No-one likes the myth of the architect-dictator, says Will Wiles, but it reflects the importance of the job
Who’d defend Le Corbusier? His bad ideas are indisputable, and his good ideas have sublimated into common sense. But the main frustration of Corb-defending is constantly having to argue against the man himself. There’s a good deal in his writing that’s gentle, witty, sensible and humane. But the zingers, the bits one remembers, are almost all unhelpful. ‘The death of the street’ might have been a prescient warning of the transformations wrought by the motor car, but the conclusions are a disaster. ‘A machine for living in’ meant efficient, convenient, labour-saving, mass-produced. But it’s read as meaning ‘a house must be an inhospitable box for automata’ and will probably never shake off that association.
‘He didn’t mean it like that’ is the weary cry of the Corb defender. Much of his writing came from an era of technological enthusiasm that is now quite alien to us. ‘Science finds, industry applies, man conforms’, was the unnerving slogan of the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. Today’s tech visionaries might still yearn to build a robotised panopticon, but they at least try to hymn individuality while doing so.
So it’s a shock when we come across a word like ‘propaganda’ used in a positive light. Even more so when the word is ‘totalitarian’. ‘The plan: totalitarian,’ Le Corbusier wrote in The Radiant City. It is a retort to those who say that a human despot is needed to bring order to the filth and chaos of the city. A good plan, Corb says, is the despot you need, not a fallible human.
Perhaps realising the public relations misstep, in later editions this heading is changed to less ominous, but no less stern, formulations such as ‘the plan must rule’. But the original wording still comes up in denunciations of Corbusier and his ilk. It’s part of the enduring popular myth that every architect is a closet dictator. This stereotype got a fresh airing in the recent BBC drama series, The Girl Before. Strait-laced architect Edward Monkford (Daniel Oyelowo) may have bumped off a previous tenant of a minimalist house he has built, and might be planning to murder another. The house might be minimal but Monkford’s control over its tenants is maximal, limiting their possessions, using surveillance and making them fill out psychometric evaluations.
The house in The Girl Before is presented as the highest refinement of architecture – indeed, it won a RIBA award. So, we are invited to infer, architecture
seeks control and in its purest form seeks total control. The plan is always totalitarian. And to illustrate this intent, we are shown Monkford in his office, on the phone to his unlucky tenant – all the while poring over a model of the house, and idly picking up a little model woman to inspect closely. Classic.
That architect looming godlike over the model might help explain why this stereotype persists. Architects must decide a vast range of apparent minutiae, but are also shapers of the world, given to big thinking, even utopianism. The architect-dictator also makes a politically useful fiction. In debates about the planning system and ‘building beautifully’, the architect can crop up as imaginary antagonist, foisting half-baked schemes on hapless communities. Constructors and clients are weirdly absent.
Lately, however, I’ve joined this group, overseeing the reconstruction of the rear of a crumbling Victorian house in London. The architect is a good friend and displays no obvious megalomania, but the process has made me realise a few things about making architecture. Every decision matters, and a surprising amount gets decided on the hoof. The architect must be ever-watchful, because it may be their name that gets remembered when an ad-hoc light switch placement is noticed by a building’s users in years to come. Any dictatorial tendencies on the part of architects are demanded by the job – fundamentally, non-architects want and need architects to dictate in detail, because no one else will. Society’s suspicion of the architect is simply a curdled form of recognition that the job really matters.
Although architecture is a popular hobby for dictators, it’s hard to find any who started out as architects. Law, the military and the priesthood have much worse records. Kim Jong Il, the late tyrant of North Korea, did write a treatise on architecture, published in 1991 – but he claimed expertise in a number of fields, including cinema and golf.