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Today is the birthday of “Le Corbusier” (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris), the fascist architect and urban planner born in 1887, who’s responsible for so many of those barren, faceless, concrete boxes that litter our cities in lieu of buildings and homes designed with human beings in mind.
Here’s a typical Le Corbusier building:
One of his favorite tricks was to hoist the whole thing up on skeletal pylons so it looks like an ocean liner in dry dock. His idea of urban planning was similar: you could create a rigorously tidy little world by stacking up poor people in oversized filing cabinets in the sky. Give them a little ribbon of grass to keep them occupied, and you’ll achieve a mathematically-pleasing societal utopia.
Here’s one of his Unité d’Habitations:
Never mind that people don’t want to live in boxes, and would also routinely violate his ideals of purity and simplicity by doing bourgeois things like going to work and school and shops and museums, and not especially wanting to be quarantined in a sterile skyscraper that hovers over a dim, vacant void on the outskirts of town.
Le Corbusier frowned mightily on anything that smelled of comfort or pleasant decoration, or even of humanity — things like cornices, pillars, arches, towers, gables, or even a little bit of paint. All of that is so bourgeois, so inefficient, so embarrassing. Much better to purify the world — and the human body. (He did for living room furniture what he did for city streets. His comfy chairs are a three-sided fence of slender steel with a cube of leather trapped inside.)
I really can’t figure out how pleased I am to announce that American architecture seems to have worked its way completely through and past his malevolent influence, and that we are now squirming unhappily on a pin at the opposite end of the exhibit marked “Modern Architecture: A Tragedy.” Behold: the completely other kind of horrible mistake you can make when designing a building:
If Le Corbusier wanted everything to be barren, severe, and reduced to sheerest mathematics, current architectural appetites demand an incoherent smorgasbord of AHVERYTHING.
The problem with McMansions is not merely that they are too big and ostentatious. We can live with that (although I wouldn’t want to heat that). The problem is that they don’t make any damn sense. If Le Corbousier’s buildings were unlivable because they were all rules and no humanity, McMansions flip a bird to all the rules in favor of whatever happens to catch the designer’s fancy — and it’s always something fancy. Nothing but cornices, pillars, arches, towers, and gables, all plastered with obscenely senseless stucco and tarted up with phony muntins.
For an excellent (and not really terribly snotty) explanation of just what it is that feel so “off” about these frankenhouses, see this excellent article McMansions 101: What Makes a McMansion Bad Architecture?
It is not, as so many will protest, merely a matter of taste. Taste is subjective, but there are some objective principles that must be followed if the eye and the brain are to find any peace with a living space. A good many buildings are not to my taste, but I can still acknowledge that they are designed well. This is a different situation entirely from a house with is not so much designed as vomited onto the blueprint with a fervent disregard for coherence that would make a Mad Lib weep with envy.
The author takes us through some basic principles of residential architecture: the principles of masses and voids, balance, proportion, and rhythm. (It’s worth noting that many of the other articles on this site are profane and snotty, but this one is mainly informative and enlightening, very worth a read.)
Le Corbusier despised and disregarded the basic human need for comfort and beauty; McMansions let us gorge on our basest decorative fancies, and we end up in a fever dream of faux luxury. Neither extreme satisfies the basic human need for buildings that both function and please. It’s almost as if human beings have a head and a heart, and will only live at peace when our homes do, too.
(For more reading about the origins of modern architecture, give yourself a treat and read Tom Wolfe’s immensely entertaining From Bauhaus to Our House. I’d love to hear what he has to say about McMansions and what they tell us about the American Soul. Not that anyone’s hiding anything.)
Image credits in order of appearance:
Villa Savoye By Valueyou, CC BY-SA 3.0