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1987 January: 'Corb87: Master of a misunderstood modernism' by Peter Buchanan

Peter Buchanan introduces the 1987 AR issue marking the centenary of Le Corbusier’s birth, first published January 1987

1987 marks the centenary of Le Corbusier’s birth. Particularly in Britain he tends now only to be reviled for the impact of his town-planning ideas and denigrated because many of his buildings were somehow flawed - sometimes in the most basic of ways. Yet he was head and shoulders the greatest architect of the twentieth century and rivalled in influence only by Mies van der Rohe - and perhaps WaIter Gropius. But while Mies’ was a reductive architecture, Le Corbusier’s was densely complex and multi-faceted. Though Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto and Louis Kahn all made magnificent buildings, Le Corbusier stands out for the extraordinary range of ideas, influences and intuitions he developed and absorbed in his career and which are packed into each of his buildings. While he lived, there was no twentieth-century art movement and few intellectual currents he had not looked at and drawn from, but always in a deep synthesis or provocative syncretism with yet other concerns.

Because of this, and both despite and because of his voluminous publications and the immediate poetry and power of his buildings, Le Corbusier is the least understood of modern architects. His post-Second World War buildings in particular largely defied adequate critical exegesis, though some penetrating if partial analyses of some of the works are now appearing, and there are no doubt a few practising architects who have understood them profoundly. Here, in Britain, as well as being blamed for the tower blocks that march through London’s East End and similar razed areas of other British cities, he is usually trivialised as the great form maker. This interpretation legitimated first a vapid International Style and then a mindless Brutalism and the resulting plodding banalities were attributed to the architects lacking the Master’s magic with form. That may also be true, but the problem was more profoundly one of lack of understanding. As I argue in analysing La Tourette, Le Corbusier’s was a many levelled architecture in which the various aspects interact in a series of internal dialogues. His genius was that very nuance of formal play, and allusion is informed by, reinforces and even comments on programmatic intent.

But it was not just that the forcefulness of Le Corbusier buildings masked their complexity and subtlety; his publications explain surprisingly little about the buildings themselves, and can even be quite misleading. With Le Corbusier it is necessary to unravel the buildings, and once these are understood then the writings often take on new and deeper meanings that could not be grasped before. Though the essential tool to study the buildings is still the Oeuvre Complète, this is a highly edited view.

Eager to present the buildings as archetypal solutions to contemporary programmes Le Corbusier tended to show them wrested from context. Yet visiting the buildings reveals that, unlike those of his followers, they are full of subtle accommodations to and dialogue with their setting. His work is full of such contradictions. Often presented as highly rational, it far transcends the rational in the pursuit of poetry. The canonic Five Points for the new architecture are mere inversions and displacements of the old Classical system. And though these Five Points theoretically replace the facade with a tight skin, he was one of the greatest masters of facades, designing them in such depth that some of their layers were to be found deep within the building.

Le Corbusier built and wrote when there were prejudices against some of what he considered essential dimensions of a complete and timeless architecture, and when an expression of interest in such things would have prejudiced the technocratic image deemed necessary to ‘secure the commissions he sought. So, although he acknowledged history as his master and though he dropped clues, he left it to others to discover that many buildings were in some degree modelled on historic example and most were rich in historic and esoteric allusion. Hence the Purist villas described by Richard Etlin now look less avant-garde, in the sense of looking forward only, than Janus-like. Yet it is more complex still, for just as the palace was dignified by the forms of the temple, so these villas allude to ancient temples, either directly, or via the intermediary of specific palaces or villas of the past.

Le Corbusier was hoping not just to reinterpret and reinvigorate tradition, but to sacramentalise daily life to make the everyday epic. Hence the raised piano nobile of the Villa Savoye not only addresses the four horizons as did Villa Rotonda, but its occupants stroll on the roof like the gods on Palladio’s cornice, and are also framed in a horizontal opening that renders this living tableau into a contemporary equivalent of the Panathenaic frieze of the Parthenon.

In retrospect Le Corbusier’s work represents less a break with history than a last ditch stand for the Humanist values of the Renaissance, telescoping selected aspects of the past and contemporary potential into a vibrant new culture centred on Man. In today’s jargon, his buildings are full of doublecodings, or better, multiple codings. Indeed the two essential hallmarks ascribed to Post-Modernism, a conscious re-use of history and double-codings, are in fact two of the essential hallmarks of Modernism. Unless of course Le Corbusier was not a Modernist-nor Picasso, Joyce, Eliot, or Stravinsky.

Most of the articles in this issue touch on the very topical subject of Le Corbusier’s use of history. Together they give some sense of the many dimensions of his work and of the different kinds of study and interpretation it is now being subjected to. Let us hope that all the attention focused through the year on Le Corbusier will lead to a better understanding of both his work and of the as yet unrealised potentials within modern architecture. In the current state of conflict and confusion in architecture, we can use Le Corbusier’s towering legacy to help once again approach architecture with humane ambition and deeper understanding, and to get some sense where we have come from and where it is possible still to go.

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