The Grand Master

By the end of his life, the Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris—universally known by his nom de pinceau, Le Corbusier—had emerged from decades of frustrated plans, encircled by controversy and dismissal, to become the world’s most renowned architect. For a man who had devised three hundred projects but seen only seventy-eight of them built, the high-profile commissions that belatedly started pouring in proved a glorious bounty: the National Museum of Western Art for Tokyo; a church, apartment building, and elementary school for Firminy, France; the Olivetti tower outside Milan; a mixed-use project for thirty-five acres of undeveloped land along the Hudson in New York City, which he had to turn down. More than that, they represented a long-overdue vindication of Le Corbusier’s long-contested ideas. The work of the organization he helped found, the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), standardized the forms and basic terms of the debate within a once-conflicted modernist movement, and fearless modernist architects were now taking command in cities everywhere, with Le Corbusier as their great black-spectacled exemplar. His planning designs became models for public-housing projects that crowned skylines across the United States—those slab or cruciform towers nestled in flat green parks, like Chicago’s demolished Cabrini-Green or New York’s still extant Stuyvesant Town. By the 1960s, Le Corbusier was undeniably the most influential and important architect of the century.

The period also witnessed some of the most furious attacks on his influence, particularly from American critics like Jane Jacobs, who accused him of disastrously frivolous and shallow planning ideas. The expulsions and terrors of urban renewal, which followed Corbusian ideas, lent weight to the critiques. By the sad, bad ’70s, Le Corbusier had been put out of court, and his name (or pseudonym, rather) had become a byword for the technocratic, inhuman spirit that had driven American cities into crisis.

Nor has the loathing of Le Corbusier been confined to the hothouse controversies that assail the planning and architecture professions. In his much-discussed case against top-down social engineering, Seeing Like a State (1999), political scientist James C. Scott singled out Le Corbusier’s planning ideas as key examples of the “High Modernist” state ideology that he reviled. Figures like Le Corbusier, he argued, reduced the complexity and messiness of on-the-ground practical knowledge through their preference for clean visual lines and universal solutions.

But the anti–Le Corbusier consensus hasn’t translated into any new approach to large-scale architecture. The design world’s postmodern-modern dustups have generally been fought to a stalemate. Architecture today oscillates between a cynical neomodernism on the one hand (exemplified by Norman Foster) and a craven traditionalism (Robert A.M. Stern) on the other. Large-scale planning of public transit, and the provision of housing for the poor, is off the table, while condo developers run rampant. Advocates of an invigorated philosophy of public design have to make do with the passing excitement of a new bike lane or the odd urban green space. In this depressing climate, some critics have rediscovered the monumental ambitions of Le Corbusier and his aggressive school of concrete modernism. And there have been other signs of reevaluation. Last year’s Museum of Modern Art (New York) exhibit “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes” made a quixotic, contrarian case for Le Corbusier as a thoughtful, respectful landscape architect. The exhibit’s narrow mode of presentation meant understating things like Corbu’s cheerful plans to level the historic center of Paris and replace it with towers in a park (not so respectful of the landscape, that). Nonetheless, the effort to reclaim modernism’s grand old man was a welcome provocation amid an increasingly dreary and reflexive coordinated attack on Le Corbusier’s legacy.

Not until the epilogue of Anthony Flint’s brisk, serviceable biography, with the perfectly antiseptic title Modern Man, does it become clear that the author intended, at least in part, to join the reevaluators. Flint, who published a 2011 book about the political battle between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, has a planning background, and his case for the planning ideas of Le Corbusier stirs some of the most impassioned writing in the book. Noting that much of the planet’s population lives in cities, he points to the standardized housing experiments of Le Corbusier as models for the future. “Critically, Le Corbusier sought a repeatable urban form, orderly and efficient, on a grid that was infinitely expandable and made up of well-designed components that made living a pleasure,” he writes. “He understood that every person on the planet would be able to have his or her own house on a plot of land, and took steps to accommodate that reality.” Flint takes issue with the now fashionable hostility to top-down planning and urges planners and architects to recover the audacity of Le Corbusier. He suggests that his sweeping vision, however clumsily it may have been executed in specific settings, nonetheless showed him to be struggling with the central challenges of his time—and, moreover, that his basic intuitions about human settlement may prove equal to ours.

Le Corbusier with a model of the Villa Savoye, 1935.
Le Corbusier with a model of the Villa Savoye, 1935.

Had Flint written a critical essay in the bold manner of his epilogue—taking seriously and extending the planning ideas of his subject—it might have made a worthy addition to the growing shelf of Le Corbusier reappraisals. But he sets the bar low, sequestering his ideas and opinions in the book’s brief epilogue alongside his only extended consideration of the consequences of Le Corbusier’s output—which means he limits himself in the body of the book to the basic facts of Le Corbusier’s life. Much of Modern Man is an uninterrupted narration of the master’s flurry of activities and love affairs, plus depictions of his buildings.

In subsequent chapters, Flint pairs Le Corbusier’s first visit to America with his failed attempt to win an exclusive commission for the United Nations Secretariat Building, while also examining his infamous collaboration with the Vichy government alongside his successful attempts to build an organization (CIAM) that would propagate his ideas. Though useful for comparing basic obsessions of his career, this analytical hopscotching from one huge Le Corbusier undertaking to another ultimately hinders the presentation of the architect’s intellectual and psychological development. Flint only glancingly refers to Le Corbusier’s tremendous fixation on pleasing his mother, Marie Jeanneret (the object of his ceaseless wheedling letters right up to the end of her life, as Nicholas Fox Weber’s biography freshly revealed). Yet he partly explains the spectacular chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp as a tribute to the architect’s mother—something that the biography’s paucity of personal details leaves the reader in no position to evaluate—and not until the end of the book, with Marie on her deathbed, does Flint observe, in a short paragraph, the peculiar intensity of Le Corbusier’s relationship with her.

Indeed, throughout the book, Flint abjures any clear vantage on his subject’s psychological outlook in favor of vague asides. Here, for example, is Le Corbusier on the boat from Rio: “He had what had become a familiar feeling, of being on the brink of something. Crossing the time zones, ready to launch.” Flint also shies away from using or quoting much of Le Corbusier’s prodigious prose output, which includes some of the world’s most influential works of architectural criticism. Instead we get inscrutable paraphrases of Le Corbusier’s ideas like this: “Yet a church was the ultimate expression of architecture as he saw it: a place where, inside and out, a building could speak to its occupants and channel emotions.”

Flint also avoids the larger intellectual currents and ideas swirling around Le Corbusier. In Modern Man, he appears determined to make Le Corbusier into an antecedent of today’s tech entrepreneurs. “He was fundamentally disruptive,” he writes, using the jargon of Silicon Valley authenticity, “refused to accept the status quo, and innovated with a sense of urgency.” Elsewhere he refers to Le Corbusier’s method of debuting his projects in public with long sheets of tracing paper as a “PowerPoint presentation on the fly” and argues that, by making his “Modular” system of building proportions transparent to all, “a half century before the wisdom of the crowd, he was basically proposing that the Modular software be open source.” The Latin Quarter in Paris in the 1920s “was Florence in the time of the Renaissance, Greenwich Village in the 1960s, Silicon Valley at the start of the twenty-first century.” “If Frank Lloyd Wright was Bill Gates,” Flint muses in his conclusion, “Le Corbusier was a bit more like Steve Jobs—and his Villa Savoye was the architectural equivalent of the iPhone.”

Perhaps these are the de rigueur gestures of a biography published in the current moment (or at least of one published by Amazon’s New Harvest imprint), but they ultimately undercut the force of Flint’s case for a rehabilitated Le Corbusier. Whereas the Silicon Valley types Flint evidently admires have captured the imagination of some in a time of low public investment and political stasis, Le Corbusier thrived in an environment devoted wholeheartedly to enormous projects backed by tremendous public funding. That he shared certain megalomaniacal traits with a handful of tech CEOs is of far less moment than what distinguishes his work from theirs. Le Corbusier wasn’t concerned with refining the touch-screen mechanism of a phone but with the efficient shelter of millions. By the time of his death, there were thousands willing to realize key elements of his vision, and many managed to do it in productive, imaginative fashion. We’re far better off reclaiming the contours of this time, and the fervors that produced it, instead of merely cataloguing high modernism’s superficial affinities with our own postmodern cant about disruption and innovation.

Nikil Saval is the author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (Doubleday, 2014).