Beginning with the first sentence of the great Theodore Dalrymple’s new article at City Journal, “Le Corbusier was to architecture what Pol Pot was to social reform”, you know one of the most influential modern architects and one of the most disasterous city planners of the 20th century has met his match:
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.
From Karl Marx and the Soviet Union, to the Bauhaus, to National Socialism, to the hippies of the 1960s, the idea of starting from Year Zero, at Dalrymple notes above, has long been one of the central strains of the left in its various forms. And of course, it’s a theme that continues to this day.
Definitely read the whole thing.