Le Corbusier and the Fascination of Fascist Architecture
A recent discovery of letters that show Le Corbusier to have been, at the very least, sympathetic to the Nazis and their visions for rebuilding Europe according to their pan-Germanic fantasies, will delight all those who have always thought of the Swiss-born architect as having fascistic tendencies and, more to have point, to have had an influence on architecture not very distant to that of Fascism in politics.
Certainly, I cannot deny that Le Corbusier’s urban visions were not only grandiose, but also were ruthless in their ideas, such as removing entire neighborhoods. His vision of a society controlled by a kind of enlightened oligarchy of businesspeople was akin to the sort of corporatist vision that readied the political ground in France, Italy, and Spain for Fascism as a political movement. His adoration of both mythical Greek sources and the latest technology, which he saw as coming together into an elemental, pure, and abstract language to which the human body would be subjected, certainly would seem like a good strategy for any Fascist regime. There is only the inconvenient fact that the Fascists had no interest in either his or his followers’ work, nor have any totalitarian, anti-human regimes been at all sympathetic to the sort of Modernism he espoused—or to any Modernism.
There might be a reason for that beyond taste. I would argue that there is in Le Corbusier’s work a profound humanism, a love of how we perceive and live, a fascination with the particularities of quotidian existence, and a desire to liberate us all from traditions and myths so that we can be free to experience modern life as it is. Even the Modular, which would seem to reduce man to a mechanized object, is both a vision of a the body as a mechanized reduction and a way to imbue the largest structures with a human scale and measure. I would also say that these aspects of his architecture have proven to be infinitely more enduring than his political thoughts or more grandiose visions.
Even in those urban schemes, we should not forget that his desire was to create places of light and space, in which everybody would be free to enjoy nature both in its concrete and its abstract manifestations. His designs were anti-hierarchical, in direct opposition to the kind of urbanism Fascists such as Albert Speer espoused and which is still evident in the work of some their Neo-Classical heirs. Of course Le Corbusier was also badly imitated, and there certainly are horrible examples of both buildings and town plans that we can trace back, at least in a formal sense, to his influence.
That would in itself not be a reason to remove his names from streets and his image from banknotes, as the Swiss are now doing. The fact that he expressed Fascist sympathies may be sufficient reason to do so, though there is a very long list of people who made notable contributions to our culture despite such horrible thoughts and worse. Compared to Martin Heidegger, Le Corbusier was a saint, and yet we can still gain much from reading his work. The fact that UBS Bank has dropped him from their advertising campaign might say more about the bank's guilt about its wartime past.
Also, I do think we have to confront the ongoing fascination of architecture that has Fascist tendencies. Some of the Rome’s best modern buildings were commissioned by Mussolini, and they have stood the test of time not just because modern architecture of the post-War period there has been so horrible. We can even admire what remains of Speer’s architecture. Is there also not something frightening, as well as frighteningly beautiful, about Speer’s plan for Berlin, Germania, as well as its roots in Ledoux’s and Boullee’s work? Is not much of Leon Krier’s, and thus of the work of some of the New Urbanists’ work, based on such forms? Do we not admire some of the grander piles of concrete designed by the New Brutalists, whose Corbusian roots grew into muscled palaces for people such as Boston City Hall?
In a fundamental sense, is not any architecture that imposes form based on abstract, preordained orders on our bodies and daily lives not something that, like Fascism, subjects us to the tyranny of form and erodes our humanism? Can we nonetheless find a place within such an order?