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At the age of 70, we learn from the intimate and largely unpublished letters that are the raw material of Nicholas Fox Weber’s biography, Le Corbusier was still justifying his work, his name and his fame to his mother, by then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.

With a companion he sailed down the Danube to Belgrade, disembarking to explore the villages en route. He arrived in Constantinople just as the wooden quarter of the city burst into flames, the fire destroying some nine thousand houses, and from a safe distance (emotional as much as physical), he was ‘captivated by a scene of formidable beauty and haunted by its magnificence’. In Athens, he forced himself to wait below all day so that his first view of the Parthenon could be by moonlight, and returned daily to the Acropolis until sated, almost a fortnight later. While still abroad, he heard that his father’s workshop and his aunt’s apartment had been destroyed by fire. It was, he thought, a wonderful opportunity to start again, heralding ‘a resplendent purity’.

He didn’t face his return to Switzerland with similar confidence. His earliest project in a long line of ‘little rental houses and villas’, as he referred to them, had been the flowery Villa Fallet, designed when he was 17. But the major job on which he embarked when he returned from his travels would become an inescapable, and painful, reminder of his ties to La Chaux-de-Fonds. The Maison Blanche, built for his modest parents, was strongly reminiscent of a Romanian fortified manor house, a handsome villa on a hill. Its huge, shallow eaves shaded an unbroken band of windows, like the loggias of the originals, while the white walls were made of concrete shingles rather than plaster. Into this folly, not completed until the eve of the First World War, his parents poured all their savings and more.

Le Corbusier was effectively trapped in the Jura; he didn’t get to Paris again until 1917. In wartime he saw himself more as an engineer than an architect, preoccupied with technical and industrial questions. With a close colleague and guide, his childhood friend the engineer Max du Bois, he embarked on the manufacture of clinker bricks and the design of a slaughterhouse. Such a functional building accorded better with the factories, grain silos, automobiles and aeroplanes that he was soon offering as evidence of a dynamic future, its arteries not furred by the accretion of historic styles or outmoded building types.

‘Our engineers are happy and virile, active and useful, balanced and happy in their work. Our architects are disillusioned and unemployed, boastful or peevish.’ ‘Engineers,’ he cheerily surmised, ‘will be our builders,’ though he allowed that architecture ‘in itself produces happy peoples’. From 1920 Jeanneret stood aside and Le Corbusier stepped forward, officially adopting his nom de plume at L’Esprit nouveau, the magazine he edited and wrote with his friend Amédée Ozenfant. (A contemporary from La Chaux-de-Fonds was the avant-garde writer Blaise Cendrars, born Frédéric Sauser: to escape fully from Switzerland and its dread bourgeoisie evidently required a complete change of skin, or at least of name.) Le Corbusier’s written style, more a flurry of bullet points than continuous prose, owed much to Sant’Elia’s Manifesto of Futurist Architecture (1914). The two men shared a commitment to rejecting the past, revolutionising the present and extracting novel use from every structure, from attic to basement, aiming, as Sant’Elia wrote, to ‘raise the level of the city’. After Sant’Elia was killed in 1917, Le Corbusier took on his mantle of radical architectural polemicist.

Some four years later, Fernand Léger was reminded of an English vicar when he first saw Le Corbusier, an upright, hatted figure pedalling past a Montparnasse café. Léger became a (rare) lifelong friend of both Le Corbusier and Yvonne Gallis, by then Le Corbusier’s girlfriend. He was unshocked by Yvonne’s risqué jokes and shared her fondness for the countryside. Léger was perceptive enough to see the pretensions, but also the self-control, of the man on the bicycle ‘scrupulously obeying the laws of perspective’, as he put it. Le Corbusier was as careful about his appearance as he was about his pronouncements: both were a means to an end. The trademark circular spectacles (he was to lose the sight in one eye), the bow-tie and double-breasted suits were to become a uniform, as they are for many older architects to this day.

The decade leading up to Le Corbusier’s 40th birthday in 1927 witnessed the birth pangs of architectural modernism. These, he later told his parents, were ‘ten years when it would have been better that [they] knew nothing of what battles were involved, what emotional situations, intense troubles, resolutions, rage, and desperate efforts which failed, ever-present hopes etc, etc.’ Le Corbusier’s contribution included a series of light-bathed studios and villas in and around Paris, the short-lived Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau, the Plan Voisin (his chilling scheme for a Paris rubbed out and reconstructed) and workers’ housing at Pessac. It was a time when brilliant ideas were coming up against structural reality – and were often found wanting. In 1925, on an upswing in his mood, he told Ritter he had ‘rounded the cape of storms and was in fact a very happy fellow, leading an ideal life’. He lived simply, and happily, with Gallis and he wanted neither money nor a social life. Only his painting remained a trial: he alone considered it the equal of his architecture.

In December 1930, Le Corbusier married Gallis, after a brief but thrilling liaison in Latin America with Josephine Baker, by then internationally famous as a cabaret performer. Opening the current Le Corbusier exhibition at the Barbican (until 24 May), the architect Rafael Viñoly revealed that the pair had already snatched a secret ten days together in Uruguay, Viñoly’s own country, before leaving for Europe, partying on their way back to Bordeaux on the Lutétia. Le Corbusier told his mother that Baker reminded him of Gallis: ‘They have the same conception of life.’ There may have been other connections: Gallis was not exactly the fashion model that others (euphemistically) claimed she was.

Though married, Le Corbusier spent Christmas with his widowed mother, who since 1924 had lived in the tiny lakeside house that he had designed for his parents to make amends for the Maison Blanche. Marie Jeanneret rarely let an opportunity pass to complain about the faulty walls, poor heating and leaking roof; her son rarely let an opportunity pass to remind her of her relative good fortune and that happiness came from within. As for the house, it was ‘a living space with endurable faults’.

She must have been surprised to receive, in 1928, a postcard reading: ‘Madame, the architects of Moscow offer their affectionate respects to the mother of the world’s greatest architect.’ Le Corbusier was mesmerised by the Soviet Union and the possibilities it offered to a visionary architect: ‘People here are starting from zero and constructing stone by stone.’ His 1926 design for a new headquarters for the League of Nations in Geneva was still enmeshed in bureaucracy four years later when he signalled his position as a soaring man for all seasons: ‘On the left as on the right I am incorporated: here by Communists, there by Fascists, here by royalists, there by international organisations . . . an irresistible crescendo.’ He was happy to design the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow, to address the French Communist Party and to make himself available to French or Italian Fascists.

In 1935, he finally arrived in the US to open his exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and undertake a lecture tour. But he was very disappointed. Manhattan was evidence that Americans hadn’t recognised ‘the true splendour of the Cartesian skyscraper’; nor did they warm to his latest urban manifesto, the Ville Radieuse. Though he admired the Ford River Rouge plant in Detroit, Americans, he felt, failed to grasp his point – ‘to transcend mere utility’. Frank Lloyd Wright wouldn’t come to Chicago to meet him, commenting gnomically: ‘I hope he may find America all he hoped to find it.’

Le Corbusier never had much time for the niceties of human relationships. In the mid-1920s Eileen Gray, a brilliant furniture designer whom he much admired, designed a modernist white villa on an undiscovered stretch of the Riviera, at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. Visiting Gray and her lover Jean Badovici at E.1027 (a code for their initials), Le Corbusier and Gallis (who was born in Monaco) were much taken by the area – and would later build a summer cabin nearby. In the summer of 1938 they stayed in Gray’s house, where Le Corbusier painted eight immense murals, with lots of colour, nudity and sex, without consulting Gray. She was outraged; he had, she said, ‘raped’ her pure white interior. He protested that he had donated the murals. As so often, Le Corbusier was in a moral limbo; it was the same vacancy that allowed him to reject old colleagues – Max du Bois and Amédée Ozenfant, for example – on whom he had once been intensely dependent, and which blinkered him in his dealings with some of the most reprehensible figures in wartime France.

One such was Dr Alexis Carrel, a man with whom he was ‘in perfect agreement’ in ‘the search for what is best for mankind’. Carrel’s Foundation for the Study of Human Problems, set up by the Vichy government, was committed to the notion of a ‘“natural” sexual order’ and a ‘virile elite’, and came close to advocating a programme of genetic improvement for France. In 1936, Carrel prefaced the German translation of his book Man, the Unknown with praise of the Nazi government’s ‘energetic measures against the increase of minorities, criminals and the insane’. Elimination was the answer, he believed. Weber draws parallels with Le Corbusier’s enthusiasm for razing the rundown areas of old cities.

Mme Jeanneret was proud of her son’s powerful contacts in his adoptive country. He reminded her that her sons had the capacity to exercise ‘a judgment independent of public opinion’ entirely thanks to their parents. Le Corbusier was eager for wartime commissions, and a job was a job, though his potential clients were an unsavoury bunch of Pétainists and collaborators, several of whom were later executed for war crimes. (Carrel, a Nobel Prize winner, escaped.) It was years before Le Corbusier’s architectural partner, his nephew Pierre Jeanneret, would return to work at the office at 35 rue de Sèvres, so horrified was he by his uncle’s complicity with the Vichy regime. But with his customary precision, Le Corbusier pressed on. By 1945, when he was planning l’Unité d’Habitation in Marseille (the first, he hoped, of many), he met General de Gaulle without demur.

As he began to plan his most radical exercise in mass housing yet, he was depressed to find that neither his mother nor his wife seemed to inhabit their respective Corbusian interiors as intended. ‘It is absolutely essential that women be freed from the domestic drama (which involves so much discomfort for men),’ he wrote to his mother. Gallis’s lonely alcoholism and self-neglect began the moment she was forced to leave their home of 12 years on the rue Jacob. In 1934 Le Corbusier had whisked her off to live on the outskirts of Paris, in a pristine penthouse above an apartment block he had just completed. Childless (it seems that he refused to have children) and cut off from the neighbourhood around St Germain-des-Prés, she went into a downward spiral. Her increasingly pathetic condition was a nagging admonition to Le Corbusier, which he assuaged with fond letters of paternal advice as he hurried about the world – often in the company of beautiful, worldly lovers.

The Unité, which would house an integrated society, enjoying everything from a rooftop pool and gardens to a wide range of shared amenities, was the only one of Le Corbusier’s major buildings that he showed off to Gallis. Before long her condition worsened. Henri, her husband’s office boy, kept an eye on her, becoming her confidant. Le Corbusier marked their 30th anniversary with an affectionate letter. She must promise ‘that you will wear your white shoes, that you will eat soup, that you will come every day after lunch to join me for a little stroll in the Bois, to get you used to walking again.’ She had become virtually immobilised; he was almost never in the country, let alone in Paris. Their rare visitors were shocked by the language and manner in which she insulted him. She died in 1957, three years before his mother.

Le Corbusier had first been approached about designing Chandigarh, a new city to house the government of East Punjab, in 1950. He loved India: the sun always improved his mood and, besides, the country struck him as mercifully free from the bourgeoisie. When he arrived, the British architects Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew were already involved. Asked by one of the clients how he would like to be in a team headed by Le Corbusier, Fry responded: ‘Honour and glory for you, and an unpredictable portion of misery for me.’

For the first time Le Corbusier seemed fully aware of the enormous responsibility he bore, one in which ‘aesthetic and ethical responsibilities equally dominate.’ That realisation was also central to his design of the Ronchamp chapel (‘an ineffable thing’, he called it) and the monastery at La Tourette, a commission coloured by his unconditional admiration for its founder, Father Couturier. An Indian colleague at Chandigarh noted his ‘devotion to a building project’ as ‘akin to worship, to religion’, and the Dominican took it further, believing that Le Corbusier had a ‘spontaneous sense of the sacred’.

Pierre Jeanneret returned to work with him but was now warier of his uncle’s autocracy and opportunism. Le Corbusier was approaching 70 and still had no architectural partners or natural successors. Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian architect, had helped with the prewar urban project for Rio and for a while they appeared to be the competing designers for the United Nations headquarters in New York. But neither architect won the commission, nor did either of them like the final result, and with that the animus was gone. When, in the early 1960s, Le Corbusier visited Brasília, the city Niemeyer and Lucio Costa had designed, he was generous with his praise. Such strong approbation from the designer of Chandigarh moved Niemeyer greatly.

Of the many world leaders who had hired Le Corbusier since the 1920s, Nehru was the only one to see results. Chandigarh, Nehru admitted, was an architectural experiment: ‘It hits you on the head . . . You may squirm at the impact but it has made you think and imbibe new ideas.’ That, he considered, was exactly what his country needed.