The Profound anti-Semitism of Le Corbusier

He was the most admired architect in the country, but Zionism interested him only as an opportunity to realize his planning concepts.

Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg
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The Chapelle Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, designed by Le Corbusier
The Chapelle Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, designed by Le CorbusierCredit: Bloomberg
Esther Zandberg
Esther Zandberg

In 1938 the famed Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier wrote a now little-known article about the state of the Jews, in which he asserted that dramatic and exceptional circumstances had generated a period of mass Jewish emigration.

Le Corbusier in his Paris office, January 18, 1949.Credit: AP

“This emigration will spread across one day to all countries,” wrote Le Corbusier, born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris. “This enormous Jewish experiment, which opens an entire decade, deserves particular and generous preparation.”

The Unité d'habitation, a modernist residential housing design principle developed by Le Corbusier, in south Marseille.Credit: AP

Tzafrir Feinholz, a doctoral student in architecture, opened his dissertation about Le Corbusier and the Zionist movement with this article. He summarizes his research, which examines the relations between the Zionist project, Le Corbusier, modernist planning and the personal ties between architects and Zionist institutions from 1910 to 1948.

Feinholz’s research sheds light on a fascinating historical period of architecture and planning in Israel, which continues to this day. He completed his work coincidentally and symbolically 50 years after the death of Le Corbusier, who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea off the southern coast of France on August 27, 1965.

Enchantment with Nazi regime

As part of the jubilee celebrating one of the greatest, most brilliant and most destructive architects of the 20th century, exhibitions of his creations, among them at the Pompidou Center in Paris, will be displayed uncovering his darker side, including his deep-rooted anti-Semitism and his enchantment with the Nazi regime. The principles of urban planning he championed dismantled and undermined the traditional city and have drawn profound criticism in recent decades.

Le Corbusier was born in Switzerland and immigrated to France in 1917. He never studied architecture. He was an artist and designer. He wrote, published and influenced others more than he built in practice, and more was written about his work and personality than about any other architect.

He was admired among Zionist architects, no less so by the 1948 generation. Sharon Rotbard writes in his book about the Israeli architect Avraham Yaski that when he heard about Le Corbusier’s death, Rehavam Ze’evi sent Yaski, one of Le Corbusier’s greatest admirers in Israel, a telegram of condolence. His Villa Savoye inspired the design of the National Library in Jerusalem. It is hard to discount the influence of his work in general on the built-up scenery in Israel, starting from building on pillars, through the residential block to the brutalist architecture of exposed stone.

Feinholz’s research presents for the first time a comprehensive picture of Le Corbusier’s presence in the Zionist project.

The research relies on heretofore-unknown archive materials. Foremost among them is an article that was never published for unknown reasons. Feinholz tracked it down in the Le Corbusier Institute in Paris. The discovery was no doubt historic, “and the beginning of a journey that has yet to end,” says Feinholz, who plans to publish the article in full in the near future.

The article, titled in French “Quelles sont les formes d’agregation d’une nouvelle societe machiniste,” was written at the invitation of the revisionist Zionist leader Benjamin Ze’ev (Wolfgang) von Weisl, shortly after Kristallnacht.
The Unité d'habitation, a modernist residential housing design principle developed by Le Corbusier, in south Marseille. Photo by AP

Von Weisl, a refugee who fled the Anschluss of Nazi Germany and Austria from Vienna, asked Le Corbusier to address the “Jewish question” and their resettlement in Palestine. In the introduction he attached to the invitation, von Weisl presented Jewish immigration as an advantage to the states that would encourage it. In the spirit of Jabotinsky, he advocated Jewish settlement on both sides of the Jordan River.

Encounters with the ‘Jewish question’

Le Corbusier had already encountered the Jewish question in the 1910s in his native Switzerland, to where many Jews immigrated, and more forcefully in the 1930s when he was living in Paris, to where many Jews arrived from conquered parts of Europe.

Switzerland, which didn’t look kindly on Jewish settlement within its borders and refused to grant them equal rights, cooked up the transmigration solution, which modern Israel refers to as the third-country solution. The government of France, whose concentration of Jews in its cities aroused hostility, raised the possibility of resettling them in outlying villages.

The two solutions constitute the basis of Le Corbusier’s article. While written as a response to the Evian Conference, which had failed to resolve the Jewish refugee problem, Le Corbusier framed the Jewish question in relation to the problems of a modern industrial society in general. He noted that Nazism and Bolshevism had become global phenomena. These terrors of the mechanized age, the detachment from nature and loss of solidarity were the reason for the Jews’ woes, he argued. Considering his fear that “the trouble would spread to all of Europe,” he called on resettling the Jews and returning them to “nature.”

He rejected keeping the Jews in large numbers in European cities and wrote of the obligation for a “good” exodus in which they were not persecuted. He therefore advocated a massive transfer of most European Jews to Palestine to colonize it like British Guyana or Tanganyika. The remaining few Jews would be transferred to rural areas. Jewish resettlement according to “natural laws” and returning them to the land are central ideas in Le Corbusier’s plan, overlapping with Zionist ideology.

Le Corbusier suggested using modern technology to create a productive “natural” environment, by natural meaning clean and hygienic. He advocated a big, radiating city, the ideal of high rises freeing up land for man’s (and cars’) benefit. His sketches are surprisingly reminiscent of modern suburbs full of towers from Netanya and Ramat Aviv to Be’er Sheva, which carefully adopted his mistaken ideas.

Feinholz writes that Le Corbusier’s project and the Zionist project are related in their approach of reform through planning as the center of man’s rebirth. Israeli space was planned entirely by those with “hidden knowledge” – Richard Kauffmann and Arieh Sharon foremost among them.

Le Corbusier envisioned Jews living in housing units of 2,000-3,000 people each. These units would preserve the social communal experience Jews were used to in their traditional places of residence while guaranteeing hygienic and creative ways of life. Such units were built in Marseille, France and Berlin in huge blocs.

Experimenting on Jews, architecturally

However, Feinholz’s research clearly shows that the Jews’ fate did not particularly interest Le Corbusier. Zionism only interested him as an opportunity to implement his ideas on an essentially captive population. As he wrote, “Through their suffering and bad luck, the Jews are ready to bypass the trivial and reframe themselves under a new order. Anything is better for them than what is now happening. ... One can imagine how it is possible to exploit these spontaneous circumstances to take the first steps to organize a mechanical society on a natural basis.”

Despite his ties with Zionism, his familiarity with the Jews’ travails and his friendship with Jewish artists and architects in Paris, and despite planning homes of established Jews in his hometown La Chaux-de-Fonds, La Corbusier was a profound anti-Semite, as Feinholz’s research reveals. He wrote to a friend in the 1910s about installing “smoking rooms for fat Jews” and wrote during World War II that Jews got what they deserved. He wrote of 1943, when the Jews of Paris were sent to their destruction, that it was “a year in which nothing special happened.”

He was much less a political man than a technocrat, according to Feinholz. Believing in the power of governments to realize architectural visions, it is no wonder he had far-right affiliations, worked as an urban planner in service of the Vichy regime, tried to work for Mussolini, who invited him to lecture in Rome, and wrote his mother – known for her own anti-Semitism – in October 1940 that “if he stands by his declarations, Hitler could conclude his career with something enormous: recreating Europe.”

A film clip on the Web marking the anniversary of Le Corbusier’s death superficially yet precisely sums up his polarizing legacy: “Le Corbusier, why is he admired and despised?” The question will remain open for generations.



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