In 1938, while visiting a new villa built by the Irish designer Eileen Gray, Le Corbusier was inspired to improve on her work. He admired the white-walled classicism and industrial finesse of the home, which was built in the spirit of his own domestic architecture. But he thought it needed a little something.
And so Le Corbusier stripped naked, took out his paint brushes and covered the house with large, sexually provocative images. "One of the murals was on the previously spare white wall behind the living-room sofa, so that what had been specified by Gray to be a point of visual respite was now an animated scenario," writes Nicholas Fox Weber in his new biography, Le Corbusier: A Life. Gray, who admired Le Corbusier and was, like many architects, proprietary about her work, felt "raped" by the incident.
It gets worse.
As an urbanist -- one of the previous century's most radical and dark visionaries of the city -- he proposed ideas that still make us shudder: isolated, repetitive skyscrapers, facing grand empty plazas, linked by highways. If he had had the free hand he wanted to remake Paris, with new airports, highways and high-rises, all of France might have felt as "raped" as Gray did.
Fortunately, as becomes clear in great detail in this biography, he was utterly obnoxious. He preferred wielding the absolute intellectual control more common to a solitary painter than to an architect, who must collaborate with others. Relations with clients and even prospective clients often ended in acrimony, and he left voluminous amounts of work unrealized. His client La Roche, Weber notes, "was a man of exceptional humor." But it must have taken Olympian forbearance to deal with Le Corbusier's tantrum over the paintings -- especially given that the project was over budget, walls had to be redesigned and rebuilt during construction, windows didn't work, and there were lighting problems that took years to resolve. "It's six months since I moved in and I am still obliged to use illumination which . . . relies on ad hoc arrangements," La Roche wrote plaintively.
He wasn't the only one to complain about the architect's work. Le Corbusier designed a home for his strict, Swiss Protestant parents in 1912, but blew through their modest budget. The simple watchmaker and his music-teacher wife were financially wiped out and forced to sell it only a few years later. When he finally built them a more reasonable house in 1923-25, it leaked and the heating was balky. For decades, as her son became perhaps the most famous living architect, building a whole city from scratch in India, revolutionizing public housing with his Unité d'Habitation in Marseille and redefining the possibilities of concrete at his chapel in Ronchamp, his mother wrote him long, wheedling letters, complaining about the structure.
And then of course:
[I]t's fascinating to see the daily detail of his darkest chapter, his concerted and disgusting efforts to win commissions from the Vichy government during the Nazi occupation of France. (He also courted work in Stalin's Soviet Union and Mussolini's Italy, and socialized with French fascists, bigots, rabid nationalists and Nazis.)
Weber seems to take the architect at his word that he was interested in a humane revolution within architecture, making it more alert to man's needs, regardless of politics. But there's ample evidence that he wasn't just an architectural opportunist, but was deeply sympathetic with the authoritarian impulses of even his most noxious would-be clients. And though it is nothing new to anyone who has grappled with Le Corbusier, his romance with the destructive energies of the 20th century -- the cleansing power of war, the brutal restructuring of whole societies -- is felt in this biography with disturbing force. There was method in Le Corbusier's mad egotism -- he saw himself almost as a primal force of history -- whether he was defacing another architect's house or celebrating plans for remaking the city of Saint-Dié, heavily bombed in 1944: "Saint-Dié was systematically destroyed in 3 days," he once remarked. "A splendid problem."
Well: mid-20th century "modern" architecture mostly sucks, and in many cases is actively destructive and malevolent. So it's somehow not surprising to find that its most famous practitioner was a spectacularly horrible human being.
That said: lots of artists are pretty unpleasant in person. See, e.g., the recent biography of V.S. Naipaul that everyone is chattering about. Naipaul, it turns out, is an even bigger bastard than previously realized; he neglected and abused his devoted wife for many years, was an egomaniac, a flagrant and compulsive adulterer, often foul-tempered and occasionally violent, etcetera, etcetera, and etcetera.
Yet I find Naipaul doesn't inspire anything like the same sort of visceral disgust and revulsion. Here follows a throwaway and probably naive line of thinking.
Architecture is very different from most other sorts of art. One, obviously, it's art that has to be used -- lived in, walked through, made into workspaces. Two, architecture -- especially public architecture -- is unavoidable in a way that books or paintings just aren't. I can choose not to read Naipaul's A Bend in The River; I can't avoid going to public school, or to the courthouse to pay off a ticket, or simply walking through downtown. Bad architecture is broadly obnoxious and toxic in a way that bad painting or poetry can't touch.
This suggests to me -- I said this was naive and unformed -- that a good architect, never mind a great one, has to be capable of some minimum level of imaginative empathy. She or he has to be able to pause and think, how will people react to this? What will they do? Will they like it, will they use it, will it be good for them? This doesn't prevent an architect from being a monstrous asshole otherwise, but I think it does foreclose certain particular types of monstrousness.
Of course, whether the social and economic processes that create and select architects are selecting for empathy is another question altogether. Looking around, one suspects not.
Throwaway thought: what's a modern form of art that demands (1) a minimum level of technical competence, (2) a moderate level of commitment to user-friendliness, and (3) the ability to make lots of people say, "Yes! This is cool! This is where I want to be!"
Video game design. I submit that game designers have to be 'efficiently empathetic' in exactly the way that Le Corbusier and his ilk were not. As noted, this doesn't stop them from being unpleasant people otherwise... but fierce Darwinian selection prevents them from making the same sorts of category errors. There have been "Brasilia" games and MMORPGs; they died, and took the designers down with them.
(Okay, there's also the issue that the person video game designers are empathetically modeling always seems to be a fourteen-year-old boy... but still: could be worse.)
So we should turn game designers loose on our cities? Well, what the hell. They could hardly do worse than the architects of the middle half of 20th century. And hey -- imagine if your local shopping mall or City Hall were designed by the guys who gave us Azeroth.
Okay, bed time.