene photography that permitted the precise record of the disposition of the corpus delicti and the surrounding objects, often vital evidence to prove (or disprove) the guilt of the accused. Bertillon, like Le Corbusier, was not an uncontroversial figure: he misidentified the writing on the infamous bordereau in the Dreyfus case as that of Dreyfus himself, for example, and he stands accused of having forged evidence on which he based his system of fingerprint classification.

Bertillon’s photos were of the murdered lying where they were killed. They are not intended to be works of art, and yet their purpose imposes on the photographer the duty to compose properly. They are cold and shocking testimonials, but unlike the works of Le Corbusier, they record real human passion, carried of course to its most extreme form. Bertillon and Le Corbusier were both strange men, humourless and obsessed by their work. Nevertheless, Bertillon saw men, even if with their throats cut or their heads bashed in, where Le Corbusier saw insects.       

Anthony Daniels, who also writes under the pseudonym Theodore Dalrymple, is a prolific writer on social, medical, literary and other matters. His most recent book is the essay collection Out into the Beautiful World, published last month by New English Review.