Le Corbusier’s politics are a divisive issue for architects and rightly so: his work is still highly influential, in both adoration and enmity, and his expressed political views are at odds with contemporary western democratic values.
It’s easy for the discussion of those views to lapse into a sort of ethical debate by-proxy, devolving into a discussion about whether or not Le Corbusier should continue to be included in the canon of twentieth century architects considering his apparent anti-Semetism and sympathy for the Nazi party. Such narrow and moralistic inquiry negates other issues pertinent to Le Corbusier’s place in history. It is possible to both be aware of Le Corbusier’s political affiliations and to discuss his work as an architect, urbanist, and designer for its own merits. By way of explanation, I would like to revisit a recent controversy concerning Le Corbusier.
Swiss bank UBS dropped an ad campaign featuring the Neuchâtel-born architect on September 29, 2010; personal correspondence suggesting that the architect was a Nazi sympathizer was frequently cited as context for UBS’s decision. A widely-circulated AP article on the UBS campaign, “Nazi Praise Sparks Swiss Rethink of Le Corbusier” by Bradley S. Klapper, quotes an October 1940 letter from Le Corbusier to his mother. “One letter shows Le Corbusier expressing clear enthusiasm for Hitler,” Klapper writes, “ even if at other times he calls the German leader a monster. ‘If he is serious in his declarations, Hitler can crown his life with a magnificent work: the remaking of Europe.’” Nicholas Fox Weber’s translation of the letter in his 2008 biography, Le Corbusier: A Life, is equally damning, and worth quoting at length:
“Here is the great problem facing the French government. We are in the hands of a conqueror whose attitude could be devastating. If he is sincere in his promises, Hilter could crown his life by an overwhelming creation: the accommodation of Europe. This is a stake that may tempt him, rather than a preference for a fruitless vengeance… Personally I believe the outcome could be favorable. France, barring a criminal transplantation or a German invasion, is a mouthful not to be chewed, and if the problem consists of assigning each nation its role, getting rid of the banks, solving real—realistic—tasks, the prognosis is good. It would mean the end of speeches from the tribunal, the endless meetings of committees, of parliamentary eloquence and sterility. Such a revolution will be made in the direction of order and not without consideration of human conditions” (Weber, Nicholas F. Le Corbusier: A Life. New York: Knopf, 2008. 487).
As Klapper states in his article, such fascist inclinations should not come as a surprise for anyone familiar with Le Corbusier’s life, “as it has long been known that Le Corbusier aligned with the French far-right in the 1930s and accepted a post as a city planner for the Vichy régime that ruled France and collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II.”
The campaign in question was intended to woo back clients who left UBS during the 2008 financial crisis. UBS was bailed out by the Swiss government in late 2008, but posted strong results in the first quarter of 2009. Advertisements ran across Europe and Asia, and featured an ad showing a black-and-white photo of Le Corbusier holding his head with the captions: “Because we’ve drawn a clear line” and “We want to deal with our past and look with confidence into the future.” The decision to drop Le Corbusier from the UBS campaign came after Jewish groups, including Schweiz-Israel, accused Le Corbusier of being an anti-Semite. This hit a raw nerve with the bank, which suffered a crisis in the 1990s over revelations that it prevented Jewish claimants from accessing Holocaust-era accounts belonging to their ancestors, leading to a $1.25 billion settlement. The connections between the ad, the October 1940 letter, and UBS’s past abuses are obvious, although probably unintentional. According to Jean-Raphael Fontannaz, spokesperson for the Swiss banking giant, the company dropped advertisements featuring the architect because controversy undermined the goals of the campaign. “For UBS, the most important thing in our campaign is the message we wish to communicate,” he said in a September 2010 statement. “We don’t want the message to be lost in a discussion about Le Corbusier. We also don’t wish to hurt the feelings of anyone.”
It’s easy to dismiss the UBS affair as too moralistic or nationalistic for our concern as architects. In this case, I am not interested so much in the particulars of the controversy and its various ethical entanglements but rather how UBS dealt with the problem at hand. Considering the tenor of the campaign, it was a pragmatic and acceptable choice on the part of the bank to remove Le Corbusier from their ad campaign—the associations with Nazism and anti-Semitism are too much of a distraction. It is clear in Fontannaz’s statement that the bank’s decision was not a judgment about Le Corbusier’s worth as an architect, or as an important Swiss figure. For that reason it’s understandable that the UBS decision was not followed by a similar decision the Swiss 10 franc bill, as some thought might happen. Similarly, Le Corbusier’s political views have not affected his removal from architecture’s historical record.
It can be said that Le Corbusier’s politics have little meaningful bearing on his worth as an architectural genius. Architecture is primarily concerned with the production of built objects or spaces; more than anything else it is an aesthetic practice. It is worth noting that, according to Nathan Fox Weber, nearly 400 architectural monographs on Le Corbusier’s work had been published by the time he released his book in 2008. His was the first full-length biography. Architects seem to be more interested in Le Corbusier’s body of work than Le Corbusier the man. As a historical figure, then, all we are really left of Le Corbusier is genius in the sense of guiding character or spirit. This is not to discount the value of the political in his work. One can argue that Le Corbusier’s work as an urbanist, for example Ville Radiuse and Ferme Rediuese, were at least in part intended as spatial models for the industrial syndicalism fashionable among the French far-right in the 1930s and 40s. However, it also possible to evaluate these projects outside of a political context. I cannot in good conscience go so far as to say that the political ambitions of Le Corbusier and his work are irrelevant, especially from a historical perspective, but considering our field’s aesthetic tendencies Le Corbusier’s controversial views are only important insofar as they are controversial.
Le Corbusier’s work continues to have value because it can be and has been recognized repeatedly and in a wide range of contexts. Whether that recognition is praise, pilgrimage, or scorn is irrelevant except in as much as the three seem to feed back into one another. It is for this reason that Le Corbusier’s politics matter—because they really don’t, as such, in particular, but do as a means for gaining recognition. Whether one believes that his fascist, anti-Semitic, and anti-humanist beliefs are latent in his work, and that that is repulsive and as such his work repugnant; or one believes that his designs, in their focus on light, material, and personal expression are in fact humanist in nature and for that he deserves apology or even simply praise; or one simply tries to emulate his work, who cares why, any discussion thereof provides the sort of outside recognition that architecture needs in order to have worth—and it is because Le Corbusier and his work are discussed to such a great extent that he is an architectural genius. Unless one is concerned with matters of the historical record, the particulars of Le Corbusier’s political views don’t really matter—he is an important figure, and will remain so until people stop talking about him.