The World According to Le Corbusier: An Animated Introduction to the Most Modern of All Architects

Among mod­ern archi­tects, was any archi­tect ever so moder­ni­ty-mind­ed as Charles-Édouard Jean­neret, bet­ter known a Le Cor­busier? Like many cul­tur­al fig­ures well-known out­side their field — Franz Kaf­ka, George Orwell, David Lynch — his name has long since been adjec­tivized, though nowa­days the term “Cor­bu­sian” is sel­dom used as a com­pli­ment. Many a self-described oppo­nent of mod­ern archi­tec­ture, what­ev­er they con­sid­er mod­ern archi­tec­ture to be, points to Le Cor­busier as the orig­i­na­tor of all the inhu­man­i­ty of build­ings designed over the past 90 years, and espe­cial­ly the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tu­ry: their drab col­ors (or lack there­of), their depress­ing aus­ter­i­ty, their for­bid­ding scale, their dark cor­ri­dors, their leaky roofs. But how much, real­ly, is he to blame?

“Le Cor­busier rec­om­mend­ed that the hous­es of the future be ascetic and clean, dis­ci­plined and fru­gal,” says The Book of Life, the com­pan­ion site to Alain de Bot­ton’s School of Life. Remem­bered as an archi­tect but both an artist and engi­neer at heart, he thought that “true, great archi­tec­ture – mean­ing, archi­tec­ture moti­vat­ed by the quest for effi­cien­cy – was more like­ly to be found in a 40,000-kilowatt elec­tric­i­ty tur­bine or a low-pres­sure ven­ti­lat­ing fan” than in the cap­i­tals of old Europe. For inspi­ra­tion he looked to mod­ern machines, espe­cial­ly those that had begun appear­ing in the sky in his youth: “he observed that the require­ments of flight of neces­si­ty rid air­planes of all super­flu­ous dec­o­ra­tion,” says de Bot­ton in the ani­mat­ed School of Life primer above, “and so unwit­ting­ly trans­formed them into suc­cess­ful pieces of archi­tec­ture.”

Hence Le Cor­busier’s infa­mous pro­nounce­ment that “a house is a machine for liv­ing in,” which first appeared in his 1923 man­i­festo Vers une archi­tec­ture (Towards an Archi­tec­ture). Le Cor­busier was a writer — and a painter, and a fur­ni­ture design­er, and an urban plan­ner — as much as he was an archi­tect. “The prob­lem is that both his detrac­tors and his acolytes want to believe that his writ­ten man­i­festos, urban­is­tic visions, utopi­an ide­olo­gies and the­o­ries are com­pat­i­ble with his build­ings,” writes Jonathan Meades, some­time archi­tec­tur­al crit­ic and full-time res­i­dent of Le Cor­busier’s Unité d’habi­ta­tion apart­ment block in Mar­seilles. But “Le Cor­busier, writer, has lit­tle in com­mon with Le Cor­busier, mak­er of the century’s most pro­found­ly sen­su­ous, most mov­ing archi­tec­ture”: one was a “self-adver­tis­ing pro­pa­gan­dist,” the oth­er “an artist-crafts­man of peer­less orig­i­nal­i­ty.”

Le Cor­busier’s head­line-mak­ing urban-renew­al pro­pos­als includ­ed, Meades writes, “the destruc­tion of the Right Bank in Paris and its replace­ment with ranks of cru­ci­form sky­scrap­ers”; he also pro­posed demol­ish­ing Man­hat­tan, as de Bot­ton says, “to make way for a fresh and more ‘Carte­sian’ attempt at urban design.” Le Cor­busier’s utopi­an dreams of colos­sal sky­scrap­ers placed in the mid­dle of vast green park­land and sur­round­ed by ele­vat­ed free­ways led, in this telling, to “the dystopi­an hous­ing estates that now ring his­toric Paris, the waste­lands from which tourists avert their eyes in con­fused hor­ror and dis­be­lief on their way into the city.” But if cities can still use Le Cor­busier’s plan­ning ideas as a neg­a­tive exam­ple, they have more to learn from the pos­i­tive exam­ple of his aes­thet­ic sen­si­bil­i­ty, which remains exhil­a­rat­ing today, even amid a kind of moder­ni­ty the man him­self could nev­er have imag­ined.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch 50+ Doc­u­men­taries on Famous Archi­tects & Build­ings: Bauhaus, Le Cor­busier, Hadid & Many More

Vis­it the Homes That Great Archi­tects Designed for Them­selves: Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Cor­busier, Wal­ter Gropius & Frank Gehry

An Espres­so Mak­er Made in Le Corbusier’s Bru­tal­ist Archi­tec­tur­al Style: Raw Con­crete on the Out­side, High-End Parts on the Inside

Every­thing You Ever Want­ed to Know About the Beau­ty of Bru­tal­ist Archi­tec­ture: An Intro­duc­tion in Six Videos

The Mod­ernist Gas Sta­tions of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe

Mod­ernist Bird­hous­es Inspired by Bauhaus, Frank Lloyd Wright and Joseph Eich­ler

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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