Not long ago, the title of Flora Samuel's book would have seemed a provocative paradox. Le Corbusier is known to have been interested in women but, according to legend, largely in a typically male chauvinist manner. This belief accords with a common perception that the Modern Movement in architecture he exemplified was a summation of phallocentricity, an idea now made almost canonical through the writings of Beatriz Colomina and others in the 1990s.
Samuel's study reveals not only that the prejudice is inaccurate, but that the subject of femininity is the entry point for a complete revision of Le Corbusier's belief system and hence the meanings and intentions of his buildings. His religious ideas, including his identification with the Pythagorean cult of Orphism, are revealed as key to aspects of his work that have previously been overlooked.
In Nature and Space: Aalto and Le Corbusier (2003, with Sarah Menin), Samuel examined Le Corbusier's relationship with his mother. She was a skilled musician and teacher who lived to the age of 100, dying only five years before her son, who was driven by rivalry with his younger brother for parental approval. Yvonne Gallis, whom Le Corbusier married in 1930, was a wild child of nature who scarcely figured in the professional record of his life but whose contribution to his understanding of the world and himself has been increasingly recognised.
There were other women in his life, too, usually associated with journeys to distant lands. He met Josephine Baker in Brazil in 1929, Marguerite Tjader Harris in New York in 1935 and Sri Lankan architectural student Minette de Silva, in London in 1946. Here, biography develops into architectural hermeneutics through a study of architectural projects with female clients.
The third chapter provides a valuable contextual study of ideas about the role of women in the improvement society in France, representing aspects of the modernist project that have been overlooked owing to the limited scope of architectural analysis in earlier times.
When these wider social trends are coupled to deeper biographical investigations, the picture of Le Corbusier that emerges is almost diametrically opposite to the received image. Which view can be trusted? The divergence can be explained by the many divisions that he made to compartmentalise his spheres of activity, as a writer, painter, political thinker and architect. In addition, Le Corbusier's development was cyclical, and different messages emerge depending on the period. As Samuel acknowledges, the task of unravelling this complex, protean character has scarcely begun. On the other hand, her work, developed over many years, identifies strands within the fabric whose existence can scarcely be ignored.
In a parallel exercise, Simon Richards' Le Corbusier and the Concept of Self (2003) paints a not incompatible picture. Richards' study draws from theories of psychology, whose validity in architectural discourse remains contentious. While Samuel is less concerned with Le Corbusier as an urbanist, Richards seeks through a deeper understanding to rehabilitate this oft-rejected aspect of his work. For general readers, these studies will help to bring architecture into the wider sphere of cultural discourse, and they may also help architects to appreciate the extent to which their own culture has tended to exclude a full understanding of what it is to be human.
Alan Powers is reader in architecture and cultural history, Greenwich University.
Le Corbusier: Architect and Feminist
Author - Flora Samuel
Publisher - Wiley
Pages - 174
Price - £23.99
ISBN - 0 470 84747 6