The battle for Le Corbusier: Fascism row taints legacy of France’s foremost architect
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A row over Le Corbusier's fascist links and alleged anti-Semitism has cast a pall over the legacy of one of the world's best-known architects and hijacked the launch of the Centre Pompidou's bold new retrospective of his work.
One hour into Tuesday's press visit, the elephant in the room was as conspicuous as the architect’s concrete blocks, and sure enough it came stomping out at the first question: “A comprehensive retrospective of Le Corbusier’s work, and no mention of the F-word?”
Olivier Cinqualbre and Frédéric Migayrou, the joint curators, had been expecting this. Le Corbusier is no stranger to controversy. The man born in 1887 as Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris is known around the world as a pioneer of modern architecture and urban planning. But he is also reviled and revered in equal measure. Since the release of two new books on his fascist links earlier this month, the French press has been rife with talk of his tainted legacy.
The controversy has overshadowed events marking the 50th anniversary of the Swiss-born Frenchman’s death, including the Centre Pompidou’s new exhibition, titled “Le Corbusier, the measures of Man”, which strives to highlight the architect’s humanism. The curators made no secret of their frustration, trashing the recent “tabloid publications”. Their five-point rebuttal appeared to echo Le Corbusier’s famed “Five Points of Architecture”, which spearheaded modernist design.
The “tabloids” they were referring to include “Le Corbusier, un fascisme français” (Le Corbusier, a French fascism), by French journalist Xavier de Jarcy, and François Chaslin’s “Un Corbusier” (A Corbusier), both released earlier this month. The books show Le Corbusier moved in fascist circles in Paris in the 1920s and developed close ties with Pierre Winter, a doctor who headed France's Revolutionary Fascist Party. The pair worked together to create the urban planning journal "Plans". When that publication ended, they started another called "Prelude".
Jarcy has described Le Corbusier as “an out-and-out fascist”. He says Le Corbusier’s writings in "Plans" and his private correspondence show he supported Nazi anti-Semitism. In August 1940, after the French debacle at the hands of Germany, the architect wrote to his mother that Jews and freemasons would "feel just law". Later that year, he said: "Hitler can crown his life with a great work: the planned lay-out of Europe."
Meanwhile, Chaslin says his research uncovered "anti-Semitic sketches" attributed to Le Corbusier, and showed that the French architect had spent a large part of World War II with the French puppet government in Vichy, where he was given an office at the Carlton Hotel. Before that, the architect "was active during 20 years in groups with a very clear ideology", Chaslin said, but that "has been kept hidden".
Within days, a third book fiercely critical of Le Corbusier’s work hit French bookshelves. Titled “Le Corbusier, une froide vision du monde” (A cold vision of the world), Marc Perelman’s essay slams the architect’s “totalitarian” vision and lays the blame squarely on his teachings for wrecking historic city centres and creating segregated suburban communities.
Admirers of the architect have expressed shock at the revelations, while some of his staunchest critics could scarcely conceal their glee. The Centre Pompidou has responded by announcing a major conference next year to shed light on “a period in the history of architecture and urbanism that has never been thoroughly analysed”. But the subject of Le Corbusier’s disreputable acquaintances is hardly uncharted territory.
“Le Corbusier’s links to syndicalist groups with fascistic orientations has long been a subject of discussion in the field of architectural history,” says Duke University’s Professor Mark Antliff, the author of “Avant-Garde Fascism: The Mobilization of Myth, Art and Culture in France” (2007). “But much of this literature has been Anglo-American, which may explain why it didn’t reach the general public in France.”
Antliff has written about Le Corbusier’s endorsement of various reactionary groups in the 1920s and 1930s, ranging from Georges Valois’ Faisceau movement – France’s first overtly fascist party – to Hubert Lagardelle’s regional syndicalism. He points to a number of common denominators that undergird both fascistic politics and the architect’s vision.
Both admired Fordist and Taylorist models of production, were contemptuous of parliamentary democracy and looked to authoritarian leadership to realize their transformation of society. “And both shared the belief that an alliance of technocrats and producers was necessary to bring about the nation’s socio-economic regeneration, reproducing the ‘esprit de corps’ celebrated in the trenches of World War I,” he said.
Antliff says Le Corbusier echoed the likes of Pierre Winter and Italy’s Benito Mussolini in his frequent use of surgical metaphors. “Thus the architect and these fascists cast themselves as doctors whose radical urban and social transformations were designed to cure an ailing body politic,” he said, adding that Le Corbusier’s talk of “social hygiene” and derogatory references to nomadic peoples such as Roma found a ready audience in fascist circles.
Far-right extremists were not the only ones with a plan to transform society. Le Corbusier also sought employment in Soviet Russia, but his offer was turned down. “He was caught in a world very different from our own,” says Antliff. “This is a very confusing moment in history, with competing third-way systems proposing to replace parliamentary democracy.”
The body central
Ironically, the much-reviled democracies gave Le Corbusier his biggest commissions in the postwar year, including the “Cité Radieuse”, Marseille’s celebrated housing project, and the master-plan for the city of Chandigarh in India. Meanwhile, the architect successfully rewrote his narrative, erasing the shadowy parts. The Centre Pompidou’s exhibition has been accused of doing as much by omitting references to his politics. Organisers deny the claim, saying Le Corbusier’s links with Vichy France were handled in a previous exhibit – 27 years ago.
“The measures of Man” brings together some 300 paintings, sculptures, writings and furniture items, aiming to present the breadth of Le Corbusier’s work and thinking. It is undoubtedly a bold take on his oeuvre – and a vigorous defence of a man often blamed with inspiring the grim and alienating architecture of France’s blighted suburbs. “Le Corbusier designed terraces, vast windows and parks beneath buildings; you can’t blame him for what town planners later did,” protested Migayrou, one of the two curators.
The exhibit endeavours to put the human back into Le Corbusier’s work, starting with his “Modulor”, a system of measurement-based on the height of the average man: 183 cm, or 226 cm with the arm raised. Yet it glosses over the well-documented fact that his structures, including his exquisite villas, turned out to be astonishingly ill-suited to human needs. The emphasis on the geometrical, sensorial and spiritual analysis of the human body as the key to understanding Le Corbusier’s work is intriguing, but it is unlikely to make much sense to any but the keenest expert of psychophysics and scientific aesthetics.
Nor can it replace politics and socio-economic context in explaining why his architecture and urban planning are designed to speed up life and make it more productive, why he was obsessed with order and the need to “cleanse and purge” cities built haphazardly over time, and why his 1925 town plan called for much of central Paris north of the Seine to be razed and replaced by high-rise blocks and motorways. Incidentally, that is precisely the part of town visitors behold upon leaving the exhibition on the Centre Pompidou's top floor. It is arguably the French capital’s finest viewpoint, and a reminder that many of Le Corbusier's more eccentric plans were mercifully rejected.
“Le Corbusier, Measures of Man” runs through August 3, 2015.
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