Saturday, August 26, 2017

Book Review: 'Modern Man' by Anthony Flint

Master or Monster?
In Antony Flint’s very engaging biography of Le Corbusier, the modernist architect is a mixture of awesome design and horrible misconceptions, of fabulous jetsetting and rude, crude, bullying relationships. Le Corbusier rose to fame fast, but it did not outlive him. His designs were straightforward rectangles for the most part, with spare walls, slitty windows and amenities only he would appreciate, like Frank Lloyd Wright did in his designs. And like FLW, who refused to meet him, you inhabited a Le Corbusier space; it wasn’t yours.

Dealing with the man was no treat. As Time Magazine said in its 1961 cover story, he was “moody, and difficult and resentful, holding on to grudges, and with a penchant for firing his staff”. Employees worked all nighters only to be blasted in the late morning when Le Corbusier strode in from hours of painting. He recognized his brutality, but said “I feel it essential in architecture to be this way.” His arrogance did not often pay. On his first trip to the US in 1936, he was miffed that there wasn’t a battalion of photographers waiting dockside for the historic moment of him setting foot on American soil. After 34 days of giving lectures, he returned to France – without a single commission to show for it.

His personal life was no better. He married a beautiful model and basically abandoned her while he had affairs all over the world. He kept them secret from her, but wrote down and sent all the fine details – to his mother. He and his wife fought over d├ęcor, as the architect wanted a totally spare look, while his wife wanted color and furnishings. It is no great surprise she drank herself to death (on Pastis). During the occupation of France, he saw the writing on the wall and moved to Vichy to collaborate with the Germans. This did nothing for his personal relationships and it is amazing he escaped prosecution both formal and informal.

He had a long string of successes, and fortunately for the world, he did not get to gut and make over the center of Paris with his dense apartment buildings raised one floor above grade, wide, inhospitable boulevards out the windows and every amenity in its personal place. That was his basic model and he tried to implement all over the world. His Swiss fussiness (Flint uses the perfect word Calvinist) showed in his designs and in his own life. Imposing it on Paris would have been fatal. It was nearly fatal in New York, where Robert Moses glommed onto those ideas, and unfortunately, also had the power to implement them. The sad result was The Projects and endless elevated highways lifted directly from Le Corbusier. It took Jane Jacobs and thousands of New Yorkers to save the city from this modernist nightmare.

The book is not strictly a timeline. Suddenly, the young man who was struggling, is the owner of a state of the art Voisin car. Twenty pages later it turns out his father, a watchmaker in a rich watchmaking Swiss town, was able to steer some commissions his way, and that’s what launched his career. Flint organizes by project rather than decade, so there is overlap and back and forth involved. One thing that became annoying was the lack of photos. Flint spends a great deal of necessary effort describing buildings, amenities, elements, designs and environs, when a simple photo would do it all and put it in perspective. This is most definitely a book to read with an image search engine within reach at all times. In a biography so rich in visual concepts, not including any is bizarre.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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