Beyond Buildings


Le Corbusier and the Fascination of Fascist Architecture

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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.


Credit: Wikipedia

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?



Comments (6 Total)

  • Posted by: Craig Banholzer | Time: 2:20 PM Monday, November 26, 2012

    In response to some of the other comments here: I believe ti does change or understanding of an architect's work when we know something about their political affiliations or tendencies. I, for one, do not perceive the "profound humanism" which Mr. Betsky imputes to Le Corbusier the architect. On the other hand, evidence that he was a Nazi sympathizer reinforces an impression I have always had of the buildings and projects themselves.

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  • Posted by: Craig Banholzer | Time: 2:06 PM Monday, November 26, 2012

    It is impossible for me to understand how an informed person can state that Fascist regimes had no interest in Modernist architecture. What do you call the Casa del Fascio built for Mussolini by the architect Giuseppe Terragni in 1936? It looks like Modernism to me, and as anyone who has been to Italy knows, it was not a one off, but merely one of many similar structures built during the Fascist Regime. Look, it is no longer 1946. No architect alive today is going to go to prison for collaborating with the enemy. If we can't be honest about this sort of thing now, when will we ever be?

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:33 PM Thursday, October 14, 2010

    Phillip Johnson had Nazi party affiliations as was documented in many publications ("Berlin Diary" by Shirer for example). So should Johnsons work be villified because of that? Who cares if Corbu had fascist interests, ideals or that his work might be inferred as being a part of that politcal movement. No political overtones should ever impair the view of his creations. Time and time again an architect's work is discounted because of politics or judging them in respect to the historical perspective we have today. Would history have been kinder to the fascists if they had won the second world war? Winners and losers in politics should not be the measuring point for our critique of architecture.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 6:02 PM Wednesday, October 13, 2010

    Corbusier was a visionary and I did not realize that he had fascist or totalitarian leanings. I did not like his design solutions for large urban projects but the Ronchamps Cathedral was beautiful. I do believe the means and the ends are both important. The process almost always effects the product. Thanks! Doug

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:09 PM Wednesday, October 13, 2010

    Inasmuch as utopian ideals are frequently, if not invariably, the construct of a single mind, it is the singularity of that vision for how the world 'ought' to be that creates an inescapable comparison to political totalitarianism. Though Corbu's grand urban schemes are commonly understood to be born from his love of humanity, his "profound humanism", the fact remains that they respond to a single, domineering vision of what modern life should be. While there may be much to be learned from his thinking, his plans were undeniably totalitarian. That they curried no favor with the political class is likely a reflection that their intent was to subjugate the people not to the power of the state (as the political class would want) but rather to the singularity of his vision. The question of admiration or reproach for Corbu than becomes one of how we feel about the benevolent dictator. Though his intentions may have been noble, there is no way around the fact that he sought to tell the world how to live, firm in his belief that everyone would be better off if they'd just go along with him. Whether we love him or revile him depends entirely on whether or not we care more about the means or the ends.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:53 PM Wednesday, October 13, 2010

    In paragraph 1: "...nor have any totalitarian, anti-human regimes been at all sympathetic to the sort of Modernism he espoused—or to any Modernism" In paragraph 5: "Some of the Rome’s best modern buildings were commissioned by Mussolini..." If I'm not mistaken, Mussolini was a FASCIST.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.