Man on a Bicycle

Gillian Darley

  • Le Corbusier: A Life by Nicholas Fox Weber
    Knopf, 823 pp, $45.00, November 2008, ISBN 978 0 375 41043 7

At the age of 70, we learn from the intimate and largely unpublished letters that are the raw material of Nicholas Fox Weber’s biography, Le Corbusier was still justifying his work, his name and his fame to his mother, by then in her late nineties. As always, he was trying to gain her favour over his (only just) older brother, the gentle but troubled Albert, a musician. The letters add poignancy to Le Corbusier’s brittle image. Despite innumerable previous monographs touching on the architect’s life in Paris, in America, with his women or as a painter, as well as on all his major buildings and projects, this excessively long biography offers both ugly revelations and moving insights.

Born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, the son of Swiss parents, a father who enamelled watchcases and a piano teacher mother, Le Corbusier was a man of apparently absolute precision in everything he did, from his obsessive timekeeping to the organisation of his own death. That strange episode opens the book. Le Corbusier simply swam himself to death, believing that if he went on for long enough his failing heart would give out, allowing him to drown in the place and at the time of his choosing. It did. The business of dying (too early? too late?) was a constant preoccupation. His mother lived to 99 (Le Corbusier claimed it was 100 but he had a weakness for round numbers), perhaps energised by a barrage of letters from him – fond sentiments interspersed with stern injunctions. On the other hand, his wife’s will to live seemed to ebb away before his eyes; arguably, as the result of his treatment of her.

La Chaux-de-Fonds, where Le Corbusier was born in 1887, lies a thousand feet up in the Jura, only a few miles from France. The largely 19th-century town was built on a strict grid, and housed a Calvinist population steeped in the puritanism that he both loathed and made his own. Edouard (his name in the family) referred to it as a ‘leprous place’ and revelled in his disdain for the entire country: a ‘parcel of land deplorably populated by the bourgeoisie’. He later took French nationality, but exonerated his parents from blame for their Swissness by continually harping on the family’s Albigensian forebears.

When Le Corbusier arrived in Paris in 1908, he found work with the Perret brothers, the high priests of reinforced concrete. He reported, admiringly, that Auguste Perret had ‘a nabob’s tastes’ but also considered himself a revolutionary. After months at the drafting table, as tired of honest materials as of the continual experimentation involved, he moved to Berlin to work in the office of Peter Behrens, ‘a colossus of daunting stature’. He had no contact with Behrens himself, but did learn about ‘rhythm and subtle relations and many other things previously unknown to me’. That admission must have cost him dear: he was strikingly ungrateful to those who taught him. Barely three months had passed before he described the office as ‘hateful’. These two stints were the nearest he ever had to a formal architectural training.

As he set off on his travels in 1911, he found a confidant, a 42-year-old homosexual music critic, Willem Ritter. Since Ritter’s letters, along with those of Le Corbusier’s mother, are the principal source of new material in Weber’s biography, it’s frustrating that he gives us no insight into the friendship and the evident intimacy of their correspondence. It was to Ritter and his partner, Janko Czadra, that the young Le Corbusier confided his sexual fantasies and his driving ambition, in screeds up to 30 pages long. As he left Germany he was exultant. ‘Now I feel ready to open myself to everything. The period of deliberate concentration is past! Open the floodgates! Let everything rush out, let everything live within!’ He was reading Ruskin and Nietzsche and it showed.

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