In Print: The Legacy in Letters of Le Corbusier

Book Review: Le Corbusier, Homme de Lettres. M. Christine Boyer. Princeton Architectural Press, 2011. 720 pages, 46 color illustrations, 170 b/w illustrations

Almost by definition, words are not the primary means of expression for architects. When we think of their work, we tend to conjure up an iconic image of a building or a drawing, not a clever turn of phrase.

But architects do write, and few more than Le Corbusier, the Swiss architect. Best known as the designer and builder of stark, geometric buildings like the United Nations headquarters in New York, Le Corbusier also was one of the 20th century's most influential urban planners. He believed that cities should be designed around housing above all else.

Le Corbusier has legions of admirers and detractors. His work shaped the minimalist design ethos that remains one of the leading trends of contemporary architecture. Yet to his critics, Le Corbusier's visions for clearing vast areas of old cities to introduce rectangular grids and apartment towers led to the massive urban-renewal projects in the 1950s and '60s that isolated the poor.

During his long life, Le Corbusier wrote more than 50 books, hundreds of articles and thousands of letters. In fact, when he had to declare his profession for an identity card upon emigrating to France, he described himself as "Homme de Lettres," or man of letters.

M. Christine Boyer uses this phrase as the core of her title in her passionate and detailed new book, which reveals Le Corbusier's ideas and thoughts through his diaries, letters, sketchbooks, travel notebooks, lectures exposition catalogs, journal articles and books. The result is not a biography or a traditional history of architecture, but a view of Le Corbusier's work and ideas through his words.

The architect's vast writing output includes early letters to his mentors as he tried to find work in an architectural office and passionately dreamed about making it big in Paris; expressions of frustration with managing a brick factory and championing reinforced concrete as an industrialist; his secret devotion to painting every Sunday; his grand schemes for places around the world; and his ideas about transportation and nature as guiding posts for a better world, to name a few examples. Much of the writing was pure advocacy. These writings as collected by Boyer reveal Le Corbusier's entire expanse of thought, allowing a deeper appreciation of his work. This is the book's great value.

One of the most interesting elements that emerges in Boyer's survey is the extent to which Le Corbusier's views shifted over the course of his lifetime. Early in his career, Le Corbusier believed that new technologies in construction such as reinforced concrete could solve problems like pollution, crowding and sprawl brought by the industrial era. But by World War II, Le Corbusier shifted his focus to how buildings interact with nature.

His roaming and relentless mind, evident in his writing, is what enabled the architect to have such influence in such a broad array of fields, from furniture design to city planning. This book is a good additional step into the work of a visionary whose legacy remains as relevant as it is contested.