A Man of Many Words

A Man of Many Words

Seven sketches by Charles-Edouard Jeanneret of details of the Cathedral if Pisa’s facade.
Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

Le Corbusier, Homme de Lettres
M. Christine Boyer
Princeton Architectural Press, $45.00

A massive undertaking initiated in 1993 and finally published 18 years later, M. Christine Boyer’s Le Corbusier, Homme de Lettres comprises nothing so much as an attempt to work systematically through the most significant output of the legendary 20th century Swiss-French architect, namely his written works. While his completed buildings scarcely number 60, he managed to write 50 books and thousands more letters, articles, and lecture notes. This is not to count his artistic output, which when added to the aforementioned represents an astounding creative and intellectual achievement, one more than worthy of his reputation. Boyer chose to focus exclusively on the 1907–1947 period, claiming debatably that the architect’s postwar writings were largely repetitive and derivative of his earlier work. Surely, given that Boyer needed 781 pages to examine those forty years, we can all be thankful (perhaps as was the author herself) that a limit was imposed.


Cover of the first issue of the journal L’esprit Nouveau (1920).

Homme de lettres, most easily translates into English as “Man of Letters,”a nomenclature rarely chosen by the individual himself but more often bestowed upon an individual who is commonly regarded as a public intellectual. Nevertheless, Homme de lettres is the occupation that Le Corbusier chose to emblazon on his French carte d’identité. If one knows one thing about Corbusier, it is that he had no lack of confidence in his architectural acumen, so the refusal to identify as merely an architect was less limited by “either/or” than it was an expression, to paraphrase Robert Venturi, of “both/and.” Clearly he saw his vocation as one that went far beyond design and into the more metaphysical realm of the intellect, and, perhaps of greater importance, that this intellectual practice had a resolutely public dimension. Perhaps his desire to participate in a public discourse might even be termed a calling, given the fact that he chronicled his life (seemingly for posterity) from a very early age, largely through correspondence with a close group of friends and above all with his mentor and teacher from his school days in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Charles L’Eplattenier.

Boyer makes a great and most valiant effort to construct a narrative from the hundreds of thousands of words Corbusier spilled, and slowly but surely, common themes emerge. They are not surprising for those who have scrutinized Corbusier’s oeuvre, but here these matters are given larger context. As a representative example, Boyer helps us see the relationship between the development of Corbusier’s ideas about the individual and society by uncovering his friendship and correspondence with George Henri Rivière, assistant director of the Musée d’Ethnographie. Through Rivière Corbusier learned of the work of legendary sociologist Marcel Mauss and of Mauss’ insistence on the importance of looking at everyday objects in order to discern the more elusive details of the society under investigation. Boyer demonstrates how Corbusier’s writings from the mid-1930s when traveling in South America reflect Mauss’ dictum, describing them as “inquiries into the lyrical materiality of objects and the magical mise en scène of cities.” We might extend Boyer’s analysis to Corbusier’s groundbreaking 1923 volume entitled Vers une architecture, in which Corbusier famously juxtaposed images of automobiles and steamships with classical temples so as to underscore his belief in the crucial yet delicate relationship between form and function.

Pencil sketch by Charles-Edouard Jeanneret of the Parthenon, seen through a screen of columns.

Boyer’s greatest accomplishment is in providing a handy compendium of anecdotes from Corbusier’s writings that will help anyone focusing on a single topic—say, his views on antiquity, to cartography, to the United States—find a sufficient number of quotes and passages to help flesh out his famously poetic and (to use his own term) ineffable relationships to the multivalent sources that fed his enormous appetite. Along the way, Boyer also manages to shed light on the way in which, at Corbusier’s behest, word and image worked together symbiotically on the page to render the rhetorical impact most forceful. Indeed, the poetry of his words more often than not strikes its most plangent chords when accompanied by a drawing or photograph that, on its own, would likewise fail to move us were it seen in isolation from the text.

Persistantes souvenances du Bosphore, drawn by Charles-Edouard Jeanneret in 1913 at La Chaux-de-Fonds.

There is definitely a sense in which Corbusier had a nearly pathological need to express, literally and figuratively, the thoughts and ideas roiling in his head. Just as visually he vacillated between tiny drawings of single figures to sprawling visualizations of entire cities, discursively he shifted effortlessly from the epistolary to the platitudinous. The written word and the rendered image exist in perfect equipoise, and Boyer needs to justify neither her book’s existence nor its necessity. For as with all things related to him, Corbusier provides his own perfect, inviolable justification. In his final interview of May 1965 (two months before his death), he explained it all as follows: “As it turned out later that, not being able to build certain things, I could draw them; but not being able to explain them entirely in drawing, especially when it came to urbanism, I had to explain them, so I wrote.”