Leaks, Crime, and Bad Taste: The Legacy of Le Corbusier

Today a friend from the Twitterverse drew my attention to a petition to save Chandigarh, the planned city designed largely by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. While I rather fear that said friend may decide to “unfriend” me if he reads this piece, be that as it may, this petition provides me with a wonderful opportunity to go against the well-established grain of the intelligentsia, and point out exactly what a dreadful architect Le Corbusier, in fact, was.  Not only did he have terrible taste which led to urban crime and disintegration, but he was incapable of fulfilling the basic duty of a good architect: i.e. building something that could withstand the elements.

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (1887-1965), to give Le Corbusier’s real name, was born in Switzerland but spent most of his working career in France, including collaborating with the Vichy regime. Like many an arriviste, he decided to change his name to something singular, since he liked to reinvent himself depending on what he wanted people to think about him at the time. His most famous quote, and one which pretty much sums up his attitude toward both architecture and human beings, is: “A house is a machine to live in.”  He spent most of his career following this creed, putting up graceless, poorly-built concrete “machines” all over the world, and encouraging others to do the same.

The planned city of Chandigarh in India, built between roughly 1950-1965, is a spectacular example of why Le Corbusier was such a terrible architect. Gigantic, oppressively out-scale government buildings squat alongside slimy reflecting pools ringed by parking lots, their walls stained and failing as a result of the passage of time, the extreme weather of the Indian subcontinent, and the poor choice of materials. Office blocks with pointless shapes plopped along the roofline concealing who knows what look like interrogation centers for the FSB on an episode of “Spooks”. Apartment buildings that are reminiscent of stacks of dirty, corrugated cardboard about to go into the shredder give the impression that the residents would be better off living in an actual cardboard box. Even the artificial lake created for the enjoyment of the residents of Chandigarh features what look like watch tower platforms from a concentration camp.

Those who fawn over Le Corbusier are often too ready to excuse or overlook the fact that he had no idea how to build something that would last, which is in fact why architects are consulted in the first place. Le Corbusier in his own lifetime had to incur the wrath of numerous clients for the fact that his buildings began to fall apart almost immediately after they were built, suffering from water damage, rust stains, cracked walls, crumbling facades, and so on. Like many a narcissist, Le Corbusier never thought that he was the problem, but rather that the fault lay elsewhere. When an early house he designed with a standard, pitched roof started to leak the first winter after it was completed, Le Corbusier simply decided never to build a pitched roof again, and switched to using a flat roof. However, he never figured out how to design one properly, so his flat roof buildings leak also.

Fortunately, here in the United States, the only building by Le Corbusier at which one may throw well-deserved stones is the 1962 Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard, which is not a particularly impressive example of his work – or indeed of anyone’s work. Truth be told, he did not have as much of a hand in the building as did the project supervisor, the Catalan architect Josep Lluís Sert, but he managed to stamp his particular brand of hulking ugliness on it, all the same. Given how many examples of such terrible buildings like this litter our college campuses, we can only hope that our grandchildren will have the good sense to pull them down when they fail, which they inevitably will.

Even though he himself built practically nothing in the United States, Le Corbusier’s influence on his contemporaries had a profound impact on American cities at mid-century. He is partially resonsbile for the collapse of the urban center in the 1960’s and 70’s. Granted, many factors brought about the near-demise of the American city during this period, including social unrest, suburban development, economic decline, and dependence upon the automobile. However Le Corbusier’s ideas, and the damage wrought by him and his disciples, served as an irritant for these problems, but an irritant that failed to produce a single pearl.

If you have ever seen the urban nightmare which was the recently-demolished Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago, or urban planning schemes like that of Boston’s City Hall Plaza, featuring heavy, concrete block buildings and bleak plazas surrounded by freeways, making it impossible or unpleasant for people to move around in, and choking to death entire city neighborhoods, then you have Le Corbusier and the disciples of his ideas to thank. Not only did they bring new depth to the term “ugly”, but they managed to foster crime on a scale never-before seen in American society. Surrounded by such appalling hopelessness, it is no wonder that the residents of these areas turned to substance abuse, violence, and anti-social behavior to try to escape from the hideous prisons built to cage them.

Le Corbusier’s legacy and that of urban planners inspired by him is finally being dealt with by many cities, sometimes successfully – as is the case here in the Nation’s Capital – and sometimes not. His fundamental, philosophical flaw was to view human beings as nothing more than cogs in a machine, who could be placed interchangeably in residential, office, and other buildings, that were themselves equally interchangeable. If we assume that the house is indeed a machine for living, as trite a statement as that may be, then Le Corbusier was the Thomas Midgley of machine manufacturers.

Rather than restoring his work, therefore, let us hope that the good people of Chandigarh have better sense than to waste their resources in the way that Le Corbusier wasted theirs, and instead that they may obtain the funds they need to demolish all of this garbage and begin again.

The Palace of the Assembly at Chandigarh, by Le Corbusier