It's not every day you come upon an essay with an opening sentence like this: "LeCorbusier was to architecture what Pol Pot was to social reform."
Is the author, Thomas Dalrymple, trying to be over the top? Dalrymple, a physician and a contributing editor of City Journal, does have a wicked sense of humor. But the more I pored over the essay, the more reasonable Dalrymple's point of view impressed me as being.
The essay builds a persuasive case—from LeCorbusier's own intermperate words and from the French-Swiss designer's effect on cities worldwide—that the "most important architect of the 20th century" was captivated by perverse visions: of concrete, of highways rammed through cities, of little that's recognizably human.
Here is what Dalrymple writes as follow-up to his audacious opening sentence:
In one sense, [Corbusier] had less excuse for his activities than Pol Pot: for unlike the Cambodian, he possessed great talent, even genius. Unfortunately, he turned his gifts to destructive ends, and it is no coincidence that he willingly served both Stalin and Vichy. Like Pol Pot, he wanted to start from Year Zero: before me, nothing; after me, everything. By their very presence, the raw-concrete-clad rectangular towers that obsessed him canceled out centuries of architecture. Hardly any town or city in Britain (to take just one nation) has not had its composition wrecked by architects and planners inspired by his ideas.
Dalrymple's thoughts reminded me of a story in the book The Architecture of Leon Krier. Krier, when he was about 17, growing up in his parents' home in Luxembourg, felt absolutely certain that LeCorbusier was a master deserving of the widest emulation. Consequently, the teen-aged Leon persuaded his family in 1963 to make a pilgrimage to Le Corbusier's Cité Radieuse in Marseille:
Until then, I had, via my brother, become acquainted with modernism merely through the books of Le Corbusier, Giedion, and Gropius. The formidable promise expressed there had swollen my sails.... Le Corbusier had become for me a second messiah and as a result, I imagined modernist architecture to be something superior to all the beautiful buildings I had seen and grown up with so far.
The Krier family arrived at their destination "ill-prepared for the tawdry reality of the Cité Radieuse. We were all speechless with shock," Krier says, "wondering at first whether we were at the right address." Le Corbusier's vision of mass society inhabiting a monolith of concrete turned out not to be utopia; it turned out to be hell.
First-hand experience led Krier to reconsider his opinions, and ultimately to become a chief proponent of a return to traditional city-making principles.
The tragedy is, the architectural world has, for the most part, not done the same. As Dalrymple sees it, just as "Lenin was revered long after his monstrosity should have been obvious to all," Le Corbusier "continues to be revered."
Indeed, says Dalrymple, "there is something of a revival of the adulation. Nicholas Fox Weber has just published an exhaustive and generally laudatory biography, and Phaidon has put out a huge, expensive book lovingly devoted to Le Corbusier's work. Further, a hagiographic exhibition devoted to Le Corbusier recently ran in London and Rotterdam."
Dalrymple offers some explanations for why Le Corbusier became a totalitarian of the design world. But why, decades later, should architecture schools still be favorably inclined toward a theorist who hated streets and their sociability, and who loved roads despite their barrenness? That is the unanswered question. Why is the appetite for the perverse so resilient?
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