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Opposites attract

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Le Corbusier: Architect & Feminist By Flora Samuel.Wiley, 2004. £23.99

Le Corbusier's slogan 'une maison est une machine Ó habiter' identified the home as the focus of his attention, of his crusade - the home as a receptacle in which to dwell, to stay, to live. To consider the home meant to consider the life of the family within it and hence the relations between men and women.

It meant to have particular concern with the life of women - and in Le Corbusier's case, that could not mean purely material life. It meant to liberate women to make their cultural, spiritual and emotional contribution to the life of mankind - a contribution whose centrality in Le Corbusier's mind is amply demonstrated by Flora Samuel.

Samuel's focus is on what can only be described as the more mystical aspects of Le Corbusier's thought. The core of her book, sandwiched between an evaluation of his personal and professional relationships with women and a discussion of the social provisions in the UnitÚ d'Habitation, is concerned with Le Corbusier as Orphist.

He was an Orphist, says Samuel, not in the sense of being a member of the pre-First World War group of artists around Robert Delaunay (so christened by Apollinaire), but in adhering to a set of beliefs or cultural orientation extending back to Pythagoras in the sixth century BC, who took as his model the mythical figure of Orpheus: 'Orphism, an early version of Gnosticism, was described by Le Corbusier's client and friend Edouard Trouin as ficontradictory like life? the only possible religion of intellectualsfl.

'For Le Corbusier, ' adds Samuel, 'it would encompass a wisdom tradition extending back to the ancient Egyptians, via alchemy, neo-Platonism, Catharism, Kabbalism, and the teachings of both Plato and Pythagoras and would be key to Le Corbusier's view of the world as a balance between male and female elements'. The kindred interest of some Parisian intellectuals in Orpheus, such as Cocteau with his film OrphÚe, should be borne in mind.

But for most architectural readers, this will be a little hard to take in all at once, and indeed is too much to cover in the space available. The whole subject of alchemy, for example - 'another interest of Le Corbusier's' - is accorded just two short paragraphs, which is not enough to understand its relevance or the depth of Le Corbusier's interest beyond the assertion that: 'For the Alchemists, the union of opposites, the balance of masculine and feminine, could be represented in the from of geometry.'

The next two paragraphs are devoted to Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) who 'was among a group of Neo-Platonists who revitalised the Kabbalah, an ancient form of Jewish theosophy [which] Le Corbusier described as fia profound course of study for anyone willing to risk itfl.' It is almost as though these chapters are notes for a book, rather than the book itself. Heavily referenced and frequently alluding to the research of others, they are tantalising but not easy to read.

It may be asked how much relevance this actually has to Le Corbusier's work, but Samuel clearly demonstrates its utility in interpreting his post-Purist paintings - though she has not been well served by the very small scale at which they are reproduced, making the iconography difficult to read. Le Corbusier's PoÞme de L'Angle Droit seems to defy even her interpretative powers, but once again the reproduction inexcusably cuts off critical parts of the 'iconostasis' on all sides.

Le Corbusier's collaboration with Trouin on the proposed underground basilica at La Sainte Baume (the 'Holy Cave') near Marseilles in honour of Mary Magdalene is interestingly described, though the proposed housing in the form of a vesica - heavy with erotic and religious symbolism - is surprisingly not illustrated. Le Corbusier perhaps deliberately discourages such an interpretation in the oeuvre complÞte by saying that it is in the form of a 'boat' - the boat that brought Mary from the Holy Land to her cave.

Samuel's interpretation of Ronchamp as symbolic of the union of the sexes is perhaps less convincing.A basic question is posed: Le Corbusier's thought and design was certainly 'binary', modelled around the play of antitheses, and these antitheses may have included the two genders, but that is not the same as to say that he aspired to a union of opposites in the alchemical sense. That would have deprived him of the contrast which was his inspiration.

James Dunnett is an architect in London

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