Darran Anderson is the author of Imaginary Cities (University of Chicago Press) and the forthcoming Tidewrack (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Two researchers recently suggested that autism and post-traumatic stress disorder led to the minimalist stylings of Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius. Their questions and tools are useful, but there’s danger in mistaking one piece of a puzzle for its entirety.
The places we inhabit influence the way we see the world. A military installation or a prison is designed to have a psychological impact as much as day-glow kindergartens and restful hospitals. Equally and inevitably, psychology has shaped architecture.
Might we discover then that form follows dysfunction? Ann Sussman and Katie Chen have done so in a provocative piece published last August for Common Edge, “The Mental Disorders that Gave Us Modern Architecture.” Narrowing Modernism down to two crucial figures, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, they suggest minimalist ahistorical buildings originated in part from autism (in the case of Le Corbusier) and post-traumatic stress disorder (Walter Gropius). Modernism, they imply, was a path emerging from neurosis and one that never should have been followed.
At first glance, they might have a point. Le Corbusier was emotionally remote and aesthetically austere. His desire to reduce buildings into geometric components could be seen as a monomania, as evidenced by his own rhetoric, having once said, “I am possessed of the color white, the cube, the sphere, the cylinder and the pyramid… Take the whip to those who dissent.” His Ville Contemporaine (1922) and Ville Radieuse (1930) proposed replacing historic streets with tower blocks. Such philistinism could only be excused if Le Corbusier couldn’t help but see the world differently.
It is just as tempting to portray Walter Gropius as being permanently scarred by his battlefield experiences. Even by the grim standards of World War I, Gropius had a spectacularly disruptive military service. He survived a plane crash with a dead pilot at the controls. He spent two days and nights buried alive with corpses after a shell blast, surviving because a chimney provided him with air. He was shot at repeatedly, finding numerous bullet holes in his clothes. In 1915, he earned respite from the frontline due to “insomnia caused by nervous tension,” but was returned to the trenches. There seems little doubt that Gropius carried the weight of those experiences for the rest of his life.
Setting aside the valid questions of how much of an influence these two figures had on the actual contemporary buildings we live in, whether modern architecture can be regarded as a singular movement and not a vast complex and nuanced plurality of individuals, styles, and forms—or whether seeing the world differently is an intrinsically bad thing—the evidence that modern architecture is founded on “disorders” is highly questionable.
Le Corbusier’s self-sufficiency was hardly unusual for a bourgeois Nietzsche-reading Calvinist from the Swiss mountains. He was acutely self-aware of his own aloofness; sending a postcard to his parents in 1909 with a self-portrait as a condor on a mountain top. Yet this distance was always balanced with a desire to connect, having once said, “I felt [on a visit to Italy] an authentic human aspiration was gratified here; silence, solitude, but also daily contact with mortals.” Most comfortable being guarded, he nevertheless repeatedly placed the utmost importance on “enjoying the life-giving force of love and friendship.”
He lived an ascetic life and admired the lifestyle of the monks of Mount Athos—there is certainly something of the monastic cell to some of Le Corbusier’s designs. Yet these weren’t stark prisons so much as attempts to create sanctuaries amidst the clamor and chaos of modern life. “Where order reigns,” Le Corbusier wrote in Towards a New Architecture (1923), “well-being follows.” He dreamed of a life without obstruction, distraction, or clutter. He also recognized that for all the virtues of community, people still require privacy. It could also be argued that, far from autism, his attraction to minimalistic order originated from his vision. Le Corbusier began as an engraver with an inclination towards decorative Art Nouveau but gave it up for architecture when he suffered chronic eye problems, culminating in a detached retina and skirting blindness.
Le Corbusier’s infamous line, “A house is a machine for living in,” is frequently used to show something was amiss with the architect. Whether it supports a diagnosis of autism or a condemnation of the architect as a callous technocrat, it is tellingly rarely quoted in full. When it is, it reveals a more humanistic side, “A house is a machine for living in. Baths, sun, hot-water, cold-water, warmth at will, conservation of food, hygiene, beauty in the sense of good proportion. An armchair is a machine for sitting in and so on.” A skilled self-publicist, Le Corbusier knew how controversial this would be, as quoted in Simon Richards’s Le Corbusier and the Concept of Self (2003):
“A long time ago, I jumped in where angels feared to tread… a thousand utterances have been produced to bat me for having dared that utterance. But when I say ‘living’ I am not talking of mere material requirements only. I admit certain important extensions which must crown the edifice of man’s daily needs. To be able to think, or meditate, after the day’s work is essential. But in order to become a center of creative thought, the home must take on an absolutely new character.”
What would characterize this new character is suggested by words that recur often through his writing—love, poetry, spirituality, and art. Le Corbusier was, after all, a lifelong painter and sculptor. The desire for clarity was matched by his insistence that space be useful. In the face of slums and housing shortages, he offered a high-density vision of “sun, space, trees: that is what all cities need,” adding greenery, protective zoning, swimming pools, childcare, and shopping arcades. It is rather empathetic for someone who seemingly could not relate to people.
And then there’s the solitary and traumatized Walter Gropius. If Gropius was grievously damaged, it did not prevent him heading perhaps the most influential design school of the 20th century or becoming, in exile, an immensely-influential professor of architecture at Harvard.
At the Bauhaus, he put together an exceptional and unconventional team of teachers (including Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and László Moholy-Nagy). He collaborated extensively throughout his career, an extension not of the brutality of military service but of its resourcefulness and camaraderie. It can be said that collaboration was at the very heart of Gropius’s vision for the Bauhaus; a realm where the barriers between disciplines could be broken down in the name of better living through design.
His architecture was sober, stylish, and considered, especially in comparison to his wild Expressionist comrades at the war’s end. Gropius was, by most accounts, highly intelligent, professional, loyal, and charming. Paul Rudolph, who studied under Gropius, said he was “the most dynamic man I’ve ever come into contact with.” In the Nazi party newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter, he was condemned not as a neurotic degenerate or inhuman control-freak but as “that elegant salon-Bolshevist."
If he was traumatized, Gropius hid it remarkably well from his pupils, collaborators, and his buildings. Writing for his will, he said, “It would be beautiful if all my friends of the present and of the past would get together in a little while for a fiesta—a la Bauhaus—drinking, laughing, loving.” He may well have been marked by his past but he was not imprisoned by it.
Sussman and Chen make grand claims as to Le Corbusier’s “hyperarousal” and his inability, rather than simple unwillingness, to maintain social relations. Similarly, they make unsubstantiated insinuations that Gropius’s brain had shrank due to repeated near-death experiences. But speculation over the mental state of two dead men is ultimately unverifiable. What is demonstrably untrue is that Modernism was intrinsically a dysfunctional byproduct of the First World War. Western architecture had been heading in that direction for at least thirty years. This came partly in reaction to the ornate excesses of Art Nouveau and partly due to the influence of Japanese architecture, following the end of the country’s isolationism (Gropius acknowledged the latter in his book, with Kenzō Tange and Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture). The defining credo of “Form follows function” was coined not by a Modernist but by the master of exquisitely decorated 19th century skyscrapers Louis Sullivan.
In Europe, the transition towards minimal architecture had been going on for so long there had already been generational schisms, backlashes, and synthesises. There were already architectural masterpieces in this spirit including Victor Horta’s Maison du Peuple (1896-99), Josef Hoffmann’s Sanatorium Purkersdorf (1904-5) and Stoclet Palace (begun in 1905), and Adolf Loos’s Steiner House (1910). Even architects as flamboyant as Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Otto Wagner were producing proto-Modernist work leaning towards geometric essentials; the former’s Glasgow School of Art (1897-1909) and unbuilt spaceship-like Concert Hall (1898), and the latter’s Austrian Postal Savings Bank (1903) and steel and concrete Villas (1886-1913). The Modernists sped up this process in an accelerated evolution rather than revolution.
It could be said that the drive towards order came from the disorder of the industrial age, and attempts to use new technologies to mitigate its evils. Again, this began before Le Corbusier, Gropius, or World War I. Tony Garnier’s recognizably modernist Cité Industrielle (1904-1917) had been initially inspired by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City (1898). Far from being blank for blank’s sake, clean and rationalized space was tied to health and efficiency. Jan Duiker’s Zonnestraal (1925-31) and Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium (1933) are reminders that Modernism focused on the treatment of maladies, not the expression of them, while Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt Kitchen (1926) provided the model for kitchens that wouldn’t slowly grind us down. Far from soulless, a new golden age of church building ran through Modernism, beginning with Frank Lloyd Wright’s remarkable concrete and glass Unity Temple (1905-1908) that aimed to “let the room inside be the architecture outside.” Indeed, concrete had already taken hold before the war, including Auguste Perret’s Rue Franklin Apartments (1902-1904), his Garage Ponthieu (1907), Kahn’s Packard Automotive Plant (1905), and Robert Maillart’s Giesshübel (1910).
If these were the product of compulsions, it just happened that their building method was increasingly cheaper, easier to build, and safer for inhabitants. If concrete is a an example of “abnormal fixations” as Sussman and Chen claim, we might wonder if the designers of the concrete dome of the Pantheon (125 AD) were scarred by their experiences on Trajan's Parthian campaign.
Resistance to ornament and a move towards clear and unadorned architecture werem well-established by the time of Le Corbusier and Gropius’s heyday. Before the war, Adolf Loos had railed against “the slavery of decoration,” tied up with centuries of privilege. In Ornament and Crime (1910), he announced, “Soon the streets of the town will glisten like white walls. Like Zion, the holy city, the metropolis of heaven. Then we shall have fulfillment.” There was a logic to his messianic proclamations; he recognized that times were changing fast and architecture needed to adapt. It made little sense to spend time and effort carving details into stone on buildings whose function would soon change. That itself seemed neurotic, “the modern ornamentalist is a straggler, or a pathological case. He rejects even his own products within three years.” The Futurist Antonio Sant’Elia agreed in his manifesto of 1914, “The decorative must be abolished… the importance of the facade must be diminished; issues of taste must be transplanted from the field of fussy moldings […] Let us make an end of monumental, funereal and commemorative architecture.” Modern architecture would show, not tell, with Frank Lloyd Wright encouraging in An Autobiography (1943), “Let us abolish in the art and craft of architecture, literature in any symbolic form whatsoever.”
It seemed particularly anachronistic to keep carving caryatids and gargoyles in a developing world of steel and glass, electricity, cinema, and modern signage. Buildings appeared more dynamic and streamlined in response to vehicle design. With Streamline Moderne, architecture had been inspired by ships. Le Corbusier wrote a book on aircraft and co-designed a car. Gropius opted for a railway carriage. They took these lessons into architecture. The spirit was one of inspiration rather than alienation. “We claim in the name of the steamship, of the airplane, and of the motor car,” Le Corbusier announced, “the right to health, logic, daring, harmony, perfection.” Though architects are hardly immune to egotism, there was a surprising element of humility at work. For his Total Theater (1927), Gropius wanted a modular building where the vision of the architect would not impede the set designer or audience, a building “so impersonal that it never restrains him from giving full play to his vision and imagination, a building whose spatial treatment stimulates and refreshes the human spirit.”
All these developments are best demonstrated in a single building, the Fagus Factory (1911-1913) in Alfeld, Germany. Designed by Gropius and Adolf Meyer, it ushered in an age of Modernism that had long been incubating. Gropius did so not through imposing brutal structures but through transparency. By constructing a glass curtain wall, a relatively recent technological innovation, he offered factory workers access to natural light. In doing so, he fulfilled his dream of an architect who, as he declared at the Folkwang Museum in 1911, “will attend not only to light, air, and cleanliness in the design of his buildings and work spaces, but will also take cognizance of those basic sentiments of beauty that even uneducated workers possess.”
Naturally, one may forget the dank, inefficient, and unsafe conditions that existed in earlier buildings. Gropius followed the Fagus Factory with his Factory and Office Building (1914) for the Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne with its glass spiral staircase offering access to work spaces as well as dance floors and a restaurant. It is astonishing that these fragments of the future were constructed in the age of the Kaiser. And it is evident that Walter Gropius’s form of Modernism was already fully formed before he fired a single shot in combat.
World War I had a colossal impact on architecture, as it did every aspect of Western life. We may now view the prewar imperial societies with a nostalgic, pastel Wes Anderson filter, but there was little enthusiasm or money to begin building palaces or carving heraldic symbols for regimes that had sent millions of young men to be mutilated in the trenches.
Partly the fault of its architects flaunting Year Zero credentials, it’s easy and facile to claim that Modernism had no place for tradition. Once the juvenile bluster and sales puff of such claims settled down, Modernists themselves admitted so. “Today I am accused of being a revolutionary,” Le Corbusier acknowledged, “yet I confess to having had only one master: the past: and only one discipline: the study of the past.” When he sought clarity and grandeur, he aimed for the Parthenon. His claim that “a new age has begun” was qualified by his words, “a new Middle Age.” He continued, “I chose the most zealous fighters for a cause, those to whom we, we of the 20th century, are now ready to become the equals: the early Medieval architects… logic, truth, honesty.” Similarly, when Gropius sought a model and a name for his design school, he harked back to medieval guilds where crafts would work together and integrate their talents, choosing Feininger’s gothic cathedral woodblock print on the cover of his Bauhaus Manifesto (1919).
It is worthwhile to explore and question our surroundings, those who create them and our own place within them. It is also important that once we begin this process we do not stop questioning when we’ve reached suspiciously convenient answers. We might be searching for explanations for buildings we simply do not subjectively care for, under the disingenuous guise that these views are objective. In the process, inconvenient factors will require overlooking (Le Corbusier’s interest in polychromy, Gropius’s incorporations of the vernacular, and so on).
At the age of 3, Louis Kahn was horrifically burned and scarred for life, having lifted red hot coals into his apron. His buildings and teachings are awe-inspiring and meditative. Frank Lloyd Wright’s work continued long after his lover, her children, and his colleagues were butchered by a hatchet-wielding madman who then burned down Taliesin. Wright carried that weight and yet continued, becoming more open to influences from all over the globe as he got older. Trauma is easy to find but the paths individuals tread are idiosyncratic. Even if you discount free will, there are still so many variables weighing on designs and decisions that we should be suspicious of single explanations.
Sussman and Chen’s questions and tools are useful and thought-provoking, but there is a danger in mistaking one piece of a puzzle for its entirety. We, too, are part of the relationship between psychology and architecture. When we place the modern and the traditional as simplified homogenized binaries, we are doing both a discredit. By failing to see that beauty and utility exist in all styles and ages, we limit ourselves when we can ill afford to.