Le Corbusier's Unite D'Habitation (left) has spawned thousands of imitators
Many would have only the vaguest idea of who he was. He designed no buildings in Britain. But as a new exhibition celebrates the work of Le Corbusier, architect and writer Guy Booth argues that his legacy was monstrous.
Architecture re-appraised by the Magazine
I only have to hear a fellow architect say "Corb" and I curl.
Le Corbusier will do for me. This vain, mercurial megalith of Modernism wouldn't have given the average architect a glance.
Only a fool would attempt to emulate his work. Thousands have - the public calls it "Modern Architecture", a concrete desert where simple souls bend to an architect's arrogant will.
Le Corbusier's pincer-like powers lock us into the "modular" grids he so successfully imposed on our lives. Frigid, perfect, masterful - his works glimmer with the fatal splendour of a sunlit iceberg.
He died five years before I became a student at the Liverpool School of Architecture. The air was thick with his influence. In 1970 architecture and town planning still enjoyed the flux of post-war socio-economic theory.
Le Corbusier had attained the status of a god - his work was not questioned, as the work of famous architects is not questioned today. I avoided his revolutionary manifesto of 1923, Towards a New Architecture. I skipped The Modular of 1948, and Modular II - all sacred architectural creeds. Now I know about Corbusier but approach with caution.
Three examples explain him in the context of how we experience our dwellings, towns and cities today. Each example - like a Hollywood movie star - is scintillatingly photogenic.
The Villa Savoye, built in 1930, is a fatally stupendous design, the second home near Paris of the wealthy Savoye family. Limousines linked the Paris house to the villa - the motor car generated the plan.
The elegant columns, piloti, that raise the principal "deck" of the residence above an immaculate, cemetery-like oblong of lawn (over which the villa "flies" like a plane) inspired thousands of horrible post-war shopping centres, dead average downtown office blocks, and lurid multi-storey car parks. Think lacklustre concrete slimed with pigeon muck. London's Centre Point is a notable example.
Our climate cannot be blamed entirely, or the fact that the English are not good at large scale planning and hate piazzas
Functionalism demanded that these millionaires and their guests walked on floors surfaced with black quarry tiles (as for commercial kitchens) and linoleum. The villa is of reinforced concrete, finished in ever-to-be-repainted white.
Inside, you stand beautifully dressed round the walls, upstaged by your own living room where perfectly arranged furniture begs not to be used.
In Marseille, Unite d'Habitation was an experiment in communism. Opened in 1952, the leviathan block embodies in concrete the ideals of socialist family life - everything but the freedom to do as you want.
Le Corbusier is thought of by many in the world of architecture as the leading mind of the 20th Century
With its shops (half way up), its children's garden on the roof, its modular facades gaily painted in Cubist colours, and location in a park, Unite was the "last word". People hated it.
Modular planning - a grid controls everything - made the flats like railway compartments. The idea of a two-level duplex failed because the bedrooms were set on open balconies overlooking living areas.
Le Corbusier hoped that Unite would promote his 1920 vision of A City of Towers: identical, 60-storey apartment blocks set in a rigid grid within urban parkland.
Unite spawned plans for every awful working-class housing estate in Europe - the most notorious at Park Hill in Sheffield. The Barbican is a splendid attempt but still grim.
Plymouth Civic Centre is not beloved of all in the Devon city
The Legislative Assembly Building in Chandigarh in India was completed in 1964. It is an overpowering architectural juggernaut created in sculptural reinforced concrete for a brand new Indian regional capital. Nehru invited Le Corbusier to create the Chandigarh Master Plan and design its civic complex.
The architect relished the megalomaniacal freedom of concept. The Assembly Building is a breathtaking cooling tower projecting from a square "cage" studded with a variety of "Architectonic functional nodes" . Yes, architectural jargon begins with Le Corbusier.
His post-war influence exerted a fatal fascination over a young generation of British architects. They relished a period of urban renewal gilded with socialist optimism. Architecture and town planning were to create the ideal society. London's Royal Festival Hall and Plymouth city centre represent a keynote.
Le Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamp sticks in the mind
But what of London's National Westminster Tower, the Institute of Education, the Millbank Tower, the Churchill Gardens Estate, the Economist Building, St Thomas's Hospital, Hemel Hempstead New Town, Harlow New Town, Cumbernauld, and even the BBC's Television Centre? Despite the distinguished names involved, all miss the mark.
Why? Why was it all so disappointing? Why should Le Corbusier's amazing concept of a reinforced concrete, minimal component structural building frame be so difficult to translate? Why should his modular design rationale have stultified thousands of projects?
Harlow New Town rather less so
Our climate cannot be blamed entirely, or the fact that the British are not good at large scale planning and hate piazzas.
We must bring to earth a vision of one who saw architecture as cosmic, who made the impossible look easy. Students cannot resist Le Corbusier but his ideals are way too rich for them. He did not conceive form in solid terms - he manipulated an abstract concept of an ideal condition of living. Frigidity is essential to his genius.
Take two examples of Le Corbusier's creed:
• "Industry, overwhelming us like a flood which rolls on towards its destined end, has furnished us with new tools adapted to this new epoch, animated by the new spirit." (Towards a New Architecture, introduction to the section, Mass-Production Houses - 1923)
• "All this work on proportioning and measures is the outcome of a passion, disinterested and detached, an exercise, a game... a duty to be straight and loyal, dealing in honest-to-goodness merchandise." (The Modular, Chapter 3, Mathematics - 1948)
For Le Corbusier humanity was the merchandise, piled in pallets in a standardised industrial environment - clean, impersonal, good. But people are warm, loving, dilatory and bad.
Le Corbusier's creed of scrupulous Modernism was doomed to anti-climax - we cannot live up to it. Grasp this fact and we may forgive the brave attempts to emulate Le Corbusier during the three decades from 1950. Two centuries ahead of his time, Corbusier's ideals, years after his death, remain sizzlingly innovatory.
Below is a selection of your comments.
Most architects are very careful NOT to live in those dwellings they prescribe for the rest of us! How many more leaking flat roofs, sprawling concrete structures, south facing windows with no blinds, access via unreliable lifts, nowhere for children to play, nowhere for people to meet and socialise must we put up with before someone regards us as humans, not dehumanised "units" to be housed, fed and watered? When will architects stop being "artists" in concrete and driven by the admiration of their peers, not the realistic needs of people. Architecture doesn't have to be boring to produce homes that we are pleased to live in, nor cities and towns that have a human scale. Whatever they do, they should be required to live in their creations(s) for say 5 years. That way things really would get better!
Gordon Thompson, Crich, Derbyshire U.K.
Le Corbusier's idealism was never going to work when imitated in cheap concrete by bean-counters. Give me Hattenschweiler any day.
Justin Ward, London UK
A very interesting article, and absolutely right to question the reverence of Le Corbusier and, perhaps, his overwhelming sense of optimism particularly in "Towards a New Architecture". But like any work, his writings must be read in context. I don't believe it is impossible to translate Le Corbusier to another time and place, but a critical eye is necessary to retain the spirit without compromising architectural common sense.
Some of Le Corbusier's buildings -- particularly the early "Purist" white villas epitomised by Villa Savoye -- are astonishing achievements; architectural tours-de-force. Anyone remotely interested in architecture should visit them. They are masterpieces of world architecture on a par with Palladio's that transcend criticism. But others, such as Ronchamp Chapel or his earlier masterplans for Paris are exquisitely over-designed, unrestrained ego-trips by the out-of-touch leader of a cult of well-intended but deluded, wrong-headed professionals (architects having made mistakes on a similar scale to those made by economists and bankers more recently). Le Corbusier is not someone whose work can just be written off as bad -- it's complex, wide-ranging and pretty grown-up stuff and there is as much brilliant work as there is bad.
Ian Douglas, London, UK
Couldn't agree more. Thanks to several generations of unquestioning teaching of architectural principles based on le Corbusier we have, in the main, arrived at two styles of building: eyeless megalithic or Noddy Toytown. Neither serves our needs. That's why a new building that doesn't conform to this tyranny is so widely acclaimed and taken to a community's heart; people are desperate for something to love. We see the human form and physionomy in leaf patterns, in clouds, in glowing embers; it is our instinct to anthropomorphise. Le Corbusier's dehumanising work cruelly prevents this.
Susie Rogers, Somerset. UK
I am gladdened to see Le Corbusier being taken down a peg in recent years. The article concludes of Le Corbusier's creed that "we cannot live up to it". I would argue we cannot live *in* it. Le Corbusier epitomizes the break between architecture as art and theory, versus architecture as a profession of creating usable (and beautiful) buildings. Like many an architect's or landscape architect's sketches, Le Corbusier's ideas appeal on paper, they appeal in the abstract. A "City of Towers" sounds wonderful as a concept, because we picture the best of modern urbanity wedded with green open space. In practice, however, cities built in this fashion are horrid - impersonal, impossible to get around, and unattractive. One need only look at the picture of Cumbernauld town centre to wonder how anyone could think it was a good thing. Blocks of unimaginative and identical flats stretching on, an equally unimaginative urban centre built away from the people, though within walking distance - yet the only way to get there is by automobile, across a high-speed motorway!
Jeff Wutzke, Phoenix, Arizona, USA
It may be wishful thinking on the part of architects to suppose that their artistic insights drove the modular concrete revolution. In fact the resulting buildings may just have been cheap to construct and easy to design with pencil-and-ruler. Fortunately at least the second problem has been solved with better software - though no doubt that will be assigned to architects insights too!
Will Stewart, Blakesley UK
I am no architecture expert, but this is all pretty subjective stuff, and changes in fashion have a lot to do with it. A lot of Victorian architecture was demolished in the 1960s, presumably because it was argued to be 'dated', in the same way as 60s architecture is argued to be 'dated' today (strangely, Victorian architecture appears to no longer be considered in this way). Of course there are many housing estates of the 50s/60s/70s that do appear grim today (being run-down and neglected doesn't help) but there are also some great buildings from this period - personally I love the Barbican! Yes, it's "of its time" - but so are the Houses of Parliament, and I don't hear anyone arguing for their demolition quite yet.
Emma Thomas, Reading, UK
If it weren't for those architectural 'carbuncles' then every city street would be packed with 'gems' that would be protected consequently never torn down to make way for something new. God bless carbuncles for allowing our cities to regenerate and renew. God forbid everywhere was Paris - things happen there, but nothing changes. Its a museum, not a place to live.
Peter Main, London
'People hated it.' Architecture of any kind depends on context and detail. A building can be hugely impressive on paper (or on one of those rotating computerised simulations) but if it's plonked in the wrong place it will immediately make enemies and thereafter contribute to the ruin of the local built environment. A building is not an isolated entity. It should not be slavish to its surroundings - that invariably looks stupid - but it should be designed to contribute to its eventual home rather than to steamroller it. One of our many problems with city planning comes from architects' and their clients' desire to make buildings 'imposing'. This in and of itself is no bad thing, but if the 'imposing' quality of a building extends right down to street level, then the local street environment becomes intimidating and dehumanising. The City of London has suffered this (partly deliberate) phenomenon for centuries. Street-level architecture has different rules from the rest of the building: it has to make us feel comfortable and safe. There's plenty of room for exciting, visually-stimulating surroundings, but comfort and safety are the bare essentials. Detail in architecture matters. Someone has to live or work inside a building. We all understand that. It is a separate issue from the aesthetics of the exterior, and it is a potential opportunity for an architect to befriend the users of his building. But if insufficient attention is given to the function and form of the interior, perhaps as a forgotten poor relation to the epoch-making exterior, the users will immediately become sworn enemies of architecture. Similarly, if construction methods are untried, and fail, quality of life goes down the plughole. More enemies of architecture.
Simon Harvey, Colchester, UK
I think the article was a bit harsh. You can't blame Le Corbusier for bad copy-cats or Plymouth civic centre as much as you can't blame Van Gogh for the countless poster reproductions on bedsit walls, but you can admire both men for the works of art they created.
Chris, Oxford, UK
From what little I know, what much I have seen and hated I have come to the conclusion that while Le Corbusier was brilliant and highly intellectual he actually HATED people. Why else would you do this to us ?
Peter Galbavy, London, UK