A flurry of publication has marked this year's heightened interest in Le Corbusier, which is due in no small measure to the exhibition Le Corbusier: The Art of Architecture that has just transferred from Liverpool to London. Like the exhibition itself, many of the books that have been produced are markedly lacking in any real originality or critical stance, so it is with great relief that I turn to Le Corbusier and the Occult by J.K. Birksted.
Most refreshingly we have here, at last, a book that actually says something new about the architect and his work. Often portrayed as the man who coined the term "machine for living", Le Corbusier's name has become associated with functionalism, a term for which he held a profound abhorrence. Although scholars have known for some time that Le Corbusier was interested in Freemasonry, Birksted's contribution is significant in that he has meticulously pieced together the early period of Le Corbusier's life, using a methodology of association to prove Le Corbusier's links to the Masonic tradition, while at the same time giving an extraordinarily detailed and fascinating account of society in the Swiss town of La Chaux de Fonds on the cusp of the 20th century. All this is accompanied by some mesmerising and very rare archival illustrations of occult ritual practices at that time, both in Switzerland and further afield, rendering the book an extremely fascinating read.
Birksted's writing is an acquired taste. The account swings from irritatingly journalistic manipulation at the outset and conclusion of the book to the highly scholarly precision that takes up most of the middle, and where the author is at his best. He forensically documents Le Corbusier's scheming ascent through the social spectrum in pursuit of rich clients and authority. The narrative cuts away from his professional to his private pursuits and back again, showing how completely intertwined they really were. Le Corbusier had very particular ideas about how he wanted to be portrayed and was very controlling of his self-image, particularly in his early years. Increasingly scholars are starting to show him as he was, rather than how he wanted to be shown, especially now that the Fondation Le Corbusier is less controlling about the great man's image than it used to be. He is certainly portrayed in a very unsympathetic light by Birksted, which in many ways is a refreshing change.
Of real interest is Birksted's re-reading of Le Corbusier's upbringing and education, which is often passed down from historian to historian second-hand, accumulating en route a detritus of inaccuracy and generalisation. I particularly enjoyed Birksted's comments on the ways in which "scholastic historians (are) intent on fabricating pedigreed historiographies", something that is undoubtedly true.
The author makes reference to Tim Benton's semi-ironic allusion to the iconic Villa Savoye as being an "Immaculate Conception", in other words something without roots in history. He then runs with the Immaculate Conception trope, applying it to a whole range of buildings whose complex lineage has been painstakingly explored by other scholars who receive scant mention here. Even Le Corbusier emphasised the links between his work and that of the past, although not the recent past. What seems slightly ironic is that Le Corbusier and the Occult is itself portrayed almost as an "immaculate conception", yet it could never have been written without the work of a series of scholars - Paul Turner on Le Corbusier's library, Richard Moore on his interest in alchemy, Peter Carl and Mogens Krustrup on his use of symbolism, among others - who, over the past 30 years, have opened the eyes of the architectural world to the definite presence of an arcane undercurrent to Le Corbusier's work.
None of this earlier scholarship is discussed in the book, which, according to the back blurb, "answers the conundrum set by Reyner Banham ... who, fifty years ago, wrote that Le Corbusier's book Towards a New Architecture 'was to prove to be one of the most influential, widely read and least understood of all the architectural writings of the twentieth century'". Certainly, Birksted's book does provide an answer - at times a very convincing answer, and an answer well worth reading - but it is not quite the only one. All this may be excused by the author's extreme focus on Freemasonry, but could be misleading to a reader coming cold to the subject. If the book is read with this in mind, it is really illuminating, telling us as much about architectural historiography as it does about Le Corbusier.
Despite the fact that Le Corbusier could so easily have become a Mason, but very clearly chose not to do so, Birksted concludes that Freemasonry was fundamental to Le Corbusier's agenda and that he used Masonic associations to curry favour with those people who held it in sympathy. His line is that Le Corbusier never defined his agenda properly as he wanted people to read into it their own meaning and, in this cynical way, would be able to get people on side. Le Corbusier's own rhetoric indicates that he wanted his work to be multivalent to make it inclusive - everything that he did was in an effort to bring people closer together, hence his interest in early Christianity and Pythagoreanism, which he perceived to be linked to several world religions. Birksted would, however, dismiss my theories - as he unendearingly does those of all other writers who have painstakingly sought to understand Le Corbusier's very particular view of religion through extensive archival research - as fantasy.
It is certainly true that Le Corbusier was a master at manipulating his own image and that he targeted certain sectors of society (for example, women), believing that they had most to gain from his vision. But in the long term, his visibly arcane agenda seems to have done his career real damage, rousing deep suspicion in the Church during a period of extreme conservatism. The Basilica at La Sainte Baume that he worked on from 1949 to 1960 was never built, precisely because of the Church's suspicions. What seems most troubling is that Birksted seems to discount any possibility of Le Corbusier actually believing in any of this stuff, when it seems highly unlikely that he would have done so much research in this area, written so much about the subject, have painted so many obscure and symbolic canvases and become so close to the L'Art Sacre movement if he did not actually believe that any of it meant anything.
Ultimately Le Corbusier wanted to believe, felt it important to believe, did believe, but also understood the futility of belief. I often allude to one well-known sketch in which he portrays himself as Don Quixote tilting at the windmills of his own ideals. This lonely figure encompasses the dilemma of modern man: idealism and realism incarnate. This, for me, is what makes him such a significant figure.
Despite his best efforts, Birksted never provides unequivocal evidence that Le Corbusier was indeed a Freemason. Perhaps, as Henriette Trouin, the wife of Edouard Trouin, Le Corbusier's client at La Sainte Baume, told me, both he and Le Corbusier were "just too free-spirited for all that". But as one - clearly Masonic - colleague of mine said to me, "How would the wife know anyway?"
J. K. Birksted is in no doubt over the main challenge in his academic career: "pushing back the barriers of ignorance to bring more light to the world". He is senior lecturer in history and theory at University College London's Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment and began his academic journey at the University of Sussex with an undergraduate degree in philosophy, a postgraduate degree in social anthropology, a diploma in architecture and a PhD in art history.
Birksted was born in Denmark, grew up in France speaking Danish, French and English, and believes "Europeans should cross more cultural and national boundaries to talk to each other".
Birksted loves to sail in Norway, but hates parrots, rottweilers and poodles. When asked where he sees himself in ten years, he says that he expects to be "irritating more parrots, demolishing more rottweilers and upsetting more poodles by pushing back more barriers of ignorance".
Le Corbusier and the Occult
By J. K. Birksted
The MIT Press, 416pp, £28.95
Published 18 February 2009