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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope


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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Pol Pot of modern architecture

Theodore Dalrymple has a great article at City Journal - The Architect as Totalitarian - about the life and work of Le Corbusier, the "father of modern architecture". Le Corbusier's work and ideas are the inspiration, if you can call it that, for much of the bleak soulless concrete architecture (think York University) put up in cities all over the world after the Second World War.

Dalrymple writes:
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.

...

The most sincere, because unconscious, tribute to Le Corbusier comes from the scrawlers of graffiti. If you approach the results of their activities epidemiologically, so to speak, you will soon notice that, where good architecture is within reach of Corbusian architecture, they tend to deface only the Corbusian surfaces and buildings. As if by instinct, these uneducated slum denizens have accurately apprehended what so many architects have expended a huge intellectual effort to avoid apprehending: that Le Corbusier was the enemy of mankind.

Le Corbusier does not belong so much to the history of architecture as to that of totalitarianism, to the spiritual, intellectual, and moral deformity of the interbellum years in Europe. Clearly, he was not alone; he was both a creator and a symptom of the zeitgeist. His plans for Stockholm, after all, were in response to an official Swedish competition for ways to rebuild the beautiful old city, so such destruction was on the menu. It is a sign of the abiding strength of the totalitarian temptation, as the French philosopher Jean-Fran├žois Revel called it, that Le Corbusier is still revered in architectural schools and elsewhere, rather than universally reviled.

1 comment:

Joan Tintor said...

I read that piece. Interesting.