Corbu: The Meshugeneh Man Who Built 'The Machine for Living In'

Last fall, Theodore Dalrymple wrote a damning piece on Le Corbusier titled "The Architect as Totalitarian." The fun started right at the opening sentence:

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.

And then there's Corbu's own writing. He was extremely prolific self-promoter; or as Tom Wolfe quoted Frank Lloyd Wright in From Bauhaus to Our House, "We'll, now that [Corbu's] finished one building, he'll go write four books about it."

(And boy, did he ever.)

But the problem is that "the Machine for Living In" was built by a man who was meshugeneh. Or as Eric E. Johnson, assistant professor of law at the University of North Dakota writes at the PrawfsBlog:

Recently, I've been taking a peek at the writings of Le Corbusier. He's one of history's most celebrated architects, and he has had a profound influence on the modern cityscape. He has designed buildings such as the Saddam Hussein Gymnasium in Iraq. These are buildings that don't exactly exude warmth. Basically, Le Corbusier is the creative genius behind the concrete box.

What's that? You're not a fan? Well, you should know that Le Corbusier provided lengthy philosophical justification for his concrete-box style of building. Here is how he begins his argument in the book Toward a New Architecture:

The Engineer's Aesthetic, and Architecture, are two things that march together and follow one from the other: the one being now at its full height, the other in an unhappy state of retrogression. The Engineer, inspired by the law of Economy and governed by mathematical calculation, puts us in accord with universal law. He achieves harmony. The Architect, by his arrangement of forms, realizes an order which is a pure creation of his spirit ... he determines the various movements of our heart and our understanding; it is then that we experience the sense of beauty.

Here's another passage:

Eradicate from your mind any hard and fast conceptions in regard to the dwelling-house and look at the question from an objective and critical angle, and you will inevitably arrive at the "House-Tool" the mass-production house, available for everyone, incomparably healthier than the old kind (and morally so too) and beautiful in the same sense that the working tools, familiar to us in our present existence, are beautiful. It will be beautiful, too, with the vitality that the artist's sensibility can give to its strict and pure organism.

I'd quote more, but you've got a flavor for it: It sounds like a brief from one of those pro se litigants who is suing the president. If you've clerked, you definitely know what I'm talking about. In a word: CRAZY.

Sometimes you get the feeling that behind every lawsuit-against-the-president-pro-se brief, there's an unsuccessful cult leader. That's where Le Corbusier was different. He was not unsuccessful at all.

From the quoted material, you can see a central claim Le Corbusier is advancing here: My architecture is beautiful because I proved it is beautiful in writing. (A ranting, disconnected, pro-se-litigant-who-is-suing-the-president kind of writing, but that's beside the point.)

An argument such as this one, if it thrives in the fine arts fields of literature or painting, can only do so much damage. But because we are literally overshadowed by the creations of architects through out our day, architecture has the potential to injure. And Le Corbusier's style of architecture has damaged cityscapes the world over.

Governments, universities (law school's included), and public housing authorities in the United States got hit especially hard by the brutalist architecture hysteria in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. People think lawyers are clever persuaders. But what about architects? How did they persuade people to actually erect such monstrosities? Gerry Spence, eat your heart out.

Philip Johnson was an American architect with a similar totalitarian bent, who admired Corbu sufficiently that he eventually "borrowed" his trademark thick owl-like black eyeglasses. Corbu wanted to build for the Soviets, and got to build (after his death) for Saddam Hussein. In the 1930s, Johnson had an even more murderous tyrant than Saddam he worshiped -- and not from afar. A few years before Johnson's death, Hilton Kramer quoted Marga Barr, the wife of Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, where Johnson, as its first architectural director, would help to put Corbu and similar modernist European architects on the map in the 1930s:

In responding to difficult questions, Marga had a way of turning away for a few moments while she composed her thoughts and then facing her interlocutor with a very determined look. This is what she did that morning as she said to me: “I feel about Philip today the way I would feel about a beloved son who had gone into a life of crime.”

Perhaps Corbu was his own jailhouse attorney.

(H/T: Walter Olson)