Monday, 16 March 2009

My Stupid Day as a Corbu Hater...

I really do not wish to suggest that Lynsey Hanley is stupid, she is quite obviously not in the slightest. [P.S. - I haven't read her book on Estates, so cannot comment on that, it might be absolutely magnificent.]

However, that hasn't prevented her from writing an unbearably fucking stupid article, about Shumon Basar's A Day in the Life of Le Corbusier event at the Barbican.

As a game of spot the cliché, it's all a bit too bloody easy. Nearly every mention of Corbu in the press throughout the last month has followed the template: "Well, we all know that Le Corbusier was the most evil man of the 20th century, but there's an exhibition of his on...", and this article is perhaps the most perfect example of the form.

To set the totalitarian flavour, Orwell is invoked by the second paragraph, when Hanley emulates Corbu's morning exercise routine.
Winston Smith, the wheezing protagonist of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, wouldn't have lasted five minutes here.

Right, because the only two examples of exercise in the history of the world are an old Swiss man and Physical Jerks?

Then we're told that this exercising:
focuses (or numbs) the mind, creates a sense of collective purpose.

Um, which of these does it do? Also with reference to 'such a thing as benign marching', we're not possibly setting up images of Soviet/Nazi gymnasts are we? Am I just being paranoid? Is there no such thing as LA fitness?

Now, while complaining that she:
can't find the humanity in his work

she also mentions that she spends time working with the 'modulor',
which replaced feet and inches with proportions and ratios taken from the human body.

In which case, what kind of humanity is Hanley talking about?

In paragraph 5 Hanley lets the ideological cat out of the bag:
Such high-concept activity can't, however, answer my core question of the day, which is whether Le Corbusier's approach to architecture and planning has caused more human pain than it sought to alleviate.
Right, if you want to critique the mercenary meritocratic ideals of Le Corbusier, by all means do so; no... really, he deserves it. But that's not what's happening here, really. It's not a symposium Hanley attended, it was a fun, super-interesting day out, yeah?

After listening to a chat from someone who worked for Corbu in the '40s (probably for free, I imagine), Hanley reports:
Don't blame the architect if buildings don't work, he seemed to suggest: blame the people who build them, then the people who live in them.
He seemed to suggest? Now, without being there, I can't vouch for that, but Hanley hasn't exactly provided footnotes. All I can say is that I've never heard or read anybody claiming this. The most I've heard anyone say is that the failures of post-war housing (of which the Barbican is emphatically NOT one), were a mixture of a variety of architectural, political, social and ideological factors, rather than BAD MODERNISTS not listening to what the PEOPLE REALLY WANT, and forcing UGLY CONCRETE on them.

Then we're off to the garden;
with its ingenious traffic noise-drowning fountains and several maddening kilometres of walkway
Ok, it's fairly ambiguous whether Hanley is pleased that the fountains drown out traffic noise or not, but bearing in mind the tone of the piece, she seems to be suggesting that it's wrong that traffic noise ought to have to be drowned out at all. Now, is this a problem with the architects, or one with the municipal policy of re-populating the City of London, in particular the blitzed out Cripplegate? Oh, fuck nuance, just blame the architects. And maddening walkways? What is so maddening about a walkway, as opposed to, say, a cul-de-sac? I mean, the Barbican is not exactly Daedalus's Labyrinth, is it?

The curious thing is, after six hours I'm even less enamoured of Le Corbusier than I was to begin with.
No, it's not curious, I'm afraid.

He dealt in "habitation units", "machines for living in", days divided into productive hours.
Well, 1 - touché, it was called the Unité d' d'Habitation after all! But what's really the difference between that and 'House'? 2 - touché. 3 - How fucking dare he!!!! It's not as if everybody's whole life is divided into productive hours by, you know, the whole system in which we live. What a stupid thing to write, I'm sorry, but come on, as if without Corbu we'd all be living in a paradise of leisure, free to use up our lovely time in whatever way we wish...

Anyway, by this point, Hanley still can't find the humanity.
None of it dents the impression that he was a man who felt his ideas were nothing if they couldn't be imposed on other people.
Where does this impression come from? Who does the imposing? Where do people like Hanley get the 'impression' that architects had enough agency to impose their cooky ideas about solving an absolutely colossal post-war housing shortage single handed? As if they commissioned themselves, paid themselves to build the buildings and then moved all the residents in, all by themselves. What is never mentioned is the possibility that non-modern architecture is perhaps, just maybe, not as ideologically 'pure' as it is suggested to be, as if modernism hasn't been subjected to a half century long ideological attack, insistently associating it with Socialism, Totalitarianism, and thus portraying a false, lying, traditionalism as somehow a perfect reflection of what people genuinely want, and just what they need! Why, when anybody gets stabbed in a Barrett estate, do the tabloids not erupt, blaming pitched roofs and brick-nogging for making all of 'em poor people all bad?

If everyone got to live the kind of life he did – gentle exercise, leisurely breakfast, daily thinking time –
Hang on - I thought that in paragraph two, the exercise was likened to a dystopian future-past nightmare, what happened?

But neither the exhibition, nor the Barbican's attempt to help us enter the mind of Le Corbusier through his daily routine, challenges the received wisdom that only philistines and dimwits can't get a handle on modernism. If there were ever a name that needed rehabilitating in the minds of those who, like me, have wasted too many hours of their short lives getting lost on Corbusian concrete walkways, it's his.
Whose received wisdom? This is a perfect example of the 'elitist' straw man. The only people who possibly would want to defend Modernism are elitists, listening to Schönberg and Xenakis, sipping bruschetta and munching on a latte up in their Georgian house in Hampstead. It's just nonsense, blatant ideology. And again, the bloody walkway line, how original, how cutting, what incisive critique!

There's no one who is prepared to explain how his 1925 "Plan Voisin", for instance, which would have turned central Paris into a giant banlieue, was sensitive to human needs.
Ummm, Banlieue? If Hanley wants it to mean 'Slum', why doesn't she just say so? Does Hanley think that the areas of poverty around Paris are caused by the architecture itself, the 'style' of the buildings? That Corbu's conceptual project is a depiction of a slum-to-be? That there has never been such a thing as a 'traditional' slum? What 'human needs' are we talking about here? The 'human need' to have actually had to live in 19th century slum housing? The 'human need' to be homeless after World War Two? Come on, one doesn't have to defend the Plan Voisin as a genuine proposal to know that Hanley is regurgitating Thatcherite platitude here.

We're often tempted to blame Le Corbusier for everything that was wrong with modernism. The awful thing is, I think I still do.

I'm sorry, I don't mean to be quite so vitriolic, but this is just one article too far, somebody who has criticised the culture of 'Giving 'em what they want' should be able to write something not quite so blood boilingly reactionary, but then, even the bloody Torygraph found her architectural predeterminism a rather poor show.

[P.P.S. - Pardon my French...]


owen hatherley said...

Can't help agreeing with all of this - a decidedly tossed-off and ill-thought out article. Which is a shame, as her Estates is mostly very good, but on architecture ranges from parochial to outright factually inaccurate. I reviewed it in Socialist Review at the time.

socialism and/or barbarism said...

Well-put, sir.

We all know that Mies was the most evil architect of the century.

More seriously, there is a serious problem not-so-buried within her review, which you pull out nicely: are architects responsible for the future histories of their buildings/developments? Banlieue for her does indeed seem to stand in for slum, as one could hardly be criticized for a proper urbanist/disurbanist model of clean mass housing and the elimination of traffic noise (which, by any fucking standards, one should not valorize as that which gives the real texture of humanity to urban life - it's annoying as shit). To find proper fault in the architect for the fallout to come, one would have to determine a fundamental misreading, on the part of the architect, of the trendlines of development and capital in the location, at which point perhaps it does appear that the building could only ever be an unwelcome imposition. We'd then have to decide if that's fundamentally a bad thing.

Lastly, "sipping bruschetta and munching on a latte." Don't know if that was intentional, but either way, that is totally the new wave of debauched elitists, who have taken El Bulli's cuisine one step too far.

Anonymous said...

Small point of information: People didn't work for free for Corb.
They paid him.

Zoe Roller said...

this is like pruitt igoe all over again.