Writing mattered to the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. When he became a naturalized French citizen in 1930, Le Corbusier called himself neither a painter nor an architect, but an homme de lettres (a man of letters): he was an inveterate writer. His first book was a study of German decorative arts published when he was twenty-five; his last, sometimes described as a final testament, was completed only a month before his death. In between there are approximately fifty books (depending on how you define “book”), as well as letters, lectures, and handwritten journals as thick as books. Words were the stuff of architecture, not just how he participated in and influenced the debates of his time; they were essential to the task of making a new architecture.
Richard Neutra, Amerika, die Stilbildung des neuen Bauens in den Vereinigten Staaten. Vienna, 1930. (Courtesy Vassar College Libraries)
Reading Le Corbusier is not easy—elliptical, fragmentary, cryptic, alternating between long rhapsodic descriptive passages and telegraphic bursts. Part of the reason for this disjointed mode of exposition can explained by the grand nature of the project he had undertaken: to utterly reform the practice of architecture and urbanism. His texts embody the novelty he was preaching. To capture the new epoch of the machine-required layouts to surprise and shock: the Parthenon juxtaposed with the Delage Grand-Sport; hammering phrases to challenge the new forms of advertising (“A great era has begun. There exists a new spirit.”); and hyperbole (“The styles are a lie”). At issue was the formulation of a language using images as well as words that could effectively reveal, as Christine Boyer has noted, both “the language of architecture” and “architecture as a language, architecture as a compositional, communicative art.”Vignola, Regola delli cinque ordini d’architettura (Siena, 1635), left, and Le Corbusier, Une Maison–– un Palais “A la recherche d’une unité architecturale.” Paris, 1929, right. (Courtesy Vassar College Libraries)
Le Corbusier developed a series of books entitled “Collection de l’Esprit nouveau,” named after the magazine he edited with Amédée Ozenfant. Eight books, of which Vassar has seven, follow roughly the same format and dimensions. Packaging these complex messages in paperback books, more properly in the format of a guidebook or a manual than any traditional architectural book, must have been deliberate. These were manuals for the modern age; guidebooks to the future and—most especially—the path to Le Corbusier’s current thinking.
On November 1, 1935, Le Corbusier spoke at Vassar. His visit to Vassar is recorded in Quand les cathédrales étaient blanches (1937). “The buildings [at Vassar] have the atmosphere of luxurious clubs,” he wrote. “The girls are in a convent for four years. A joyous convent.” He continued, “After the lecture there is a mob scene: they rush onto the platform and seize five or six large drawings I have just done . . . . They rip them apart, tear them up, cut them into small pieces. A piece for each Amazon. Pens in hand, they cry: ‘Sign, sign!’” Despite the mayhem, Le Corbusier was impressed with Vassar students: with their impeccable French, with their sophisticated questions, and with the range of their studies.
Frank Lloyd Wright looked with disdain on Le Corbusier’s attachment to the word: “Well, now that he’s finished one building, he’ll go write four books about it.” For Wright, in the end, there was only architecture. For Le Corbusier, words were an essential part of a greater task—making a new language for a new architecture.