The life and work of an iconic modernist.
In 1920, Swiss-born architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris changed his name to Le Corbusier (1887-1965). The dramatic “single moniker,” writes journalist Flint (Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City, 2009, etc.), “signaled his break with the past…and the embrace of the modern.” The author ably chronicles Le Corbusier’s pursuit of the modern in designs that remained remarkably consistent during his long career. In villas, apartment complexes and public buildings, Le Corbusier conceived stark, concrete structures perched on concrete columns, with open-plan interiors swathed in natural light and containing minimalist furniture, such as the metal tubing and leather chairs designed by a member of his firm. His wife found the ambience dispiriting: It was like living in a hospital, she complained, or “a dissecting lab!” Some clients, although impressed by the theatricality of the imposing architecture, found living within its walls uncomfortable, especially in a villa that became inundated with water after every rain. Le Corbusier had grander ambitions than simply designing for wealthy clients. During World War II, he nimbly allied himself with the Vichy government, hoping to redesign Paris after the war’s destruction; in 1945, he easily—and with no repercussions—switched sides. He envisioned entire cities “with places and buildings for all human activities by which the citizens can live a full and harmonious life.” Constructed rigidly on a grid, with large spaces between buildings comprised of small modular apartments, the cities would include schools, shops and extensive roof gardens representing the natural landscape. Critics asserted that he was blind to people’s real lives and the interactions that created community, but Le Corbusier believed that well-designed density, “a repeatable urban form,” was the overriding need of the future.
Flint’s life of “the original star architect” astutely captures Le Corbusier’s hubris and vulnerabilities and makes a persuasive case for his artistic significance.