The Rhetoric of Modernism: Le Corbusier as a Lecturer

August 27, 2009

Lectures played a very important role in Le Corbusier's strategy for converting people to the cause of his new architecture and for the acquisition of clients and other influential connections. They also provided him with an important forum to work through his ideas. According to his personal mythology, they were highly spontaneous but, as Tim Benton reveals, like most things to do with the architect, they were the product of meticulous preparation.

It was an extremely good idea to write this book. Not only does it make manifest a highly neglected aspect of Le Corbusier's work, namely his lectures on architecture and urbanism, but it also provides much thought-provoking material for anyone who has to stand up and get a point across to a sceptical audience.

When interviewed on film, Le Corbusier's speech finishes, as Benton observes, on an upward lilt, as if anticipating the contradiction to come. Poorly endowed with natural gravitas, Le Corbusier used an armoury of rhetorical devices that did not rely on logic alone to get his (often extremely polemical and unpopular) points across.

"Was Le Corbusier a good orator?" asks Benton, who compares the architect's logic with that of classical rhetoric. Le Corbusier's ploy was to flatter his listeners, to bring them on side (exordium), before making a no-holds-barred critique of their country or buildings (narratio) and then suggesting a solution (proposition) via his own theories, giving concrete examples for things that might seem very abstract (demonstration), usually finishing with examples of his own work (conclusio).

With ruthless astuteness, Benton has drawn my attention to, in the characteristic tropes of Le Corbusier's argument, something that I never noticed before - so prevalent are such things in the culture of architecture - namely, his fondness for making his opinions sound like irrefutable truths and his rather spurious use of equations - for example, "consciousness equals life-purpose equals man".

Sometimes attracting an audience of thousands and lasting for as long as four hours, his lectures must have been great events. Standing before a length of blank paper, he would, chalk in hand, expound on a variety of themes, drawing steadily as he went, illustrating key points with slides, displayed as large as possible and sometimes accompanied by films.

Containing a great deal of previously unpublished illustrative material, The Rhetoric of Modernism focuses, in its latter part, on the series of ten lectures that Le Corbusier delivered in Buenos Aires between 3 and 19 October 1929. While accuracy and precision here take precedence over literary flourishes, this study of the hard public face of Le Corbusier's rhetoric inadvertently reveals much of the private man behind the words but finishes, intriguingly, without conclusion.

Perhaps more than anything else, this book tells of the trade of research, "significant difficulties" overcome in a sea of uncharted paper, typed transcripts and drawings inadequate to the task of recreating the events themselves.

The first appendix is a "Technical note" on the identification of manuscripts for the lectures of 1924, which is highly instructive for anybody who spends much time in archives.

Published initially in France as Le Corbusier conferencier, the book was awarded the 2008 Prix National du Livre (ex aequo) by the Academie d'Architecture in France. I only wish that more Corbusian research made it from French to English or vice versa, as it so often seems, rather inexplicably, to be secreted behind frontiers of language, and with a great deal lost in translation.

The Rhetoric of Modernism: Le Corbusier as a Lecturer

By Tim Benton. Birkhauser, 248pp, £54.00. ISBN 9783764389444. Published 6 March 2009

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