Le Corbusier and the Occult

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When Charles-Édouard Jeanneret reinvented himself as Le Corbusier in Paris, he also carefully reinvented the first thirty years of his life by highlighting some events and hiding others. As he explained in a letter: "Le Corbusier is a pseudonym. Le Corbusier creates architecture recklessly. He pursues disinterested ideas; he does not wish to compromise himself.... He is an entity free of the burdens of carnality." Le Corbusier grew up in La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland, a city described by Karl Marx as "one ...

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When Charles-Édouard Jeanneret reinvented himself as Le Corbusier in Paris, he also carefully reinvented the first thirty years of his life by highlighting some events and hiding others. As he explained in a letter: "Le Corbusier is a pseudonym. Le Corbusier creates architecture recklessly. He pursues disinterested ideas; he does not wish to compromise himself.... He is an entity free of the burdens of carnality." Le Corbusier grew up in La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland, a city described by Karl Marx as "one unified watchmaking industry." Among the unifying social structures of La Chaux-de-Fonds was the Loge L'Amitié, the Masonic lodge with its francophone moral, social, and philosophical ideas, including the symbolic iconography of the right angle (rectitude) and the compass (exactitude). Le Corbusier would later describe these as "my guide, my choice" and as his "time-honored ideas, ingrained and deep-rooted in the intellect, like entries from a catechism." Through exhaustive research that challenges long-held beliefs, J. K. Birksted's Le Corbusier and the Occult traces the structure of Le Corbusier's brand of modernist spatial and architectural ideas based on startling new documents in hitherto undiscovered family and local archives. Le Corbusier and the Occult thus answers the conundrum set by Reyner Banham (Birksted's predecessor at the Bartlett School of Architecture) who,fifty years ago, wrote that Le Corbusier's book Towards a New Architecture "was to prove to be one of the most influential, widely read and least understood of all the architectural writings of the twentieth century."

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Hidden sources and ambiguous inspirations abound in the work of famous, highly influential architect Le Corbusier, who reinvented himself in his thirties, mythologizing much of his history. This book takes a robust, unblinking look at the blanks in need of filling, covering "as much about the secret sources of Le Corbusier's architecture-that is, of what he threw away and did not want us to know-as it is about modernist relations to history." As a child, Le Courbusier (then Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) was immersed in Masonic thought (a big part of social life in his Swiss hometown), which elevates the right angle as a symbol of righteousness and life. Le Corbusier's inspiration by, and celebration of, the right angle is a major theme; he referred to his own Poem of the Right Angle representing "not only the foundation of my being but also... of my architecture and of my art." UK scholar Birksted unpacks a wide range of philosophical and aesthetic meanings resonating through Le Courbusier's work. Though it deepens the scholarship considerably, the exhaustive study's meandering narrative makes the material more than a little confusing. Still, the bold connections he makes should hold the interest of art and architecture fans. 177 illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal
Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (1887–1965), aka Le Corbusier, was known for trendsetting designs in reinforced concrete and for books promoting modern architecture and city planning. Birksted (architecture, Univ. Coll. London) has painstakingly examined the lives of Le Corbusier's friends, relatives, and teachers in the architect's Swiss hometown, La Chaux-de-Fonds, during the early 20th century. This research is extended to the architect's social circle during his early years in Paris. While Le Corbusier liked to portray his own designs as a break with the recent past, Birksted points to various buildings and writings to argue that the artist's work was influenced by that of François-Joseph Bélanger, an 18th-century neoclassical architect, and informed by the symbolism of Freemasonry. Although Le Corbusier was not a Mason, he had Masonic friends, relatives, and clients and owned Masonic books. VERDICT Based on recently discovered family and local documents, this academic study will suit students and faculty with a strong interest in design sources of modern architecture.—David R. Conn, Surrey P.L., B.C.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262026482
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 3/6/2009
  • Pages: 424
  • Sales rank: 927,573
  • Product dimensions: 9.00 (w) x 11.50 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

J. K. Birksted teaches at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London.

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 2, 2009

    Important Contribution to Scholarship

    This book examines the social context of Le Corbusier's early life, education, and career as an architect It shows that while Le Corbusier never became a Freemason, the social context in which he operated (especially in his early professional career) was so dominated by Freemasons, that Masonic thought and ways of thinking thoroughly and indelibly permeated his ideas on architecture (including, notably, the concept of the architectural promenade). It thereby explains the "initiatic" quality of all of Le Corbusier's most important designs. The documentation is meticulous, and introduces much visual material to the scholarly community for the first time. Packed with detail, the book will be as interesting to historians of Freemasonry as to those of architecture. It corrects or nuances much of the received wisdom about Le Corbusier's education and training in La Chaux-de-Fonds and Paris. All in all, this is a fascinating book -- one of the year's absolute must-reads for anyone interested in 20th-century architecture. It should spark considerable debate, and is likely to prove to be a turning point in the ongoing le Corbusier scholarship.

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  • Posted March 11, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Into the future on the basis of the past

    Dear Reader, My book is the result of five years of hard empirical research. Like many of Picasso's friends and republican intellectuals in Paris, Le Corbusier was involved in freemasonic networks. Many of Le Corbusier's friends, such as Juan Gris and Jacques Lipchitz and Paul Dermée, were members of socialist and republican lodges too. And just as Picasso (1881-1973) pitted himself against past masters of European painting, so Le Corbusier (1887-1965), who spent many hours cribbing from eighteenth-century books in the Bibliothèque nationale, has been described as a "cultural cannibal and radical innovator". Indeed, in his library is a much-worn book about the architecture of a radical modern eighteenth-century architect, whose architectural and engineering innovations his own 'immaculate conceptions' resemble uncannily. Le Corbusier and the Occult describes how Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, who was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds where he lived for the first thirty years of his life before leaving for Paris in 1917 to reinvent himself as the quasi-aristocratic Le Corbusier, absorbed the social ideals emanating from the prestigious Masonic lodge in La Chaux-de-Fonds, La Loge L'Amitié, whose freemasonic symbols of the right angle and the compass were described by Le Corbusier in his "Poem of the Right Angle" as "my choice, my guide". Within this ritualistic and symbolic context, Le Corbusier's 'architectural promenade' takes on a very different meaning. Le Corbusier used these republican Masonic ideals in his dealings with freemasonic politicians of the Third Republic and beyond, such as Jean Cassou, director of the Musée d'art moderne. Le Corbusier and the Occult also traces Le Corbusier's connections to the compagnonnages, the survivors of the medieval carpenters' and masons' guilds, who were involved in the construction of the Unité d'habitation in Marseille. Thus, Le Corbusier's ideas, which are not at all 'immaculate conceptions', are firmly rooted in local and contemporary culture. Le Corbusier and the Occult shows how, throughout the spectacular changes and the eclectic references in Le Corbusier's art and architecture, lie carefully structured continuities that are firmly rooted in the past as source of innovation. As a monograph with 177 illustrations, Le Corbusier and the Occult can be either read or simply looked at in so far as the sequence of illustrations provides the story and the argument of the book in parallel to the text. I have worked hard to select the pictures! I hope you find my book genuinely illuminating. Beneath I recommend four books that I admire for their related topic or for their methodological approaches. What I am involved in is, of course, the writing of history, which is such a difficult and fascinating endeavour. JK Birksted

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