Dec/Jan 2009


Le Corbusier’s daily life is examined in his first major biography

Christine Schwartz Hartley

Few architects have generated as much interest as the master theorist, builder, urban designer, and visual artist born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret in the Swiss city of La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1887. Starting as early as 1910 and until his death in 1965, the man who would be known as Le Corbusier produced letters, pamphlets, books, schemes, plans, villas, cities, and even shacks (his beloved quasi-monastic cabanon at Roquebrune Cap-Martin on the French Riviera) that have revolutionized the way architects and designers conceive of themselves and their work. Traveling incessantly around the world, he devoured information about the cultures he encountered, the latest inventions and innovations, art both new and old, and, of course, architecture. Le Corbusier was a tireless advocate for novel ideas about buildings, urban environments, and our place in them; his groundbreaking constructions, with their strong lines, bold colors, and combinations of materials such as steel, glass, and reinforced concrete, were designed to better human existence. As his Unité d’Habitation housing project in Marseille and his chapel on a hilltop at Ronchamp in France’s Vosges region demonstrate in strikingly different contexts, Le Corbusier imagined a life in which daily gestures became easier and more gratifying, a life connected to its surroundings and the universe. As much of the educated public knows, this passionate, imperious, and unfailingly dapper character—the tall, thin fellow in round black glasses nicknamed Corbu—was one of modernism’s reigning geniuses.

Yet surprisingly, as Nicholas Fox Weber notes in the preface to his nearly thousand-page Le Corbusier: A Life, forty-three years after the architect’s death and some four hundred monographs later, “no substantial biography” of the man can be found. Nine years ago, Fox Weber thought he would remedy this situation by attempting to “understand and reveal what this extraordinary architect was like inside, as well as in the eyes of others.” The author of several books (including a biography of the reclusive, elusive French artist Balthus) and the longtime director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, Connecticut, Fox Weber set himself a commendable and daunting task. Had he stuck to his stated goal, we might have been able to enjoy a satisfying book. Unfortunately, after drawing a sharply detailed portrait of young Jeanneret’s febrile formative years in the first nine chapters, Fox Weber drowns his subject in a sort of biographie fleuve, a very wide, long, and choppy river that tosses the reader along on a chronological presentation of the architect’s work, travels, loves, battles, disappointments, and successes—a presentation of quotidian details from which little of note emerges, save a handful of buildings.

The fact that the book contains sixty chapters, none of them titled and each divided into similarly unheaded sections, should be taken as a warning sign: Fox Weber’s haphazard approach will test the concentration and patience of even the most Corbu-smitten reader. Ideas, projects, and people bob to the surface only to be abandoned in favor of a quote from one of the architect’s obsessive letters to his mother, a bit of information about a trip or a client, or an allusion to another idea or encounter. Fox Weber’s account is diluted throughout with such minutiae and non sequiturs, leaving Le Corbusier’s life oddly, paradoxically, unexamined.

Fox Weber offers little or no explanation of many significant events. For instance, his observation that Le Corbusier’s “international importance was soaring” by the end of 1923 comes as a complete shock (no foreign clients or public-relations efforts have been mentioned), as does the invitation the architect received to design the League of Nations’ headquarters in Geneva in 1926—an occasion that led to his first battle against bourgeois academicism, a battle tracked tediously by the biographer (Corbu loses). Similarly, when La Tourette is first evoked, without further identification, on page 612, a reader new to Corbu’s work could not possibly infer that it is the “convent near Lyon” mentioned in passing on page 563 or imagine that a description of the “harshly minimalist space” pierced by a “complex fenestration” will not come until page 773.

Promised insights into what Le Corbusier “was like inside” come in the form of quotations from letters to a cast of characters that’s very limited, considering the six thousand missives he’s known to have written in his lifetime (and that he often kept carbon copies). Granted, the architect’s youthful hunger for women, desire for self-improvement, and steadfastness in the development of his life’s mission come across beautifully in early communications with his parents; his first mentor, Charles L’Eplattenier; and, most freely, the Swiss music critic William Ritter. But while one may be interested to discover Le Corbusier’s tender-to-passionate-to-pleading missives to Marguerite Tjader Harris, the American woman with whom he had a mostly epistolary thirty-year relationship, Fox Weber serves no reader by quoting and paraphrasing several decades’ worth of letters to the architect’s widowed mother, Marie. These take up an enormous amount of space, interrupting or dragging out—but never really moving along—the story. Most of these letters have Corbu praising her youthfulness, resenting her preference for his older brother, haranguing her to be more open-minded about things, and exhorting her to be happy with the house he had built for her even though it kept springing leaks. As exhausting as they are, these redundancies might have been acceptable had Fox Weber explored the recesses of Corbu’s relationship with his mother. But he chose not to, even though one letter contains a naked self-portrait of the sixty-six-year-old architect, with sagging penis, in India.

Defaulting on another of his promises, Fox Weber provides too little material for a portrait of Le Corbusier “in the eyes of others” to emerge. Although the architect rubbed shoulders with countless designers, poets, painters, inventors, engineers, and industrialists (whose memoirs and letters could have been quoted to that effect), very few are mentioned. In 1926, Corbu had dinner with Colette, who said she wanted to live in a “Corbusiere.” How interesting! How did this meeting come about? What happened afterward? We won’t learn it here. Brassaï had been the architect’s friend for twenty years when he visited the cabanon at Roquebrune in 1952. What a surprise! We never knew and won’t hear any more thereafter. It’s the same with other friends: By the end of the biography, the reader will be able to remember the names of only a handful of them—Max du Bois, Amédée Ozenfant, Robert Rebutato, and Fernand Léger—and will be incapable of determining whether Corbu didn’t make more friends or his biographer just didn’t mention them. Glimpses from other people’s perspectives amount to not much more than a two-page paraphrase of a 1947 New Yorker profile, designer Charlotte Perriand’s and restaurateur Jean-Claude Baker’s respective versions of Le Corbusier’s flirtation with Josephine Baker, the architect’s cousin and partner Pierre Jeanneret’s protestation that he only “feigned submission” to the master during his long collaboration with him, and the Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi’s sycophantic account of Corbu’s work in Chandigarh.

Certainly, Fox Weber’s account of the architect’s major buildings can be informative, providing a solid primer on his oeuvre. He provides enlightening information, for instance, about the context in which Le Corbusier built his Villa La Roche in 1923, including details about his relationship with his client, the collector Raoul La Roche, and about such construction problems as bursting pipes, a leaky roof, and an insufficient boiler. Although lacking in originality, the author’s observations about the building (“Le Corbusier opened new possibilities for the concept of luxury. Flat surfaces, machined materials, right angles, sharp edges—all were taken from the realm of industrial fabrication and made the essence of domestic graciousness”) elegantly summarize it, as well as many of the architect’s most successful private spaces. Similarly, Fox Weber clearly conveys how the architect was instantly enthralled with the environment he found in Chandigarh (“poetry in the sunshine—at last without the impediment of the interfering and blind bourgeoisie,” as the biographer nicely puts it), whose urban plan and government buildings he worked on from 1950 to 1958. Much attention is given to the description of each building, as well as to Le Corbusier’s relationship with and reliance on Jeanneret and Doshi, among others. Although Fox Weber’s prose can be overblown (“It was as if his art happened to him, and he was merely the agent”; “Are we inside a vast human heart, having entered through an aorta into its throbbing chambers?”), he gives Chandigarh its due, over several chapters. Alas, other than the above and a very precise account of Le Corbusier’s relentless and desperate attempts to get some work out of the Vichy government (he arrived there two days after Pétain) from 1940 through 1943—a painful four chapters for several reasons (boredom chief among them)—little else is treated with comparable seriousness.

Least of all, perhaps, Corbu’s relationship with his companion and wife of nearly forty years, Yvonne Gallis, a “salty Mediterranean woman” he met in 1919 and with whom he started living in 1922. In just a few pages in his first chapter, Fox Weber roughly sketches that relationship, explaining that the architect always kept Yvonne out of the public eye (she never came to his openings or inaugurations, save a Salon d’Automne and the unveiling of the Unité in Marseille in 1952) and took an awfully long time to “recognize her symptoms of drunkenness.” Thereafter, the biographer pays hardly any attention to this central part of the architect’s life. Until the war years, that is, when Fox Weber begins chronicling Yvonne’s descent into alcoholism and anorexia with some regularity—she hits bottom at eighty-eight pounds in March 1947, repeatedly falls down drunk but can’t feel the pain of her broken bones, and becomes immobilized. Throughout, the biographer never ventures to speculate on the cause of her illnesses or on what her infirmity meant for Le Corbusier. Instead, he simply reports that “Yvonne had become so difficult that the architect could never stay home for long” and quotes Le Corbusier’s astonishing letters to his disintegrating wife: “You are amazingly healthy—an iron constitution. You’ve had one bad deal: your bones. You don’t take care of them. You’ve got prescriptions. You don’t buy the medicines. You have no notion of the life I lead. Anyone else would have croaked long since!” It was Yvonne who croaked, in October 1957, just months after this last missive. Had Fox Weber examined the great master’s relationship with his wife just a bit more and dared connect this shining example of his self-centeredness and denial to other such instances relating to his work, we might have been able to learn something about his life that the hundreds of monographs hadn’t already told us.

The former deputy editor of Art + Auction, Christine Schwartz Hartley is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn, New York.