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Le Corbusier a Life, Le Corbusier Le Grand

Le Corbusier in his apartment, 24 rue Nungesser-et-Coli, Paris, 1944.
Le Corbusier in his apartment, 24 rue Nungesser-et-Coli, Paris, 1944.

I am lucky to have read Le Corbusier uncritically. I was sixteen, and I began with the big linen-bound Oeuvres Completes 1910-1965. Then the great polemics, fifty years old, which seemed perfectly fresh: the strident picture essays from Vers Une Architecture, the ruthless Ville Radieuse and the philosophical Le Modulor. Those books (and the others, not a few) together composed a brave and shapely vision of modernity; lean, muscular, elevated, and joyous, that I took at face value, but already knew to be a freestanding poetic conception in its own right. Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris (1887-1965), had recognized, like a poet, and constructed, like an engineer, this inspired Modernism. The effort demanded sacrifice, consumed the man and made the architect dit Le Corbusier. I loved him. And the lustrous vision stands, but it must not be taken at face value.

Looking at his work in breadth, again, when I am nearly fifty, I see that his achievement is not what it had seemed, nor, probably, was it what Le Corbusier himself had believed it to be. He would have it otherwise and I have not forgotten his flat, repeated, tedious insistence on his uncompromising devotion to truth and the perfidious falsity of his opponents.  People who deal in truths must have enemies.  But his protests hammered an open secret. Things were not what they seemed. Le Corbusier really was among the most ingenuous of men and he concealed nothing, but pretended a great deal. He pretended not to compromise—but his work assumed its full power because he did. The modern was an instrumental pretext. His writing, his painting, his architecture, and lastly, his sculpture (putting them in roughly the artist’s own order of priority) is mask-like, and the great Corbusier themes are not only modernity, revolution, and the “masterly, correct, and magnificent play of shapes in light,” but, first and foremost, identity.

“Le Corbusier” was in fact an alias, rather than a nom de plume. He counterfeited the name from Lecorbesier, the name of a distant ancestor, while he was coeditor, with the painter Amedee Ozenfant, of L’Esprit Nouveau. The two men meant to lead a movement, and could not bear to admit that they were obliged to contribute every piece they published, themselves. Jeanneret was Swiss, not French, profoundly Protestant (though not a believer), provincial, and bourgeois.  He cared far too much for the good opinion of his neighbors and did so to the end of his life. Jeanneret signed his paintings with his own name but could not countenance the careerism of his henchman, the architect Corbusier. “Le Corbusier” could not be embarrassed. He spoke with disembodied and fearless authority, no fellow-feeling, and precious little courtesy, whatsoever.

Almost everything we know of the man so many consider the architect of the century we know only through Le Corbusier himself.  An exhaustive biography would fill a need, if not an ache, and go toward a question at the heart of the artist’s life’s work: who was Le Corbusier? Nicholas Fox Weber has had the run of the Fondation Le Corbusier, read and seen everything, including materials unavailable previously, and gives us so much of what we need, but his biography contradicts Corbusier’s self-assessment, by and large, only in matters of fact, which are merely incidental to his reputation. 

Le Corbusier, a Life, though it is threaded with a good many well-placed small illustrations, is not particularly visual, especially when the author sets himself to experience the architecture. But Phaidon published, very nearly concurrently, Le Corbusier Le Grand, a giant album of pictures (700-some pages and 2000 illustrations, with a separate hardbound English translation of selected French documents, in the same slipcase), ranging from personal snapshots to every kind of illustration of architecture, plans, drawings, paintings and sculpture, to original correspondence reproduced large enough to read. The two publications are pretty nearly complementary, one decidedly of the word and the other resplendently visual, but the album is, however, no monograph and the biography is not a critical biography.  In spite of the title, the album is rather more modest, and gently loving, than aggrandizing. Pere Corbu deserves it, but both books are fresh biographical platforms that do not displace the enduring Le Corbusier myth.  Le Corbusier remains an open book, as yet unread.

Le Corbusier’s youth reaches like a slender dark heartwood into the uppermost height of his life story. The boy Jeanneret was extraordinarily independent, self-sufficient, and resourceful. He left home as early as he decently could, at eighteen, breaking off his formal education decisively to embark on a lengthy period of travel, and work, which opened a voluminous correspondence with family and friends he left behind. His primary correspondent, and the central character of his existence was, without question, his mother, Amelie. That is not a fact anyone could sense, or surmise, from his work, and we have only Weber to thank for the revelation. Their correspondence is so frequently quoted that his book is, in effect, an editorial commentary on the correspondence of mother and son, whose voices were uncannily coincident. Amelie’s letters are infrequently quoted, but her voice—by turns parochial, catholic, scolding, soaring, cold, then feverish, intimate, then remote (both mother and son frequently resorted to the third person, and noms des guerres, but who knows which learned from the other?)—is unmistakably the voice of Les Temps Nouveau, and all the polemics up to When the Cathedrals Were White, which is dedicated to her.

Plaster model of Notre-Dame-du-Haut.
Plaster model of Notre-Dame-du-Haut.

Le Corbusier emerged in a tide of words. The letters came first. The books, once they came, continued all his life, bulletin-like, and the best of them are the more epistolary. It would seem he never wrote an untendentious word in his life, but his address, though not intimate, is always personal, direct, rapid, and lively. His writing thrills. All his life Le Corbusier was openly divided as to whether he was first a painter or an architect (he confided at every opportunity that he painted two hours every day), but his writing was so necessary, urgent, and expressive that he might well be considered a man of letters first and, perhaps, above all.

Le Corbusier established himself and the full scope of his art in the twenties. The international community came to perceive him exactly as he presented himself, as a speaking personification of modernity itself, and he became an indispensable voice in publications, exhibitions, and competitions, commenting authoritatively on everything, and everywhere at once. It could not last.

His constructed work, even in the twenties, exerted an influence disproportionate to its extent. The buildings that first made his name were almost exclusively private commissions. His spare and luxuriant white houses of the twenties, of which the Villa Savoye is exemplary, remain today the cardinal works of his reputation, and his most influential. Reductive, abstract, and sensual, they seem to parallel and fulfill cubism, but unlike his painting, which never breaks from Cubism’s wake, they are utterly original, and not particularly modern.

In the 20s Le Corbusier also designed large projects of an entirely different, and public character, which he made just as articulate, adventurous, and personal as the private houses. The monumental projects for the League of Nations and the Palace of the Soviets, which necessarily involved another level of social and political interchange, crashed, in committee, and crushed Corbusier to the ground. He was tough, but almost inconceivably thin-skinned, and did not merely complain bitterly, but recast the incidents as epics of moral combat which he repeated all the rest of his life.  That much is surprisingly naïve, and unrealistic, but there is no doubt that the League (which actually awarded him the commission and then withdrew it) the Soviets, and later the Americans, in the UN secretariat debacle, confronted the best of Le Corbusier’s work and rejected it, decisively and unjustly. All through the 30s and 40s Wright, Mies, and Le Corbusier each lived with the nagging doubt that they might ever build again, but Le Corbusier’s failures were tragic and, in some sense, very nearly self imposed. His projects would come to vastly outnumber his commissions, and the troubled disproportion between them only grew with his reputation. His early resort to a brilliant life of the mind had restricted him to an almost incestuous relationship with his own humanity, and that of others.  A man of considerable charm (or, perhaps more accurately, attraction), there is no underestimating his isolation, and no measure for his sadness. 

It was only in the fifties that Corbu consummated the strong start broken off a full generation before, in the 20s, and much of his post war work is the implacable continuation of the conceptions of the 20s, realized in permutations and not developed.  The Unites des Habitations, which we might call monumental sculpture for living, the private houses in India, even the cloister at La Tourette, are fresh exemplars and not departures from the white architecture of the pre-war era.

Notre Dame du Haut, at Ronchamp is exceptional, and a ruthless blow to the rest of his life’s work, and himself. Like never before, the architect burned what he loved, and loved what he burned. He gave himself up to the irrationalism implicit in all his work and dispensed with the forms of his own catechism. The celebrated Five Points were in fact not essentially modern but rather arbitrary, except in being significant forms of the architect’s person.  For Notre Dame he rejected them, positively.  For the Chapel no pilotis, nor any form of podium whatsoever; the chapel has no crypt, and the floor follows the natural slope of the hilltop, as an act of devotion. The walls are not screen-like, but massive, up to 12 feet thick, at their base, and they dematerialize as they rise. The structure is mostly rubble masonry, stuccoed and white-washed, and makes no visible use of “loyal concrete” except for the roof, which is Le Corbusier’s one pure adventure in engineered structure. The roof-gardens of his houses had been invitations to pleasure, but Ronchamp was an intended artifact of suffering, and inverted Corbu’s usual erotic calculus. This roof, more corporeal and more womanly than any other form in his oeuvre, the paintings included, generated the entire conception of the building, but, unlike the terrace of the Villa Savoye, for instance, it is purely a watershed and inaccessible in itself. It hurt Le Corbusier to withhold it. Stringently repressed and denied, the great unseen upper area pours out its burden through a single lunging waterspout to a huge open cistern, outside the sacred precinct. The plan, at least, is free, as per the Five Points, but there is no place for the right angle, as there is nowhere any fulcrum for “regulating lines.” The initial sketches indicate that the structure was conceived in elevation as sculpture. As sculpture, however regulated by the Modulor, it was conceived at a tangent to “human scale.” So much for the Five Points.

Ronchamp, the ostensible pilgrimage chapel—rude, fanatical, iconoclastic, inartistic, and lovely—was posed as an exercise in almost-pure emotion, and taken for one. It is just as much a self portrait of the architect, and his ruin. He had liberated himself in the most brutal way he knew how, and succeeded magnificently, but never returned to claim his entailment. Some years after the consecration ceremonies, he climbed the hill once again and, gazing at the chapel once more, asked “But where did I get all of that?”


Brandt Junceau


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2009

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