Le Corbusier and the Architectural Promenade

Simon Richards follows monks and milliners on a journey through the work of a modernist architect

March 10, 2011

For many years Le Corbusier was the one-stop shop for anyone looking to attack the perceived wrongs of modernist architecture and planning. His rise to prominence in the 1920s, with catchphrases such as "the house is a machine for living in", schemes to bulldoze the centre of Paris and sprinkle it with 60-storey "Cartesian skyscrapers", and demands that he be christened "The Lawgiver" and given the mandate to rebuild the French Empire under Vichy, made it easy to dismiss Charles Edouard Jeanneret as a despotic technocrat, too high on science and efficiency to notice the architectural, social and cultural values he was trampling. This demonic image of Le Corbusier flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, for example in the writings of Jane Jacobs.

More recent commentators, including Peter Carl, Mogens Krustup, Dagmar Weston, Jan Birksted and - for my sins - myself, argue that Le Corbusier was a bit misunderstood. The rational Corb was only part of the story. Focusing on some of the more neglected areas of his activity, such as his murals, tapestries and dreadful poetry, "they" argue that he inhabited a symbolic universe replete with occultism, alchemy, nature-worship, Orphism, Gnosticism and freemasonry. Curiously, this is meant to make him seem more appealing and relevant to the architectural values of today.

Flora Samuel has played a major role in developing this position, not least in Le Corbusier: Architect and Feminist (2004). Her new book stretches the argument further than it has gone before. The first part of the book recaps Samuel's earlier writings to re-establish the validity of the mystical Corb. The second part introduces the idea of the "architectural promenade". Le Corbusier referred to this as the way, given the careful orchestration of space, light and detailing, that a well-designed building can draw the user through it on a pleasurable journey. When combined with the mystical stuff, however, the promenade becomes "an allegory of life and its possibilities...a form of initiatory route into the power of harmonious unity".

A number of case studies follow, where Samuel describes a hypothetical "reader" walking through Le Corbusier's buildings along a ritualised route including "threshold", "sensitizing vestibule", "questioning", "reorientation" and "culmination". This takes in the "the journey of the managers" in the Usine Duval millinery factory (1946-51) and the tortuous passage of the monks through the monastery of La Tourette (1956-59), where spiritual resolution "is truncated in favour of an otherworldly climax within the cosmic spaces of the Soul".

This book is extraordinarily imaginative, playful and often ingenious, illustrated beautifully with Samuel's photographs and at times reading like a spiritualist guidebook to the buildings of Le Corbusier. It is probably also, in the first part especially, the best introduction to this side of Le Corbusier's character and activity. I wonder, though, whether it goes too far. Reinterpreting Le Corbusier's intentions through the abstruse symbolism of his poetry and paintings is one thing, but trying to read this into the largely abstract, non-figurative spaces and details of his architecture has always been a stretch. Door handles, fireplaces, exposed pipe-work, tiles and glass bricks are said to beckon and cajole us along the correct path and build the unfolding ritual. But it is Samuel's evocative writing that does this, not the dreary architectural elements themselves.

To get the most out of this book one needs faith. One must bow one's head and deviate not a step from Samuel's promenade, "a built theogeny designed specifically for the cause of conversion". Many architects will do this gladly, as it works to flatter and recruit Le Corbusier into current professional orthodoxies, in particular phenomenological notions that architecture must reconnect us with nature, with a deeper sense of ourselves and with the divine. Architects love their heroes and will drape them in hippy-happy druidical garb if need be, but sometimes it's healthy to remember why people disliked them in the first place.

Le Corbusier and the Architectural Promenade

By Flora Samuel

Birkhauser, 224pp, £54.00

ISBN 9783034606073 Published 24 November 2010

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