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Le Corbusier's Hands

by André Wogenscky; Martina Milla Bernad, Translator
The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2006
96 pp., illus. 6 b/w. Trade, $14.95
ISBN: 0-262-23244-8.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Department of Art, University of Northern Iowa


The Swiss-born French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) is credited with having said "a house is a machine for living in," a statement that this book contends "has harmed him greatly." For this and other reasons, he is thought of as having been cold and severe. His reductive urban planning schemes, wrote Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate, are exemplars of "Authoritarian High Modernism: The conceit that planners could redesign society from the top down using 'scientific' principles." This book is a brief memoir by a close associate of Corbu, Andre Wogenscky (1916-2004), a French architect who worked with him from 1936-1956 and, later, became the director of the Le Corbusier Foundation.

Initially released in French in 1987 and published now for the first time in English, it provides an insider's memories of Le Corbusier, not of the inner life of the man (which remains a great mystery) but of his daily interactions with others, Wogenscky among them. In observing his subject, the author shifts our focus from the distant, hardened visage of Le Corbusier to the expressive elegance of his hands, hence the book's title. "It was his hands that revealed him," writes Wogenscky, "It was as if his hands betrayed him. They spoke all his feelings, all the vibrations of his inner life that his face tried to conceal." Illustrated by Le Corbusier's pen-and-ink drawings and a small selection of photographs (including details of his hands), the format of the text is such that it feels like a bouquet of pensées or measured retrospective poems. It gives us brief but deeply etched looks at Le Corbusier's thick, barricaded personality, in some ways like the windows he cut into the thick white walls of the chapel at Ronchamp. Certain moments are disturbing, as when Le Corbusier almost chokes the author's dog ("I love to feel how far I can go," he explained), or when he says to his own wife, when she arrives unannounced at his painting studio, "You have no right to come here." From all appearances, he was a stern, standoffish man (a tyrant in certain ways), and it must have been exasperating to work with him, in any capacity. Nevertheless, Wogenscky's admiration does not end: "When we find his [Le Corbusier's] architecture beautiful, it is not just that we like it. It is the architecture that seems to like us."

(Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review, Volume 21 Number 2, Winter 2005-06.)



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