With the recent stir about whether Denise Scott Brown, FAIA, should receive retroactive Pritzker Prize honors—which were denied to her—and the subsequent discussion about women architects still not receiving the recognition of their counterparts, it is good to remember that despite notable successes, sexism is baked deeply into the culture of architecture. But moreover, sexism is part of the discipline's larger bias against sexuality—and in a certain sense, humanity.
A case in point is the retrospective of Le Corbusier's work that is currently showing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Its curator, Jean-Louis Cohen, means it as a rehabilitation of the architect’s attitude towards landscape, claiming that much of his work came as a response to the contours of the natural context, while his interiors were meant as "machines for viewing" that expanse. I think (and most critics seem to agree) that the exhibition's value is purely the kind of assembly of original drawings, models, and paintings of which only MoMA is capable, as well as its thoughtful stewardship by the curator. It provides the most complete and visceral overview of Le Corbusier’s work this country has ever seen.
What is not on view is nature. After we see a few realistic paintings of the Jura Mountains in northwestern Switzerland, where the architect grew up, we are treated only to the master's sketchy indications of general natural traits, meted out over increasingly large expanses of paper, and inevitably serving as the staging grounds for his monumental machines.
Moreover, these landscapes become "landscape types," as Cohen himself puts it—embodied and objectified versions of general characteristics (lake fronts, distant mountains, ridges, rolling expanses) that the architect used interchangeably as he moved around the world playing out his particular games of pure forms in light.
Le Corbusier in this exhibition is the perfect embodiment of the architect as demiurge who decrees autonomous structures made by men (not women) on a supine earth. Lifted on pilotis and replacing the messy reality of nature with an artificial one on the roof, his structures delight in their own complexity and muscular ingenuity. They also provide the owners or inhabitants a place to view the natural world framed in the fenêtre en longueur (long horizontal sliding window) and stretching out at a safe distance. Erect buildings lord over recumbent, soft lines.
Perhaps I am stretching metaphors, but the invariably mediocre paintings Le Corbusier made in his off hours, and of which there are too many on display here, make it clear, as Joe Giovannini has pointed out on this site, that he viewed the body as a kit of parts that could and would be replaced by geometric solids and machine parts. The suppression of his female collaborators, and the glorification of the Modular Man reaching to the sky with muscled arms, makes it all too evident what a sexist, mechanistic man Le Corbusier really was.
What saves his work is his continual emphasis on the scenographic aspects of architecture. In this he represents the continuity of the École des Beaux-Arts' dual emphasis on the marche, or movement through a building, in addition to the parti, or abstract layout stretched out over the page and the site. If Cohen's exhibition shows us anything, it was that Le Corbusier was a master setter of scenes who produced not just the building blocks for a modernist utopia, but also the set designs in which the heroes of the future could act out our technology-driven victory over reality.
The Masters of the Modernist Universe were myopic men who achieved beautiful things and dreamed of even better ones by suppressing reality and complexity—and at least half the human race. We still live and work in their shadow, as well in that of all the other men before them who decreed pompous colonnades and monuments to masculine authority. Until we develop different attitudes towards how architecture can operate in the real world, we are bound to repeat the crimes against humanity implicit in built form as we design and construct it today.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.