Gisäle Freund, Le Corbusier, Paris, 1961 ∏ Centre Pompidou, Guy Carrad

Gisèle Freund, “Le Corbusier, Paris” (1961) (© Centre Pompidou, Guy Carrad © Estate Gisèle Freund/IMEC Images)

PARIS — Spoiler alert: The deplorable revelations recounted here will not ruin your appreciation of the sublime beauty of Le Corbusier’s masterpieces.

The backstory: New French books on architect Le Corbusier have accused him of being fascist and anti-Semitic. Meanwhile, the exhibition The Measures of Man at Centre Pompidou commemorates the 50th anniversary of the architect’s death by celebrating and highlighting his humanism.

As Marinetti and Céline proved, some fascists made first-rate artists. Now we can add a third name to that short, miserable list. It is no longer a rumor. It is now fact. Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret), a native of the Swiss Jura who took French citizenship in 1930 and made Paris his home, was involved from the 1920s until the mid-1940s with a series of far-right fascist publications that were anti-Semitic, often racist, and always totalitarian and ultra-nationalist. He developed close ties with Pierre Winter, a doctor who was a leader of the Revolutionary Fascist Party. The pair worked together to create the urban planning journals Plans and Prelude. Le Corbusier’s writings in Plans and his private correspondence show he supported Italian Fascism and Nazism, hence de facto anti-Semitism. In 1940 the architect wrote to his mother that Jews and freemasons would “feel just law.” Le Corbusier (the poet of stiff right angles, concrete, and delicate light) attended fascist rallies in the 1920s, privately supported the Nazis, and sought work between 1940 and 1942 in Marshall Pétain’s Vichy. (Albeit Le Corbusier intriguingly also sought employment in Soviet Russia, but was turned down.) It has also been revealed that the architect endorsed various reactionary groups in the 1920s and 1930s, including Georges Valois’ Faisceau Revolutionary Fascist Party (France’s overtly fascist party).

Such harsh and depressing observations have been asserted recently to various degrees in François Chaslin’s Un Corbusier (A Corbusier), Marc Perelman’s Le Corbusier: Une froide vision du monde (Le Corbusier: A Cold Vision of the World) and Xavier de Jarcy’s Le Corbusier, un fascisme français (Le Corbusier: A French Fascism). Particularly compelling is Monsieur de Jarcy’s work that discovered Le Corbusier was an actual member of a militant fascist group. The Pompidou Centre itself covered Le Corbusier’s association with the Vichy regime in an exhibition more than 25 years ago. The overwhelming evidence shows that the architect’s fascist leanings were indeed strong and it provides some socio-economic context that best explains why his architecture and urban planning were designed to speed up life and make it more productive. He was obsessed with order and the need to cleanse and purge cities that were built up haphazardly.

Le Corbusier Pierre Jeanneret, Maison Planeix

Le Corbusier & Pierre Jeanneret, “Maison Planeix” (1928) (photo © FLC, ADAGP, Paris 2015 © ADAGP, Paris 2015 © G. Thiriet) (click to enlarge)

Though the fascist question should have a simple yes/no answer, apparently it is not that simple when it comes to great minds (as they also say about Heidegger and Paul de Man). After all, what is at stake here is the reputation of one of the greatest architects of the 20th century: a prophet of our own hyper-mechanical times and what he called the functional “engineer’s aesthetic.”

Perhaps, as some claim, such as Mickaël Labbé in the Liberation’s June 19 issue, Le Corbusier was mostly an opportunist who needed the support and money of the powerful to create, whoever they were at any given time. In April, Paul Chemetov in Le Monde also made the point that the “context was complicated” because “at that time, all architects were Vichy.” After all, the architect declared himself to be a socialist in 1919 and then a conservative in 1920 (the year Mussolini had begun successfully deploying the fanatical Squadristi (the Blackshirts) to extinguish Italy’s socialist movement). The fascist revolution of Mussolini and the growing international surge of fascism and authoritarian forms of philosophy are prima facie context for Le Corbusier’s building projects. Still, Le Corbusier published around 20 articles that were fascist in nature, where he declared himself in favor of a corporatist state based on the model of Mussolini — though he never published anything, nor made any public declaration, directly aimed specifically against Jews. Indeed in one letter to his mother he expressed some regret for how the Jews were being treated. Some scholars, however, such as de Jarcy and Chaslin, are not convinced.

Perhaps it’s not all Le Corbusier’s fault. Some maintain that society at large had a desire for violent/erotic Fascism in 1923, a problem that became the object of Wilhelm Reich’s famous study “Massenpsychologie des Faschismus” (The Mass Psychology of Fascism), later banned by the Nazis. Reich argued that it was not because people were stupid that they submitted to fascism; rather they desired erotic satisfaction through violence.

That may or may not be so, but the fact is that France did not experience massive popular support for Fascism (it was a phenomenon quite alien to French political traditions). Most of the so-called fascist leagues of the 1920s and ‘30s were not really fascist, but Bonapartist in character, connected with past nationalistic movements. Yet we cannot ignore the early 20th century-scandal surrounding the Dreyfus affair when a Jewish soldier in the French army was made a scapegoat for a crime he didn’t commit. Degas and Cézanne took the wrong anti-Semitic position, by the way.

The fact that Le Corbusier chose not to flee Nazi-occupied France (as other artists and intellectuals did) to work, for me, is not insignificant. Sure, he was not alone in his Marshall Pétain boot licking. I was there when in 2012 Michèle C. Cone pointed out at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York that other great avant-garde modernists, like Gertrude Stein and Francis Picabia, were also attracted to the fascist regime of Marshall Pétain during WWII — the motives for which can never be fully recovered (a sad survival strategy based in ironic defense?).

Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Villa Savoye

Le Corbusier & Pierre Jeanneret, “Villa Savoye” (1930) (photo © FLC, ADAGP, Paris 2015 © ADAGP, Paris 2015 © Paul Koslowski)

Was Le Corbusier indeed a utopian ideologue and political activist that aspired to totalitarianism, as expressed in his functional, clean, white architecture? If so, does it matter at this point, when we consider the beauty of his chilly masterpieces, such as the exquisite Villa Savoye (1930) and his ultra-chic, modern Catholic chapel Notre-Dame-du-Haut in Ronchamp (1955), probably the greatest building that I have ever entered?

The exquisite maquette for this Franche-Comté (literally “Free County”) post-war construction can be relished at the current Corbusier retrospective (none of that fascist stuff here), at the Centre Pompidou. Here, there is an uneven but generally good selection of his paintings, sculptures, architectural drawings, models, objects, films, photographs, documents, and drawings, such as the gracious “Étude pour la cheminée” (1918). In this early drawing we can already make out hints of Le Corbusier’s penchant for classical antiquity, especially the Parthenon, Paestum, and Hadrian’s Villa. Ancient Greek and Roman formal simplicity perversely provided the chops for Corbusier’s ideology, free of any spiritual liberation (he hated Dada, Surrealism, and Expressionism).

“Étude pour la cheminée” (1918)

Le Corbusier, “Étude pour la cheminée” (1918), crayon graphite on paper, 57.5 x 71 cm (© FLC, ADAGP, Paris 2015)

The exhibition and catalogue Le Corbusier: The Measures of Man are central to the ongoing public debate on his politics, as the show stages the essential Le Corbusier paintings, designs, models, and texts on his mechanical approach to established building proportions. Any hints of the socio-political fascist context or anti-Semitic ideological positions are passed over here (as museums tend to do). The only indirectly telling detail is a gallery devoted to his architectural theories.

In 1943, Le Corbusier created “The Modulor” as a physical (anthropometry) system of measurement based on the height of the average man (183 cm) that he promoted through a book he wrote entitled The Modulor: A Harmonious Measure to the Human Scale, Universally Applicable to Architecture and Mechanics, that was published in 1950. The Nazis would rely on anthropometric measurements to distinguish Aryans from Jews. Like anthropology, Le Corbusier’s theory of proportion was presented as a philosophical, mathematical, and historical truth. It imposed on the world a supposed “universal body”: an inane geometrical standard that, in the words of the architect, “constructed beings.” Yes, “The Modulor” constructed machine bodies for his “machine for living” houses. But living how, one might ask? There seems little care or room here for otherness or transcendence.

Ronchamp (1954) photo by the author 2

Le Corbusier, “Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut” Ronchamp (1954) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

How then to accept the relaxed, sensual beauty of his successful architecture? In the age of radical appropriation, perhaps we can cast a pall and put aside the nauseating political/rhetorical background of the interwar period, ignore his ideological mysticism, and consciously cut out the evil ideology behind that period of Le Corbusier’s work (he echoed Pierre Winter and Benito Mussolini in his frequent use of surgical metaphors). Even knowing what we now know, Le Corbusier’s masterpieces are great because they invite complex thought in their graceful and sensuous forms. Their ravishing beauty, formal composition, and technical achievement transcend propaganda. They might even take us to a place where the beautiful and the terrible comingle into what we call the sublime.

Knowing that Fascism now forever taints Le Corbusier’s legacy, can we defenders of secularism, reason, libertarianism, internationalism, and solidarity appropriate his sublime work by cleaning the cleaner?

Le Corbusier:The Measures of Man continues at the Centre Pompidou (Place Georges-Pompidou, 75004 Paris) through August 3.

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into...

24 replies on “Revisiting Le Corbusier as a Fascist”

  1. A fascinating article. Thank goodness artworks are not the artist but the distillation of their best moments ,which is why “Aubade” is a great poem though Larkin admired apartheid thugs.It is good to have Wagner around, not as man but as music. Probably many artists were vile people but their work helps us to fine-tune our humanity.

  2. The contradiction of art – which can result only from the individual’s ability, but when it succeeds goes beyond it’s maker’s particular limitations. I for one avoid meeting artists whose work I admire.

  3. thanks for a very informative piece…how about something on Wilhelm Reich’s idea of (some?) people desiring erotic satisfaction through violence

  4. “Erotic satisfaction through violence” my ass.
    The political alternative of the time was Communism.
    You like Hitler today, you’re a jerk; you like Che−a hero.
    Nothing changed.

    1. There were many alternatives to Hitler besides Stalin and his friends. As for Che, he became a poster boy and then a commercial item and a subject of hipster irony. There is not much left to like or dislike.

        1. I disagree. For example, the liberal capitalist states managed to survive the Nazi attack and, while the Soviet Union did most of the work, they did in the end participate in defeating it. And given that the liberal capitalist states were actually sort of liberal, at least for upper- and middle-class White people, a wide range of ideologies ranging from ‘conservatism’ to socialism were available as alternatives to fascism and Soviet-style Communism.

          1. There’s something on your mind and I can’t read it.
            This is not about the Soviets’ struggle to defend their country, which BTW would not have been possible without the American help.
            They used American ammo to enter a flattened-by-the-US-Air-Force Berlin.
            Easy peasy.

            There were two sides to politics at that time in Europe.
            Nazi and Commi.
            No alternatives.
            Most French Philosopher/Writers who chose Communism, pulled out after visiting Moscow.

  5. Monsieur Nechvatal,

    There is one misleading statement in your article. Le Corbusier in fact was commissioned and did build at least one building in Moscow. It is the Tsentrosoyuz Building. I taught in Moscow 1990-97 and saw the building myself. I do not know what, if anything, may have happened to it after that time.

    1. I was referring specifically to the Vichy period, but you are also correct in that he did construct Tsentrosoyuz well before that in 1933

  6. I would like to deconstruct the last sentence which throws together so many contradictory “isms” that are not compatible with each other.For example I believe a libertarian would not be an internationalist.And reading Foucault we could see Reason as allied with power and social control.Solidarity is a word used by communists, who tend when they gain power to be totalitarian.I subscribe to a French TV channel and have the opportunity to see many French films.A large percentage are about the collaboration between the Nazi’s and the ordinary French who sent their Jewish compatriots to concentration camps. There is clearly a great deal of guilt that has to be purged from the French psyche. The Vichy government thought that collaboration would not just save France from destruction but would allow the Germans to save it from terminal decadence.For a peek at post WWI French culture Celine is essential.HIs politics were not unique to him but were shared by many French.The European Union today exists only to impose German discipline on the rest of Europe as we can see being played out in Greece.

    A connection I pursue in part in this essay is the influence of Rudolph Steiner on Le Corbusier.Compare his Goetheanum to Ronchamp.

    1. Agreed. The “isms” seemed to be lined up for sentence cadence versus logic. The author turned himself inside out in order to place distance between he and Le Corbusier’s politics. That was fun.

      1. Surprised other people didn’t see what we observed in that last sentence!The issue that preoccupied some 20th century architects was how to shape the new mass culture liberated from control of the aristocracy/bourgeoisie. Two ideologies that dealt with the politics of that shaping and management were fascism and communism.Architects were attracted to both. So he picked Fascism over Communism. addressed the choices above.

  7. Le Corbusier was one of the most damaging minds of the 20th Century. I do actually like the Ronchamp chapel– obviously he had technical “chops” and eventually developed some amount of humanity in his old age– but take a look at his Plan Voisin and it’s pretty obvious that anyone who cares about urban space not only doesn’t “appreciate” the “sublime beauty” of his work, but is completely unsurprised to find out that he had fascist sympathies.

    1. Given the scale of most actually-built architectural projects, at least the well-known ones, it seems likely that architects and architecture are likely to be pulled in an authoritarian or totalitarian direction, simply because of the need to accumulate a lot of materials, skill, and labor. In the ancient world, and up through the Middle Ages, that authority was religious, which was eventually supplanted by the authority of Capital, whether fascist or liberal. (I have seen some anarchist architecture, but you probably won’t find it in glossy magazines unless the gentry are seized by a milkmaids-of-Versailles moment.)

  8. Le Corbusier was not the only architect smitten with the Nazis. Philip Johnson’s Glass House was an homage to the Holocaust, which he somewhat gleefully witnessed first hand, on the front lines in Poland.
    and i quote:

    “I was lucky enough to get to be [invited by the German government to be] a correspondent so that I could go to the front when I wanted to and so it was that I came again to the country that we had motored through, the towns north of Warsaw. ..The German green uniforms made the place look gay and happy. There were not many Jews to be seen. We saw Warsaw burn and Modlin being bombed. It was a stirring spectacle.”

    In his attempt to distance his Glass House from Mies van de Rohe, he admitted that his New Canaan, CT structure’s central chimney was directly referencing a burnt down (probablyJew’s) home in Poland during WW2.

    “The cylinder, made of the same brick as the platform from which it springs, forming the main motif of the house was not derived from Mies, but rather from a burned-out wooden village I saw once where nothing was left but the foundations and chimneys of brick. Over the chimney I slipped a steel cage with a glass skin. The chimney forms the anchor.”

    The fact that the Philip Johnson Glass House is regularly rented out for Bar MItzvahs now is insane give this whitewashed bit of information.

Comments are closed.