The Guillotine: Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 19: Le Corbusier

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
There's something calmatively Utopian about the virginal, stainless minimalism of an architect's preparatory drawings, denuded as they are of all that makes the real world so messy and shambolic. There are no traffic jams, no abandoned lager cans, no litter, no dog dirt, no graffiti- soiled walls. Even the three or four token human beings shown strolling about are uniformly clean, nicely dressed and clearly law-abiding.

It is, however, just those scale-model figures who finally give one pause for thought. Maybe their inclusion in the drawing isn't merely a convention of the genre. Given the atrocities that architects have committed against the long-suffering urban landscape, maybe that's precisely how they perceive the individuals who have to live or work inside their beloved creations - as passive, generic little creatures, tolerable just so long as they don't obscure the artist's vision.

For many of us, a major offender in this area was Le Corbusier (real name: Charles-Edouard Jeanneret), the pioneer of a style of urban architecture intended to fuse social functionalism with pure geometric form. "Machines a habiter", the expression he employed to describe his buildings - most famously, those of his communal housing project, or Unite d'Habitation, in Marseilles - sounds very grand and Bauhaus-y and excitingly modernistic. Yet if one restates the same expression from the viewpoint not of the creator but of those for whom the work was ostensibly created - not "machines for living in", then, but "living in machines" - the project is suddenly exposed for what it surely is, nightmarishly inhuman.

The notion that 20th-century architects have been guilty of treating ordinary people as not much more than guinea pigs is now, of course, an anti-modernist cliche, and an even more widespread cliche is that, because architecture is possessed of an enduring stolidity denied the other art forms, there's absolutely nothing to be done about it. Is it really true? Bad paintings survive, after all, if only in provincial museums; bad films are routinely screened on TV; bad novels can be tracked down in second-hand book shops. Eventually, though, even good buildings peel and crumble and crack and, above all, date, frequently in their architects' own lifetimes - and, as time marches on, the great majority of them are pulled down. So what may ultimately prove the undoing of Le Corbusier and his like is, paradoxically, the innate ephemerality of architecture.

Comments