Le Corbusier was an anti-Semite – but we should condemn the architect, not the buildings

Unité d'Habitation in Marseille. Image: André P. Meyer-Vitali/Flickr/creative commons.

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.


How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 

CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.