Jan Kenneth Birksted


On his book Le Corbusier and the Occult

Cover Interview of February 19, 2010

In a nutshell

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, alias Le Corbusier, borrowed, plagiarized and instrumentalised the ideas and symbols of Swiss and French Freemasonry and trade guilds, the compagnonnages.

The ruling elites of La Chaux-de-Fonds (where Jeanneret lived for the first thirty years of his life before moving to Paris), as well as those of the Third Republic in Paris, belonged to Masonic lodges.  So this was for him a clever way of getting in on the act and of obtaining commissions. After all, architects want work and celebrity status.  But, unlike other artists and intellectuals such as Juan Gris and Paul Dermée, who did belong to Masonic lodges and were devoted to their rituals and ideas, Jeanneret operated their ideas and symbols instrumentally. Jeanneret believed in one thing only: Le Corbusier!

But my book is about several other related things too. Let me explain.

First, it has always been said, and is indeed still said, that Le Corbusier’s architecture is so incredibly complex that the only thing we can do is to individually track each one of the infinite meanings and sources that make up its eclectic nature, without relating them to each as a coherent whole. It is always repeated that to do so would be reductive. It is thereby implied that Le Corbusier’s work is the inexplicable creation of an inscrutable genius. Now, this is of course exactly what they all—from Frank Lloyd Wright to Le Corbusier via Cézanne, Jackson Pollock and so forth—wanted us to believe.  It is in the very nature of modernist originality to want to hide its trail and make us believe in individual geniuses beyond analysis.

Le Corbusier was a master of the trade of public relations and deceit. He set up and vetted his own archives. He made sure to make friends in powerful places to insure the preservation of his key buildings by heritage legislation. He hustled museums to make sure his paintings would be in public collections. And so on.  He was not always the mighty Le Corbusier from the Parisian City of Light but indeed a little provincial from an obscure Swiss town who had a lot of trouble being taken seriously in Paris.

My book shows that Jeanneret’s work is not an impenetrable, unpredictable and ad hoc assemblage, but a carefully structured opus that in-depth research can crack open.  My book sets out to find the structures of the multiple references, meanings and sources of Jeanneret’s art and architecture. Indeed, when you check in the dictionary exactly what the word “eclectic” means, you find “multiple references according to a structured system.”  I am arguing that Jeanneret’s work is not heteroclite, as is implied by people who say his work is incomprehensible, but coherently eclectic—serious research can describe the ideological and symbolic structure that runs through it. And that is what I set out to do.

But I am arguing something else too, which is important to understand. I have been accused of being cynical because I assert that Jeanneret did not believe in these ideas.  I do not know if Jeanneret believed in the ideological and symbolic ideas that underlie his art, architecture and his books, because I do not have access to his brain.  Also, he was a strategic and manipulative self-publicist in his obsessive search for the modernist holy grail of becoming an “original genius,” so he used ideas to ingratiate himself to get commissions and publicity as well as in the hope of becoming an historical legend.  In that respect, the creation of his legend is the true mark of his genius!

So, to get back to the point: Did he believe in the main ideas that structure his eclectic art and architecture? Perhaps sometimes he did and sometimes he did not, as the wind blew.  There is no way of knowing.  The evidence is contradictory. I can only look at material outputs (art, architecture and publications) and recorded behavior in order to observe recurring patterns in his life and work.  My book is not some imaginary psycho-sexual biography. Le Corbusier and the Occult seeks to understand symbolic and behavioral structures as a way towards understanding architectural and spatial qualities.

In order to do so, I had to devise investigative research methods.  This is probably more interesting to researchers then to general readers.  But chess-players might appreciate the joys of devising tactics within the rules of the game in order to beat the opposition, which, in this case, is the Jeanneret legend’s claim that he is wholly original and as good as gold.