The Controversy Over the Planned Le Corbusier Museum
Scholars, architects have accused France’s culture ministry of “complicity in an attempt to rehabilitate” Le Corbusier’s legacy
Le Corbusier is widely lauded as one of the Modernist movement’s most influential architects. But in recent years, his legacy has come under fire as a surge of evidence suggests he was not simply an opportunistic creative seeking financial support wherever he could find it, but a fascist with strong anti-Semitic views.
Now, a group of scholars, architects and creative professionals are speaking out against Le Corbusier once more, calling on the government to withdraw participation in a planned museum honoring the Swiss-born architect.
“We do not deny anyone the right to love his work, but we stress that this is a subjective appreciation: everyone is free to judge him as he sees fit,” the group writes in Le Monde. “Le Corbusier has never been unanimous.”
The op-ed urges France's culture ministry to divest from the museum, which is set to be erected in Poissy, a French commune where Le Corbusier built perhaps his most famous creation, the palatial concrete Villa Savoye. The group also demands that the ministry raze a statue of the architect recently erected in Poissy and offer him “no public support."
The conversation around Le Corbusier’s fascist ties heated up back in 2015 when two books on the matter were published by architecture journalist Xavier de Jarcy and architect and critic Francois Chaslin.
In an interview with the Agence France Presse at the time, de Jarcy described the Le Corbusier as “simply an out-and-out fascist.” Chaslin, who was also interviewed by the AFP, agreed, saying that Le Corbusier “was active … in groups with a very clear ideology.” Although Le Corbusier kept these ties under wraps, Chaslin noted that over the course of his research, he found “anti-Semite sketches” attributed to the architect, as well as records of his 18-month involvement with the Vichy government following the fall of Paris.
De Jarcy also pointed out that the architect was an active member of a militant fascist group and published some 20 articles in which he “declared himself in favor of a corporatist state on the model of [Benito] Mussolini,” according to BBC News’ Lucy Williamson.
Still, the extent of Le Corbusier’s involvement in such political groups remains a point of contention. Caroline Levitt of Britain’s Cortauld Institute makes the case that Le Corbusier was more of an “ambiguous” ideologist mainly “interested in the potential of architecture.” Speaking with BBC News’ Williamson, she said that the architect's politics “tended to shift.”
Le Corbusier built several of his largest projects in Soviet Russia during the 1930s and espoused ideas linked with both communism and fascism. “He was trying to wipe out the troubled art of a troubled era, and suggest a life of order and clarity," Levitt continued. “That's very appropriable by the Right. But it was also about shaking up the established ideas of the bourgeoisie, which is more akin to ideas of the Left.”
Le Corbusier, who was born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret in Switzerland in 1887, looms especially large in the French cultural canon. After moving to the country at the age of 20, he took the name Le Corbusier as a variation on the French phrase "Le Corbeau," or "The Crow," and in 1930, he opted to become a French citizen.
The Brutalist concrete creations Le Corbusier erected or proposed to build in cities across the country informed urban housing design for decades thereafter. As Henry Samuel explains for the Telegraph, the architect envisioned functional blocks of park-ringed, plain apartment buildings overtaking the more ostentatious designs of centuries past. Luckily for Paris' historical district, however, this policy fell out of favor amid claims that the monolith structures were "soul-destroying" beacons of urban ghettoization. Despite the declining popularity of Le Corbusier's concrete buildings in the post-war era, his adoptive country continued to recognize his contributions to modern design, touting his eclectic oeuvre of French creations as major tourist destinations and dedicating a litany of museum retrospectives to his career. Today, Le Corbusier is arguably France's best-known architect.
Despite these deep-seated ties, the revelations of recent years, as well as the country's increasingly volatile political climate, have led many to reject Le Corbusier and his agenda. As the group argues in Le Monde, the culture ministry's actions are tantamount to acting as an “accomplice” in the attempt to rehabilitate a man who “rejoiced in the French defeat” at the hands of the Nazis in June 1940.
The culture ministry has declined to weigh in on the accusations. In a written response, Samuel reports for the Telegraph, “… The culture ministry said it could not comment on ‘the extent to which Le Corbusier was fascinated by totalitarianism nor the scale of his commitment to the Vichy regime’—a ‘legitimate’ debate it left to ‘historians.’”
While the ministry said no more on Le Corbusier’s legacy, Samuel wrote that it was willing to accept “full responsibility” for the “exceptional nature” of the architect’s work, 17 of which have been included on Unesco’s world heritage list as an “outstanding contribution to the modern movement.”