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Le Corbusier’s Architecture and His Politics Are Revisited

Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse apartments in Marseille, France.CreditAgnes Dherbeys for The New York Times

By Rachel Donadio

  • July 12, 2015

PARIS — Was the paradigm-changing architect known as Le Corbusier a fascist-leaning ideologue whose plans for garden cities were inspired by totalitarian ideals, or a humanist who wanted to improve people’s living conditions — a political naïf who, like many architects, was eager to work with almost any regime that would let him build?

These questions, long debated by experts, are at the heart of fresh controversy in France set off by three new books that re-examine that master Modernist’s politics and an exhibition on Le Corbusier at the Pompidou Center here through Aug. 3, commemorating the 50th anniversary of his death. In light of the books, the exhibition has been criticized for glossing over, in particular, Le Corbusier’s well-documented involvement with far-right elements in France from the 1920s to the 1940s.

The polemics in the French news media have grown so pointed since the show opened in April that the Pompidou announced that it would hold a symposium next year on Le Corbusier’s politics. Antoine Picon, chairman of the Le Corbusier Foundation, which manages his archive and helps preserve his buildings, said he worried that the debate might affect an application submitted this year for various examples of the architect’s work in seven countries, including France and Chandigarh, India, to be classified as Unesco World Heritage sites. The attacks also come amid the rise of the far-right National Front in France and within a broader debate on that country’s World War II-era past and the legacy of Modernism.

“We were very, very surprised by the violence of the criticism,” said Frédéric Migayrou, one of the curators of “Le Corbusier, Measurement of Man,” at the Pompidou. He said the architect’s politics were well known and the museum never intended them to be the focus of the fairly modest exhibition. It draws on Le Corbusier’s post-Cubist sculpture and painting to demonstrate how he used the human form as an organizing principle in his architecture, from furniture to city planning, a link not generally associated with the clean lines of rationalist architecture.

Image Le Corbusier with a model apartment building in 1935.CreditThe New York Times

But from what angle did the architect approach the individual? The authors of “Le Corbusier, a French Fascism,” by the journalist Xavier de Jarcy; “Le Corbusier, a Cold Vision of the World,” by the journalist Marc Perelman; and “A Corbusier,” by the architect and critic François Chaslin essentially argue that Le Corbusier’s aesthetics cannot be separated from his politics, which leaned more to the right than the left, despite work he did in Moscow.

“There’s still a myth surrounding Le Corbusier, that he’s the greatest architect of the 20th century, a generous man, a poet,” Mr. de Jarcy said. That vision, he added, is “a great collective lie.”

Some of the recent criticism has centered on a section of the Pompidou show about the Modulor, a human silhouette that Le Corbusier developed in 1943, the height of the war, as the basis for a system of proportion that he used in his later work. The show’s organizers and many scholars see the Modulor as a humanist expression that helped form the basis of human-scale architecture.

“For me it’s exactly the opposite,” Mr. Perelman said. “It’s the mathematicization of the body, the standardization of the body, the rationalization of the body.”

Image Children near an imprint of Le Corbusier’s so-called Modulor silhouette in Nantes, France. He developed the silhouette as the basis for a system of proportion that he used in his later work.CreditFLC, ADAGP, Paris

Born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret to a petit-bourgeois Protestant family in Switzerland in 1887, Le Corbusier was highly complex. He built some of his largest projects in Soviet Russia in the 1930s, admired Mussolini, and in 1940 and 1941 spent 18 months in Vichy, France, trying, and failing, to curry favor with the Fascist regime of Marshal Pétain, which ultimately found his ideas too avant-garde.

In 1940, just days before a Vichy ruling banning Jews from elective office and other professions, Le Corbusier wrote to his mother: “The Jews are going through a very bad time. I am sometimes contrite about it. But it does seem as if their blind thirst for money had corrupted the country.”

But, scholars note, he also built for Jewish families in Switzerland, never publicly denounced Jews and never joined a fascist organization. “It’s an error in my view to insist on his anti-Semitism,” Mr. Chaslin said. But what he and his fellow authors find more troubling is the architect’s involvement in the 1920s with the right-wing elements. Later, some Vichy supporters saw his well-ordered Radiant City plan for Marseille, France — based on the shape of the human body — as a perfect expression of the Fascist program.

During the Second World War he was friendly with Alexis Carrel, a Nobel Prize-winning surgeon asked by the Vichy government to explore means of “national renewal.” Le Corbusier had read and enthusiastically underlined Carrel’s 1935 best seller, “Man, the Unknown,” which argues that parts of the French population should be gassed to preserve the most “virile” elements.

In their books, Mr. de Jarcy and Mr. Perelman argue that Le Corbusier’s architecture was inspired by Carrel’s unsavory ideas about how to clear out the old to make way for the new. Later, the architect proposed his Plan Voisin for Paris in the 1920s, in which he wanted to replace the urban blight of the Marais quarter with 18 glass towers on a rectangular grid with green space. Le Corbusier “projects his urbanism as a way to put forward his ideology,” Mr. de Jarcy said, “where the individual is destroyed by the group.”

But other scholars say that the new books — which brought material previously known to experts to the attention of the broader public — have taken the most damning elements of a complex life out of context.

“Le Corbusier reflects all the problems of the 20th-century temptation for radical reform,” said Jean-Louis Cohen, an architectural historian at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University who was a curator for an exhibition on Le Corbusier at the Museum of Modern Art in 2013 and one at the Pompidou in 1987 that addressed his politics. It’s clear that the architect “is no democrat,” Mr. Cohen said. “He is someone who thought that reform, social change, could only be made by an authority.” But, he added, “That’s why Le Corbusier is interesting, because of his own passions and the way he crosses the passions of the century.”

Nicholas Fox Weber, who wrote about Le Corbusier’s involvement with far-right elements in his exhaustive 2008 biography, “Le Corbusier: A Life,” said the architect often told people what they wanted to hear, whether it was governments or his own mother.

“Le Corbusier was a combination of blind and naïve about all politics,” Mr. Fox Weber said. The architect “was more than happy to have his ideals associated with the Fascist movement,” but at the same time “he was so excited with what Lenin was doing in Moscow,” Mr. Fox Weber said, adding: “He didn’t see the contradictions. He’s like an idiot savant.”

Others note that many architects work with unpleasant regimes in order to build.

Mr. Picon, chairman of the Le Corbusier Foundation, sees the polemics as more revealing about France, where a rudderless left is divided on everything except anti-fascism and there is a tendency to reduce shades of gray to black and white. “It’s like the war in Algeria,” Mr. Picon said. “The French need to come to terms with the ambiguities of their history.” He said the common French dichotomy of “hero or rogue” was simplistic. “Actually,” he added, “a lot of people were in between.”

Correction: July 14, 2015

An article on Monday about an exhibition in Paris on the architect known as Le Corbusier, which has been criticized for glossing over his involvement with far-right elements in France, referred incorrectly to Zaha Hadid, another architect, in noting that many architects work with “unpleasant regimes.” It cited Ms. Hadid’s having come under fire “after many migrant workers died” building a stadium she designed for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, but the criticism of Ms. Hadid came before construction of the stadium began, and thus no workers had died building it.

Correction: July 21, 2015

An article on July 13 about an exhibition in Paris on the architect known as Le Corbusier, which has been criticized for glossing over his involvement with far-right elements in France, misstated the timing of his work in Moscow. It was after Lenin’s death in 1924, thus the work was not done “under Lenin.” The article also referred incorrectly to two new books on Le Corbusier. While he knew and admired the surgeon Alexis Carrel, who wrote that parts of the French population should be gassed to preserve the most “virile” elements, the books do not draw a direct connection between Carrel’s writing and Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin for Paris. And because of an editing error, the article included an erroneous reference to Le Corbusier’s Radiant City plan for Marseille and the right-wing party Le Faisceau. The party disbanded before he conceived the plan; it was other right-wing elements, not party leaders, who championed it.

A version of this article appears in print on , Section C, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: For an Architect, the Spotlight’s Glare Isn’t All Flattering. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe