Inhumane Le Corbusier
Av Theodore Dalrymple
Le Corbusier has had a significant influence on 20th century architecture, especially in Sweden. However, Theodore Dalrymple argues that he
belongs more to criminal history than to architectural history.
If it were not for Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, Le Corbusier would be counted as one of the great monsters of the twentieth century. Certainly he did more to destroy the British townscape than the Luftwaffe ever did; and Sweden, which escaped the war entirely, certainly did not escape the worldwide effect of his destructive megalomania. Look at any of the myriad ruined townscapes of Europe – ruined, that is, by architects and city-planners rather than by bombs or hand-to-hand fighting – and you will detect hovering over them the grinning ghost of the ruination’s tutelary spirit, Le Corbusier.
Of course, no man could have wrought so much destruction single-handed: Le Corbusier would have had little effect had his ideas not resonated with the Zeitgeist. The relation between a Zeitgeist and those who bring it about is always a dialectical one: no age can do without its great men, but no great men can do without their age. It should always been borne in mind that Le Corbusier came to prominence in the aftermath of the First World War, an historical cataclysm that naturally enough caused all thinking men to wonder about the value of the civilisation th at led up to it, and permitted them to think that most dangerous of thoughts, that it was necessary to start again from scratch, as if the world were nothing but a tabula rasa for them (to quote Mao Tse-Tung) to write the most beautiful characters upon.
Le Corbusier was to architecture what the Rwandan interahamwe were to social work. There was not a townscape or a landscape so beautiful that he could not envisage destroying it utterly, once and for all, with his cold and heartless constructions. If I had to coin a term for his style of architecture, I should find it difficult to decide between the Khmer Rouge style, and the genocidal style. Both terms have something to be said in their favour, and both something against. What is certain is that Le Corbusier was a totalitarian to his fingertips, and it is one of the great cultural disasters of our time – both symptomatically and causatively – that he should still be a revered rather than a reviled figure in the architectural schools of Europe.
At this point, I expect some people might think that I exaggerate. But I do not; consider, for example, the emotional tone of the following words from his the book La ville radieuse, the Radiant City, in which he described his plan for the reconstruction of the whole of the centre of Paris: "How many of those five million [inhabitants of Paris who have migrated from the countryside] are simply a dead weight on the city, an obstacle, a black clot of misery, of failure, of human garbage?"
By even asking the question, Le Corbusier is implying that a large proportion, and perhaps all, of that population (itself an eighth of the population of the entire country) fell into the category of ‘human garbage,’ a category that, I think, is unlikely to promote tender regard for the welfare and feelings, let alone the wishes, of that five million. It is therefore comes as no surprise that Pol Pot studied in Paris at the time of Le Corbusier’s heyday; and indeed, Pol Pot saw in Phnom Penh exactly what Le Corbusier saw in Paris (Paris!), that is to say nothing but corruption, misery, confusion, decay, rot, mess, darkness, degradation, inefficiency, and above all a lack of ‘rational’ plan to guide it.
The answer to this, of course, was to start again, to raze everything again and construct anew, but this time ‘rationally,’ according to a preconceived notion of what life is all about. Here again a few quotations from Le Corbusier might help explain his connection with the ‘thought’ of Pol Pot.
‘We must build places where mankind will be reborn.’
‘Each man will live in an ordered relation to the whole.’
‘The despot is not a man. It is the Plan. The correct, realistic,
plan, the one that will provide your solution once the
problem has been posited clearly, in its entirety, in its
‘[The plan] has taken account of nothing but human truths. It
has ignored all current regulations, all existing usages, and
channels. It has not considered whether or not it could be
carried out with the constitution now in force.’
‘Is there anything more pitiful than an undisciplined crowd?’
‘City planning everywhere, universal city planning, total
‘We must refuse the slightest consideration to what is: to the
mess we are now in. There is no solution to be found here.’
Of course, Le Corbusier and Pol Pot came to opposite conclusions as to what should be done about the ‘problem that has been posited clearly.’ Pol Pot concluded that cities should not exist at all; while Le Corbusier concluded that the answer was a city whose inhabitants ‘accept it so as to manage themselves like a colony of worker-bees: order, regularity, punctuality, justice and paternalism.’ If ever there were an illustration of one of the supposed laws of dialectical materialism, namely the unity of opposites, this is it.
Incidentally, another great disciple (whether he knew it or not) of Le Corbusier, the Romanian communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, put into practic e Le Corbusier’s concept of ‘agrovilles.’ Ceausescu was just the kind of patron of whom Le Corbusier dreamed all his life: a man not afraid, indeed eager, to bulldoze the whole accreted mess of seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth buildings, and replace it with a totally planned environment, in other words without the slightest consideration of what is; and, of course, whatever could be said of the mess in the towns could be said of the mess in the countryside, where the irrational peasants insisted upon living in their little houses with their stupid wooden carvings and window boxes with their inefficient, time-consuming flowers. Systematisation came to them too; they were herded into the very kind of apartment blocks (constructed, of course, with built-in decay) that Le Corbusier had designed.
What Ceausescu did to Romania, Le Corbusier wanted to do to the whole world. He was the moving force behind the Congres International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) whose goal was to prescribe architectural and building standards the world over, and the report of whose second meeting in 1929, written by Le Corbusier himself, started ‘The poverty, the inadequacy of traditional techniques have brought in their wake a confusion of powers, an artificial mingling of functions... We must find and apply new methods lending themselves naturally to standardisation [and] industrialisation. If we persist in the present methods, we will remain petrified in the same immobility.’
When such a man is taken by the architects of the world as a model to be emulated rather than a monster to be slain, it is hardly surprising that the hideous buildings to be seen in the centre of Stockholm are the same hideous buildings to be seen in the centre of London, Sofia, Dar es Salaam or anywhere else. But the question naturally arises as to how a man – and one living in the centre of Paris at that – could come to see in the architecture of the past nothing worth preserving, nothing worth modifying the style of new buildings for, so as to create a harmonious diversity of the kind the used (for example) to be seen in every small English country town. How is it possible for Le Corbusier to have said that Gothic architecture, and the architecture of Louis XIV, XV and XVI, was all like feathers in a woman’s hair?
Here it is worth citing the opinion of the herd of apologists for Le Corbusier (who, in my opinion, are to architectural criticism what holocaust deniers are to history). They claim that, as Le Corbusier was coming to maturity - he was born in 1887 - architecture was exhausted, that architects lacked ideas, that everything they did was derivative pastiche and so forth. This is the kind of educated ignorance which is not untypical of a lot of the intellectual life of our time.
A walk around the pleasant Parisian suburb of Vincennes, for example, should be enough to convince anyone that what the apologists say is nonsense. Buildings constructed between 1900 and 1910 are perfectly distinguishable, even to my uneducated eye, from those built, say, in 1880-1890. They are not, it is true, great works of architecture; rather, they are something that, for the construction of a liveable city, is much more important. They are modest contributions to an assemblage; they are grateful on the eye; they are of human dimensions; they inspire affection; they are the kind of buildings in which people want and have their being. They do not overwhelm the individual with a sense of his own insignificance; they are built for mammals, not reptiles. Le Corbusier built as if men were snakes or lizards.
It is true that the originality of these buildings in Vincennes is limited; but originality by itself is no virtue, unless it be combined with other, much more important virtues. It is often forgotten that nothing is easier than to be original; it is as easy as being worse. As usual, Doctor Johnson summed it up, when he told an author that ‘Your book is both good and original, but the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good.’
The good architecture of Vincennes is essentially modest; it recognises clearly that architecture is above all a social art, and that, while it doesn’t matter much if an artist makes a hash of a canvas – no one is obliged to look at it, after all – bad architecture is unavoidable and has an adverse effect upon everyone. (A brief survey shows that any structure that follows Le Corbusier’s principles is likely to be soon covered in graffiti; the despised buildings of 1900-1910 are much more likely to escape it. The underclass are better architectural critics than those who have a degree in architecture.)
The problem boils down to one of post-religious egotism; I say this as someone without religious belief myself. Le Corbusier’s insane schemes, in which he planned the total reconstruction of Moscow, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Algiers and Barcelona without any reference to their despised local traditions or customs, such that any one scheme was interchangeable with another, ultimately derived from the his belief that his own life was the be-all and end-all of his concern, that his only chance of survival in any way whatever was to destroy what came before him and make sure that he imposed himself once and for all upon the world.
Anyone interested in the psychology of Le Corbusier should read the magnificent play of Eugene Ionesco (a much greater and better inhabitant of the Paris of Le Corbusier’s heyday), Le roi se meurt, in which the king, Berenger I, learns that he is about to die. He then pleads as L e Corbusier would have done, that after his death no one should talk of anything but him, the books should be only about him, the statues should be of him, the history all about him, everyone should be called Berenger in honour of him, and so on ad infinitum. Le Corbusier’s Ville radieuse, as everything else he did, was in fact nothing but the demand to keep Le Corbusier even in mind. His motto was: Before me, nothing; after me, everything.
Of course, a man may be infused with the most ridiculous, and even terrible, ideas, and yet be a great artist. A militant atheist such as Richard Dawkins, who cannot speak lowly enough of religion or contemptuously enough of religious belief, is profoundly moved by Bach’s St Matthew Passion. He acknowledges that some of the greatest prose in the English language is religious in inspiration. To admire the sublimity of Islamic architecture and calligraphy is not to say that there is only one God and that Mohammed is his prophet.
Le Corbusier, alas, was a monster in small things as in large. It is true that he had a minor talent as an artist, that he was to Picasso as, say, Te Borch was to Vermeer. But in his buildings, even his small ones, and in their details, he was true to his inhumanity. (Consistency is not a virtue in itself.)
When you read apologists for Le Corbusier’s supposed genius, you feel like laughing. Here I quote from a hagiographical little book for the general reader, published in 1974, by a British teacher of architecture, Stephen Gardiner. "Take the Villa Savoye: this is an extraordinary invention... The sun terrace with its innovatory concrete breakfast table, and ramps were unique – spacious and unexpected as they are, they give enormous pleasure."
Pleasure from a concrete breakfast table! Has this man ever seen concrete, felt concrete? In the prison in which I worked as a doctor, it is true, there were concrete fitments: but this was not to give pleasure to the prisoners, it was to prevent them from removing them or attacking one another with them.
Who can look at the roof garden of Le Corbusier’s famous apartment building in Marseille without laughing? Garden? It is like a garden constructed by someone with Asperger’s syndrome whose fixation happens to be with concrete rather than with, say, bus tickets or light bulbs. For Le Corbusier, the main purpose of a garden was evidently to graze children’s knees.
Le Corbusier spoke of his ‘dear, faithful concrete.’ What kind of man finds love and loyalty in concrete, of all possible things? A man, surely, who was so deeply ideological that he had no time or mental energy to respond in any other way to the world. He loathed ornament for the same reason: it often expressed non-ideological tenderness. Of course, all kitsch is ornament; Le Corbusier, being that characteristic man of the Twentieth century, an intellectual without intellect, concluded that all ornament is kitsch.
It is interesting to speculate what Le Corbusier would have been done if he had decided to be a cook rather than an architect. He would have thought that the whole purpose of a meal was nutrition, in its most basic physiological sense; and if he had persuaded himself that the complete diet was boiled shark with raw turnips, he would have sought to impose it upon the world, until no one ate anything else ever. He would not have concluded that perhaps, just perhaps, some of his premises might be wrong.
His spirit, unfortunately, lives on. Referring to the fact that Paris, with the same population as London, extends over only half the land area of London, the mayor, Mr Delanoe, said the only solution (how bureaucrats love unique solutions!) was to build upwards - thus destroying the unique skyline of the city, of course.
His conclusion was welcomed by the most famous French architect of the moment, Jean Nouvel. M. Nouvel is not without talent: he managed a task that I should have thought was impossible, namely to build a museum in Paris even uglier than the Centre Pompidou, but he succeeded with his Musee du quai Branly.
Yes, he said, Paris had to build upwards; otherwise it was merely what he called a museum city. Here is the same contempt for the activities of millions of ordinary people who actually make of Paris, even today, one of the richest and most economically advanced city in the world, and all this without turning Sainte Chapelle into a car park. However, M. Nouvel thinks it is more important to impose himself for ever on the city, so that when people look at it, they will murmur for ever more, ‘Jean Nouvel.’
His appearance is all of a piece with his discipleship of Le Corbusier. An ugly man, which he cannot help, he makes himself yet uglier by shaving his head; and, at least for a photograph taken for the cover of the colour magazine of Le Monde, he dresses all in black, and looks uncommonly like a thug.
This is appropriate, in its way, for the story of Le Corbusier belongs, properly speaking, more to the history of crime than to that of architecture, as indeed does that of the story of so many European architects of the last three quarters of a century.