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Le Corbusier: A Life 06.01.2009

Posted by Dan Sheehan in BnB.
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It's the cover!We could write a lot of words about France’s most famous architect of the 20th century, a much-rued modernist who’s ideas still inform public housing and structural technology today.  And we certainly will write a lot about him over Bread and Buttress’ lifespan.  For now, let’s take a moment to plug a book about Le Corbusier by writer Nicholas Fox Weber.

But first, an aside.  From the start of their education, architects are taught a history of buildings and the personalities (mostly men but thankfully that is changing) that designed them.  This history not only a pretty comprehensive overview of the theories and methods for creating architectural space but also how to depict space so others (mostly architects and hopefully builders) can understand them.  Architects absorb this history and, in turn, become that history.  What seems to be lost in this history is the humanity of the personalities that have designed the world.  We seldom hear much about their other passions, their insecurities, their loves, their families.  This is unfortunate because all architects possess a life outside their work.  It is this life that ultimately informs their architecture above and beyond whatever broader notions govern their designs.  Moreso, knowing intimate details from the likes of Wright, Boromini, Olmstead, and others only serve as an example to young architects with lives of their own.  But, we’re getting too autobiographical…back to the book.

Weber succeeds in taking the reader into the mind of Le Corbusier allowing us to see what drives the man born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret.  While opinion registers a little too strongly in Weber’s assessment of the architect, he provides a breadth of information about the architect’s life that would be exhaustive if I didn’t admire the architect so much.

The largest source of documents that are available to Weber are letters, hundreds it seems, exchanged between Le Corbusier and his mother.  Weber paints an almost Freudian picture of their relationship: a son tirelessly vying for his mother’s affections; a man that can dominate all people in his life except his family.  The writing elegantly weaves these primary documents into the narrative of Le Corbusier’s chronology, giving us a means to identify the man behind the architect.  For a project that was to be one of his masterworks, Ronchamp, a chapel in rural France, Weber analyzes Le Corbusier’s relationship with his mother and the public via one such letter.  He writes:

Yes, it's a church.“The letter was both a boast and a supplication.  At [Ronchamp’s opening] ceremonies on Saturday‘, Le Corbusier told ‘ma chere Petite Maman,’ ‘Everything was cheer, beauty, spiritual splendor.  Your Le Corbusier was honored to the highest degree.  Considered.  Loved.  Respected.’
“Then he explained how delicate the situation was.  For Ronchamp was a revolutionary work of architecture – radical in its approach to the Catholic rites and ritual: ‘By my architecture,. Worship is raised to the highest degree, purified, restored to the Gospels.’ The best priests acknowledged this cheerfully.  The opposition did not.”
(Weber 685)

He was by no means a sensitive man, but rather one who was driven towards a goal.  There were few that would be able to impede his drive.  Although, we are told, ultimately he never felt as if he succeeded to the extent he desired.

This is a book for architects, specifically those infatuated as I am with his work.  Corbusier was a master of functional spaces that were more human in feel and proportion than most of his modernist successors.  He could also use concrete, heavy and cold, and create airy light filled rooms and weightless sensual rooflines.

It is also a book for anyone struggling against their world to create in the way that they know to be right.  When forces internal and external impede the mastering of a passion, one need only look at the life Le Corbusier lived and take note of the choices he made.  Not all his choices were the best, but that’s not the lesson.  The book offers a solid model of one artist’s path for the reader to judge and, hopefully learn from.  After all, here was a man, who only felt that he was beginning his life at 67 when he wrote an acquaintance:

Round glasses = architect.“Dear friend, I’m blooming or fructifying (as you choose).  I prefer blooming.  Blooming like an apple tree in spring.  For this is just what’s happened: if you live your life severely but strongly, youth comes to you, everything blooms.  Not a maturity, a harvest, but an authentic flowering.  Of course, this doesn’t keep my hair from falling out.” (Weber 625)

Rad.  For more on Le Corbusier check the links:

Foundation Le Corbusier

Great Buildings Online – a great source for his portfolio

Architect bio via Wikipedia

His visionary Unite d’habitation project in Marseille

Weber’s Bio at Random House