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.
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?).
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).
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.
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.