[Marxism] Le Corbusier’s Architecture and His Politics Are Revisited

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jul 14 16:33:59 MDT 2015

NY Times, July 13 2015
Le Corbusier’s Architecture and His Politics Are Revisited

PARIS — Was the paradigm-changing architect known as Le Corbusier a 
fascist-leaning ideologue whose plans for garden cities were inspired by 
totalitarian ideals, or a humanist who wanted to improve people’s living 
conditions — a political naïf who, like many architects, was eager to 
work with almost any regime that would let him build?

These questions, long debated by experts, are at the heart of fresh 
controversy in France set off by three new books that re-examine that 
master Modernist’s politics and an exhibition on Le Corbusier at the 
Pompidou Center here through Aug. 3, commemorating the 50th anniversary 
of his death. In light of the books, the exhibition has been criticized 
for glossing over, in particular, Le Corbusier’s well-documented 
involvement with far-right elements in France from the 1920s to the 1940s.

The polemics in the French news media have grown so pointed since the 
show opened in April that the Pompidou announced that it would hold a 
symposium next year on Le Corbusier’s politics. Antoine Picon, chairman 
of the Le Corbusier Foundation, which manages his archive and helps 
preserve his buildings, said he worried that the debate might affect an 
application submitted this year for various examples of the architect’s 
work in seven countries, including France and Chandigarh, India, to be 
classified as Unesco World Heritage sites. The attacks also come amid 
the rise of the far-right National Front in France and within a broader 
debate on that country’s World War II-era past and the legacy of Modernism.

“We were very, very surprised by the violence of the criticism,” said 
Frédéric Migayrou, one of the curators of “Le Corbusier, Measurement of 
Man,” at the Pompidou. He said the architect’s politics were well known 
and the museum never intended them to be the focus of the fairly modest 
exhibition. It draws on Le Corbusier’s post-Cubist sculpture and 
painting to demonstrate how he used the human form as an organizing 
principle in his architecture, from furniture to city planning, a link 
not generally associated with the clean lines of rationalist architecture.

But from what angle did the architect approach the individual? The 
authors of “Le Corbusier, a French Fascism,” by the journalist Xavier de 
Jarcy; “Le Corbusier, a Cold Vision of the World,” by the journalist 
Marc Perelman; and “A Corbusier,” by the architect and critic François 
Chaslin essentially argue that Le Corbusier’s aesthetics cannot be 
separated from his politics, which leaned more to the right than the 
left, despite work he did in Moscow.

“There’s still a myth surrounding Le Corbusier, that he’s the greatest 
architect of the 20th century, a generous man, a poet,” Mr. de Jarcy 
said. That vision, he added, is “a great collective lie.”

Some of the recent criticism has centered on a section of the Pompidou 
show about the Modulor, a human silhouette that Le Corbusier developed 
in 1943, the height of the war, as the basis for a system of proportion 
that he used in his later work. The show’s organizers and many scholars 
see the Modulor as a humanist expression that helped form the basis of 
human-scale architecture.

“For me it’s exactly the opposite,” Mr. Perelman said. “It’s the 
mathematicization of the body, the standardization of the body, the 
rationalization of the body.”

Born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret to a petit-bourgeois Protestant family in 
Switzerland in 1887, Le Corbusier was highly complex. He built some of 
his largest projects in Soviet Russia in the 1930s, admired Mussolini, 
and in 1940 and 1941 spent 18 months in Vichy, France, trying, and 
failing, to curry favor with the Fascist regime of Marshal Pétain, which 
ultimately found his ideas too avant-garde.

In 1940, just days before a Vichy ruling banning Jews from elective 
office and other professions, Le Corbusier wrote to his mother: “The 
Jews are going through a very bad time. I am sometimes contrite about 
it. But it does seem as if their blind thirst for money had corrupted 
the country.”

But, scholars note, he also built for Jewish families in Switzerland, 
never publicly denounced Jews and never joined a fascist organization. 
“It’s an error in my view to insist on his anti-Semitism,” Mr. Chaslin 
said. But what he and his fellow authors find more troubling is the 
architect’s involvement in the 1920s with the right-wing elements, some 
of whom saw his well-ordered Radiant City plan for Marseille, France — 
based on the shape of the human body — as a perfect expression of the 
Fascist program.

During the Second World War he was friendly with Alexis Carrel, a Nobel 
Prize-winning surgeon asked by the Vichy government to explore means of 
“national renewal.” Le Corbusier had read and enthusiastically 
underlined Carrel’s 1935 best seller, “Man, the Unknown,” which argues 
that parts of the French population should be gassed to preserve the 
most “virile” elements.

In their books, Mr. de Jarcy and Mr. Perelman argue that Le Corbusier’s 
architecture was inspired by Carrel’s unsavory ideas about how to clear 
out the old to make way for the new. Later, the architect proposed his 
Plan Voisin for Paris in the 1920s, in which he wanted to replace the 
urban blight of the Marais quarter with 18 glass towers on a rectangular 
grid with green space. Le Corbusier “projects his urbanism as a way to 
put forward his ideology,” Mr. de Jarcy said, “where the individual is 
destroyed by the group.”

But other scholars say that the new books — which brought material 
previously known to experts to the attention of the broader public — 
have taken the most damning elements of a complex life out of context.

“Le Corbusier reflects all the problems of the 20th-century temptation 
for radical reform,” said Jean-Louis Cohen, an architectural historian 
at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University who was a curator 
for an exhibition on Le Corbusier at the Museum of Modern Art in 2013 
and one at the Pompidou in 1987 that addressed his politics. It’s clear 
that the architect “is no democrat,” Mr. Cohen said. “He is someone who 
thought that reform, social change, could only be made by an authority.” 
But, he added, “That’s why Le Corbusier is interesting, because of his 
own passions and the way he crosses the passions of the century.”

Nicholas Fox Weber, who wrote about Le Corbusier’s involvement with 
far-right elements in his exhaustive 2008 biography, “Le Corbusier: A 
Life,” said the architect often told people what they wanted to hear, 
whether it was governments or his own mother.

“Le Corbusier was a combination of blind and naïve about all politics,” 
Mr. Fox Weber said. The architect “was more than happy to have his 
ideals associated with the Fascist movement,” but at the same time “he 
was so excited with what Lenin was doing in Moscow,” Mr. Fox Weber said, 
adding: “He didn’t see the contradictions. He’s like an idiot savant.”

Others note that many architects work with unpleasant regimes in order 
to build.

Mr. Picon, chairman of the Le Corbusier Foundation, sees the polemics as 
more revealing about France, where a rudderless left is divided on 
everything except anti-fascism and there is a tendency to reduce shades 
of gray to black and white. “It’s like the war in Algeria,” Mr. Picon 
said. “The French need to come to terms with the ambiguities of their 
history.” He said the common French dichotomy of “hero or rogue” was 
simplistic. “Actually,” he added, “a lot of people were in between.”

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