Tuesday, August 25, 2015

50 years ago today, the death of Le Corbusier

Fifty years ago today, Le Corbusier, nee Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, waded into the Mediterranean from a pebbly crescent beach in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, intent on going for his daily swim -- despite the fact that his doctor, weeks earlier in Paris, had instructed him to knock it off with the swimming, because he clearly had a heart condition. He had been coming to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, a seaside village between Monaco and the Italian border, since the 1930s, when he stayed at Eileen Gray's Villa E-1027 -- a minimalist structure he himself could have designed, that has been recently restored (my article in Architect magazine on this subject is here). In the 1950s he built his famous cabanon, attached to the restaurant L'Etoile de Mer, and steps from the five camping cubes he had designed in coordination with the owner, Thomas Rebutato, a retired plumber from Nice. This fragrant slope, perched above the aqua and blue waters of his beloved Mediterranean Sea, was his getaway. He continued to come to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin after the death of his wife, Yvonne, dining on sea urchins and drinking wine, and telling a friend he loved it so much he was sure he would end his days there. And indeed he did. When he plunged into the waves on August 25, 1965, he would not return alive. Somewhere out there on those rolling waves, he had a heart attack. Two visitors to the area discovered his body as it washed up on shore.
     The funeral, memorial and processions that followed, culminating in Paris, were worthy of a head of state. Streets were named after him, and his visage graced currency in Switzerland, La Chaux-de-Fonds being the place of his birth. He achieved saint status at architecture schools across the land, particularly at places like the Harvard Design School. But just as inexorably, he was vilified as the destroyer of cities, the man who gave us the blank wall, elevated urban freeway, towers in the park, soulless concrete; arguably the original "starchitect," who initiated the obsession with form. Just this year, two books (mercifully, in French) highlighted his time in Vichy and alleged fascist leanings (though I could not detect a single new piece of evidence that had not already been uncovered by Nicholas Fox Weber, much less me). The Pompidou Center was criticized for not pumping up his dark side in its recent exposition. As a leading figure on the stage of the 20th century, he has become the architect a lot of people love to hate.
    So whatever would we do without him?
    I am resisting the temptation to compare him to a certain presidential candidate in the news these days. But when it comes to design and citybuilding, there is value in shaking things up, challenging the status quo, and making propositions that can then be challenged, to forge a better way. He had some really bad ideas. But he also appreciated the need for density and abundant housing, and a sense of regional scale. His Unite d'Habitation in Marseille presaged micro-apartments -- not to mention Crate & Barrel -- by several decades. We're going to need outside-the-box thinking like that to accommodate the many millions of people migrating to ill-equipped cities throughout the developing world.
     I took the same swim off that crescent beach in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. You have to want to get out there -- the waves push you back, the stones underfoot are really annoying. Some suggest Le Corbusier staged a kind of suicide, knowing that if he exerted himself, he would never return. It's certainly possible, in the tradition of the Cathars of Languedoc, with whom he identified. Like Hemingway, maybe he had seen enough. I sometimes wonder how he would react to the way the world views him now. But it's part of history, him walking out the front door of the cabanon barechested in his bathing suit, sashaying down the sloping path to the water, fifty years ago today.