How dedicated a fascist was Le Corbusier?

His first building was for the Soviets, so it might be more accurate to call this celebrated modernist a promiscuous tart - like all architects

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

23 May 2015

9:00 AM

The ‘revelations’, 50 years after he drowned, that Le Corbusier was a ‘fascist’ and an anti-Semite are neither fresh nor startling. Indeed they’re old hat. And it defies credibility that the authors of three recent books about this tainted genius were ignorant of what anyone with even the frailest interest in architects’ foibles and tastes has been aware of for years. Not that this has deterred them; nor has it deterred newspapers from filleting the books for supposedly sensational titbits.

What next? The hot news that the cuckold Carlo Gesualdo murdered his wife and her lover? That Jean Genet has been discovered to have been, you know, on the light-fingered side? But of course Gesualdo is not accused of providing the inspiration for vertical slums the world over. Genet did not fill the impressionable minds of baby architects with the ambition to start from zero by razing Paris to the ground.

Alive, Le Corbusier was a great architect. Posthumously, he has been a great scapegoat, an Aunt Sally who can be tirelessly derided for all of urban life’s ills because he rendered thought crimes concrete — and people know his name. Those crimes are, of course, primarily aesthetic.

The ‘revelations’ prompt, once again, the question of the extent to which his political thought between the early 1920s and the liberation of France was dependent upon and even determined by his proposed architectural and urbanistic programmes. The question has to be posed that way round: the contrary notion that his aesthetics were politically fomented is a non-starter. He might compromise himself but he never compromised his art. His manoeuvring was risibly opportunistic, obvious to all his targets. He shifted unconvincingly between the ever-mutating factions of French fascism.

The short-lived far-right party Le Faisceau, while keen on technocratic Taylorism and Fordism, was equally infected by a blood-and-soil folksiness derived from Barrès and was inimical to Le Corbusier’s ‘internationalist’ abstract purism: ‘internationalist’ meant Jewish.

So Le Corbusier sidled up to Le Redressement français, a movement of industrialists that placed rather less emphasis on collectivism: this apparently accorded with his enthusiasm for monk’s cells. The next object of his sycophancy was Hubert Lagardelle, the future minister of labour in the Vichy regime; his regional syndicalism preached anti-capitalism, localism and direct action.

It is improbable that these parties, whose ideologies were all but indistinguishable save to the engaged, had any effect on the schemes Le Corbusier wanted to realise. He was an architect, thus a promiscuous tart: it goes with the job. An intrinsic facet of servility is to flatter whomever it is that holds the purse strings by professing to share his convictions. Show me an architect who genuinely believes in this or that doctrine to the exclusion of all others and I’ll show you a low-waged specialist in loft conversions, a high-minded purist who would never betray his ‘principles’.

Le Corbusier was so committed to fascism that his first building on a vast scale was the Centrosoyuz in Moscow. This work was among those that caused him to be vilified as a communist — or at least a communist sympathiser. Now, Le Corbusier’s fellow Switzer Alexander von Senger really was a fascist. He devoted a book entitled The Trojan Horse of Bolshevism to lambasting Le Corbusier whom he had already had excluded from the Federation of Swiss Architects. When von Senger himself was expelled from Switzerland as a Nazi informer, he went to live with his paymasters. He wrote Race and Architecture and became a contributor to the Völkischer Beobachter whose sometime editor Alfred Rosenberg appointed him to a chair at Munich architecture school.

This was a far grislier involvement than Le Corbusier’s with Vichy, which was, yet again, an exercise in fruitless opportunism and, retrospectively, blustering self-exculpation and stage-whispered hints of resistance activities.

He spent a year and a half in that spa town, chosen as the seat of government because of the sheer number of hotels. Nothing came of it — despite meeting Pétain, despite the championship of Lagardelle, despite being appointed as head of postwar reconstruction. The nearest he came to actually building rather than pleading was a scheme in Algiers: von Senger and Rosenberg were among those who blocked it.

Among Vichy’s other petitioners for architectural commissions was Le Corbusier’s original master Auguste Perret. He was appointed first president of the Order of French Architects whose laws stipulated that no more than two per cent of members could be Jewish. This is anti-Semitism of a different order from Le Corbusier’s, which was confined to snidery in letters to his mother; he never made a public statement of anti-Semitism, it was a squalid secret of a sort that many families shared in private. Yet Perret’s (at best) passivity on the matter attracts little obloquy. And — a very different case, of course — what of Saint Albert Speer, the slave-driver who so charmed Gitta Sereny that he is today the acceptable face of war criminals, doted on by bloated classicism’s clownish admirers, his complicity in enormities forgotten.

Had Le Corbusier really been the bolshevik the paranoiac von Senger claimed he was, one can be sure that the 50th anniversary of his death would not have prompted this rancorous little storm. But to have been a fellow traveller of the right, no matter how sluggish and lame a traveller, is a guarantee that you will be periodically exhumed and given a kicking by gnats.

Old lefties, cause-whores, apologists for collective farms and famines, pogroms and Beria, bien-pensant supporters of the FLN, Palestinian terror and theocratic executioners can, however, sleep the sleep of the self-righteous knowing that they have left the world a better place, and that their ‘ethical’ anti-Semitism was wholly justified. They will not be exhumed.

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  • dado_trunking

    Corbu is as relevant as ever in western architectural teaching. He is the Picasso of buildings, his Modulor proportions of the human body in space fit my physique perfectly, as if he knew.

  • Dogsnob

    My Uncle was a flat-felt roofer. He was able to buy his holiday cottage in Whitby, thanks – he loved to boast – to the misguided bravery of so many Le Corbusier followers.
    It had a lovely pan-tiled, pitched-roof.

  • Roger James Michael Sutherland

    Not enough.

  • Terry Field

    Modernist nonsense. Fascist art is re-considered and often, quite correctly, considered magnificent. What does it matter that he and Pound were fascists???
    His work is -was – wonderful, inspired, utterly original and a privilege to experience.
    Unlike most of the post-war sh1t plopped onto unsuspecting England.

    • DWLindeman

      Interesting commentary Terry Field. I’d point out that Ezra Pound really was, eventually, quite over the edge when it came to his sanity. Poet Donald Hall confirm’s this in his memoir “Remembering Poets.” Pound, for example condemned usury, and suggested that Piero della Francesca held similar views. Nuts, or whatever.

      There have been some suggestions that Le Corbusier was not entirely stable too, but this is speculation from what I know. Even Philip Johnson (who I think was quite sane, despite his nervous breakdown episode while at Harvard), was momentarily fascinated by German Fascism. It’s disheartening to say the least when artists and architects risk their reputations for odious political movements, but it happens more often than we would like to acknowledge. Another way of looking at this: when artists and architects attempt to engage contemporary politics, they often reveal how little they understand about that realm of human affairs.

      • Terry Field

        Thank you for your response; Pound had problems and was ‘on the edge’ at times, but anyone who has read his poems must warm to the man;his richness of description, his capacity to ‘plumb the depths’ others find difficult. His anti-Semitic stance and reference back to characters living when that viewpoint was normal, we now consider evil, but then it was all but mainstream. Mad, not really; depressingly tribal, as we all are ‘at bottom’, yes.
        I expect that if we could lay bare the minds of the most creative of people, few would not be full of eccentricity, imagination, contradictions and potential. The dull, the pedestrian, people probably like me, are not so richly endowed. As The Bard said, ‘What great Ones do, the Less will prattle on’. This article seems like prattle to me.
        In the late twenties and early thirties, Fascism in Italy , and Mussolini, was highly regarded by very many, and many countries and centres of power and influence; it is forgotten that he was most sympathetic to the idea of law and structure in Europe, wished to contain German Hitlerite Fascism, which he loathed, and was far from an anti-Semite; he also loathed the ‘herrenvolk’ nonsense. Until he changed his girlfriend’ from a humane and gentle Jewess, to a strong anti-Semite, as he was positively pushed into the orbit of Hitler, a man he both feared (particularly in respect of an Anschluss that he had a horror of) by, amongst others that failure of a thinker and politician Eden.
        Why do I mention all this? simple; fascism was not one thing; it was also not viewed as a homogeneous offering of barbaric brutalism across all intelligent people.
        That happened after the 39-45 catastrophe.
        Add in the threat from the East and Lenin/Stalin, and it is hardly a condemnation to suggest that an architect ‘took a side’. We are encouraged to have simple, cartoon-like views of the past. I am too old to waste my remaining years in doing such a foolish thing.
        Yes; creative types often misread their times; do not ‘get’ the world around them. But their lives are remembered, and discussed, long after the ‘milieu’ they worked and thought in is either forgotten, distorted, or wilfully misinterpreted.
        Finally, do not mistake my comments as any kind of apology for the actions of the Axis powers. 45,000 centres of murder, destroying over 20,000,000 souls across Europe, leaving aside the deaths of military personnel, and the dead from carpet bombing,etc, burn loathing of their influence into any kind persons soul.
        As for great artists supporting perverse idea sets, beat Delia Smith supporting Bilimand!!!!
        Have a good weekend.