The architect as fascist overlord

One of the most acclaimed, and the most detested, architects of the 20th Century died on August 27th, 1965. In a eulogy delivered a few days later, French Culture Minister André Malraux described Le Corbusier as without peer among architects "because none bore insults so patiently and for so long." He deserved them. As a major pioneer of urban planning, he designed buildings and spaces that were described as inhuman, disorienting and inhospitable. Concrete and glass assaulted the senses in the brave new worlds in which he wanted people to live differently.

The architectural historian Witold Rybczynski described Le Corbusier's approach as "authoritarian, inflexible and simplistic." I would describe it as soulless. He took no account of the way people actually lived and wanted to live, but designed vast schemes of regimented housing, separated from commercial and office spaces, that had no vitality. His imposed planning destroyed countless vibrant neighbourhoods, replacing them with giant, forbidding edifices that gave people no sense of identity with their environment. His drawings looked magnificent on paper, but today they are being blown up or dismantled to make way for properly mixed communities that reflect the different activities people engage in, and combine them together.

The problem with Le Corbusier was that, like most people with futuristic visions of how they think people ought to live, he started from zero instead of first looking at what people did and wanted to do. Lewis Mumford wrote that Le Corbusier's towering skyscrapers were built only because they were technologically possible, not because anyone wanted to live or work in them. There was no reason, he wrote, for pedestrians to circulate in the areas designated for offices. They were places you went and left, not places you lived amongst. They were, said Mumford, "sterile."

Under Le Corbusier's influence, poor communities were separated off and housed in monolithic high-rise buildings that destroyed the social ties that had given life its rhythm and sense of belonging. His most ardent critic was Jane Jacobs, author of "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." She attacked his urban design theories for seeking to impose an order that confined and constricted people instead of allowing them to develop in organic communities that bustled with life and purpose.

To some critics, Le Corbusier's designs represented visions of a fascist state, one in which people lived as they were told in buildings of grand design that they had no relation to, and no identity with. Le Corbusier himself wrote that "not all citizens could become leaders. The technocratic elite, the industrialists, financiers, engineers, and artists would be located in the city centre, while the workers would be removed to the fringes of the city". You might describe this as moving the poor to the edges of the city where important people would not need to look at them.

For some of his buildings his design called for the use of raw concrete, whose surface was not smoothed or polished and which showed the marks of the forms in which it dried. He had to stop building workers trying to smooth or polish it to make it easier on the eye. He didn't want that; he wanted ‘beton brut’ – raw concrete in French. He wanted a brutalism that expressed contempt for peoples' yearning for soft spaces and humanistic decorative detail. Anthony Daniels wrote in City Journal that Brutalist structures represent an artefact of European philosophical totalitarianism, a "spiritual, intellectual, and moral deformity." He called the buildings "cold-hearted", "inhuman", "hideous", and "monstrous".

Few people today would disagree with that. The age of Le Corbusier and the concrete monstrosities of his time now seems like a bad dream, a dream in which we thought we had to reject the past in order to embrace the future. We learned the hard way that people are shaped to some extent by their built environment, but not in the way that Le Corbusier intended. A brutal, cold environment does not produce the forward-looking visionaries he had anticipated. It produces alienation from the environment and from other people.