Le Corbusier in America: Travels in the Land of the Timid By Mardges Bacon. MIT Press, 2001. 406pp. £41.50
It has not been an easy time in which to read Le Corbusier's description of Manhattan as a 'catastrophe fÚerique', or 'enchanted catastrophe'. What he meant, back in 1936-37, was the city's 'confusion, chaos and upheaval', and lack of social care. It is a surprising verdict from one so closely associated with promoting city plans based on regular grids and the latest in scientific technology.
Le Corbusier's first visit to the US was in 1935, when it was still recovering from the 1929 stock market crash. During his two-month trip, which coincided with an exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art, he gave more than 20 lectures on the East Coast and in the Midwest, and attended numerous parties in the hope of commissions.
In 1929 he had made a tour of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, and had been treated like a film star. How much more receptive the affluent Americans would be! Instead, Le Corbusier upset his potential supporters at a time when architects and clients were still tentative about Modernism, and when public commissions were reserved for US nationals.
Bacon uses the framework of this visit to discuss both a change in Le Corbusier's ideas at a critical mid-point in his career, and the state of US architecture as he found it.
Though a long-winded and difficult read, the book's breadth of knowledge and attention to detail are faultless.
After 1929, the US was no longer admired uncritically in Europe. Le Corbusier's own views were more humanistic than they had been in the 1920s, expressed in the use of natural materials as well as technological innovation. The need for a 'second machine age'was the conclusion of his North American experience, published as Quand les CathÚdrals Útaient Blanches in 1937, but only translated into English (When the Cathedrals were White) a decade later. Comparing the young cities of New York and Chicago with the more caring Middle Ages, Le Corbusier found their skyscrapers too small and too close together, creating dark caverns between buildings he thought soulless and dangerous (see picture).
Bacon suggests that his love-hate relationship with New York in particular was based upon many preconceptions, which contrasted its vitality with rampant consumerism, waste and suburban sprawl. Le Corbusier called for a new age of public works, a 'new Middle Age'. But in the 1930s this was already happening, without any need of a 'rather disagreeable' French genius, uninterested in such American values as teamwork. The New York of today is still essentially that created in the 1930s, with the building of the Rockefeller Center and large programmes of public housing and expressways.
The joy of the book is the picture it paints of Le Corbusier the man: difficult and grasping, yet capable of a long-term affair with the intelligent and attractive Marguerite Harris, who was his chauffeur and muse as well as lover during this trip, and who remained a lifelong friend.
It also portrays the American architectural world in the years immediately following Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson's MOMA exhibition of 1932 (with its concentration on white architecture as sculptural objects), and the limited appreciation of Modernism before the arrival of German ÚmigrÚs such as Gropius and Mies. Such buildings as were produced, including Goodwin and Stone's new MOMA of 1936-39, tended to be simplified pastiches. In the vacuum caused by the weakening of the Beaux Arts system, IMPei and Harry Weese were among the few students to be attracted by Le Corbusier's idiosyncratic presentations, given in French while continually sketching.
If Le Corbusier had little impact on the US, its impact on him was considerable.
Bacon suggests that he brought back from his visit a greater appreciation of steel technology, and a greater articulation of his tall elevations. Only in 1946, when he returned to join the design team for the United Nations project, were his ideas on New York planning put into practice - ironically, perhaps, the most sterile building with which he was ever associated.
Elain Harwood is a historian with English Heritage