Seven pillars of Le Corbusier

Detractors claim he was a sex-starved automaton who destroyed our cities. Devotees say he revolutionised urban living. On the eve of a major retrospective, we explore the true legacy of this controversial architect

1. Person

To his admirers (and they are legion), he was the greatest genius of modern architecture; to his detractors (also many), its greatest disaster. And, from 2 October, Le Corbusier is set to be the subject of the first major exhibition of his life and work to be staged in this country for 20 years, through a series of events organised by the Royal Institute of British Architects in London and Liverpool.

Adopted as the nom de guerre of Charles-Edouard Jeanneret in 1920, "Le Corbusier" was borrowed from the name of a distant cousin (Lecorbesier or Le Corbezier), and was meant to be reminiscent of the French for "crow" or "raven": corbeau. He would even often use a sketch of that bird as his insignia. Francophones tended to call him "Le Corbu"; English-speakers, "Corb". And by his own admission, Corb was a strange bird.

He was born on 6 October 1887 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a Swiss city renowned for its clocks and watches, and biographers have not been slow to point out the aspects of Le Corbusier's character that chime with this horological tradition. One of his earliest accomplishments was to design a prize-winning engraved watch, and Corb, who in a much-quoted aphorism once described a house as a "machine for living in", often struck friends and enemies alike less as a crow than as a cold fish – haughty, precise, inhuman: a clockwork architect dressed in severe clothes, sporting a pair of round, dark-rimmed spectacles.

But the influence of his native town (and his French Huguenot ancestry) was at once more oblique and pervasive than this glib identification of man and clock suggests. Superficially a quiet, bourgeois place, La Chaux-de-Fonds had long been a shelter for rebels: Rousseau, Kropotkin, Lenin. And the traditional working arrangements of the place – a kind of primitive syndicalism – were at the root of Corb's later plans for ideal communities.

Jeanneret was also fascinated by his more distant ancestors, the Albigensians and Cathars – passionate heretics persecuted by the Church. The persecution mattered to him as much as the passion, as Corb thought of himself, not without cause, as a despised loner. "Some men", he groused in his autobiographical My Work, "have original ideas and are kicked in the arse for their pains."

2. Passion

A few psychoanalytically minded enemies of Corb have suggested that the rigid, geometric purity of his first major creative phase (he passed through three, or four, such phases, if you count a juvenile flirtation with the flowery remains of Art Nouveau) are expressive of a terror of sex. This is probably daft, and in any case can hardly be applied to his later buildings, which freely embrace sexy curves, or to his later paintings, which were at times frankly erotic. This hot-blooded aspect of his sensibility flourished after 1930, when he married Yvonne Gallis, a fashion model from Monaco. She was anything but an intellectual, and had no interest in architecture: in fact, she hated many of his most beloved innovations, such as the glass curtain walls which brought light deep into the house ("All this light is killing me, driving me crazy!"), and when Corb put a finely sculptured (in his eyes) bidet next to their matrimonial bed, she covered it with a cosy. He had many clandestine affairs on his travels, but seems to have been genuinely devoted to her, and suffered a breakdown when she died in 1957. He was always intellectually passionate; in mature life, he was physically passionate, too.

3. Purism

Corb was moderately successful as a young man, and had completed seven buildings by the age of 30. His true rise to prominence, and notoriety, came between 1917 and 1928, when he practised and preached "Purism". He borrowed the term from a Cubist painter friend, Amédée Ozenfant. Partly born of a simple desire to strip away decorative nonsense and flimflam, partly a mystical quest for ideal, universal forms, partly a shrewd career move, Purism is easy to caricature as a cluster of white cubes, right angles, (uncomfortable) industrial furniture, lots of glass, lots of light... and stilts. (He favoured piloti – pillars which lifted buildings above ground level, allowing room for gardens.) It is worth remembering that one of the structures that had most inspired the youthful Corb was the monastery at Mount Athos: there is something quasi-monastic in this period of his work. Beautiful sculptures, no doubt, but how many people want to live in a sculpture? Corb, an energetic propagandist, delivered his home truths in dozens of articles: "Buy only practical furniture and never buy decorative 'pieces'," he yelled at readers. "If you want to see bad taste, go into the houses of the rich..." The triumph of his adventures in Purism can be seen in two ideal villas: the Villa Stein at Garches, (1927) designed for Gertude Stein's brother; and the Villa Savoie at Poissy (1929-31). Time has not been kind to the latter; but photographs from its early days suggest a thrilling wholeness, harmony and radiance. When these two works became known, the whole world wanted to hear the gospel according to Corb, and he set off on lecture tours around the planet.

4. Politics

It has long been the case that people who dislike revolution in aesthetic forms will tend to sniff out revolutionary politics. Certainly, many assumed Corb must be a Communist, and when he put forward a proposal for a building to house the League of Nations – one of many proposals which flopped – a local newspaper described him as "The Trojan Horse of Bolshevism". In reality, any political extremism Corb might have shown was at the other end of the spectrum. He had been affected by his youthful studies of Nietzsche, had a number of friends on the far right, and sometimes wrote in a vein that teeters on the brink of Fascism: "The art of our period is performing its proper functions when it addresses itself to the chosen few... Art is not an essential pabulum except for the chosen few who have need of meditation in order that they may lead. Art is in its essence arrogant." ("Vers une architecture", 1923). For the most part, though, Corb's political thinking was, if idiosyncratic, humane and generous.

5. Planning

But were those good intentions enough? Far from it, according to his detractors, who regard the unquestionable influence of his theories of town planning to be the most baleful aspect of his legacy. Corb is the great villain of Jane Jacobs's classic diatribe The Death and Life of Great American Cities, while the theorist Lewis Mumford wrote that he had "warped the work of a whole generation, giving it arbitrary directives, superficial slogans and sterile goals." Others have argued that it is precisely Corb's willingness to abandon his earlier principles ("burn what you have loved") in the face of changing circumstances, as well as his far-sighted attention to the material needs of a world growing ever more populous, that guarantee his continued urgency in the 21st century.

6. Proportion

Something of a mystic at heart, Corb eventually came to develop his private system for measuring and planning: the Modulor. Based on the ancient Greek ratio of the Golden Section, Modulor became the guiding principle behind much of his later work: the extraordinary vertical village Unité d'Habitation in Marseilles (1947-52), designed to house 1,600 people; his various governmental and administrative buildings in Chandigarh, India (early 1950s); and – for some, his ultimate masterpiece – the Ronchamp chapel (1950-1955), a building which, for good and ill, has been identified as the precursor of the postmodern movement in architecture.

7. Posterity

What, in short, has he left us? About 50 completed buildings; about 57 published books (depending on what you call a book; some were barely pamphlets); dozens and dozens of plans for unrealised projects; more than 70 sketchbooks; many, many paintings, drawings and sculptures; an ethical example of stubborn isolation; a philosophy (or philosophies) of the good life; a set of possibilities and visions; an angry debate; an enigma.

Architecture is, among other things, a kind of language, and, as Charles Jencks has pointed out in his studies of Corb, there are some 40-odd architectural "units of meaning" Corb either invented or made his own, permanently widening the scope of what might be built. He asked many of the right questions at the right moment (such as: why was so little creative thought being applied to the question of rehousing France's four million homeless families after the Second World War? Why shouldn't concrete be a noble, even spiritual, substance?) And, like his good friend Picasso, he ceaselessly reinvented himself, and showed why such reinvention is an ethical matter. He is very well known, but not known very well; and he still has it in him to surprise us profoundly.

For details of the Le Corbusier season, visit www.architecture.com

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