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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Le Corbusier: Maman's Boy

Despite the inherently social nature of architecture and city planning, personal histories of master builders were uncommon before the last century, and are still greatly outnumbered by biographies of painters and sculptors. A turning point in the public's perception of the building art came with the publication of Frank Lloyd Wright's An Autobiography of 1932, a picaresque narrative that captivated many who hadn't the slightest inkling of what architects actually did. Wright's self-portrait as a heroic individualist served as the prototype for Howard Roark, the architect-protagonist of Ayn Rand's 1943 best-seller, The Fountainhead. But the novelist transmogrified Wright's entertaining egotism into Roark's suffocating megalomania, an image closer to that of another contemporary coprofessional: Le Corbusier, the pseudonymous Swiss-French architect and urbanist born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret in 1887, twenty years after Wright.

Le Corbusier was the only one of Wright's competitors who matched his flair for self-promotion. However, Le Corbusier's posthumous influence has outstripped that of the greatest American architect. His schemes were often less specific to their sites than Wright's, and thus more adaptable elsewhere. Le Corbusier's work in South America and India won him a third-world following Wright never attracted. And his "Five Points of a New Architecture" of 1926 became a modern "must" list that could be copied by almost anyone, anywhere. It included thin piloti columns on which buildings could be based; ribbon windows; open floor plans; façades freed from load-bearing structure; and roof gardens. Such formularization was also central to the steel-skeleton, glass-skin high-rise format later perfected by a third contemporary, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, but it did not offer the recombinations possible with the "Five Points."


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