Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer is dead at 104. He was heavily influenced by Le Corbusier, who I hold to be one of the most sinister intellectual frauds of the 20th century. Le Corbusier was principally responsible for the mid-century fad of brutalism, which encouraged architects to compose buildings from giant, prefabricated slabs of untreated reinforced concrete. No attempt would be made integrate the buildings into existing city or landscapes. They would be plopped down like the used, soiled Legos of a race of alien giants.
In the hands of talented architects, brutalist buildings might occasionally display deeply obscured hints of elegance or wit. In the hands of hordes of epigones (and budget-conscious city planners), brutalism resulted in a plague of anonymous, inhuman bunkers that quickly crusted over with mold and rust stains. In other words, Brutalism brought the charm and elegance of Stalinist industrial encampments to Western capitals. Here's a quick quiz: Is this sad, stained, crumbling structure the Great Hall of the Democratic People's Assembly in some Eastern European country, or is it a priory in France?
Le Corbusier’s influence came about as much through his writings as through anything he built—perhaps more. His mode of writing is disjointed, without apparent logical structure, aphoristic, and with frequent resort to the word “must,” as if no sentient being with an IQ over 50 could or would argue with what he says. Drawings and photos often accompany his writing, but sometimes so cryptically in relation to the text that the reader begins to doubt his own powers of comprehension: he is made to think that he is reading a book by someone on a completely different—higher—intellectual plane. Architecture becomes a sacred temple that hoi polloi may not enter.
André Wogenscky of the Fondation Le Corbusier, prefacing an anthology of Le Corbusier’s writings, claims that his master’s words are not measurable by normal means: “We cannot simply understand the books; we have to surrender to them, resonate, in the acoustical sense, with their vibrations, the ebb and flow of his thinking.” The passage brings to mind what the poet Tyutchev said about Russia: one had to believe in it because no one could measure it with his mind. In approaching Le Corbusier in this mystical fashion, Wogenscky is, in practice, bowing down to a peculiarly vengeful god: namely, reinforced concrete, Le Corbusier’s favorite material.
...Le Corbusier’s language reveals his disturbingly totalitarian mind-set. For example, in what is probably his most influential book, the 1924 Towards a New Architecture (the very title suggests that the world had been waiting for him), he writes poetically:
We must create a mass-production state of mind:
A state of mind for building mass-production housing.
A state of mind for living in mass-production housing.
A state of mind for conceiving mass-production housing.
Who are these “we” of whom he speaks so airily, responsible for creating, among other things, universal states of mind? Only one answer is possible: Le Corbusier and his disciples (of whom there were, alas, to be many).
Now, Niemeyer's not in the same league. Although influenced by Le Corbusier, he was capable of designing buildings of beauty (the headquarters of the PCF, for example). But he has to take responsibility for the inhuman monstrosity that is Brasilia, a sprawling wasteland of rectilinear concrete slapped down in the middle of the jungle. Its residents scurry for cover amid its gigantic, broiling public squares. And Brasilia's here to stay, since it was quickly added to the UN's list of World Heritage Sites, which is a very good reason not to take that list very seriously.