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Wednesday, 16 December 2009
The Architect as Totalitarian
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Le Corbusier was to architecture what Pol Pot was to social reform. In one sense, he had less excuse for his activities than Pol Pot: for unlike the Cambodian, he possessed great talent, even genius. Unfortunately, he turned his gifts to destructive ends, and it is no coincidence that he willingly served both Stalin and Vichy. Like Pol Pot, he wanted to start from Year Zero: before me, nothing; after me, everything. By their very presence, the raw-concrete-clad rectangular towers that obsessed him canceled out centuries of architecture. Hardly any town or city in Britain (to take just one nation) has not had its composition wrecked by architects and planners inspired by his ideas.

Writings about Le Corbusier often begin with an encomium to his importance, something like: “He was the most important architect of the twentieth century.” Friend and foe would agree with this judgment, but importance is, of course, morally and aesthetically ambiguous. After all, Lenin was one of the most important politicians of the twentieth century, but it was his influence on history, not his merits, that made him so: likewise Le Corbusier.

Yet just as Lenin was revered long after his monstrosity should have been obvious to all, so Le Corbusier continues to be revered. Indeed, there is something of a revival in the adulation. Nicholas Fox Weber has just published an exhaustive and generally laudatory biography, and Phaidon has put out a huge, expensive book lovingly devoted to Le Corbusier’s work. Further, a hagiographic exhibition devoted to Le Corbusier recently ran in London and Rotterdam. In London, the exhibition fittingly took place in a hideous complex of buildings, built in the 1960s, called the Barbican, whose concrete brutalism seems designed to overawe, humiliate, and confuse any human being unfortunate enough to try to find his way in it. The Barbican was not designed by Le Corbusier, but it was surely inspired by his particular style of soulless architecture.

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Posted on 12/16/2009 2:52 PM by Theodore Dalrymple
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