17 MARCH 1961, Page 24

The Bitterness of Le Corbusier

WHY has Le Corbusier taken time off from architecture to compile this rather desultory book? The publisher's blurb says that every page of My Work 'was written and designed by him, all the illustrations were selected by him, and he supervised all the page lay-outs.' Much of the text is printed in such small type as to be un- readable without a magnifying glass, the lay-out ' is fussy, the photographs are variable in quality, and the commentary is in telegraphese.

What is My Work meant to be? Is it intended to impress us with Le Corbusier's restless creativity? Is it intended to make us see him as a sort of modern Leonardo practising all the arts and theorising as well? Certainly this book is full of diagrams, little drawings and plans, records of places visited, mathematical calcula- tions, ideas for the urbanisation of various sites, lecture jottings, topographical sketches made from high-flying aircraft, reproductions of tap- estries, sculptures and paintings, as well of course as hundreds of photographs of the author's principal buildings. 'My research is, like my feelings,' Le Corbusier recently said,

directed towards what is the principal value in life: the poetry. Poetry is in the heart of man and is the capacity to go into the richness of nature. I am a visual man, a man working with eyes and hands, animated by plastic endeavour.

All right : or rather, a pretentious declaration unless one happens to be Leonardo—and Le Corbusier is very far from being that. But Le Corbusier certainly sees himself as the all-round genius, whereas the rest of the world sees him only as a great creative mind, a dreamer who delights in theories and paradoxes and schemes whose idealistic lack of reality is apt to frighten even the most well-disposed patrons. This is the cause of one of his great grudges against humanity.

Born in 1888, Le Corbusier says here that he `had no creative ambitions of any kind' in archi- tecture until 1922. Does he imagine that no one knows about the villa in Le Chaux de Fonds with which his architectural career began in 1916? Be that as it may, when Le Corbusier finally turned to architecture he was editing the review L'Esprit Nouveau and had to his credit a few insensitive, stylised paintings in an idiom known as Purism, which he had created and worked out with his friend Ozenfant, one of the deadest painters of the twentieth century. Their aim was to produce paintings in which the objects represented would be 'generalised, static and ex- pressive of the invariable,' that is to say designed as though for mass-production. Now one of Lc Corbusier's great strengths—and weaknesses-- as an architect is to have seen the potentialities of series production and the most ordinary materials. But alas he believes absolutely in theoretical calculations and has no time for per- sonal handling of a building. 'That is why No. 35 rue de Sevres,' says Monsieur Jardot in his preface, 'is today only the place where plans and models arc made. The organisation of the job and its technical supervision on the site arc en- trusted—but not left—to specialist firms.' Hence that diagrammatic measuring-rod 'The Modulor,' of whose eternal and universal validity Le Corbusier seeks to convince those who can wade through verbiage by citing its application ('I took it out of my pocket') to Greek temples, Egyptian bas-reliefs, Byzantine cathedrals or Romanesque churches. Le Corbusier involves himself in sums. invokes the golden section, draws silhouettes of human beings and tells us that he has hit upon a demonstrable constructor's measure which has been intuitively used by everyone since Noah. Maybe it has, but not with the absolute precision he advocates, forgetting that the very spirit of great painting or architecture is killed when it is turned out to a rule.

It would have been fascinating to read I.c Corbusier's own account of his changing aims and judgments on himself. This has been denied us, and My Work is no more than an outline project for a potential autobiography. Much of it is extremely petulant and distasteful. He sees his life and work as 'fifty-two years of struggles, failures and bitter opposition.' Intelli- gent Englishmen who have competed against the ingrained Tory traditionalism and smugness which have prevented the Modern Movement ever penetrating across the Channel may sympathise with 1.e Corbusier's bitterness. His professional career makes a grim story : he has not built a dwelling in Paris for the last thirty years; his Pav- illon de l'Esprit Nouveau at the International Exhibition in Paris in 1925 was 'erected in face of implacable hostility' and rejected as being 'not architecture' by the French president of the inter- national jury which intended to award him the Grand Prix; '1932-35 and 1937, years of misery, and of abject blind folly by the profession and officials responsible for the International Exhibition'; his proposed town plans for Algiers, St. Did, La Rochelle, Buenos Aires and Antwerp have been totally disregarded; his design for the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow won the com- petition in 1931 but was jettisoned; while his winning project for the Palace of the United Nations in Geneva in 1927 was voted out by the French delegate who claimed that it was irregular for not being 'drawn in Indian ink.' Of course it is galling for a great European architect to feel that his life's monument is in Chandigarh where only a privileged few will ever be able to visit it. 'It is written in man's destiny that he abominates constructive ideas,' says Le Corbusier. And again : 'Some men have original ideas and are kicked on the behind for their pains.' In such petty emotional outbursts Le Corbusier divests himself of much of his greatness. Full of ideas he certainly is, and he has put into cir- culation a formal architectural language which has nourished two entire generations. But this autobiographical volume would have had more value if it had been about modern building materials and buildings actually erected rather than about a succession of doubtful and abortive projects and paintings which can never be seriously considered as works of art.