Inside the architect
One of the most famous lines from the movie "The Third Man" is when Harry Lime, the character played by Orson Welles, says of Switzerland: "They had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."
Switzerland also produced Le Corbusier (1887-1965). But then you can't blame Lime for overlooking him, as the giant of 20th-century architecture tried to airbrush his country of origin out of his biography. Being French was better for business.
In "Le Corbusier: A Life" - touted by the publisher as "the first full-scale" biography of the architect - Nicholas Fox Weber digs beneath the myths and misunderstandings to create a profile that both elevates and deflates his subject.
Weber draws on a wealth of correspondence between Le Corbusier (born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) and his family and friends. In letters running as long as 28 pages, he bares his insecurities, boasts about his accomplishments, berates his critics, and catalogs his ailments ("The state of his bowels was a major issue for him," Weber writes in a typically deadpan aside).
The biographer goes to great pains to humanize Le Corbusier's conception of "the machine for living in," the architect's provocative term for a home. "He wanted efficiency, but its purpose was to facilitate, not stifle, rich and complex living," Weber writes.
Le Corbusier took advantage of advances in technology - such as reinforced concrete that he could shape to his will - but his buildings are most notable for how they open up to nature. He elevated them on pillars called pilotis, encased them in glass, and topped them with roof gardens.
On a grander scale, Le Corbusier's plans for cities designated distinct areas for commerce, government, and housing. "Sun. Space. Greenery" - those were among his watchwords. "By re-forming our physical surroundings, he had tried to alter our existence irrevocably," Weber writes. But the self-styled people's builder didn't trust the people, believing "the elite should make decisions for the many," the biographer notes.
Le Corbusier's high-handedness extended to his clients, even his mother. To her repeated complaints about her roof, he wrote: "Be sensible; what the hell can it matter if the water occasionally leaks somewhere?" Perhaps that's one reason his mother seemed to prefer his older brother - to Le Corbusier's endless frustration. The architect deified her, relentlessly trying to win her approval.
The reader will probably like the brother more, too. Weber portrays Le Corbusier as an infuriating amalgam of contradictions, a man "who could be so warm and so cold, generous and arrogant, insightful and shallow."
He was an equal-opportunity designer, creating buildings for communists and fascists alike. Weber builds a persuasive case that Le Corbusier collaborated with the Vichy government, despite its vile underside. In a letter, he acknowledges the plight of the Jews, adding that "it does seem as if their blind thirst for money had corrupted the country."
At some 820 pages, Weber's book is formidable, but he breaks it up with numerous illustrations and writes in easily digestible portions. Too often, though, they end in sweeping statements about how some experience or building changed Le Corbusier, if not architecture itself, "forever after."
By leaning so heavily on Le Corbusier's correspondence, the biography at times seems more like an annotated collection of letters. The result is like watching a play with theater glasses trained on a single actor; missing is a broader perspective showing how Le Corbusier fit in with the other stars of 20th-century architecture. The chapters on his later life, though, are enlivened by interviews with people who personally knew him.
Weber particularly excels in his vivid architectural descriptions. His enthusiasm is so infectious you want to hop on a plane and visit the chapel at Ronchamp, the Unit?? d'Habitation in Marseille, and La Petite Maison on Lake Geneva - if only to see if Le Corbusier ever did fix his mother's leaky roof.
Steve Maas is a freelance writer and former Globe editor.