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Le Corbusier: A Life

The guru of modernism is now revealed through a rich trove of letters.

By John Kehe / December 16, 2008

“Space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place
to sleep.” – Le Corbusier

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Who was Le Corbusier? Was he the father of modernist architecture – or the apostle of cold, concrete brutalism? Was he a prolific artist, visionary, and polemicist – or an autodidactic blowhard?

Did he spawn new generations of enlightened architects – or scores of clueless copycats responsible for dull, fortress-like apartment and office complexes scattered across the globe?

“Until now,” writes Nicholas Fox Weber, author of Le Corbusier: A Life, “there has been no substantial biography of Le Corbusier.”

The architect responsible for much of the look of today’s urban landscape, the revered and reviled guru of modernism, has mainly been defined by his work.

But here, Weber uses a treasure trove of the architect’s letters to paint a detailed and often disturbingly inhuman portrait of the man known as “Corbu.”

At 800 pages, it is a detailed, illuminating read. But those mostly interested in the architect’s art will need to look elsewhere.

What Weber delivers is Le Corbusier the man – gifted, vain, combative, innovative, paranoid, and hopelessly entangled in his mother’s apron strings.

For starters, Le Corbusier was not his real name. (He adopted a version of a relative’s name as a nom de plume when he started an architecture magazine in 1920).

Born in 1887 to a Swiss watch engraver and his music teacher wife, Charles Edouard Jeanneret began life as the younger of two sons in the Swiss hamlet of La Chaux de Fonds.

His older brother Albert demonstrated a precocious gift for music and quickly became the favored child, a traumatic slight that drove young Charles out of the house at 19 and fueled his ambition for the rest of his life.

Even in his 60s, at the height of his world renown, he could not leapfrog his brother in his mother’s affections nor win her admiration.

Charles’s career path came into focus when he enrolled in a local art school and discovered a passion for nature study and drawing.

He gained an influential mentor when his professor took notice and introduced him to contemporary architecture and interior design. At 17, the talented student was commissioned to design his first building, a house on the outskirts of his hometown.

Weber quotes the young artist-in-the-making: “My master had said ‘Only nature inspires, nature alone is true and capable of supporting human endeavor.’ ” That insight charted the course of Le Corbusier’s architecture for the rest of his life.

Though his favored building materials of gray reinforced concrete, tubular metal, and glass hardly seem nature-based, it was their stripped-bare simplicity and complete lack of ornamentation that enabled “visual lightness, playful rhythms, and proximity to nature. Greenery and the sky would be brought into settings full of whiteness, light, and visual calm.”

Soon Le Corbusier would flee the stifling atmosphere of his provincial home and begin his true education: an improvised, meandering tour of both the famous and the obscure architecture of Europe.

Florence, Pisa, and Venice became his classrooms; Michelangelo, Giotto, and Raphael his teachers.


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