Le Corbusier: A Life

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

Le Corbusier: A Life By Nicholas Fox Weber Knopf 821pp. $25.95

“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

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.

Although Le Corbusier was an avowed atheist, his rapidly developing eye (only one was fully functional) was particularly drawn to the peaceful, monastic spaces of religious orders. He reveled in their stark simplicity and the rustic, indigenous materials used in their construction.

His beliefs aligned with Arts & Crafts movement godfather John Ruskin’s doctrine that, “Architecture is the art which so disposes and adorns the edifices raised by man ... that the sight of them contributes to his mental health, power, and pleasure.”

By the time he reached Paris, he knew exactly what he wanted to do.

Le Corbusier and his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, opened their Paris architecture studio in 1922 and began to experiment with machine-age methods for home design.

Modern technology and prefabrication techniques allowed for faster, less-expensive construction, and in the five following years, they conceived and built a handful of radically innovative houses for brave but willing clients.

The reaction was mixed at best. Critics praised their innovation and bravado but panned the execution.

Many of their disappointed clients agreed, thrilled to be associated with the avant-garde but unhappy with leaky roofs and windows and being forced to read by bare light bulbs instead of lamps.

Some felt they were living in a Le Corbusier manifesto instead of a home. But the famously stubborn architect turned a deaf ear. To him, the bourgeoise would always be blind to greatness.

Over the next four decades, Le Corbusier rose to prominence as the leading light of modernist architecture.

The sheer chutzpah of this untrained, self-annointed Pied Piper of modernism is breathtaking to behold, but the heartbeat of “Le Corbusier: A Life” is in the letters.

From them, we learn exactly what he was thinking ... about art, life, death, politics, mortality, and love.

There are letters chronicling his heady proximity to power and contacts with Nehru, Mussolini, Stalin, DeGaulle, and the League of Nations.

Trysts with Jazz Age sensation Josephine Baker and several long-term mistresses are described in intimate detail ... to his mother!

These missives, quoted liberally, paint a portrait of the haughty and imperious bully who was so desperate for his mother’s approval that he felt compelled to boast of his various accomplishments (real and exaggerated) to her every week for a half century.

The insight those 50 years’ worth of letters offers into Le Corbusier’s character is revelatory, proving that, “In public he propagated his myths, but in private he knew himself well.”

Truthfully, it is difficult to like the famous man portrayed in these pages – impatiently braying at his young staff or denying them credits due, alternately berating and praising his mother, serially betraying his faithful wife of 37 years.

His enthusiastic wartime collaboration with the Vichy French, his fawning support of the brutal regimes of Stalin and Mussolini (“his only politics was opportunism”) are disturbing, to put it mildly.

Yet it is impossible not to admire the man’s unflagging energy, his astounding productivity (as a letter-writer alone), and his ability to invent a persona as the rock star of modern architecture for the 20th century.

His mother’s family motto was “What you do – do!” By any conceivable measure, even his detractors would have to admit that Le Corbusier surely did.

John Kehe is the Monitor’s design director.

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