Modernism's Monster

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By Philip Kennicott
Sunday, November 23, 2008


A Life

By Nicholas Fox Weber | Knopf. 821 pp. $45

In 1938, while visiting a new villa built by the Irish designer Eileen Gray, Le Corbusier was inspired to improve on her work. He admired the white-walled classicism and industrial finesse of the home, which was built in the spirit of his own domestic architecture. But he thought it needed a little something.

And so Le Corbusier stripped naked, took out his paint brushes and covered the house with large, sexually provocative images. "One of the murals was on the previously spare white wall behind the living-room sofa, so that what had been specified by Gray to be a point of visual respite was now an animated scenario," writes Nicholas Fox Weber in his new biography, Le Corbusier: A Life. Gray, who admired Le Corbusier and was, like many architects, proprietary about her work, felt "raped" by the incident.

Le Corbusier -- the Swiss modernist who, along with Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, laid down the commandments of 20th-century architecture -- might have known better. After all, he became so enraged by how the art was hung in the house he built for the wealthy collector Raoul La Roche that he broke with his best friend at the time, the painter Amédée Ozenfant, who had perpetrated the unauthorized hanging: "I insist absolutely that certain parts of the architecture should be entirely free of paintings," he wrote.

But the modernist sensibility that gave his domestic architecture in the 1920s a lean, machine-like efficiency -- houses such as the classic Villa Savoye, tethered to the earth with thin, white columns, like a land-ship floating on grass -- didn't look so compelling when worked out on a larger scale. As an urbanist -- one of the previous century's most radical and dark visionaries of the city -- he proposed ideas that still make us shudder: isolated, repetitive skyscrapers, facing grand empty plazas, linked by highways. If he had had the free hand he wanted to remake Paris, with new airports, highways and high-rises, all of France might have felt as "raped" as Gray did.

Fortunately, as becomes clear in great detail in this biography, he was utterly obnoxious. He preferred wielding the absolute intellectual control more common to a solitary painter than to an architect, who must collaborate with others. Relations with clients and even prospective clients often ended in acrimony, and he left voluminous amounts of work unrealized. His client La Roche, Weber notes, "was a man of exceptional humor." But it must have taken Olympian forbearance to deal with Le Corbusier's tantrum over the paintings -- especially given that the project was over budget, walls had to be redesigned and rebuilt during construction, windows didn't work, and there were lighting problems that took years to resolve. "It's six months since I moved in and I am still obliged to use illumination which . . . relies on ad hoc arrangements," La Roche wrote plaintively.

He wasn't the only one to complain about the architect's work. Le Corbusier designed a home for his strict, Swiss Protestant parents in 1912, but blew through their modest budget. The simple watchmaker and his music-teacher wife were financially wiped out and forced to sell it only a few years later. When he finally built them a more reasonable house in 1923-25, it leaked and the heating was balky. For decades, as her son became perhaps the most famous living architect, building a whole city from scratch in India, revolutionizing public housing with his Unité d'Habitation in Marseille and redefining the possibilities of concrete at his chapel in Ronchamp, his mother wrote him long, wheedling letters, complaining about the structure.

Born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, Le Corbusier invented the name we know him by, which suggests the degree to which he thought of himself as a self-made object, larger than his humble origins. But he told his mother almost everything, from small slights to towering rages, including substantial, though circumspect, confessions of his sexual loneliness. She lived to be almost 100 years old, preceding him in death by only five years, so their correspondence covers almost all of his career.

Weber's book is billed as the "first full-scale life of Le Corbusier," but this lengthy tome was cobbled together from undigested -- and often indigestible -- letters from the architect to his family, including baby-talk missives to his difficult and alcoholic wife. In the earlier years of his career, he also wrote libidinally charged flights of Nietzsche-esque gibberish to the older, German music critic William Ritter. We never really learn what Ritter -- who, as an openly gay man in the early 20th century, was himself a remarkable figure -- thought of these screeds. Was he a bemused mentor? Or living by proxy through the life of a younger man?

Questions aren't just left unanswered in Le Corbusier, they are not even asked. After an introductory chapter that begins with the architect's funeral in 1965 (André Malraux gave the homily), the author begins a relentless forced march, day by day, year by year, through the architect's life. Weber devotes little space to Le Corbusier's historical or architectural context, and makes very little attempt to answer the larger questions about his political and artistic philosophy. Often the architect's actions, as revealed in this biography, indicated that he was really an anti-modernist -- a deeply traditional man devoted to age-old notions of home and hearth and the submissive role of women. Was he? In this personality-driven account, Weber fails to examine Le Corbusier's contradictions or any of the received ideas about the man's importance or his legacy.

Granted, the blow-by-blow method -- the ups and downs, the manic highs of a new commission, the furious rants against "treacherous bastards," enemies and critics -- fits Le Corbusier's monomaniacal, narcissistic and pugilistic temperament. And it's fascinating to see the daily detail of his darkest chapter, his concerted and disgusting efforts to win commissions from the Vichy government during the Nazi occupation of France. (He also courted work in Stalin's Soviet Union and Mussolini's Italy, and socialized with French fascists, bigots, rabid nationalists and Nazis.) Weber seems to take the architect at his word that he was interested in a humane revolution within architecture, making it more alert to man's needs, regardless of politics.

But there's ample evidence that he wasn't just an architectural opportunist, but was deeply sympathetic with the authoritarian impulses of even his most noxious would-be clients. And though it is nothing new to anyone who has grappled with Le Corbusier, his romance with the destructive energies of the 20th century -- the cleansing power of war, the brutal restructuring of whole societies -- is felt in this biography with disturbing force. There was method in Le Corbusier's mad egotism -- he saw himself almost as a primal force of history -- whether he was defacing another architect's house or celebrating plans for remaking the city of Saint-Dié, heavily bombed in 1944: "Saint-Dié was systematically destroyed in 3 days," he once remarked. "A splendid problem."

Unfortunately, small errors and, worse, clichés compound this biography's lack of analysis. He groups the French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier with Olivier Messiaen and Stravinsky as composers of modern music heard at the inauguration of the chapel at Ronchamp (perhaps Le Corbusier's greatest work). Charpentier was born in 1643. Le Corbusier's wife is described as having suffered from the unlikely injury of breaking "her femur at mid-calf." Architectural descriptions that are often meaningless (unenlightening comparisons to symphonic music), bland (buildings are "completely poetic") or hyperbolic ("The triumphant building was unlike anything that had ever existed before") make one doubt the author's basic powers of visual description and his grasp of architecture.

It's almost as if the book weren't edited. This is a major cultural figure, sketched by the author of more than a dozen previous books and published by a major press. It's not that Le Corbusier deserves better. He was brilliant, but a monster. A fascinating biography might be written not about his heroic accomplishments -- the banishment of everything unessential, the successful translation of classic architectural values into a new modernist language -- but about the heroic resistance to his destructive ideas. Curious readers, however, do deserve better. There's far more to understand about Le Corbusier than his relationship with Mom. ·

Philip Kennicott, the Post's culture critic, writes frequently about architecture.

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