Category Archives: Le Corbusier

Dalrymple schools a brute and a barbarian

Debate on the propaganda campaign to persuade people that the brutalist strain was a glorious episode in architectural history

Detail of Balfron Tower (Ernő Goldfinger, 1965-67)

DALRYMPLE: It has the ring of guilty people who protest their innocence too much, who know that they have been complicit in many crimes but hope that by noisy protestation they can drown out their conscience and befuddle the judgment of others. The architects who practised brutalism were brutes. No invading barbarians could have done more damage to towns and cities. Of course, there is no accounting for taste. As James Curl pointed out in debate with an apologist for brutalism, if you do not apprehend the horrors of brutalism at once, there is little that anyone can say. It is like trying to persuade someone that genocide is wrong who does not apprehend it at once. The great mass of the population rightly detests brutalism.

BRUTE: The newly-gained attractivity is growing by the day. In troubled times where societal divides are stronger than ever around the globe and in a world where instantaneous rhymes with tenuous, brutalism offers a grounded style. It’s a simple, massive and timeless base upon which one can feel safe, it’s reassuring.

DALRYMPLE: The idea that brute concrete could create any kind of security other than unease or fear is laughable. When defenders of brutalism illustrate their articles with supposed masterpieces, it is hardly a coincidence that they do so with pictures of buildings devoid of human beings. A human being would be as out of place in such a picture, and a fortiori in such a building, as he would be in a textbook of Euclidean geometry, and would be as welcome as a termite in a wooden floor. For such apologists for brutalism, architecture is a matter of the application of an abstract principle alone, and they see the results through the lenses of their abstraction, which they cherish as others cherish their pet.

BARBARIAN: Unrefined concrete was an honest expression of intentions, while plain forms and exposed structures were similarly sincere.

Le Corbusier: evil

DALRYMPLE: This is like saying that the Gulag was an honest expression of Stalin’s intentions. Sincerity of intentions is not a virtue irrespective of what those intentions are, and those of the inspirer and founder of brutalism were evil, as the slightest acquaintance with his writings will convince anyone of minimal decency.

BARBARIAN: Beyond their architectural function, brutalist buildings serve other uses. Skateboarders, graffiti artists and parkour practitioners have all used Brutalism’s concrete surfaces in innovative ways.

DALRYMPLE: To regard the urban fabric as properly an extended playground is to infantilise the population. Extension of graffiti artists’ canvas to large public buildings is a surrender to vandalism. No one would say of a wall, ‘And in addition it would make an excellent place for a firing squad.’

BARBARIAN: Brutalism evokes an era of optimism and belief in the permanence of public institutions—government as well as public housing, educational and health facilities. While demolishing Brutalist buildings often proves politically popular, they are typically replaced by private development.

DALRYMPLE: Many brutalist buildings, especially those devoted to public housing, have been demolished within a few decades at most because they have been so hated, not to mention dysfunctional and impossible to maintain. They evoke not permanence but the wish that they be pulled down as soon as they are erected. If many survive, it is because they are too expensive to pull down and reconstruct. Private development as architecture can be good or bad, but whether it is one or the other does not depend upon its being private. Much private development is as hideous as anything the government has managed, but that is because architects are terrible and patrons have no taste.

An incompetent architect and an outright fascist

Just see how far you get up the academic ladder in a French school of architecture, writes Dalrymple, if you state what is perfectly obvious, that Le Corbusier

  • was not a genius except in self-advertisement
  • held repugnant fascist views
  • regarded humans in his cities much as we regard bedbugs
  • suggested during the Occupation that millions of people be deported from Paris because he thought they had no business being there
  • drew up designs that were incompetent
  • produced constructions that were instinct with and the embodiment of his odious ideas

Grotesque architectural incompetence: High Court of Punjab and Haryana, Chandigarh. Le Corbusier 1952-55

Bring out your spraycans!

Dalrymple writes that the epidemiology of graffiti

suggests that, at least subliminally, men still take notice of their surroundings and are affected by them.

Defacement is

overwhelmingly of hideous Corbusian surfaces, that is to say on what Le Corbusier called ‘my friendly concrete’.

Villa Savoye. Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, 1928-31. Reinforced concrete.

Æsthetic barbarians

Cité radieuse de Rezé

Dalrymple writes that the modernists were adept at claiming that their architecture was both

  1. a logical development to and æsthetic successor of classical Greek architecture; and
  2. utterly new and unprecedented

The latter, he points out, was nearer the mark. They created buildings that,

not only in theory but in practice, were incompatible with all that had gone before, and intentionally so. Any one of their buildings could, and often did, lay waste a townscape, with devastating consequences. What had previously been a source of pride for inhabitants became a source of impotent despair.

Le Corbusier’s books

are littered with references to the Parthenon and other great monuments of architectural genius: but how anybody can see anything in common between the Parthenon and the Unité d’habitation (an appellation that surely by itself ought to tell us everything we need to know about Corbusier), other than that both are the product of human labour, defeats me.

Cité radieuse de Marseille

Corbusians versus the cockroaches

Dalrymple writes that Le Corbusier’s

casual but vicious totalitarianism, his inhumanity, his rage against humans, is evident. He felt the affection and concern for humans that most people feel for cockroaches.

Like Hitler, Le Corbusier

wanted to be an artist, and, as with Hitler, the world would have been a better place if he had achieved his ambition — one could have avoided his productions. The buildings that he and myriad acolytes have built scour the retina of the viewer.

The Corbusians are original in nothing but the new outrages they commit

A single Corbusian building

can devastate a landscape or destroy an ancient townscape, with a finality quite without appeal.

As for Le Corbusier’s city planning,

it was of a childish inhumanity and rank amateurism that would have been mildly amusing had it remained theoretical.

Dalrymple’s æsthetic detestation of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret

Le Corbusier, Dalrymple points out, was

  • personally unpleasant
  • a plagiarist
  • a liar
  • a cheat
  • a thief

His ideas were

gimcrack at best, and often far worse than merely bad.

A criminally bad architect

To commission a building from Le Corbusier

was to tie a ball and chain around one’s ankle, committing to Sisyphean bills for maintenance, as well as to a dishonest estimate of what the building would cost to build. He was technically ignorant and incompetent, laughably so. His roofs leaked, his materials deteriorated. He never grasped elementary principles of engineering.

A house by Le Corbusier

was not so much a machine for living in (one of his fatuous dicta) as a machine for generating costs and for moving out of. In the name of functionality, Le Corbusier built what did not work; in the name of mass production, everything he used had to be individually fashioned.

Having no human qualities himself,

and lacking all imagination, he did not even understand that shade in a hot climate was desirable, indeed essential.

Foulest of the fascist architects

Le Corbusier’s writing is

exhortatory and often ungrammatical, full of non-sequiturs and dubious assertions. He raves rather than argues; everything is written in an imperious take-it-or-leave-it mode.

Le Corbusier’s pronouncements, and the belief in them,

led to the construction of a thousand urban hells, worse in some ways than traditional slums because they were designed to eliminate spontaneous human contact. He hated the street, because it was messy, unofficial and unofficiated. He hated it as an obsessively houseproud woman hates dust.

Despite his horrible failings, Le Corbusier exerts

an unaccountable hold over architects and intellectuals. In France (but not only in France), to criticise him is to put oneself beyond the pale, and careers have been obstructed if not ruined by doing so. He seems to have a grip over minds, and those who are attracted to him are attracted also to totalitarian methods of keeping control over opinion. While hundreds of fawning books have been published about him, only a relative handful have taken a critical stance, and even those that provide ample evidence of his manifold defects and crimes refrain from drawing the obvious conclusion.

The sties-pigs dialectic

 

National Museum of Western Art. Ueno Park manages to retain much of its considerable charm despite Le Corbusier’s 1959 abomination. Do sties make pigs, or do pigs make sties? It is, writes Dalrymple, ‘a profound question, perhaps the profoundest that can be asked. After all, you can lead a mugger to a victim, but you can’t make him rob’.

 

Les Jardins de l’Empereur

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 07.47.05Life in Ajaccio

In France and England, Dalrymple points out,

the most dismal social housing is always given a grandiose or an arcadian name.

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 07.52.36In Corsica, he writes,

unemployment, dependence, and Le Corbusier-style ghettoes are now common, if not the rule.

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Postcards from Poissy

Banksys of the world! This 'villa' is an ideal canvas. Please visit and tell your friends!

Banksys of the world! This ‘villa’ is an ideal canvas. Please visit and tell all your nice friends

A broken-down ‘machine for living in’

Dalrymple travels to the commuter town outside Paris to view the fascist architect Le Corbusier’s villa Savoye (1928-31). The absurd edifice, Dalrymple points out, is

the acme of incompetence.

Such a blot is, needless to say,

uninhabitable.

It was abandoned by its owners, who found they could not stand, among many other things, the leaks from the roof that were a direct result of the gimcrack design. The structure resembles, Dalrymple says,

a laboratory

or a lavatory.

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Calling all graffiti practitioners: whatever you do to this ‘villa’ will improve it. You are always welcome here

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Get that spray-can out!

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Micturate at your leisure. Thank you

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Yes, you may defecate here

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Fly-tippers will not be prosecuted

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Drug dealer? Operate here, please

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Prostitute? You are welcome to inject heroin into yourself and/or service your clients here. It will improve the ambiance

 

Tourette syndrome

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 08.17.24Dalrymple visits Éveux, outside Lyons. He views the Sainte-Marie de La Tourette priory (Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis, 1953-60). It is, he says, very simply

hideous.

It is a building that

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 08.18.29might just as well serve as the torture facility of an all-powerful secret police.

For totalitarian architects like Le Corbusier, writes Dalrymple, Man is nothing more than

a machine for inhabiting a unité d’habitation. Everything is to be standardised, from space itself to teacups, with no individuality allowed or possible.

For Le Corbusier, who was no architect but who like all successful fascists grew to master propaganda and self-promotion, life was

a technical problem to be solved by a single correct solution. Concrete, right-angles, highways, steel, glass.

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 08.21.16Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 08.27.23Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 08.28.15

 

Postcards from Chandigarh

‘The finish is crude and rough, the raw concrete horribly stained and deteriorated.’ It was so ‘even before completion’

Corbusian Mecca

Dalrymple exclaims to the pilgrim couple next to him:

What incompetence!

The woman

opened her eyes wide, as if I had denied the prophethood of Mohammed. ‘What do you mean?’ she asked. Of the aesthetics of this hideous place I did not speak. ‘The temperature is forty-five degrees,’ I said. ‘There is no shade.’

Dalrymple claims

no particular merit in having seen at once that in a very hot climate it is best not to have large open expanses without shade, expanses paved in a material perfectly adapted to reflect and radiate heat.

That Le Corbusier did not see it

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 08.15.19is not in the least surprising in the light of his character and life’s work: his blindness was of a piece with the inhumanity that he displayed for decades and that made fascism—indeed, any totalitarianism—so deeply attractive to him. And it is his inhumanity that makes him so much a hero still in French architectural schools, liberating the architect from the need to consider anything but brute technical feasibility.

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