TILT #3: On Le Corbusier
A rant on architecture
I spent most of last month looking for a new place (I’m moving). And, inevitably, the process involves wading through photo after photo of endless, boxy buildings, white walls, naked bulbs, the kind of architecture that satisfies in square-foot figures but somehow manages to make every potential home seem like a dead office.
They seem like machines. Machines for living. And here begins my beef with the man behind this trend of architecture: Le Corbusier.
Le Corbusier, Swiss-French architect, 1887-1965, was the biggest name in what we think of as modern architecture. His signature obsession, even from early in his career, was simplicity and basic boxes. Here's his 'Domino House', circa 1914.
Following his move to Paris, Le Corbusier began to refine his idea of 'Purism' in art, moving those ideas into architecture. He began to design houses that any Sri Lankan mason-baas would recognize today: rectangular plans, "with exterior walls that were not filled by windows but left as white, stuccoed spaces... the interior aesthetically spare...Light fixtures usually comprised single, bare bulbs. Interior walls also were left white."
In short, the cheapest, most depressing kind of space to live in. This was in sharp contrast to the highly decorative styles of the time. Both Art Noveau and Art Deco emphasized ornamentation, creating a rich visual tapestry, like so:
I recommend Riga, Latvia if you want to see how beautiful this can be. It's like walking into several generations of a Disney fairytale city, with a little hint of the KGB lurking in the background. But I digress. Le Corbusier wanted to replace that ^^ with this:
And he succeeded. As his career rose, he launched an all-out attack on decoration: "rustling silks, the marbles which twist and turn, the vermilion whiplashes, the silver blades of Byzantium and the Orient…Let's be done with it!" Let us summon the God Wikipedia:
"Why call bottles, chairs, baskets and objects decorative?" Le Corbusier asked. "They are useful tools….Decor is not necessary."
His idea of a future was where people would go to work "in the superb office of a modern factory, rectangular and well-lit, painted in white...where healthy activity and laborious optimism reign." He declared that in the future the decorative arts industry would produce only "objects which are perfectly useful, convenient, and have a true luxury which pleases our spirit by their elegance and the purity of their execution, and the efficiency of their services."
And that is exactly what he created. Corbusier bathed the world in drab architecture that had no regional flair, no identity other than the fact that it could exist anywhere. This was not an accident: it was how he designed buildings. Here is an apartment building in Geneva and the National Museum of Western Art in Japan :
As his influence grew, his ideas went far beyond the design of a building here and there and into the design of entire cities. One of Le Corbusier's greatest selling points was that his stuff was cheap. No decorations? No craftsmen chiseling away at an exterior? Flat paint? A design from his hand might be expensive, but since he expounded on his principles of design far and wide, something built to his style would be very cheap. Functional, cheap, something that could be endlessly and efficiently duplicated. And so he turned his hand to architecture for the masses.
Here's some of his work from the mid 1920s: the Cité Frugès at Pessac, a suburb of Bordeaux. It became the template behind his much larger city design projects.
His great thrust was the Ville Radieuse, the Radiant City. It was not Radiant. It was an "authoritarian, inflexible and simplistic" vision, even by the standards of that time. Born of that vision was the Unité d'Habitation of Marseille, 1952 :
And, on the same design, the Unité d'Habitation of Nantes-Rezé in 1955, Unité d'Habitation of Berlin in 1957, Unité d'Habitation of Briey in 1963, Unité d'Habitation of Firminy-Vert in 1965.
These Corbusier apartment buildings cited as the inspiration for Brutalism. Le Corbusier's designs were called 'fascist', 'sterile', etc. Lewis Mumford hated his work, as did Jane Jacobs, who went ham on Le Corbusier in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But notice how much of it is familiar to us today? Efficient, cheap, and built to pack people into rectangles. The 1950s US public housing program took Le Corbusier's ideas. As did France. And his design persisted; his drab style is now the face of high-rise housing across the world (see Marmot, A. F. (1981). The legacy of Le Corbusier and high-rise housing.)
Even his most admirable work is . . . terribly boring. Here, for example, is the United Nations Secretariat Building in Manhattan, a collaboration between Le Corbusier and Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.
But his most ambitious project wasn't in Europe: it was Chandigarh. Where he did...this. Chandigarh is a whole other story; this was the work he was most proud of.
Pierre Jeanneret (his cousin and business partner) wrote that that he was in a continual battle with the construction workers, who could not resist the urge to smooth and finish the raw concrete.
Le Corbusier writes of his creation: "all . . .made with raw concrete and a cement cannon . . .a Palace magnificent in its effect, from the new art of raw concrete. It is magnificent and terrible; terrible meaning that there is nothing cold about it to the eyes."
To be fair, I can’t blame Le Corbusier for everything. An Art Deco world is expensive, and while arches and motifs are all very well, it would make for some truly expensive housing. The rising populations and thriving cities of the world needed space-efficient housing; if he hadn’t hit on ways to make housing cheap and efficient, someone else would have. And to be fair, there are other movements that have budded off Modernism. Geoffrey Bawa’s Tropical Modernism comes to mind. As does Postmodernism, where architects revolted with a strange and fantastic array of shapes for buildings.
But these things have yet to become as popular. Le Corbusier and modernism swept aside regional styles across the world, defining what a ‘modern’ building should look like: clean, functional, and sterile. A machine for living in, whether it’s in New York or Singapore.
"Why call bottles, chairs, baskets and objects decorative?" Le Corbusier asked. "They are useful tools…Decor is not necessary."
I happen to disagree. As Stephen Fry pointed out, “It is the useless things that make life worth living and that make life dangerous too: wine, love, art, beauty. Without them life is safe, but not worth bothering with.”
And so I can’t help but wonder what a world without Le Corbusier would have looked like.