Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Le Corbusier on the Tightrope of Functionalism

Published onApr 23, 2021
Le Corbusier on the Tightrope of Functionalism

Le Corbusier, architect and dualist-theoretician, Paris, 1935. (Photograph courtesy of Archives Fondation Le Corbusier.)

By the late twenties, Le Corbusier had pushed himself into a difficult position. Like Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Bruno Taut, he had seen his early functionalist position outflanked on the left: by the upcoming technocrats, by communist designers such as Hannes Meyer, by materialists, and by the creative youth. All these people could be called the “Young Turks” because they were about to overthrow (or so they hoped) the immediate generation before them—Le Corbusier and the “pioneers of modern architecture”—in short, the “Old Turks.” Furthermore, a functionalist style was now in existence whose very banality, yet closeness to Purism, threatened Le Corbusier’s message, if not existence (Figs. 52, 53). Houses were now built like “soap boxes”1 and the Germans, Czechs, Poles, and Russians were throwing up thousands of “inhuman” existenzminimum, that is minimum houses that were, according to Le Corbusier, like “cages” or “prisons.”2

Figure 52
Pessac, the four-storied “skyscrapers,” as Le Corbusier called them, were also known negatively as “the sugar cubes,” because the patron who commissioned them made his millions from sugar. The area was also seen as a Sultan’s district, a harem, and less gloriously as a Moroccan settlement. Very Sachlich, these buildings could be seen the way Le Corbusier characterized the Existenzminimum. (Photograph by F. Yerbury, 1925. Courtesy of Architectural Association.)

Figure 53
Interior of Raoul La Roche’s bedroom, La Roche-Jeanneret houses, Auteuil, 1925. (Photograph courtesy of Architectural Association.)

The difficulty was that several years earlier he had proclaimed slogans which led directly to this reductive functionalism. “The vacuum period of architecture,” “man is a geometric animal,” “a city built for speed is built for success” and so forth. Any number of such catchwords could be adduced to show that Le Corbusier was himself, in part, a reductive functionalist. So he felt a double problem. How could he extract himself from a previous position without entirely reversing fields? The document where he wrestles with this dilemma is “Défense de l’architecture” (1929), a not altogether edifying document even if it is passionate, persuasive, and in its own way quite beautiful. Before I attempt a paraphrase, I will rehearse Le Corbusier’s arguments concerning functionalism, because around this broad notion crystalized many of his cherished values.

Reductive Functionalism

In justifying his kind of Purist architecture, he touched on most of the ways functionalism had been considered up to that time—first, reductive functionalism, the idea (starting with Socrates but proclaimed by the communist designers in Russia and Germany) that utility leads to beauty. Those supporting Sachlichkeit, the dry and objective, would do away with “beauty” and simply say “utility is enough,” or “utility and social concerns are so important that they render aesthetics and questions of the spirit irrelevant.” Hans Schmidt and Mart Stam, who edited ABC—Beitrage Zum Bauen (Contributions toward Building), published a characteristic polemic called “ABC Demands the Dictatorship of the Machine.”3 This editorial of 1928 typically sets the machine and industrial economy in opposition to “morality and aesthetics” and to Le Corbusier’s notion of an ideal aesthetic and spiritual language based on geometry. Soon thereafter, in typical dialectical manner, Le Corbusier grasps the terms of his adversaries’ arguments and demands the “dictatorship of plans.” If nothing else this answer is more humanistic than the initial formulation because it implies leadership by experts and values rather than impersonal necessity.

In any case, the major reductive argument was put forward by Hannes Meyer when he took over the Bauhaus in 1928. It is this polemic, accompanied by the attack of the Czech Teige on the Mundaneum, which Le Corbusier sought to refute in his 1929 “Defense of Architecture.” Meyer places building (democratically not capitalized) in opposition to Architecture.

all the things in this world are a product of the formula: (function times economy).
all these things are, therefore, not works of art: all art is composition and, hence, is unsuited to achieve goals.
all life is function and is therefore unartistic.
the idea of the “composition of a harbour” is hilarious!
but how is a town plan designed? or a plan of a dwelling? composition or function? art or life????
building is a biological process, building is not an aesthetic process.4

Extreme and polarized as this argument is, Le Corbusier had himself used similar terms previously.

Architecture is stifled by custom.
The “Styles” are a lie….
Machinery contains in itself the factor of economy, which makes for selection.
The house is a machine for living in….
Standards are a matter of logic, analysis and minute study: they are based on a problem which has been well “stated.” …
Industry, overwhelming us like a flood which rolls on towards its destined end, has furnished us with new tools adapted to this new epoch, animated by the new spirit.
Economic law unavoidably governs our acts and our thoughts.5

These quotes, taken from Towards a New Architecture (1923), show that Le Corbusier was using reductive arguments when it suited him, the very ones that his Marxist adversaries used. (He was later to add biology and life to his arsenal, perhaps in response to Meyer.)

His reductive functionalism could be summarized in the following way: the designer must state the problem to be solved, if he is to create standards, or prototype designs meant for mass production. He must design from the inside plan and section to the outside skin and volume of the building. Form is organic in the sense that it stems from function, even if it is not determined by function.

A good designer, like Auguste Choisy, will show the section on the elevation and use materials in a straightforward way according to their inherent logic. (At this point Le Corbusier most obviously slips, unconsciously, into convention, custom, “style” and hence “lie,” since Choisy’s method of design and drawing was as arbitrary as any other. Science itself cannot escape convention, a point Le Corbusier did not recognize.

A good culture will throw away the outdated tool, the old technologies, and be true to the “spirit of the age”—that curious demiurge which is half technical progress and half cultural sensibility. Useless consumer goods, decorative objects such as paperweights in the shape of snarling, bronze lions, should be thrown out in favor of useful, sachlich objects like rubber boots and camping equipment (Figs. 54, 55). Then the economy of conspicuous consumption and waste will be redirected to more humane goals.

Figure 54
“Useless consumer goods.” Le Corbusier’s caption: “Waste! I am not outraged because such things are bought. But I am deeply distressed to see Authority remaining indifferent in the face of such sacrilege: the time lost in manufacturing these tomfooleries! A healthy, aware, strong nation ought to say: enough!” (Source: Le Corbusier, The Radiant City, p. 94.)

Figure 55
“Useful consumer goods.” Le Corbusier’s caption: “Proof that a healthy turn of mind could lead us towards a general renewal of our material and spiritual economic systems. Try to work out the consequences: such an attitude could be far-reaching and pull us out of the hole we are in.” (Source: Le Corbusier The Radiant City, p. 95.) The emphasis on a nation’s health, guided by some Authority, which is left unclear, characterizes Le Corbusier’s classical notion of culture. Authority meant, perhaps, three different things: a modern Colbert, “The Minister of Public Works,” or “The Regulator.”

Spiritual Functionalism

Le Corbusier always went beyond these reductive positions, as is well known, in a kind of dualistic argument.6 As soon as he said that architecture must spring from prosaic requirements, he would state that it must go beyond these. Indeed his attitude toward the prosaic was that of the Cubists and Surrealists, a very ambiguous position, which tried to make a “heroism of everyday life,” or at least something beautiful and striking out of banal objects and functions. From the poetry of mundane objects to the celebration of crass objects, the urinal, is a small step that Duchamp and Le Corbusier made along with so many other artists (Fig. 56). It can lead to a sophisticated taste, an inverted snobbery, and, much against the wishes of Madame Le Corbusier, a bidet placed right next to the bed (which she covered with a tea cosy).

Figure 56
Bathroom, Villa Savoye, 1928-1931, opens off a bedroom and makes a Purist still-life from prosaic objects—the bathtub, wash basin, bidet, radiator, toilet, and light fixture—all unified by tiles and white paint. (Photograph by Charles Jencks.)

This love of the prosaic was, however, overlaid with something approaching classical, architectural taste.

The purpose of construction is TO MAKE THINGS HOLD TOGETHER; of architecture TO MOVE US….
Architecture, pure creation of the mind.
Profile and contour are the touchstone of the Architect.
Here he reveals himself as artist or mere engineer….
Geometry is the language of man….7

Here, in condensed form, we see in which ways Architecture was more than building, form than function. It was a plastic phenomenon that engaged the spirit because of visual matters, particularly those which had been composed according to right angles and regulating lines. In other words, Le Corbusier’s idea of the spiritual and social values in architecture is perilously dose to being reductive toward aesthetic concerns. He did reiterate that one should create “the spirit of living in mass-production houses”8 and therefore did bring up the important notion of ideology and way of life, but he never could generalize these notions to include much beyond his own particular ideology and life style. Like so many architects of his generation, he thought his way of life was both universal and, paradoxically, unacceptable to the masses. The way he came to this contradictory conclusion was through the idea of a universal, geometric language and the notion of the Zeitgeist.

He looked at periods of history, mostly the classical epochs, and found their hidden geometric order, which only the enlightened few could see. Thus, by 1925, he could propound the unlikely proposition that “culture is an orthogonal state of mind”9 and that periods which lacked a right-angled brain were uncivilized.10 The leading architect was then, like the Marxist prophet, to act as the midwife of history and ease the birth pangs of the inevitable, tending now, because of industrialization, toward geometric forms.11 In short, a civilized, squareheaded babe had been conceived, so the perspicacious architect should claim paternity. No wonder, when the French Communist Party asked Le Corbusier to join them, “I told them it was they who ought to join me.”12 His Zeitgeist was just as voluntaristic as theirs; in both cases one received moral credit for marching with the inevitable course of history.

Thus in yet another crucial sense Le Corbusier was like the Marxists he was counterattacking. While their specific, spiritual goals differed (geometry versus equality), they would spring from and be driven by a material base (industry versus class struggle), which was deterministic (or, of course, “almost so,” “in the last analysis”). The ambiguity on this last point was always present in Le Corbusier’s writing. An article he wrote for Americans in 1929, attacking Beaux-Arts ideology, was entitled “Architecture, the Expression of the Materials and Methods of Our Times.”13 This reiterates his basic point of several years earlier: “I have said that the technical consideration comes first before everything and is its condition, that it carries within it unavoidable plastic consequences, and that it leads sometimes to radical aesthetic transformations.”14

But, as always, there is a basic counterstatement emphasizing freedom of the creative will above this technical determinism. Insofar as there is a resolution of this dualism, it comes when natural evolution and enlightened states of mind happily intersect: “A system of thought is imbued with life only when there exists a balance between the results of evolution and the spiritual direction of its progress.”15

When does this occur? When “geometry is supreme. Precision is everywhere. The right angle prevails….” Unfortunately then, this potentially fruitful dualism is cut short as both goals evolve toward the superior right angle. Is it any surprise that Le Corbusier the artist started introducing curvilinear forms into his painting (Fig. 57) at the very point Le Corbusier the architect told him this was inferior? The dialectical relationship between necessity and consciousness was asserting itself in action at the very time it was being denied in theory.

Figure 57
A Woman Lying with Curtains, 1930. Strong, bold curves of plump women fascinated Le Corbusier at this time. (Photograph courtesy of Heidi Weber.)

A final point should be made about the way Le Corbusier extends functionalism, because it still causes confusion today. Reyner Banham, a neofunctionalist, ends Theory and Design in the First Machine Age with a curious misunderstanding. He contends that technology and industry lead toward “an unhaltable trend to constantly accelerating change” and that architects such as Le Corbusier tried to stop this process by enforcing certain norms or perfected standards. This is probably true enough, but then the reason for this is carefully overlooked.

Whether or not the enforcement of norms and types by such a conscious manoeuvre would be good for the human race, is a problem that does not concern the present study. Nor was it a question that was entertained by theorists and designers of the First Machine Age.16

But this is not true of the main protagonists of the twenties. It is hard to read Gropius, Le Corbusier, or even Mies without coming across some emphasis on human values set against technical evolution. “Défense de l’architecture” is a case in point. The arguments vary from moment to moment—“harmony, perfection, community,” and so on—but there is always a goal in mind, independent of technology. Nonetheless, functionalism is still such an emotionally charged concept that otherwise scrupulous critics and architects seem to lose their customary detachment when discussing it and characterize the adversary in most uncharitable terms.

A Speculative Soliloquy

Le Corbusier is not above this in his 1929 “Défense.” In a footnote introduction to its republication in 1933, he sets the warlike tone, the metaphorical terms in which the battle will be fought:

Through its enormous production, Germany occupied the architectural field. The foundation of CIAM at la Sarraz in 1928 had been the occasion of a violent conflict: the Germans attacked many houses which were called “modern.” I carried on a combat in which what was at stake was a coherent line of conduct, a line which could lead the congress to useful tasks. Our road was blocked by the catch phrase “poets, Utopians….”17

The rest of the introduction builds up the militaristic rhetoric—“clap of thunder, volte-face, treason?”—until the reader is somewhat ready to surrender to Le Corbusier’s sweet reasonableness: “I have persisted in this single declaration: ‘I am an architect and urbanist.’ Such is my profession of faith. The word is in the plans. The plan is dictator: the technique of modern times and the lyricism of the eternal human heart.” In fact the bellicose tone should warn us that the “enemy” will be treated as such and that, as in war, arguments will be used to win a position already determined beforehand, not to lead off in a new, or unknown, direction.

In summarizing this article I will use a method of speculative soliloquy, a dramatic paraphrase, which is not exactly fair to Le Corbusier’s intentions, but which has the virtue of being able to introduce an imaginary self-doubt. There is no accepted scholarly convention for probing possible motives and revealing what is called iconology, the hidden symbols and symptoms of an artist or era. The virtue of speculative soliloquy is that it uses the conventions of drama to raise points which could not otherwise be raised as forcefully and allows them to be criticized as well. Thus the aside (placed italicized here in parentheses) comments like the actor’s conscience, or alter ego, on his explicit speech (the actual statements from the article are in quotation marks, the rest is paraphrase). The soliloquy thus becomes a new text parallel to the original, one that perhaps Le Corbusier might have whispered to his wife in bed, were he of that disposition. No doubt this parallel text is no substitute for the original and should not be read as if it were what Le Corbusier wrote: it is more what he did not completely mean to write, but rather betrayed. The parallel text:

 “My Dear Teige,”

Your Neue Sachlichkeit substitutes “construction” for “architecture” and “life” for “art” and tries to be objective—just as I did in 1921. But whereas when I do it that’s all right, because I go beyond “objectivity” and “zero,” when you do it that’s mere fashion, and you remain at zero.

(Well, of course it’s more complex than this because you are a poet in spite of your supposed objectivity. I’m a clever person and can second-guess your objective lineit’s really fashion and poetry, both denied because of Marxist dogma. Pity.)

“With you, it (your Sachlichkeit) is a case of being a dilettante of a new romanticism. (That will put Teige in his place.) With the other materialists, Hannes Meyer and his gang, “it is a police measure” to coerce the masses. (What about my own police tactics? “Economic law unavoidably governs our acts. “Am I guilty of this? Yes.)

“If you adopt the attitude of a leader of the people, perhaps you have reason to accept these measures of martial law.” (There, that perhaps acknowledges my strong-arm tactics and the fact that I too lead the masses.) “I intend to remain in my state of anarchy (with respect to your police measures) and to pursue from day to day the passionate search for harmony.” (Harmony? l’ve never valued domestic peace or tranquillity. It’s the harmony of the Parthenon that I love, something really quite terrifying, a gesture of perfection thrown at a hostile universe. People won’t want my sort of harmony, it’s too heroic, austere, and cosmic. Well then, l’ll give them the harmony of explicit organization and order. The geometry, my dictator, will keep their lives in order. Now l’ll throw a little semantic paradox at those functionalists.)

“I will tell you now, without further delay, that in my opinion, the aesthetic is a fundamental human function.” (It’s on a par with prosaic, physiological functions. But there is a grave problem with functionalizing things of the spirit such as aesthetics—it makes them utilitarian, turns them into commodities, gives them an exchange value, makes themgasp!expendable! Good God, this trick of logic has actually lost me the whole argument, I hope no one notices!)

“And I will add that it (the aesthetic) surpasses, in strength and in the way in which it guides our lives, all those benefits which are brought by progress.” (There, l’m having it both ways, just in time!) “Man is a brain and a heart, reason and passion.” (Having set up this dualistic paradox, l’ll now be brilliant and solve it with … unity!) The reasoned search for solutions leads to competition, which leads to perfection; and perfection is an aesthetic notion, as mathematicians know. Q.E.D. Functionalism pursued passionately equals beauty. (There’s trouble, l’m almost Sachlich, I must attack Hannes Meyer.)

“Architecture is a phenomenon of creation, resulting from an ordering process. Whoever says ‘to order’ says ‘to compose.’ “(Now on to attack the technical progressivists—a Reyner Ban ham to come.) Man remains the same in spite of technical evolution and new tools, because he has the same spiritual needs. Peasants have this universal passion, this sentiment, just as you functionalists have need of “spiritual nourishment.” (There! Human values transcend technology! Just to make sure there’s no misunderstanding, l’ll underline the point with my own work.)

“A machine for living … I immediately pose this question—‘for living how?’ And I pose nothing but the question of quality. I am not able to find it resolved except in ‘composition.’ “(Good God! What an admission on my part! To me a way of life, the spirit of man, the social wishes and daily life can … almost… be reduced to composition, geometry. If only there were a believable social and political philosophy, then I could go beyond visual matters, organizational problems. Alas.)

Architecture is a plastic event, forms seen in light, forms generated by plan and section. The way in which objects are “architectured” is what counts, and this is done visually by proportion. Obviously you functionalists must agree with me, because you really can’t believe a mere collection of useful objects makes the good house. Otherwise you’d have to believe the best house would belong to a millionaire. (So much for those Marxists, they’re hoist by their own materialist petard. The argument is getting rather dirty, n’est-ce pas? Well, that’s war. They treat me this way, making my arguments appear ridiculous by taking them to absurd conclusions. An eye for an eye.)

Now for your doctrine, which is of course old and academic, that the “useful is beautiful.” This is absurd, as the following story will show.

A German functionalist in my office was stuffing papers into a beautiful wire mesh basket, until all of a sudden it collapsed into an ungeometric shape.

“That’s hideous,” said Roth.

“Excuse me,” I replied, “this basket now contains much more than it did before; it is much more useful, so according to your principles it must be more beautiful…. (Thus I showed) the function beauty is independent of the function utility; they are two separate things. What is displeasing to the mind is waste; for wastefulness is ugly; it is because of this that utility is pleasing to us. But the useful is not the beautiful.” (There, l’ve clinched the argument, except for the social problem. l’ll go halfway with them, socialization plus “captains of industry,” a mixed economy. That’s a mixture, like beauty and utility, two things which I hope don’t mix me up—as they’ve done in the past.)

We must give the masses what they really need—“a theme for the socialization of the present epoch. But should we implicate architecture in this matter completely and totally? No!” (l’m an architect, no one’s going to make a politician of me.) Besides, look at me, l’ve led a life of hardship without material comforts—but l’ve enjoyed it. Why? Because of my overwhelming creativity. (My penance. Oh how I wish there were a viable political philosophy. Mies, Gropius, the other idealists, we’re all trapped in the sterile polarization between communists and fascists.) Utilitarian objects are “ephemeral,” spiritual ones are “permanent.”

Now for my Mundaneum project, which sparked off the attacks on me as a bourgeois formalist because it resembled the form of an ancient pyramid (Fig. 58). Well, listen, you functionalists, I discovered architectural laws deriving from techniques and, in 1925, excluded decoration and formalism from my Pavilion de L’Esprit Nouveau. I transgressed academic rules and “it cost me dearly.” (l’m Sachlich too, l’m no toady of the ruling taste, the bourgeoisie! They call me bourgeois … what nerve! I may work for the captains of industry, but I try to revolutionize their taste, never follow it. Stupid, irrelevant Marxiststhey never try to reach the real audience, whereas I write manifestoes to thebankers, telling them they are producing the new beauty. My manifestoes reach everybody—thirteen printings of Vers in four years….) Look here, on the League of Nations project, on the design of the façades I “spent precisely three hours!” And these façades were technically determined by the plans and sections. And in Prague I proposed the title “Techniques are themselves the foundation of Lyricism.” And … (Methinks I doth protest too much. I’m almost saying form follows function. I’ve almost capitulated to the enemy!)

Figure 58
The Mundaneum, world museum, 1929, in the shape of a spiral pyramid, classifies all cultural growth in a linear manner. This scheme later gave way to the museum of unlimited growth, which was all on the same level. (Source: Oeuvre complete 1910-29, p. 193.)

Well, the Mundaneum is a “sacrarium” dedicated to ideas and great men, geniuses who have “overturned the world.” You see it is ideas, idealism, not material things which rule the world and “come to the rescue of the masses.” (The ideas, ideology of Marxism, not dialectical materialism.)

“You say: The need poses the programme: the factory, the station; no longer churches, palaces, country houses. At this moment nothing succeeds in architecture except what is dictated by social and economic need.’ I have never thought or written anything else,” and last year I refused to build a church. (Now l’m really in deep water. There are all my villas for the rich, Ronchamp to come and, besides, bourgeois society is still very much with us. Therefore churches, palaces, and country houses will go on being commissioned. But I don’t want to face this ugly truth, l’ll be a social utopian and design the ville radieuse as if we had a new ecomonic order. In any case, what the devil is a “social and economic need”? How possibly can we determine this objectively, beyond all time and cultural history? I will invent my fiction, the universal man, who looks, acts, and feels, I am pleased to say, rather like me.)

The Mundaneum is a “BUILDING OF INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATIONS,” and it responds to world needs and crises. What could be more reasonable and “Sachlich … technical, sociological, and economic, and not at all academic”?

The pyramidal form, which you attack, was determined by function and the World City, of which it is a part, by axes of view and regulating lines. The regulating lines, which you find abominable, are cruel verifiers and therefore very sachlich—which is why l’m attacked by both bohemians and engineers. (Here go the bullets flying over my head, from opposite directions, proving, doesn’t it, that I occupy the true center, midway between reason and passion.) Cubic forms are not academic; “on the contrary, they are accepted as being the expression of Contemporary Architecture.” (Could it be that some day in the future, contemporary architecture will itself become conventional and academic? I hope not—that would mean my approach was not universal???)

“But if a precise and indisputable function demands that the accommodation should be arranged on a spiral axis, should I refuse to accept the architectural consequences of this function on the grounds that it is only the cube that is contemporary?” (Oh dear, form follows function again. Not only that, but a single form is determined by function. I am a reductive functionalist who believes, in spite of my above disclaimers, in a materialist universe demanding specific outcomes. There’s no choice, spirit, aesthetics involved. Alas, how confused I am. I oscillate back and forth between materialism and idealism like a yo-yo. Maybe there’s a fault in reality, maybe philosophers will never be able to solve this perennial problem. Help! l’m desperate, l’ll try an absurdity, with an utterly straight face.)

“I simply remark that the dictionary of architecture has always been limited to the forms of Euclidean geometry, and that the cube, the sphere, the cylinder, the pyramid, and the cone are the only architectural words in our possession” (Fig. 59). (Can I really get away with this? What about my own Art Nouveau past and the architectural words I tried to evolve from nature? (Fig. 60) Luckily few people know this past … but can they forget the Gothic, Baroque; Rococco, Expressionism, the organic? l’d better be frank about my love affair with geometry. It is personal, a matter of choice, not universal after all.)

Figure 59
“Euclidean geometry” at Chandigarh, 1956, in the General Assembly and High Courts (background). The perfect solids are here distorted and smashed into each other to give more emphasis to each architectural “word.” (Photograph by Romi Koshla.)

Figure 60
Elevations of the Fallet House, La Chaux-de-Fonds, 1905. (Photograph by Charles Jencks.)

“Nature penetrates our heroic and geometric gesture. You know that I love this attitude: to be able, in one’s own house, to reign supreme within a magisterial geometry; to rest one’s eyes, out there, on the charm of nature, in which we have imperishable roots.” (Yes, I remember as a small boy in La Chaux-de-Fonds the beauty of nature and geometry juxtaposed. It formed and changed me; architecture can… shape man!)

“Listen, Teige, let us speak seriously. I believe that this man (experiencing my Mundaneum) will be transformed: he will be relieved, during his ascent, of all the petty preoccupations of his daily life, he will have stopped worrying about his digestion or the crease in his trousers…. Teige, you are a poet….” (The poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, and the force of my poetry and love for geometry can change people’s lives. This is my final idealism, which unifies all the polarities, because now spiritual consciousness and material function are inextricably linked in a kind of architectural determinism. But, can architecture really shape man??? It certainly changed me.)

At the end of this confessional paraphrase, it is only right that Le Corbusier has the final word, especially since it mediates extremes and puts the author in the place he finds most congenial, the center of a raging storm: “I know that in the present notes, my words will be used against me, put into inverted commas, by the academics here, by the avant-garde there.”

Ways of life

There is no need to criticize detailed points in conclusion, since the parenthetical self-doubt, which I have invented, acts in this way. Rather, I should like to draw some general conclusions about Le Corbusier’s position, which he shared with other architects of his age, the “pioneers” of the modern movement.18

On a positive level, functionalism served to deepen these architects’ social and technical commitment. No matter how naive subsequent detractors such as Jane Jacobs and Buckminster Fuller may find it, the new concern for these requirements was deeper than that of the previous Beaux-Arts architects. But more important than this was the seriousness and symbolic depth to which this commitment led. No matter what we may think in retrospect of the wisdom of their particular functionalism, I think we have to admit that it gave them a credibility and purpose, perceivable in their buildings, which other architects lacked. This symbolic potency is, as the architects knew, the sine qua non to any great art; to do justice to their building we must continually remember that they intended to produce great, symbolic art. This entails, inevitably, a kind of curtailed functionalism. These architects were really only interested in social tasks and technology in so far as they could be encapsulated formally and given seminal expression. They never followed functions too far, with the legitimate fear that they would be led out of architecture into sociology, politics, or engineering, while they saw their role as that of the cultural demiurge or prophet. Of course one can criticize this role and the way civilization turns leaders into prophets, but it is precisely on this level and not on the strictly technical or social level that appropriate criticism should be made. As for the content of their curtailed functionalism it was often bad sociology, hopeless politics, and leaking, flat roofs.

On a negative level, I think it fair to say that the debate on functionalism was disastrously simplistic, as is too much architectural polemic. The argument was carried on with the acrimony of warfare, with Hannes Meyer launching his salvo as he took control of the Bauhaus, and Le Corbusier, like Trotsky in the Civil War, shooting off his reply from a train crossing Russia. Hence the epithets and caricatures, the systematic misunderstanding, and childish arguments that confused reductive functionalism with the spiritual, social, and aesthetic tasks that might generate form. To Le Corbusier’s credit, he answered Meyer’s oversimplification with a more developed dualism, but not a great deal of credit is due since this position is the norm of classical architects and can be found stated by Viollet-le-Duc, Choisy, Antonio Gaudi, as well as most academics.

In any case, the pioneers and especially Le Corbusier never came to terms with the cultural nature of functions, the way they are always seen through a specific historical code and are never transparent, obvious, or universal (in the sense of being identical across cultures). The way the pioneers talk about functions implies a certainty, precision, and singularity—as if all chairs should be a certain distance off the floor, made from steel tube, and so forth—but even with so deterministic a thing as a ramjet engine, there are, apparently, 25,344 different conceivable possibilities.19

The attempt to produce a single homme type with his universal needs should be seen as an unstated desire to increase productive efficiency and the repressed wish to lead civilization in a single direction, the dream of a prophet, not a sophisticated functionalist. Functions, in so far as they can be specified, fit loosely, change, and can be realized only if people understand the codes on which they are based. Nor were the pioneers aware of the arbitrary nature of the architectural sign, the way form and function are, in most cases, united by convention, feedback, and usage. Nor were they aware of the plurality of signs, or the most important sign—that of a “way of life” (except fleetingly, as in the above polemic where it is quickly reduced to “composition”).

When one analyses what Le Corbusier meant by social and spiritual life it often becomes, ultimately, visual expression as an analogue of civilized life (Parthenon = Periclean Age and Greek Democracy; Gothic cathedrals = medieval communes; and so on). And while this view may serve as a convenient shorthand and be acceptable on TV, for example, as in Kenneth Clark’s account of Civilization,20 it is too crude for the design of cities. Most cities of the world have institutionalized styles of life—high, formal, bureaucratic, and informal—which make nonsense of anything so inclusive as a single style or Zeitgeist. In Chinese culture as much as Western, this stylistic pluralism has undergone incessant internal borrowing and transformation quite at odds with, say, social and economic transformation, so there is no direct way to read off the spiritual health of an epoch from the life of forms. Even if there are some connections, they remain historically specific both to place and art form; they do not have anything important to do with “culture [as] an orthogonal state of mind.” We are still in a period when prophets of architecture wish to convince us of comparable ennobling thoughts, when the politics of architecture and art are still conducted as stampedes toward the inevitable, and the Crisis in Architecture has to be read with The Decline of the West, while we rush gleefully over the cliff into future devolution.

To criticize Le Corbusier in this way may sound unfair, for how could he, any more than the other pioneers who were committed to the Zeitgeist, have a notion of these views, of semiotics, avant la lettre? He was working with bad theory, and anyone can be unfortunate enough to be born at the wrong time. He should not bear personal responsibility for questionable ideas that were widely held at the time. True. And yet he, more than the others, publicized these universalist and determinist notions; he built architecture to celebrate them and believed in them strongly, which meant he was often the most intolerant of local customs, traditions, and all the social usage he had no use for (those he would condemn with “the styles are a lie”).

To probe the question of personal responsibility and apportion praise and blame inevitably leads me, no matter how amateur my skill at psychoanalysis, to the imputation of motives—stated or repressed. I think the above soliloquy makes it clear that Le Corbusier repressed his own reductive functionalism while adopting the very terms and underlying mentality of those he was attacking. For my part, he gave too much to his opponents when he functionalized aesthetics and introduced such ideas as the “dictatorship of plans.” This is nearly utilitarianism; the only way to avoid it would have been to insist on the ultimate validity of certain goals, irrespective of their function. Le Corbusier did this when he insisted on beauty independent of utility. But, and this represents another repression, he could not face the basic issue he raised, the “quality of life,” because this would have led him directly to politics, ideology, and social reality.

Once there he would have had to confront the “churches, palaces, country houses,” or at the very least the continuation of bourgeois functions which he, along with the Marxists, wished into oblivion. It is one thing for him to be a social utopian, but quite another for him to believe this utopia had arrived. How else can we interpret his agreement with the Marxists: “At this moment nothing succeeds in architecture except what is dictated by social and economic need”? Presumably he had mass housing in mind, something neither the masses nor the leaders in 1929 were actually prepared to build on the scale he envisaged.

His buildings are ideal models for a possible future social and ethical order. In this sense they are positively dialectical, but at the same time they imply a leap of history over several stages. They do not use enough of the existing architectural codes to persuade and reeducate the people who will (mis)use them. They are best inhabited by the elite and other architects who may have a partial grasp of his codes. This is how I understand his continual remarks predicting the failures of his buildings. “The right state of mind doesn’t exist”; “We must create the mass-production spirit… the spirit of living in mass-production houses.”21 Indeed, but “… the one person who won’t want to live in them is the worker! He has not been educated, he is not ready to live in such apartments…. We have an immense programme of social education before us.”22 The implication in this, however well-intentioned, is still coercive, the “police measures” of teaching the masses what is good for them, as conceived by an elite.

In Précisions, Le Corbusier illustrated this idea of elitism with “The Cultural Pyramid” (Fig. 61).

Figure 61
“The Cultural Pyramid,” drawing from Le Corbusier’s Précisions, Paris, 1930, p. 96.

The workers, whom I have often admired for their clairvoyant mind, have been horrified by my houses: They called them “boxes.” And for the moment we build “cheap houses” under the Loucheur Law, combining several frameworks, only for the aristocrats and intellectuals. One cannot burn the stages of history: you see the pyramid by which I express the hierarchic phenomenon of society; one cannot change it in spite of all the revolutions. The base of the pyramid, the good people, is, for the moment, suffocated by the most characteristic romanticisms; its notion of quality is established on the forms of luxury of generations before 1900. It is for them that we still make enormous sideboards in the Henri II Style and cupboards with huge mirrors. The mastodons of old cannot even enter through the doors of our houses. There we have a cell in human scale which still awaits the right inhabitants.23

This quote is notable for its confusion and suppression: “the good people” are not actually drawn into the diagram, Le Corbusier could not bring himself to being this explicit about elitism. He mentions twice that “for the moment” these good people are not ready for his housing, but then implies they never will be, because the pyramid never changes “in spite of all the revolutions.”

Of course, Le Corbusier would never agree with the view which I have extracted from his work and if confronted with it would immediately insist on creative freedom. After all, he said when confronted with the changes made in his Pessac housing, “Life is right, the architect wrong,” suggesting a reversal of the values I have imputed to him. And any number of counter instances could be added. His dualism, it is true, mediates the view which I have built up, but it does not essentially alter it for the workers who have to live in his buildings. Perhaps, had he lived in a different age, he would have come up with a definition of architecture more in keeping with his momentary insights on life—“architecture is the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of meanings seen through social conventions.” One thing is certain—he never stopped moving and absorbing new ideas.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?