By Mark Lamster
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.
Le Corbusier Le Grand
Phaedon, 768 pp., $200
BOOKS REVIEWED:Le Corbusier: A LifeBy Nicholas Fox WeberKnopf, 848 pp., $45Le Corbusier Le GrandIntroduction by Jean-Louis Cohen, text by Tim BentonPhaidon, 768 pp., $200
About the Author—Mark Lamster is the author of Master of Shadows (Nan A. Talese), a book on the secret political career of the artist Peter Paul Rubens. This article appears in the February 2009 issue of Print.