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Article » At Home with Le Corbusier

Charles Knevitt

In the 1960s and 1970s a new style arose in Great Britain called ‘Brutalism.’ This name clearly associated this style with being harsh and not humane. One of the most influential architects in the 1920s century also became linked to this style: Le Corbusier. His usage of concrete (he called it beton brut, which it is translated in “raw concrete”) was not only a style element, but also a functional concept, which he applied also to social housing design. His interpretation of architecture and urban planning became widely influential for post war housing projects and rebuilding all over Europe. On one hand, his creativity was admired and he has influenced many other architects; On the other hand, he was blamed for having failed (e.g. for the so called satellite suburbs) and for exploding costs of social housing concepts. Charles Knevitt gives an introduction to Le Corbusier.
An architect went up to heaven and rejoiced

‘Isn’t that Corb I see over there?’ he voiced,

‘No, that’s God’ he heard St Peter say,

‘He just thinks He’s Le Corbusier.’

Louis Hellman (1986)
At the Hayward Gallery in London in 1987, to mark the centenary of his birth, the government-funded Arts Council staged the first major retrospective exhibition of the architect, Le Corbusier. Such was his standing that it was sub-titled “Architect of the Century.” No one argued. The only thing he ever built in Britain, however, was a temporary exhibition stand for the Venesta Plywood Company, and that was in 1930. After a few days it was demolished. All that remains are reports in the professional magazines, an isometric drawing and a photograph.

And yet he had a greater impact on British architects and architecture than anyone else, before (Sir Christopher Wren, Sir John Soane) or since (Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid). The reason was not only his great self-belief but his self-promotion and on an industrial scale: we know that during his 60-year career he designed 75 buildings in 12 countries and took on 42 major town planning projects, but he also made time to pen no less than 34 books, 45 catalogues and pamphlets, 511 articles, edited 55 issues of journals, created 29 advertisements, and was involved in 29 films of various kinds, 20 radio programmes and 25 television programmes.

His single most important book, Vers une Architecture, first published in 1923 (English translation 1927) remains in print almost 90 years later. Over the past 20 years there have been new translations in Portuguese, Hungarian, Finnish, Greek, Turkish, Norwegian, Czech, Korean, Hebrew and Dutch.

He is equally lauded by architects—and despised by the public—for inventing mass housing, and especially tower blocks. The generation that studied architecture between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and about 1965 could not get enough of his grand ideas and then built them in the reconstruction of so many towns and cities flattened by aerial bombardment. Successive governments, of both Right and Left, promised more and more homes: in 1953 the target was 300,000; by 1964 it was 500,000. The only way to do this, of course, was through prefabrication. By the mid-1960s there were 224 different building systems on the market, 138 specifically for housing. The greater the height of the tower blocks the greater the government subsidy. Building labourers were paid for their productivity, not their skill or the technical performance of the final product.

So by 1980 one in four British households lived in high-rise estates.

Utopias soon turned into dystopias, however, due to faulty construction methods. Between 1970 and 1985 no less than 10,000 towers were demolished. The cost of repairs to those still standing was estimated three years ago at £20-billion (Euros 23.6- billion). The famous proverb that “an Englishman’s home is his castle” may still be true, yet does not apply to the millions now living in a high-rise hell.

But, says British architect and anti-tower block campaigner, Sam Webb, “to blame Corb for tower blocks is like blaming Mozart for muzak.”

What of Corb’s own domestic circumstances? When he married Yvonne Gallis, a fashion model from Monaco, in 1930, he was forbidden from talking about architecture at the dinner table. He despised children and had none, by her at least. (There lives in London a well-respected architect who claims to be his grandson; a simple DNA test would prove it, one way or another). He wrote to his mother about the fact that they had bought a sofa together, so they could sit by the fire and drink coffee. “Everything,” he wrote, “took on a cosy air,” Cosy? Monsieur Le Corbusier, “Cosy!”

Is this the same man who declared, “A house is a machine for living in?”

The fact is that he subscribed to Picasso’s dictum, that “bad artists copy, good artists steal.” It was actually Frank Lloyd Wright who coined the metaphor in a lecture at Princeton University in 1930. Corb used it and it became his own, just as he readily adopted many ideas from Loos, Sullivan, the Italian Futurists, Ebenezer Howard, Tony Garnier, Behrens, Perret, Henard and Berlage. Only Berlage complained about this plagiarism, and received a polite response.

Jan Kenneth Berksted, an academic and author of Le Corbusier and the Occult (2009), goes further, claiming that this cultural cannibal, who would boast of his “immaculate conceptions,” actually copied many of his revolutionary designs from the Paris-born Francois-Joseph Belanger (1744–1818). Le Corbusier, the “crow-like one,” was indeed a magpie. (I gave a paper on this very subject at the Sunday Times Literary Festival in Oxford in 2008.)

In turn, perhaps Corb was also a precursor in art: the final illustration in Vers une Architecture is a pipe. Five years later Magritte gave us his “This is not a pipe.” What was it, then, if not a pipe? Why, a painting of a pipe, of course. The architect, town planner, poet, sculptor, furniture designer, writer and publisher considered himself, first and foremost, a painter; while in his passport his stated profession was “man of letters.”

His assumed name, those glasses, that bowtie—all these contributed to his accolade as the “Architect of the Century”, almost as much as his form making, showmanship and powers of communication. He became nothing less than the first global architectural ‘brand’—a brand as powerful today as it ever was.

Charles Knevitt

Charles Knevitt is director of the RIBA Trust, which manages the cultural assets and delivers the public outreach programme of the Royal Institute of British Architects. As part of the RIBA Trust’s public outreach programme, he was UK director of the Le Corbusier–The Art of Architecture exhibition and season in Venice, Liverpool and London (2008–09). Before joining the RIBA in 2004, he was an award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster, including Architecture Correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph and the Times. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, including Community Architecture (Penguin, 1987, with Nick Wates) and Shelter (Polymath, 1994; US edition by Pomegranate, 1996).

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