Earlier this month the French paper of record Le Monde published an open letter from a group of nine prominent French cultural figures calling on French Minister of Culture Franck Riester to withdraw his department’s funding of heritage related to Le Corbusier.
Their demands were based on the architect's participation in fascist journals, his admiration of Hitler, his work for fascist Italy and the collaborationist regime of Vichy France, as well as his self-professed anti-Semitism.
Things heated up the following weekend when Michel Guerrin, Le Monde’s editor-in-chief no less, wrote an opinion piece condemning the authors’ position, primarily on the grounds that they had not properly reckoned with the complex politics of the inter-war period. Le Corbusier may have collaborated with Vichy, Guerrin argued, but he also worked with the socialist government of Leon Blum prior to that.
While it no doubt adds fuel to the still fiery debate around Le Corbusier’s architectural legacy, this dispute also highlights how difficult it is to judge the work of historical figures according to contemporary standards, especially if their works happen to be buildings.
Unlike the artefacts of other cultural disciplines, buildings take up a lot of space in our everyday life. This means they’re also subject to reinvention and rehabilitation through the fact of being used for purposes beyond the architect’s original intentions.
Take a building like the Cité Radieuse (Radiant City) in Marseille, one of Le Corbusier’s famous “Unité d'Habitation” (Housing Units). As its name suggests, the building is a residential high-rise. Some of its residents have lived there for many decades. More so than its original architect, these inhabitants have made the building that we experience today: by decorating their individual dwellings according to their own tastes, living and working in the neighbourhood, paying rent and bills and generating a sense of community with their fellow inhabitants.
It may not sound like much compared to the lofty work involved in formulating the original design, but these things have ensured the buildings’continued existence. To quote the Smithsons’ famous description of Brutalist architecture, the building’s bare structure has been “dressed with the art of inhabitation”.
To be fair to the open letter authors, they aren’t suggesting his buildings be taken down. Rather, their letter demands that the Ministry of Culture “stop financing the Le Corbusier Foundation, withdraw its representative from the board of directors, give up the participation in the Le Corbusier museum project, and finally, act so that the mayor of Poissy removes the publicly-funded statue of the architect inaugurated in the city in January.”
Some of these demands are pretty reasonable. The French state shouldn’t finance a statue of an anti-Semite, especially since, as the authors point out, Minister Riester has himself explicitly stated that his department "will oppose antisemitism with the utmost firmness". Likewise, any museum celebrating the work of Le Corbusier could fail to grapple sufficiently with the architect’s views.
But the authors also seek to condemn the buildings Le Corbusier designed by characterising them as pure products of his politics. In making this argument, they quote Ernst Bloch, who described the architect’s buildings as reducing men “to the state of standardised termites”.
To be clear, Le Corbusier had a dodgy, borderline fascist worldview, and his work often did demonstrate a cold indifference to the individual desires of the people who would eventually have to live with it (see his plan for Addis Ababa for instance). Yet by judging his buildings on the basis of these views, the authors are themselves centring the architect as the figure uniquely responsible for their destiny, ignoring the role not just of the inhabitants but the many people involved in building and also maintaining and renovating them over the years.
Interestingly, Guerrin’s reply to the open letter also ends up perpetuating this idea that a building is an inseparable product of the architect’s genius. In seeking to position Le Corbusier as above the political context in which he was working, he refers to the contemporary controversy surrounding “starchitect” Jean Nouvel’s building the Louvre Abu Dhabi. When asked how he felt about working in places like the UAE, Nouvel said that he works “at the scale of the century, or centuries, for people, not for the person currently in power.”
By invoking Nouvel’s argument here, Guerrin is trying to say that the architect operates outside the political context in which they work, since their buildings survive beyond it. But while these buildings may well be experienced, enjoyed and sustained by ordinary innocent people long after the architect’s work is done, this doesn’t mean that the architect is absolved of responsibility for their choice of where to work and who to work with.
Indeed, by lending their influence and credibility to political systems which commit human rights abuses, in Nouvel’s case, and crimes against humanity, in Le Corbusier’s, both architects are complicit in these crimes. This holds true no matter how brilliant or important the work is.
Which is all to say, condemn the architect, don’t condemn their buildings.