Villa Savoye in Poissy, France, completed in 1929, affirmed Le Corbusier's role as a star architect and ushered in the International Style. (Anthony Flint/Anthony Flint)

Le Corbusier, one of the 20th century’s defining architects, a controlling visionary with a complicated and contradictory personality, has long had a divisive legacy. Steadfast in his belief that “architecture only exists when there is poetic emotion,” he designed landmarks of enduring significance. His 1931 Villa Savoye, a hovering white box in Poissy, France, has long been celebrated as an icon of modernism. His 1954 Notre Dame du haut de Ronchamp, with its crab-shell-inspired roof and curving concrete form, presaged postmodernism. He was also a pioneering self-promoter — a precursor of the starchitects of today — who changed his name from Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris to help burnish his public persona and who distilled his theory of architecture into five media-friendly points.

At the same time, Le Corbusier could be a cold and ruthless technocrat, the author of the 1925 Plan Voisin, in which he proposed solving the urban ills of Paris by razing practically the entire Right Bank neighborhood of Le Marais and building a series of imposing apartment towers and motorways. According to his most strident critics, he bore responsibility for the misguided urban renewal projects — influenced by his ideas — that left massive scars on the postwar American landscape. But nothing was quite as damning as his decision to join the Nazi-friendly Vichy government during World War II.

In “Modern Man,” Anthony Flint attempts to liberate Le Corbusier from the indictments that have plagued his legacy. “His ideas and his template for disruption have value that has been obscured by the withering dismissal of those who see him as the destroyer of cities,” Flint argues. “There is much that works and much to be learned from Le Corbusier — and it’s in danger of being tossed aside, a baby thrown out with the modernist bathwater.”

But Flint’s book is less a polemic than a popular account of the architect’s life, from his early years as a watchmaker’s son in Switzerland, to his formative travels through Europe (when he sketched the Parthenon with near-religious fervor), to his drafting of the manifesto “Après le cubisme,” to his final days along the French Riviera, where he died in 1965 of an apparent heart attack while swimming.

Flint achieves surprising emotional depth, capturing intimate details of Le Corbusier’s relationships with his elderly mother (to whom he bragged of his sexual conquests with the likes of singer and actress Josephine Baker) and his wife, Yvonne Gallis, a fashion model from Monaco. After Yvonne died in 1957 and was cremated, Le Corbusier, in a grim act of sentimentality, retrieved an intact vertebra from the ashes and kept it on his work desk.

"Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow" by Anthony Flint (New Harvest/New Harvest)

Flint not only sketches a psychological portrait of Le Corbusier, he also captures the backstories of some of his more significant projects: the 1952 Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, a revolutionary approach to urban housing; his 1965 Chandigarh capitol complex in India, in which he finally realized his ambitions for planning on a grand scale; and his only American project, the 1963 Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University (which one professor said resembled two grand pianos having sex).

Relations between the architect and his clients were never easy. Pierre Savoye and his wife, Eugenie, complained that the garage, bathroom and entrance halls of their villa were sopping wet — in short, that it was practically raining inside their house — and threatened a lawsuit when Le Corbusier evaded their repeated requests to fix the problem.

Faulty waterproofing was one thing; Le Corbusier’s decision, after the German occupation of France during World War II, to assume a cabinet minister-type position overseeing habitation and urbanism in the Vichy government, was quite another. “His critics would detect a genuine fondness for fascism, with its cold functionality and inherent promise for getting things done,” Flint writes. But Le Corbusier was, he argues, mostly a “brazen opportunist”: “Always, what he was chasing was the commission.” Most Vichy leaders after the war were rewarded for their disloyalty with a bullet in the head, but Le Corbusier managed to escape any lasting indictment, in part through his own slippery maneuvering, in part because there was rebuilding to be done and his talents were desperately needed. Indeed, he viewed the war as a magnificent opportunity. “Saint-Dié was systematically destroyed in three days, he wrote to his mother. “A splendid problem.”

His megalomaniacal zeal for this tabula rasa-style of urban planning drew the ire of Jane Jacobs. “[These cities] will be spacious, parklike, and uncrowded,” she wrote in a 1958 essay for Fortune, which became the basis for her landmark book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” “They will have all the attributes of a well-kept, dignified cemetery. . . . These projects will not revitalize downtown, they will deaden it.”

Jacobs’s vision of human-scaled, mixed-use development has largely carried the day. But now that we’ve entered the urban century — by 2100, 6 billion out of a global population of 9 billion will live in cities — there’s a clear need for large-scale planning, Flint argues. A fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, he finds much contemporary resonance in Le Corbusier’s legacy, especially dense urban housing predicated on his concept of the Modular Man, a mathematically based system of proportionality (consider the current micro-housing initiatives in New York and elsewhere).

Le Corbusier unfairly became a whipping boy for all of modernism’s ills — that much Flint makes clear. But the more gripping question turns out to be how to reconcile the architect’s flaws with his undeniable talents. Flint paints a fairly nuanced portrait, and in so doing gets to the center of why Le Corbusier remains such an enigmatic and compelling figure.

Wills is a senior editor at Architect magazine.


The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow

By Anthony Flint

New Harvest. 256 pp. $25