Away From Old Architecture: What Corbu Really Meant
This year marks the centennial of the first edition of Vers Une Architecture, Le Corbusier’s epoch-making book. Though a new English translation appeared in 2007 to much acclaim, most other practicing architects read the first English edition that appeared in 1928, entitled Towards a New Architecture. Comparing the three editions is instructive, particularly in one crucial respect: the insertion of the word “new” in the title. The book wasn’t really about new architecture, because very little of it showed buildings in the International Style. Instead, it was in many respects a clever diatribe intended to convince Europeans that they had no choice but to renounce every kind of architecture that had been built before the Great War and begin anew. It was remarkably successful in fulfilling that aim.
When Charles Eduard Jeanneret returned to Paris in 1917, he had spent the war years in Switzerland, working as a teacher and designing a house for his parents at Chaux-le-Fonds. In the city, he met the painter Amedée Ozenfant through his former employer, Auguste Perret, and began a close relationship that produced not only paintings but polemical writings. The most important product of their collaboration was undoubtedly the journal L’Esprit Nouveau, which began publication in 1919 and ceased in 1925, the year of the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs. It was intended to be a plea for the transformation of Cubism into a universal movement in the plastic arts, but extended its reach to urbanism and architecture. Essays from the magazine appeared in Vers Une Architecture without attribution to Ozenfant, angering him and provoking a split between the two friends. It would not be the last time the ambitious young firebrand would use others in pursuit of fame.
Only in 1922 had the young Swiss painter and entrepreneur opened an architectural office with his cousin Pierre and begun to refer to himself as a heroic “dark crow” among the avant-garde. He had already published extensively and knew his way around the printers in the city. He was a talented graphic designer with a gift for apocalyptic prose in the style of an American evangelist. Hanno-Walter Kruft saw through the cult-like rhetoric when he argued that Le Corbusier “convinced himself with almost willful determination that he was destined for the role of tragic revolutionary, a martyr come to redeem the world—by architecture.” Whatever architecture was standing after the conflagration of 1914-1919 was like an old religion: worthless and out of date.
His prose was strategic in that it brought the frustrated architect (a man out of step with his bourgeois milieu) along as a fellow proletarian in a march forward, moving with the new spirit of the age, striking blows for a rational, objective, and non-emotional view of his art. Almost feverish in tone, the argument repeated itself throughout 200 well-illustrated, well-designed pages in stark black and white. Repetition, with the expansion of sentences in each iteration, was its main conceit. Far surpassing all previous manifestos, Vers Une Architecture answered a call for the complete redesign of society. And while it posed relevant questions, it hardly provided persuasive answers, as critics of the Modern Movement have proved many times over.
By insisting that the crises brought on by war and economic privation in Europe could be “ameliorated” only with his own radical building types and urban schemes, Le Corbusier leaped into the void with a parachute he saw as the only savior for his new nation (he became a French citizen during the 1920s). In the final section of his manifesto, he increased the hyperbole as he chastised every social institution for its part in creating the wasteland experienced by the working class, bourgeoisie, and aristocracy in equal measure: “Or, notre organisation sociale n’a rien de pret qui puisse y répondre” (“our society has nothing ready that can answer that”).
The family, the church, educational institutions, bankers, the real estate industry—no quarter of society escaped his wrath. Echoing Henry Provensal’s L’art de demain of 1904, Le Corbusier insisted that modern art was the ultimate expression of man’s new place in the world and would lead him out of the wilderness of naïve naturalism. (Hanno-Walter Kruft, A History of Architectural Theory from Vitruvius to the Present [London, Zwemmer: 1996]. Kruft also points to Edward Schure’s Les grandes initiés  and Erest Renan’s Life of Jesus as sources for Le Corbusier’s messianic zeal.) No longer bound by the farm, the manor house, and the eight-hour work day, modern man was free to express himself and pursue a life of enlightened leisure. Machines were the answer to his age-old problems of hard labor with little to show for it. Like Verlaine and Baudelaire, he pulled imagery from the profane to goad his readers into action. Like Saint Simon, he was selling utopia, but one that Jacques Tati’s film character, Mr. Hulot, would parody decades later.
The words he chose were those of base animals, of “la bete humaine.” Society was bound in a harness of history, a shell (coquille) of empty etiquette, an embrace of outdated moral codes. Chastising even his avant-garde revolutionaries, he asked why they did not embrace a new cadre of intellectuals who were up to date with technological advances as he was. Unlike the cool, rational Walter Gropius, whose writings on these subjects preceded his, Le Corbusier was an evangelical leader who mixed Calvinist logic with Catholic piety and passion. His illustrations and prophetic style made him the ideal exponent of a machine aesthetic. Better yet, he had an English translator who could render that style effectively: Frederick Etchells (1886-1973).
There has never been, and never will be, an “engineer’s aesthetic,” a term coined by Etchells, though many engineers refer to their work as both an art and a science. But the phrase is one of several that drove the insistent polemic of Le Corbusier’s “treatise,” and it has stuck in the minds of architects for more than a century. Like the machine metaphor, the association of inevitable, original design solutions with engineers has proved more than problematic over the decades. I have argued elsewhere that it was part of an insidious Enlightenment drive toward rational and ultimately destructive thinking against architectural design as a discipline based on the human organism and its embodiment in artifacts. In fact, there were no engineers in the modern sense before the mid-19th century, when industrial assemblies required a new kind of design intelligence.
Trained as an artisan, and able to draw brilliantly, Corbu wanted all the trappings of craft and handwork removed from design. Only then might the smooth, industrial “objets types” similar to automobiles and planes be designed by architects. Never shy of paradoxes and contradictions, he even railed against the studied compositions of Beaux-Arts painters, though he used their techniques everywhere in his work. But it was contempt for the past that burned most fiercely among all the polemics in the book. Though he himself learned lessons from Rome and the Parthenon, others could not see so clearly. He viewed every extant building as a lesson in how not to make functional, rational, modern architecture.
The French word “vers” has several meanings but can also be used as a trope on similar Latin roots. Usually it refers to being “near” something. In its other common usage, in Corbu’s book, it is a vector pointing “toward” something—in this case, the future. It can also mean “forward” or the opposite of “backward,” but only in cases like this one, as the Latin verso is used for the reverse sides of paper in printing or drawing. Taking one root, as used in the English word “verisimilitude,” it can also mean real or true. And it can be a homonym for “verse” in the French as in English.
Corbu suggests that his book presents a case for seeing architecture in several different ways and is careful to indicate that his new definitions do not constitute a complete description of the architecture that he proposes will take the place of “old” or out-of-date building technologies. Hence the falsely modest use of “toward/almost” instead of a bolder assertion that his designs represented a full “treatise” on how to design and build in the future. That is also part of the book’s allure—other architects used “toward” to float their incomplete proposals in the following decades, and still do today.
By pointing away from everything in the past, Le Corbusier focused our attention on the wrong things, things that have pushed us toward the destruction of our planet, not merely away from failed solutions or bourgeois excesses in old ways of building. As bold and attractive to war-weary Europeans as International Style modernism became in its heyday, it could not answer the complex needs of the information age. Complete rejection of every past building tradition, style, idiom, and construction system is untenable if we are to adapt our existing environment to climate change and energy shortages.
Make no mistake about it: Le Corbusier’s invective against the past was every bit as powerful and persuasive in its time as his bold architecture. Though we may well continue to admire his achievements as a designer, there is no reason to accept his ideas about society, urbanism, past cultures, and the magnificent monuments of our ancestors. Turning away from them as we did for nearly a century cost us dearly.
Featured image by Michael Sima.