Two new graphic novels, which a Le Corbusier figure makes an appearance in, depict the uncomfortable side of modern architecture, writes Owen Hatherley.
The story of modern architecture is usually told as being a matter of heroes and villains, and one figure, Le Corbusier, has always had the luck to be portrayed as both. The destroyer of cities, the giver of form, instantly recognisable by the thick, round, black-rimmed glasses and the thinning hair, a uniform embarrassingly copied by hundreds of architects ever since the 1920s.
It's entirely unsurprising that a man treated in his lifetime as a godlike demiurge and a comic book villain has, in fact, been portrayed as an actual villain in actual comic books, and as a hero in others (there is actually a French-language graphic novel biography aimed at teenagers, Le Corbusier – Architecte Parmi Les Hommes).
There are more and less subtle ways of doing this, however – and some comics have been more nuanced about modern architecture than a lot of the published histories. Two new graphic novels – Viken Berberian and Yann Kebbi's The Structure is Rotten, Comrade, and Charlotte Malterre-Barthes and Zosia Dzierzawska's Eileen Gray – A House Under the Sun – are accounts of the uncomfortable sides of modern architecture in which Le Corbusier either appears as a real character, or as a parodic figure.
There are dozens upon dozens of depictions of both terrifying and exciting modernist cities that would make Chandigarh look like Poundbury
In comic books about development and destruction, such as Robert Moses – Master Builder, Le Corbusier and his ideas get a walk-on part as the inspiration of urban disaster (before the everyday superhero figure of Jane Jacobs saves the day, of course). These two books try and tell stories in which the architect is more than just one-dimensional.
Comic books, being for most of their history a celebration of dystopia, chaos and modernity, aren't naturally a good place for moralising. There are dozens upon dozens of depictions of both terrifying and exciting modernist cities that would make Chandigarh look like Poundbury, from famous future metropolises like Gotham City and Mega City One, down to the more mundane level of the child psychics in the Brutalist apartment complex of Katsuhiro Otomo's manga Domu.
One of the most interesting examples frankly acknowledges its architectural source – Dean Motter's 1980s comic series Mister X, in which an architect-detective modelled very obviously on Le Corbusier moves through the psychotropic buildings of Radiant City, a combination of the Ville Radieuse with the kitschier future cities of Hugh Ferriss and Fritz Lang.
Neither The Structure is Rotten, Comrade and Eileen Gray – a House Under the Sun are about imaginary cities of the future, but are in some way about actual events, and the ways in which architects' ideas have rubbed up against reality in unpredictable ways.
The book begins with Le Corbusier's presumably intentional death by drowning in front of E1027
They both have something of the dreamlike about them, exploiting the form's lack of interest in realism. A House Under the Sun tells the story, now pretty familiar to people who know their architectural history, of how this Irish designer moved briefly into architecture. How she created, almost casually, one of the masterpieces of the 20th century in the form of the house E1027 on the Cote d'Azur, and of how that masterpiece was wrested from her first personally, and then conceptually, as her partner Jean Badovici and then Le Corbusier laid claim to it.
The book begins with Le Corbusier's presumably intentional death by drowning in front of E1027 – boxed in among the panoramic views of the bay are panels of people lamenting how the great architect died in front of his great work.
From there, Gray's life – sketched in lightly, through vignettes of her life as a child born into the Irish upper middle class, of her brief career as a Parisian cause celebre through her design emporium Jean Depart, her relationship with Badovici, and the notorious defacing of E1027 by Le Corbusier's garish, misogynist murals, which can at best be seen as an unrequested tribute to a building he loved, or at worst, as an attempt to make it his own.
In any case, if it was the latter, he was successful – press cuttings montaged into the book's later pages show news reports citing the building as Corbusier's. By the end, Gray has literally disappeared from the narrative, a ghostly absence.
Its central hero is a Le Corbusier parody and there are similar themes of architecture's aspirations to purity and autonomy coming into conflict with sexuality and money
The story is stylishly told, while the look of A House Under the Sun is relaxed, muted and melancholic, though frequently verging on the twee. In places, it falls into a sort of Etsy aesthetic that is not entirely well-suited to the glinting, harsh Mediterranean clarity of Gray's own designs.
While its central hero is a Le Corbusier parody and there are similar themes of architecture's aspirations to purity and autonomy coming into conflict with sexuality and money, the style of The Structure is Rotten, Comrade couldn't be more different – a riot of slashing lines, scrawls and bright colours.
The plot of the comic book is similarly elliptical, but contemporary, and semi-fictional. Frunz, a young French-Armenian architect from the diaspora with Le Corbusier specs and an enthusiasm for Beton Brut, moves to Yerevan, the capital of independent Armenia, to work for his father's construction company.
In love with the greats of architectural history, he intends to bring luxury skyscrapers, avant-garde design and Aalto stools to what he evidently regards as a sleepy and provincial post-Soviet town. Showing little interest in the city's actual architecture – a coherent, neoclassical ensemble of the 1930s t0 1950s, masterplanned by the architect Alexander Tamanyan – he becomes embroiled in a series of scandalous demolitions. Then both he and his family are targeted in the revolution of 2018, which built on a series of earlier protests against rampant overdevelopment.
What the book's violent, vehement style registers, though, is just how much architecture matters
Although the types are convincing – the corrupt developers and macho militamen, the emigre princeling going back to his ancestral homeland and trying to tell it what to do, the grizzled market traders and eager young students of Yerevan – the book distorts some of the architectural history.
The book alludes to the Northern Avenue, a mega-development plunged through the historic centre of Yerevan against fierce opposition. But this was hardly some avant-garde work of western modernism, rather a stone-clad neoclassical boulevard; some of the stories in here seem like they've come from neighbouring Georgia, which really has been a playground for dubious modern architects for the last decade, something which hasn't alleviated its drastic poverty.
What the book's violent, vehement style registers, though, is just how much architecture matters – what the destruction of a much-loved building can do to people's lives, and how often architecture's international role is to offer a veneer of modernisation to the poor world as a patronising sop. This comic book has its villains, but its hero is the collective who fight the developers, and win.
Image from Eileen Gray – A House Under the Sun.