Massive concrete buildings, post-war housing projects, highways torn through old neighborhoods¯so much of the ugliness we take for granted in our cities testifies to influence of Le Corbusier. Born in 1887 as Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, the thin, intense young man from a provincial Swiss watch-making town became one of the most famous (and notorious) spokesmen for radical urban planning and architectural modernism.
A recently published biography, Le Corbusier: A Life , is a disappointment. The author, Nicholas Fox Weber, provides page after page of undigested raw material from Le Corbusier’s letters: large slabs of rhetorical concrete. Nonetheless, with the structural beams of Le Corbusier’s egotistical vision exposed, the biography provides readers with the useful occasion to look back on modernism through the eyes of one of its high priests.
Modernism in art and literature is best understood as a drive to bring everything into the open. It reflected a broad rejection of manners and ornament, a determined effort to tear away what Edmund Burke called “the decent drapery of life” so that we could see life as it “really is.”
The early twentieth century saw movements that were dissections of the visual experience. Cubism, for example, reverses the usual artistic ambition. Instead of using the principles of perspective in order to create the illusion of three-dimensional space, Picasso in his cubist phase turned oblique visual planes toward the viewer. The side of a face swings toward the viewer like a door on a hinge, exposing perspective as an artistic trick that can be manipulated in new ways.
We see some deconstruction in literature. Proust recounted the interior sources of narrative in exhausting detail. Consciousness shatters into fragments of inchoate memories. James Joyce loved to wave his magic wand. His conceit was that he could turn anything into an epic, even the mundane life of Leopold Bloom. In doing so, Joyce implicitly told his readers: “See, all our ideas of heroism are illusions of the writer’s art.”
The same impulse of stripping away conceit characterized modern architecture. Le Corbusier famously said that a house ought to be “a machine for living.” The idea was not to make a living room into a miniature factory floor. Instead, Le Corbusier wanted to remove decoration and expose the “real purpose” of buildings. As the slogan of architectural modernism proclaims, “Form follows function.”
Le Corbusier’s work gives good examples. If a roof provides shelter, then we need to see it sheltering. Take a look at the Centre Le Corbusier in Zurich. It is a whimsical, charming building that is dominated by a roof that shouts, “I am a roof.” The same is true of his famous church, Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp. The structure is topped with a massively overhung roof that says, “I shelter and protect.”
The same holds for other features of buildings. If windows are for the sake of bringing in light, then let them be large-paned, industrial windows that make no excuses for their function. If steel girders hold the building up, then do not hide them. If concrete pillars provide structural support, then expose their roles.
Again and again, the basic principle of modernism is the same: strip and expose. It fit with a larger social desire: be done with inherited social mores and hierarchies. Indeed, encouraged by various forms of progressive political ideology, modernism presumed that the decent drapery of life serves only to disguise the deadening, authoritarian desire of the past to control our futures. If we strip and expose, the modernists promised, then our latent, universal humanity will burst forth and flourish in the shining light of pure, unadulterated reality. That is why a social and political frisson a always accompanied twentieth century modernism. It was¯progressive!
Le Corbusier rose to prominence in large part because he was an extreme and articulate spokesman for a dogmatic modernism. In 1920, the initial editorial from a journal he edited, L’Esprit Nouveau , outlined his agenda: “The spirit which dominates this review is that which animates scientific research. We are a few designers who believe that art has laws, just as physics and physiology.”
Of course, it turns out that design is not like physics and physiology. You cannot make people free and natural and virtuous by forcing them into “machines for living,” as the great (and failed) urban projects of the 1950s and 1960s repeatedly showed.
But reality never inconvenienced Le Corbusier and his generation. He was attracted to the image of science: mastery and technological power, the promise of objective, indefeasible truth, men in white lab coats fiercely committed to stripping away illusions. Like the Marxists of the day, he needed the rhetoric of objectivity to sanctify his impulse toward destruction. In his own mind, Le Corbuser was not demolishing traditional views in order to satisfy personal needs. Quite the contrary. He was a noble scientist of construction, serving “the future” and obeying the “objective truths of urban planning,” devoted always to “the intrinsic principles of architecture.”
The self-deception was massive. Any reader of Le Corbusier: A Life will be struck by the atmosphere of violence, destruction, and desire for power that animated the architect. “What exists today is intolerable!” Le Corbusier writes to a friend. Again and again he attacks established “bourgeois taste.” He hates the “swine.” At age thirty, he writes, “You must forge your own weapons for the life you want to have. You must make yourself a superior being.”
Weber unfailingly provides letter after tedious letter in which Le Corbusier vents his spleen, often in close conjunction with fantasies of erotic abandonment. The past is sheer bondage and empty conformity. It produces nothing but the repression. Le Corbusier, therefore, assigns himself the role of moral aristocrat (someone had to). He alone is the architect who knows that what must be destroyed so that something new and humane can be built and experienced.
Of course, the ordinary man is in bondage to conventional views. But we cannot allow delay! The world must be made anew! Men must be forced to be free! Le Corbusier’s vision of the modern city provides the clearest example of his lust for destruction, always for the sake of millennial renewal. His most famous plan was for Paris. It involved bulldozing most of the city, and remaking it to accord with his principles. The result would have been horrifying: Co-op City on the Seine.
I have only seen one building by Le Corbusier in the concrete, so to speak. It is the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard, located on Quincy Street, next to the Faculty Club. The juxtaposition could not be more striking. The Faculty Club embodies the historicist impulse in architecture. Built in the 1930s, it was designed to look like a stately Georgian mansion. In contrast, the Carpenter Center is a modernist study (in concrete, of course).
Not only is the juxtaposition striking, it is telling. If you approach from the back, the Faculty Club offers an inviting hip-high gateway that opens on to a brick patio and the rear entrance, which gives access to a large, old-style solarium. Visually, the scene is varied, balanced, and above all inviting. The brick, the white-painted wood trim, and the many-paned windows bespeak craftsmanship. Everything is on a human scale. It is the sort of place you could easily imagine wanting to spend a late spring evening drinking gin and tonics with friends.
The Carpenter Center, by contrast, presents a four-story windowless concrete wall. Concrete stairs and an unadorned metal handrail lead down to a sunken expanse of more concrete underneath upper stories supported by concrete pillars. It seems ugly, but the fans of modernism typically wave away such judgments. More important, to their minds, is the fact that the building does not embody Ivy League leisure and privilege, qualities very much celebrated by the design of the Faculty Club. Fair enough. But the scene has all the charm of a parking garage. It is a faceless, empty place. It reminds one of the many sterile urban plazas that we all hurry through on windy wintery days. This does not surprise me. When men are forced to be free and compelled into an imagined state of equality, we invariably end up with grey ugliness¯and the vague odor of violence that empties public spaces.
I don’t mean to run down modernism toute court . Its appeal was and remains understandable. There is a kind of excitement in the nakedness of modern buildings. They are unashamed of their structural elements and basic materials. Like a color-field artist who makes color itself the focal point, Le Corbusier was happy to feature concrete. Rather than hide or soften its harsh bulk, he brought it forward as the source of aesthetic drama, which sometimes works an impressive magic.
Unfortunately, however, modernism was an unsustainable, ideologically driven project that brutalized far more than it beautified. Most of the time most people don’t look very good with their clothes off, which is why a nude beach can be so depressing. We need the decent drapery of life. The traditional decorative impulse humanizes life, because it covers our nakedness.
The modernist fantasy of life taken raw and unadorned is just that¯a fantasy. It toggles back and forth between two sides of the some self-invented, post-traditional ego: meglomania and banality. Le Corbusier was a poster-child for both. Weber’s biography shows (in painfully repetitious detail) that he was a man tediously preoccupied with himself.
R.R. Reno is an associate professor of theology at Creighton University and features editor at First Things .