The First “Starchitect” of the 20th Century?

Kristīne Budže

Kristīne Budže

If you had to choose one architect with whom to best characterize the 20th century – both its greatness and its tragedies – Le Corbusier (1887-1965) would be the way to go. Having become a French citizen in the 30s, the Swiss-born architect, designer, urbanist, writer, thinker and artist was actually named Charles-Édouard Jeanneret.

In the first half of the 20th century, identifying oneself with a one-name pseudonym was not uncommon among those in the creative professions. The same could be said for entwining oneself in legends about one's creative and personal life. Even though Le Corbusier lived in the well-documented and not-too-recent past, it is not quite clear how he came to assume his pseudonym. There are various possible stories about this, ranging from him publicly accepting an earlier, rather demeaning nick-name – to taking on a pseudonym to differentiate himself from his similarly named cousin, with whom he shared a studio in Paris. 

On the surface, this sort of behavior may seem analogous to the behavior of modern-day pop stars (and  something that today's brightest starchitects are also being accused of doing). But all of this is nothing more than the jangling of tiny bells. The main reason that Le Corbusier is worth remembering now, almost 50 years after his death, was his ability to change the course of, if not all of history, then definitely at least architectural history, and that he did this by being a true child of his times and making use of all of the opportunities that it had to give.

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He has been called the father of modernism, a pioneer in modern architecture, and the century's most influential architect, in addition to many other descriptors of the highest level with which to characterize the typical modernist spirit of the 20th century. Occasionally, he is assigned greater revolutionary fame than he himself could have imagined. Now, in the 21st century, if someone wishes to accent a current starchitect's greatness and decisive role in the future development of architecture, then the famous Swiss/French architect is used as a standard, and the modern-day hero is deemed “today's Le Corbusier”. 

What happened to Le Corbusier was the same as what happens to all those who were once exceedingly praised and deified stars of a certain period in time. His fame grew throughout his life, culminating at the time of his death, when his works had been accepted even by his greatest opponents. Having died from a heart attack while swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, the great architect's funeral was a grand event. The French Minister of Culture at the time organized a memorial service in the Louvre Palace. A grandiose bouquet of flowers was sent by Le Corbusier's greatest ideological opponent – Spanish painter Salvador Dali. Heads of state of the world's strongest nations competed with one another in the use of words of praise. These were said by both the President of the United States and the leaders of the USSR, who honored the deceased architect so highly as to announce that modern architecture has lost its greatest master. Japanese television stations translated the funeral service live – a very unusual occurrence for 1965. Le Corbusier's face has graced Switzerland's 10 frank note, streets have been named after him, and his round-framed glasses are just as popular among architects as John Lennon's are among pop-music lovers. During Le Corbusier's life, it was assumed that he simply could not make a mistake – that everything that he did and thought was perfect.

But even as wholly accepted as Le Corbusier had been in life, it wasn't long until doubt was cast on his character. Beginning with the 1970s, when modernism began its world-wide decent and everything that had been created in the style was being actively shunned, Le Corbusier, as one of its most shining representatives, received a healthy dose of reproach. The architect was accused of being too friendly with the authoritarian regimes of the first half of the 20th century. He had had an ambiguous relationship with the Vichy regime in France during WWII. Le Corbusier turned a blind eye to the true nature of many of the dictatorial regimes – if he saw the opportunity to bring his Utopian visions to their countries, he would forget in whose name it would be done and who would be the true winner – not the masses, who were the supposed receivers of this new architecture, but rather the dictators, their power and strength made visible by the new structures. Le Corbusier worked truly globally – he was willing to execute his ideas in whichever part of the planet, from Brazil to the vast USSR. Ironically, the largest concentration of Le Corbusier's ideas were built in India, near the end of his life and with little involvement from the architect himself. Today, Le Corbusier's creations are India's most valuable examples of 20th century architecture, but with a neglected legacy – and its parts are being quietly sold to rich, Western fans of Le Corbusier. 

The architect is accused of having been overly complaisant to greedy real estate developers. Le Corbusier's ideas for skyscrapers that could house unprecedented numbers of people encouraged intense real estate development, and gave the upper hand to the developers who, hiding behind the progressive ideas of modern architecture, could now legally profit even more from each square meter of land. 

Although it is said that a large part of Le Corbusier's ideas come to him only because the technological and industrial progress at the beginning of the 20th century provided the opportunity to realize these ideas, the architect is accused of having insufficient knowledge of the structural engineering of his buildings, resulting in poor technical execution. One should keep in mind, however, that all of the technologies, materials and constructions that seem self-evident to us today, even antiquated, were, in the first decades of the 20th century, and even at mid-century, novelties – unproven in practice for the large part. Basically – with hindsight, everyone knows better. 

Le Corbusier's ideas failed mostly in how they interacted with living people. His visions of future cities, and the lives of the new 20th century people living in them, were based on the assumption that the main mode of transportation would be the automobile. The chosen distances between residential areas and the potential places of employment for their inhabitants, as well as the transportation systems and the area's infrastructure, were planned with the expectation that everyone would have their own car.

This vision, conjured up by Le Corbusier and the auto industry, did not come to pass. Even in quickly-developing Western countries, the population's overall standard of living didn't grow as swiftly and evenly as envisioned. Ideas executed only partway (neighborhoods of buildings were erected, but the infrastructure connecting them to the rest of city wasn't), the oversimplified comprehension of Le Corbusier's ideas by his followers, and the contradictions that were revealed only once execution of the ideas had already begun, or later, when the projects were faced with life's realities and the unpredictability of human nature – all led to the downfall of modernism. The irritating environment for the inhabitants, especially for pedestrians, in which various socio-economic groups were practically segregated into ghettos, did not solve social problems, but rather created even bigger ones.

One of the biggest myths connected to the understanding of Le Corbusier's ideas is the thought that he was a complete revolutionary, who disclaimed everything that civilization had created up to this point, and that he wanted to begin building the world of the 20th century by using only a blank page as its foundation. This misunderstanding of Le Corbusier's views already appeared during his lifetime, in an English translation of the title of one of his most salient book of essays, Verse une architecture (which had already been published as separate essays in the journal he had largely founded himself, L 'Esprit Nouveau). In emphasizing the book's radicalism, it is still frequently translated incorrectly as Towards a New Architecture, whereas it should be translated as Towards Architecture.

Le Corbusier didn't want to disclaim the past, but rather wanted to find its core and transfer it to the 20th century, but using the methods of expression that came from the new age – to clean up architecture by removing the decorative facades and returning to a harmony of tectonics and size. The base of his refined system of proportions came from the classical era's Golden Ratio. This fact, along with other references to classical and renaissance architecture, allow for Le Corbusier's villas of the 1920s and 30s to be compared to those built by Andrea Palladio in the 16th century; Le Corbusier could be legitimately called the 20th century's Palladio. Admittedly, if one wishes to see the most successful execution of Le Corbusier's ideas today, then those would be the villas of the most influential millionaires of his day. The owners of the villas gave Le Corbusier carte blanche. In these smaller projects, he rarely had to face the fact of how unsuitable his ideas were for real life, which unfortunately, was the case in the execution of his large-scale projects.