Le Corbusier Le Grand

 

Just how much
personal history do we require to truly understand an artist’s
body of work? When it comes to painting, we place a premium on
biography. The power of a Caravaggio or a Van Gogh is only magnified by
our knowledge that they were tortured men. Architecture is a different
kind of medium, a practical one, and the relationship between artistic
legacy and personal history is inherently less transparent. That the
biography of Le Corbusier has remained largely unknown has had little
impact on his standing as the most influential architect of the past
century. Certainly, one need not know the details of his relationship
with his mother to appreciate the radical nature of his Villa Savoye or
the sculptural force of his Chapel at Ronchamp.

We don’t know
much about Le Corbusier’s biography because the architect wanted
it that way. His persona was as much a construct as one of his
buildings, beginning with his fabricated name, chosen in part for its
implied ability to bend (courber) others to his immense will.
“I have created my identity on my own foundations, on my own
terms,” he wrote to a friend in 1921, after assuming the
pseudonym. He was 34 years old at the time, and erasure was a theme that
preoccupied him personally and professionally. The man who was born
Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris in a nondescript Swiss town
loathed nothing so much as his bourgeois roots. He renounced his Swiss
citizenship and reinvented himself as a French cosmopolitan, but even
then found his adopted Paris home unsatisfactory. With his 1925 Voisin
Plan, he proposed to replace huge swaths of the picturesque city with a
utopian grid of modern towers.

The architect had good reason to shield
the public from his personal history, as Nicholas Fox Weber makes
painstakingly clear in his extraordinary new biography, Le Corbusier:
A Life
. The book, the first in-depth portrait of Le Corbusier, is a
milestone of architectural publishing on the order of Rem
Koolhaas’s 1995 monograph, S,M,L,XL, and should be no less
controversial. Relying on unprecedented access to the architect’s
correspondence and files, Weber reveals the architect to have been an
insecure, amoral, misogynistic, xenophobic, and vainglorious careerist;
a man blinkered to the consequences of his actions and oblivious to the
world around him; a philandering husband who destroyed the finances of
his parents and drove his wife to alcoholism; a provocateur who
professed a martyr’s injury at the slightest criticism; and a
beneficiary of cooperative living who proved, time and again,
congenitally incapable of cooperation.

It is Weber’s signal
achievement that, despite his subject’s character flaws,
elaborated in more than 700 pages, he remains an even handed narrator
who never loses an essential sympathy for his protagonist; as a result,
neither does his reader. Somehow, Weber resists what must have been a
considerable moralizing impulse, even when the hero of his story
willingly aligns himself with the Nazi’s puppet regime in Vichy.
“His only political philosophy was opportunism,” writes the
author, with dispassionate concision. “Le Corbusier believed that
collaboration could lead to good things” and that “a
marvelous transformation might be un- der way.” The calamities of
the 20th century offered Le Corbusier the chance to remake the world on
the grand scale he imagined—never mind the costs or who paid the
bill.

The rub, of course, is that the same mind that could be so
apocalyptically naive was also responsible for innovative works of
enormous humanity and poetry. Weber proves a gimlet-eyed critic when it
comes to that architecture, though he can be a bit too accepting of Le
Corbusier’s pronouncements regarding his work’s accordance
with nature. The author doesn’t soft-pedal functional problems,
but manages to convey both the import and the impact of complex works
with refreshing immediacy. Weber describes Le Corbusier’s
Unité d’Habitation, in Marseilles, as “a turning
point in the history of how human beings live,” and “as
alive as anything that has ever been created out of so-called inert
material.” He compares the visceral experience of the General
Assembly building in Chandigarh, India, to being “totally
enveloped by one of the great abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky or
Jackson Pollock.”

Gratuitous in neither praise nor scorn, Weber
tells a compelling story, one that leaves readers with a richer
experience of Le Corbusier’s architecture, and gives future
historians a broader context in which to evaluate his body of work.

Le Corbusier Le Grand, a 20-pound tombstone published by
Phaidon, makes for a useful, if unwieldy, complement to Weber’s
biography. With more than 2,000 elegantly presented and well-captioned
images, it is architectural pornography of the highest order, and should
satisfy the lust of the architect’s most ardent fans. For all its
heft, however, it does not include a comprehensive set of plans for the
architect’s projects, a critical defect. Ergonomically, it’s
a disaster: too cumbersome to lift, too big to place on even an
oversized shelf. In all, it’s just the kind of fetish object Le
Corbusier routinely dismissed, though one can’t help but think
that, at least in this case, he would have made an exception.


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