Design: Tracing Le Corbusier's Mixed Legacy

In a short film that opens the new exhibit "Le Corbusier: the Art of Architecture" at the Barbican Centre in London, the dapper, bespectacled Swiss-born architect stands before a grand plan of Paris and draws a thick black line across the map, blocking out a vast, rectangular swath of the city. His "Plan Voisin"—conceived with the belief that modern man required modern cities in which to live—involved razing part of the capital's Right Bank to make way for nearly 20 high-rise residential towers neatly arranged on an expansive grid of wide avenues and green lawns, in stark contrast to Paris's dense warren of charming medieval lanes. Thankfully, Le Corbusier's plan was considered as preposterous then as it sounds now, and the city's Marais district, where the monolithic development would have stood, remains largely intact.

For better and worse, Le Corbusier certainly had vision. The Barbican exhibit, neatly arrayed in photos, films and architectural models (through May 24), illustrates how he has earned his place as both the most revered and most reviled figure in modern architecture. His sensational proposals—like the plan for central Paris—helped him win the attention he wanted and guided the principles of urban design for decades to come. But he was a better architect than urban planner; Le Corbusier produced some of the most important buildings of the 20th century—including the pilgrimage chapel he designed at Ronchamp in western France and the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels—inspiring generations of future designers. His detractors, however, blame him for many of the ills of contemporary urban life: crime-ridden social housing projects and an overreliance on the automobile—an invention Le Corbusier was infatuated with, which his designs always took into account. Although the grandest of his schemes were never realized, his ideas for concentrating urban living in high-rise towers to make way for open green space below has ultimately shaped the look of nearly every city today.

Like many urbanists before him, Le Corbusier seemed not to like cities. He came of age in an era when Europe and America were captivated by their own slums, and regarded cities as crowded, dirty places. He sought a solution in the kind of order and efficiency he saw in the industrial assembly line. The city of the future, he thought, should have clearly defined places for work, commerce and living. Unlike his contemporaries, who favored far more suburban ideals, his manifesto for the "Radiant City" pushed for dense urban populations and modern transport systems. He envisioned airplanes landing amid soaring skyscrapers connected by elevated highways where automobile traffic could flow unimpeded. But his visions were often just fantasies. In a proposal for Algiers, even the French colonial government noted it would need the powers of an "absolute dictator" to level the Casbah for Le Corbusier's utopia.

The need to reconstruct Europe's battle-torn cities after the Second World War opened up the kind of tabula rasa the Corbusian model called for. By the early 1950s, the architect's concern for humankind was evident in far more modest projects like the Unité d'Habitation in Marseille, which was heavily influenced by communal housing in the Soviet Union. He went to great lengths to secure his own legacy; as Charles Knevitt of the Royal Institute of British Architects points out, "He was the first star architect." A precursor to the likes of Frank Gehry and Norman Foster, he skillfully harnessed the mass media to brand "Le Corbusier" as a household name. Images of his work, widely circulated in architectural magazines of the day, showed clean, brightly lit apartments and happy children playing in rooftop gardens. Such pictures seduced architects from London to New York, who haphazardly adopted a mishmash of his ideas in an effort to build housing quickly and cheaply.

As we know now, the public housing projects, largely disconnected from the cities around them, became bleak ghet-tos of poverty and, sooner than anyone thought possible, the great modernist vision failed. Many developments were torn down not long after they were built. As the American writer Jane Jacobs poignantly observed, the Corbusian city was not only isolating, it stunted the normal growth of urban areas. Even his admirers concede that Le Corbusier understood very little about the actual economies of cities. By the time of his death in 1965, the backlash against modernism had begun in earnest.

Today, the most desirable addresses lie at the heart of the urban centers the Corbusians wanted to tear down. Current schools of architectural thought, such as the New Urbanists, emphasize remixing the old divisions between work and play that Le Corbusier tried to bulwark. Architecture, while maintaining some of its hubris, has retreated to the role of simply trying to create beautiful buildings. Lately more altruistic concerns have begun to creep back in—albeit with a smaller footprint—in the form of groups like Architecture for Humanity and the Rural Studio, which have begun turning their skills again toward housing the world's poor.

For all his shortcomings, Le Corbusier's sparse and unadorned esthetic—he deemed that the home should be "a machine for living"—remains alive and well. Many of the new loft-style condominiums that have sprung up in urban centers around the world over the past decade borrow directly from him. And in places like China and Dubai, where newfound prosperity and optimism coincide with strong governments—recall Beijing's Olympic Village—architects are once again venturing into the business of remaking society through architecture and urban planning. The Radiant City may find a home yet.