The pioneer of modern architecture inspired hundreds of drab downtowns and suburban corporate office parks. But he had many good ideas that are relevant to citybuilding today
In talking about the book I recently had the privilege of seeing published, Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow, my suspicions have been confirmed. Reactions to this extraordinary man fall into three categories: those who adore him, those who detest him, and those who have no idea who he was.
There may be other figures through history where the response is divided up this way, and certainly the love-him-or-hate-him split is common for many architects. But for those in the world of citybuilding and urban planning, the strong opinions are intense. People are dug in like Red Sox and Yankees fans; talking about Le Corbusier is a bit like bringing up politics or religion at the Thanksgiving table. This makes the job of the biographer especially challenging; as I point out in the epilogue of the narrative, it is indeed possible to learn some useful things from Le Corbusier (1887-1965), in this very urban 21st century.
The man who pioneered 20th-century modernism and the International Style, beginning with the Villa Savoye, above—the architectural equivalent of introducing the iPhone—was an original star architect, adept at public relations but comprehensive in his theoretical approach to design. As such, he dominated architectural training and assumed godlike status among generations of draftsmen.
“For an architect of my generation, trained in the early 1980s, Corbusier was architecture—and nothing else mattered,” said Tim Love, principal at the Boston-based design firm Utile. “My entire architectural education consisted of learning ‘moves’ from six buildings—the La Roche/Jeanneret House, the Villa Stein at Garches, the Salvation Army building in Paris, the Swiss Pavilion at the International University campus in Paris, the Millowners building in India, and the Palace of Justice in Chandigarh.”
And then there is an extraordinary dark side, where Le Corbusier didn’t just move to Paris from the watchmaking capital of La Chaux-de-Fonds and change his name from Charles-Edouard Jeanneret—he became, in this widely shared view, a veritable force for evil, a destroyer of cities. He gave us blank walls, windswept plazas, and towers in the park; his wipe-the-slate-clean-and-start-over approach, seen in the 1925 Plan Voisin, a proposal for 60-story towers spaced well apart in the historic district of the Marais in Paris, helped inspire a dark era of urban renewal in this country.
He believed in autocratic, top-down planning, where today it is all about a participatory, citizen-oriented process. He embraced the separation of uses and sought to kill the street, when today it is all about the street, a mix of uses, and a human scale. Le Corbusier started revolutionizing architecture and urban design in earnest in the 1920s; by the end of the 20th century, the triumph of the principles espoused by Jane Jacobs was well established. The refutation came full circle. In many ways, master builder Robert Moses, the Goliath to Jane’s David, was channeling Le Corbusier in the account of their battles in my last book, Wrestling with Moses.
His use of concrete morphed into one of the least-liked styles in America—Brutalism (originally named not for what you might think, but the French beton brut). He inspired not only hundreds of drab downtowns and suburban corporate office parks, with their horizontal strip windows, but works such as Boston City Hall, which has “kick me” taped to it in the public mind. Bad copies of his urban design schemes sprouted up in public housing projects being routinely demolished, like Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis. The iconic photograph of the demolition of that superblock has come to represent the very opposite of good planning: in terms of anticipating how humans would inhabit space, it got everything exactly wrong.
On a personal level, he was larger than life, always sharply dressed, traveling the world, and ready for romance. He was a rock star who convinced many governments of the need to pay attention to housing and cities. But he was also a brazen opportunist who aligned himself with some of history’s most despicable characters, at one point trying to ingratiate himself with the collaborationist Vichy government in World War II. Always chasing the commission, he was accused of being a capitalist, fascist, and communist, all at the same time. He was paternalistic, chauvinistic, a serial philanderer—and he was French! (Though born in Switzerland, he became a French citizen in 1930).
Any biographer must adopt a policy of showing his subject warts and all, and I readily acknowledge Le Corbusier had some really bad ideas. But my plea is to refrain from throwing out the baby with the modernist bathwater. There are fundamental themes in Le Corbusier’s career that are quite relevant to the most pressing urban issues before us today.
The first is his appreciation of scale in planning for the future growth of cities. More than two-thirds of the planet’s population of 9 billion will live in cities by 2050. India alone is going to add 400 million people, an entire new United States, but with virtually no one living in the equivalent of Nebraska. Rural migrants are streaming into burgeoning developing world cities in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, and if minimal preparations are not made, the human suffering will only increase in slums. The staggering project of urban expansion, on its face, requires long-range planning for housing, open space, and infrastructure. It’s whistling past the graveyard to think that a bunch of Greenwich Village-style neighborhoods will do the trick.
The second way today’s design professionals can learn from Le Corbusier is by looking at his pioneering thinking in efficient housing design. The all-inclusive Unite d’Habitation apartment building, an ocean liner on land, was designed to be mass-produced, compact, and affordable, density exceptionally well designed. Some 60 years later, the right-sized needs for living space are seen in the trend of micro-apartments, and in the work, among others, by Bjarke Ingels Group, with projects such as the 8 House.
But for a taste of just how complex any rehabilitation of Le Corbusier might be, consider the case of Andres Duany, co-founder of the Congress for New Urbanism. In the epilogue of Modern Man, Duany, who advocates traditional town planning and routinely bashes the academy and its embrace of modernism, is revealed as a secret admirer of Le Corbusier. He loves his comprehensive approach, the way he pushed into the realm of economics and the political—indeed, CNU is based loosely on the Congres Internationaux Architecture Moderne, or CIAM. He is fascinated. “I adore his stuff,” he says. “I can’t help it.”
This is like Al Gore driving an Escalade, or the head of a vegan association being caught at McDonald’s: praise from the founding member of a group that calls for mixed-use, human-scaled development, and a repair of the damage of urban renewal. And yet there is so much more room in the tent, and such great possibilities, when ideological vendettas are pushed aside. Le Corbusier is not that far from the New Urbanists. He sought decent housing attentive to basic human functions, and repeatable urban form. Take a fresh look at his worker housing in Pessac. It’s not that different from Kentlands.
In planning and design, we need more people to be disruptive and innovative, to think outside the box and challenge the status quo. The needs of developing world cities alone in the 21st century demand innovation. There are pearls within the master’s life works, even if his swagger and personal life isn’t exactly politically correct. The derision directed against him has been too much of a blunt instrument. Take a deep breath. He comes in peace.