Architect & revolution

I’ve been looking in, lately, on the sharp young Notre Dame traditionalists at Shrine of the Holy Whapping, mostly to follow Matthew Alderman, a graduate of ND’s school of architecture sometime in the last few years. He writes also for New Liturgical Movement, where his article ‘The Dangers of Architectural Positivism’ appeared a few days ago. The article includes a link to R. R. Reno’s First Things piece of the previous week, ‘The Sledgehammer of Modernism’ — a review, sort of, of a new bio of His Not-Much-Missed Eminence Le Corbusier, Destroyer of Worlds.

I like reading both Reno and Alderman, generally, but I don’t like fist-wavers like these articles, generated it seems to me for little more than a bit of public venting, among sympathizers, over Modernism. It irks me especially that old owl-rimmed Corbusier must be singled out, and his most apparent defects of character linked without nuance to the manifold defects of his vision as an architect & urbanist. Modernism in Reno’s & Alderman’s brief accounts, here, is entirely about tearing down, stripping bare; and Corbusier here, in particular, is not just in error, with his crude postulates about an emerging ‘scientific’ way of intercourse between the design arts and the economics of industrial society — no, he is willfully destructive, cruel, a cold-blooded would-be architectural totalitarian.

I want to poke at this some, perhaps over a few posts. Not because I have any special expertise to bring to bear, but because the subject deserves thought, and this is a good place for that.

Most jarring for me is the rapid turn in these articles to compress Corbusier and his historical moment into some pithy ideological thing, naked & individual. Neither Reno nor Alderman is a fool about development & complexity & personality in history, of course. Far from it. But in the telling here, each seems uninterested in more than the conclusion, the moral of the story. So in Reno’s piece, after a few sentences to establish what we’re talking about, we go not into any sort of look at relationships between ideas and events of the kind out of which something that comes to be called Modernism may have grown, nor into any sort of look at this talented Swiss kid Jeanneret (groomed for a career in watch-case decoration but with a late-blossoming capacity for larger problems) and his apprehension of or attitude toward ideas & events of the world that he was swimming in. We go instead, with Reno, right to the heart of conflict: ‘Modernism in art and literature is best understood as a drive to bring everything into the open.’ And at the heart of conflict we stay, to be exposed to a smattering of those elements of his expressions of opinion and his work useful, for Reno, as examples of Corbusier’s peculiar position in it.

This is jarring, mostly, because Corbusier’s wasn’t a time & place where the iconoclasm we associate with him, the devotion to whatever seems to represent progress & self-conscious purification from falsehoods of the near past, had the widespread appeal it came to have later in the twentieth century, and which in evolving ways it continues to have. Still, in fact, widely assumed in his world — across the strata of culture — to be expressions of what was good & reasonable, were lively, competing traditional theories & practices of the arts. Jeanneret/Corbusier’s own thoroughgoing artistic formation was on the model of the English Arts & Crafts medieval-revivalists, especially Ruskin — a movement cherished by traditionalists today. His propensity as a student, moreover, wasn’t to push boundaries, to go his own way, but to inhabit what he was taught and to bond with his teachers.

Student Jeanneret/Corbusier (m) at work on
Villa Fallet, designed & built by him 1905–07.

Villa Fallet

Watercolor study of marble niche, Florence,
Jeanneret/Corbusier (imitating ruskin), 1907.

Well, so what? Somewhere along the line he changes his mind. Hardly the only case in history of a man starting in one direction and ending in quite another.

But maybe that’s not all there is to be said about Le Corbusier — that he was a rejecter of solid & worthy things that had come before. Maybe if we’re to get what his Modernism (& others’) amounted to, we need to look for less-than-obvious continuities between it and what he appears to have wholly rejected. And flipping this around, maybe if we’re to appreciate the aesthetic & social pre-modern revivalism he was formed in, we need to look at it somehow through the lens of his conspicuous rejection. Of course, there’s already a body of literature that acknowledges questions like these. (Included in it, apparently, is the new biography Reno finds at once uninteresting & such a provocation.) I’m not intimately acquainted with this literature, unfortunately, and don’t know that I’ll be able to change that, much, in the foreseeable future. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to tease the questions out a bit further as well as I can, though.

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