Book Review: Millais vs. Le Corbusier

Malcolm Millais, the author of Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture, has written Le Corbusier, the Dishonest Architect, brought out in Britain by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, of Newcastle upon Tyne. It is a brave book and a necessary book, a vital step toward truth in architecture today.

9781527502994Two books published in France two years ago expanded what little was known of the fascism that marred the career of modern architecture’s chief founding pioneer. Millais, a British architect and engineer who lives in Portugal, has woven these new facts about Le Corbusier’s story into the tapestry of what we already know of Corbusier’s incoherent architectural thought, dishonest professional practices and sham self-promotion. Millais has drawn conclusions about Le Corbusier that should shatter his iconic status.

Why we should care is succinctly explained by the rear cover text of the book:

This is not a book for architects, but for all those that have suffered, consciously and unconsciously, from modern architecture and have wondered how it came about. … This book exposes the myths that surround Le Corbusier, detailing the endless failures of his proposals and his projects. These were due to his profound dishonesty, both as a person and as an architect. His legacy was an architectural profession that believed, and still believes, they were designing buildings based on logic, functionality and honesty, whereas they were doing the opposite.

Millais does not tiptoe along the path of this dangerous ground. His book is chock-a-block with a multitude of examples, each explained in detail from an engineering as well as an architectural perspective. The author stacks up the flaws in the maestro’s work and impugns the direction Corbu believed his profession must take, and did take. Aping its hero, the profession has kept these flaws safely stashed in the rear of the bottom drawer of what passes for the annals of architectural history since Corbusier, originally a Swiss named Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, died in 1965. And yet, as Millais writes,

It is rare to come across anything in the endless writings about Le Corbusier that shows him to be a decent or admirable person. Negative comments are usually made as asides, but are so persistent that they become a leitmotif. He was a hypocrite, self-obsessed and pretentious, and a compulsive liar who re-wrote his personal history to serve his own ends. In his dealings with others he could be a thief, a bully and a coward, and underhanded in financial matters. In his marriage he was a serial adulterer. He was a supporter of fascism through a mixture of conviction and expedience. When he realised that fascism wouldn’t triumph, he set about severing his ties with it. After the liberation of France his previous support for fascism became a well-guarded secret.

Until recently, then, the cult of Corbu has been sacrosanct and impenetrable, leaving the public mystified about the clear and obvious stupidity behind the shibboleths of modern architecture and planning that have defaced the modern world. Corbusier called a house a “machine for living in.” All of his work picked up the machine aesthetic and, as detailed so meticulously by Millais, linked that aesthetic to a sensibility that saw people as cogs in the “machine” of society.  So long as Corbusier’s worst behavior remained taboo to mention, analysis of his work remained in the realm of the hagiographic. As the cloak is unraveled and the truth peeps out from the dark, the bogus rationale emerges, now assisted by this book’s thick sarcasm, buttressed by the underlying and entirely understandable anger of Millais.

The more the rest of us feel his anger, the shorter will be the lifespan of modern architecture.

It is impossible to get one’s head around the adulation of a man who proposed the destruction of Paris as a redevelopment strategy, as did his Plan Voisin. He tried the same thing in Algiers and other places, fortunately also without success.

Le Corbusier holds up a model of one of his designs. (Archiobjects)

What becomes evident in the book’s narrative is how the flaws in Corbusier’s work arise from the totalitarian impulse that seems to have sprung from his personality. Many great architects, artists and other accomplished men and women have behaved badly toward spouses, clients and others, but in very few has the bad behavior so expressly reflected the underlying principles of the accomplishments. Even in many of those cases, it is fair to assess the accomplishments separately from the misbehavior. But in the case of Corbu, the accomplishments have had such a direct and widespread negative influence on the built environment, and the happiness of mankind, that ignoring the connection would be a form of intellectual malpractice.

And yet dishonesty of self-assessment has characterized the profession of architecture for more than half a century, exacerbating the baleful influence of Corbusier’s legacy. This legacy has torpedoed conventions of beauty centuries in the making, undermining the dignity and enchantment of the public realm in cities and towns around the world. A possible result is that societies everywhere have found it more difficult to foster a healthy political and cultural engagement that might help in the search for solutions to problems local, national and global in scope.

For example, a more open and honest discussion of that legacy might have alleviated some of the discordance that bothers the public in its reaction to modern architecture at any and all points along the timeline of its progress since Corbu’s death 1965, or before.

So, yes, Corbusier’s legacy matters. We do not need another book describing the evil of, say, Hitler, since it is so widely accepted. It is far more important to right the reputation of a legacy that, in the absence of transparency, remains a debilitating influence on humankind. In short, Millais’s book is important because it speaks truth to power.

Some who dislike Corbusier’s architecture tend to tut-tut any attempt to focus attention on the architect’s years trying and, to a degree, succeeding to gain influence and work in the fascist Vichy regime set up by the Nazis after the surrender of France. This reluctance to engage, however understandable, plays into the hands of those cynical modernists who condemn traditional architecture because Hitler preferred it to modern architecture. But modern architecture was a small niche practice when Hitler took power; classicism had been the reigning palette of civic design for centuries. Hitler did not choose classicism over modernism, he accepted what then seemed the unchallenged mandate of architecture history.

Much more telling, and quite in line with Corbu’s fascist sensibility, was the effort of modernist icon Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, head of the Bauhaus “art compound” in Germany, who tried, with the aid of Joseph Goebbels, to persuade Hitler to accept modern architecture as the design template of the Third Reich. Mies’s attempt says far more about modern architecture than his failure. He then left Germany and ended up in America, where one of his supporters was the architect Philip Johnson, who was an out-and-out Nazi. After modernism became the establishment in the 1940s and ’50s, Johnson closeted his Nazi past as successfully as did Le Corbusier.

Millais sums up the situation without the usual coughing into sleeves:

When the Second World War was over, and being a Nazi had lost its status, Le Corbusier, Mies, Johnson and the rest of the architectural community suffered collective amnesia, and a veil was quietly drawn over their inconvenient past. Philip Johnson dismissed criticism that Mies worked for the Nazis with the tastelessly trivial remark, “Nazis, schmatzis.”

To the extent that modern architecture pushes society down the road to totalitarianism, as indicated by decades of unsubtle cultural cues, this too is a discussion that needs to be ramped up, not tamped down.

Since Millais began writing his book (full disclosure: I proofread the first draft, though much material was added later), more light was thrown on Corbusier’s personality by researchers in neurobiology. Ann Sussman, co-author with Justin Hollander of Cognitive Architecture and host of the website Genetics of Design, has shown via new eye-tracking technology that Corbusier was on the autism spectrum. The generally benign condition, combined with Corbusier’s dodgy early years, seemed to incline him to an architecture that flip-flopped the relationship between the importance of design and the importance of people. That pattern inserted itself into the DNA of modern architecture that has now evolved under its influence for three or four generations of architectural practice.

Le Corbusier wrote fifty-one books; few were translated into English and even fewer are currently in print. As he was such an influential architect, no book on modern architecture can be complete without a reference to him. On top of that, upwards of four hundred books have been written about him, not to mention hundreds of articles and theses. Indeed, the study of Le Corbusier has been the basis for a number of academic careers. As Professor [Alexander] Tzonis remarked, “Given the quantity and the unequal quality of this huge production, becoming acquainted with his work is increasingly difficult.

No longer. With Le Corbusier, the Dishonest Architect, Malcolm Millais has helped to pull the world, and maybe even the world of architecture, back toward a path of sanity about architecture’s reigning icon.

[Theodore Dalrymple has a review of Malcolm’s book on the blog of Taki, the famous socialite gossip writer for The Spectator, in London. It is even angrier than my review.]

Review by David Brussat, fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art.

Review originally published on Architecture Here and There, 05.11.2017

To find out more about Le Corbusier, the Dishonest Architect and to purchase a copy at the promotional price of £29.99, click here.

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