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Corbusier: the architecture and the man

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Two contrasting books about Le Corbusier – one authoritative, the other gossipy – unintentionally complement one another, writes Joseph Rykwert

Another Corbusier season seems upon us, with a retrospective exhibition, Le Corbusier: Measures of Man, at the Pompidou Centre until 3 August, as well as the publication of two books. One of these – a much expanded version of an earlier monograph – is definitive, chronological, sumptuously illustrated; the other is racy and gossipy, episodic and colloquial and virtually pictureless. It makes no systematic claims, but sets out to offer a sceptical and very personal portrait of the hero, as its title insists, not ‘Le’, but ‘Un’ Corbusier.

Photograph of Le Corbusier by Rogi André, c1937

Photograph of Le Corbusier by Rogi André, c1937

Though different in bulk and nature, the two books, published within days of each other, are about the same length. Do they complement each other? In a way they do, without at all meaning to. Perhaps their differing treatment of  Villa Schwob, Corbusier’s final building before he left his native La Chaux-de-Fond in Switzerland for Paris might help to distinguish their approach. William JR Curtis’s Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms offers six pages of text and many illustrations, and is explicit about the difficulties the inexperienced architect endured, particularly over the messy contract and estimates which led to a dispute about fees. For its part, François Chaslin’s French language Un Corbusier, while not interested in the building’s formal properties, quotes Corbusier’s later reference to the contractual dispute as an instance of his casual, recurrent but inconsistent anti-Semitism. 

Another early contrast sets the books at an angle, if not at odds. Corbusier was born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris a few streets and a month apart from Freddie Sauser, who – also under a pseudonym, Blaise Cendrars – became one of Paris’s best known-literary figures. He was intermittently close to Corbu, and occupies an important part in Chaslin’s book – he allegedly acted as the first link between Corbusier and the Brazilians for instance. Curtis finds no room for him.

Winter converted the weedy Corbusier to the healthy-body cause

But both inevitably detail the ill-fated meeting with the fashionable and brilliant painter and writer Amédée Ozenfant and their founding of the periodical review l’Esprit Nouveau (the tag was borrowed from Guillaume Apollinaire) with capital secured by Jeanneret. Soon they were collaborating on their first joint article, which was to become part of Vers une Architecture – now read as Corbusier’s basic manifesto. It was originally signed Le Corbusier-Saugnier, the second name being Ozenfant’s pseudonym, taking his mother’s surname. As they wrote some of the magazine between them, pen names were essential to disguise authorship, but Jeanneret could not use his own mother’s maiden name, Perret, as it was also that of his admired friend and master Auguste. Hence Corbusier. The origin and implications of the pen name are oblique, though his maternal great-grandfather, whose 1840s portrait hung in his home, was called Lecorbesier. So Corbu bent that ancestral surname to that of the raven,le corbeau, which he assumed as his emblem.

1955 impression of Modulor Man, cast in concrete in Nantes

1955 impression of Modulor Man, cast in concrete in Nantes

The authorship of that first article was soon contested and there was acrimony, even at the very time that Corbusier designed a house and atelier for Ozenfant, who claimed, with a little exaggeration, that it was the first building designed in the ‘style corbu’. Anyway, Chaslin is very informative about the relationship between the two and about the almost paternal advice Ozenfant gave the slightly younger man. Much of the first half of his book is taken up with a clear account of the repeatedly argued-over business of Corbusier’s political allegiances and attitudes. That he was a dirigiste-syndicalist – rather than a democrat – is hardly in doubt.  That his friends and allies were on the whole from the political right rather than the left has long been known. That he went to Vichy in the early days of the French defeat has also been documented in some detail. He went there, of course, hoping that he would be put in charge of whatever construction the impoverished, diminished regime could afford.

Palace of Assembly, Chandigarh

Palace of Assembly, Chandigarh

What is now apparent is that his expectation of a direct line to Marshal Pétain was quickly frustrated. A few months after he had been offered an office and quarters in a  Vichy hotel, he was ignominiously sacked and told to pack his bags. Chaslin records in some detail the whole episode, which counted to Corbusier’s credit after the war.

That  Vichy episode closes the first half of Chaslin’s book; the second is concerned almost exclusively with the great slab-blocks, ‘de grandeur conforme’ as Corbusier had it, of ‘an appropriate size’, though in fact to what they were to be appropriate was not quite clear. Corbusier and his office planted the first of them in Marseilles, and then went on to build others at Briey near Metz, at Nantes-Rezé, at Firminy and finally in Berlin, where he was defeated by the German regulation sizes, which made the application of the Modulor scale impossible and which he therefore considered aborted.

The Modulor was a golden-section graduated scale based on a male human figure 6ft high, which he maintained he devised during a transatlantic crossing to work on the (later aborted) United Nations project. Corbusier hoped the Modulor would become a resource for all builders, since it offered a way to harmonise the metric system with the imperial one. He worked on it assiduously, even if he was occasionally impatient with some collaborators who appealed to it as justifying otherwise unacceptable projects, and he would write two books to argue his case. Chaslin is a little frivolous in suggesting that the Modulor man might have a consort Modulette, who would engender little Modulin and Moduline, so missing the point to get a laugh.

In all the Modulor discussion, Chaslin also seems to miss the figure of Matila Ghyka, a Romanian novelist, mathematician and diplomat, whom Corbusier himself admiringly quotes and who, since 1927 was one of the prophets of the golden section as he cut a figure in the Parisian literary world. At any rate, Corbusier was always – certainly since the Schwob villa – explicit about applying the golden section in all his designs, so his commitment to this device is undoubted. There was even a curious episode (not mentioned in either book) when – in the early days of the European Economic Community – there was talk about standardising building sizes which played with a golden section progression (in which case the Modulor would have been invoked) rather than the ‘A’ or ‘DIN’ sizes that were in fact adopted.

Nature Morte aux Nombreux Objets, still-life painting, 1923

Nature Morte aux Nombreux Objets, still-life painting, 1923

While rather cursory about such geometric and marginally occult speculations, Chaslin is excellent on the political backgound of Corbusier’s activities, giving proper space to Pierre  Winter, who lived in the apartment below his at Porte Molitor in Paris.  Winter was a dentist-homeopath and astrologer as well as a fierce proponent of the healthy body (he had written on sport in L’Esprit Nouveau). He converted the weedy and workaholic Corbusier to this cause, and thereafter played rackets with him twice a week. Winter also wrote the introduction to the third volume of Corb’s Œuvre Complète, extolling his virtues as an artist and writer but also championing his new sporting achievements. Winter, who in 1928 was a co-founder of the short-lived Italian-style French Fascist party, was also one of his links to political circles.

Was Corbusier a fascist therefore, as some now argue? He certainly believed in social control by an operational elite. And the great blocks of duplex apartments with their internal streets and public spaces have been associated with Charles Fourier’s mid-19th-century Phalansteries. Perhaps his ideal of an apolitical society administered by a benevolent elite of industrial, scientific, and literary/artistic worthies goes back to the somewhat earlier ideas of Henri de Saint Simon, who inspired not only Fourier but many socialists and many of the 19th-century ‘doers’.  The Plan Voisin, his much-debated plan for transforming Paris, is dominated by glazed towers meant to accommodate such an elite.  Yet Corbusier sheered away from any direct political role, and when the ‘leader’ of another proto-fascist group offered him the ministry of planning and housing, he refused. ‘You realise that I won’t have anything to do with politics,’ he wrote to his mother.

L’Unité d’Habitation, Marseilles

L’Unité d’Habitation, Marseilles

In fact, some of his French proto-fascist friends joined the Resistance and died in concentration camps. Corbusier himself had, after all, done a large official building in Soviet Moscow and was therefore occasionally labelled ‘Bolshevik’. He really had no explicit political allegiance, but was prepared to deal with any political power that would let him build.

Chaslin is invaluable for such sidelights – allusive and colloquial but also partisan and fragmentary. Curtis is by contrast balanced and inclusive, offering excellent discussions of all the Indian work, of many unexecuted projects, and of the vast influence Corbusier has exercised. Nor do I think he exaggerates the impact Corbusier has had and continues to have on succeeding generations. In fact, if you need a book to give to a young architect or simply to someone who wants to know what the Corbusier fuss is about, you should give them Curtis’s book. I think there is no better introduction to the man and his work.

Le Corbusier; Ideas and Forms, by William JR Curtis · 511pp · Phaidon · £100

Un Corbusier, by François Chaslin · 544pp · Seuil · €40



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Readers' comments (1)

  • The reference to William JR Curtis's mention of 'messy contracts and estimates' touches on the (untold?) history of just how Corbusier's more exotic works came to be costed, tendered and actually built. I once asked the manager of the shop at Ronchamp whether there'd been much difficulty in finding a builder for the church - not only did she not know, it was clear that she'd never been asked that question.

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