Architecture: Visionaries saw buildings but not the political surroundings
Let us never go too far in praising famous men.
The French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier, the German-American Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and the American Frank Lloyd Wright are universally regarded as the greatest architects of the 20th century.
Their buildings and city plans changed the way we live and what our cities and suburbs look like today. Their work has inspired architects from their time to the present.
But when confronted with the changing political temper of their times, these famous men sometimes behaved astonishingly. They exhibited judgments that, in retrospect, seem to have been clouded by naivete, vanity, self-aggrandizement and, perhaps most of all, overwhelming ambition.
This has been brought to light again just this month by three new books on Le Corbusier published in France to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his death — a publishing event important enough to have been covered in detail recently in The New York Times.
Corbusier (1887-1965), though he was often imitated in the States, is not well known by the public here. But he had a vast influence on architecture and city planning worldwide, especially in Europe, Japan and Latin America.
In France today, he is accused of being a fascist. All three books are critical of the architect. Two have revealing titles — “Le Corbusier, a French Facism” and “Le Corbusier, a Cold Vision of the World.” What the books seek to demonstrate, The New York Times reported, is that he was an authoritarian at his core, and this authoritarianism informed his designs.
It has long been known that Corbusier praised Mussolini in the 1930s and sought to cozy up to the Vichy government in France in the 1940s, probably in hopes of commissions after the war. He was known for having recommended in the 1920s that the entire center of Paris be torn down and replaced by gargantuan cruciform skyscrapers set within parks and served by high-speed roadways. He recommended the same for other cities, as well.
That’s the kind of remaking of cities that would require authoritarian government, and it is not difficult to argue that this is at least one reason why he liked authoritarian governments so much.
If tearing down the old parts of a city and replacing them with cruciform office towers in a park surrounded by highways sounds a little like Pittsburgh’s 1950s Gateway Center, well, you are on target, as that plan was derived from the then-in-vogue ideas of Le Corbusier.
Mies (1886-1969) is the architect who, in the 1920s, single-handedly thought up the kinds of shiny metal and glass skyscrapers that came to dominate skylines in Pittsburgh and other cities worldwide from the late 1950s into the 1980s.
But Mies compromised himself by trying to play it too close to the Nazis in the 1930s. Although somewhat unsure, he was the only major architect in Germany to have signed a “patriotic appeal” to artists, architects and writers to support the Nazi party. He had hopes that party leaders would favor the kind of modern architecture he and colleagues espoused. His colleagues were appalled. Some never forgave him.
The Nazis, in the end, were no less hostile. They ultimately made it clear that they wanted nothing to do with him or with “degenerate” modern architecture that was “un-German.”
Where prominent Jewish architects had fled Germany early in the 1930s, and more politically astute architects like Walter Gropius had quickly followed, Mies tried to hang on, and finally left for good in 1938. He then became head of the architecture department at the Illinois Institute of Technology and saw the flowering of his style of design in the United States.
Most historians have concluded that he was apolitical and naive, his actions colored by ambition.
Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) contributed his own curious notions to this mix. Wright’s revolutionary designs in the early 1900s significantly influenced the European architects as they were trying to develop their ideas of modernism. He showed them new ways to treat space in a building, and they quickly took it to heart.
Yet, genius that he was, Wright’s outlandish self-importance is almost laughable. When World War II came, Wright sought to have military deferments issued for all the young men who were his apprentices. He argued that their work in his studio would be so important to the United States after the war, they should be able to continue it uninterrupted.
This was no timid proposal. Wright organized a letter campaign by other prominent citizens and he even appealed his case directly, by letter, to President Franklin Roosevelt.
It was all to no avail, of course. But two of his apprentices, ever loyal to their master, went to jail rather than serve.
Wright, Mies and Corbusier were, indeed, the masters of modern architecture. They sought to create architecture that would reflect the “spirit of their times.” But it’s clear that, in some respects, they didn’t understand those times at all.
John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.