Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Friday, May 15, 2015

A Counterfactual Corbusier: What If the Famed Modern Architect Had Been Born in Germany?


Now that we’ve just marked the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s death on April 30, 1945, it is probably fitting that press coverage of the upcoming 50th anniversary of Le Corbusier’s death (August 27, 1965) has sought to link the architect to the Third Reich.


Several recent French language studies have directed attention towards Le Corbusier’s well-known fascist tendencies in the 1940s.  A recent article in the Austrian newspaper, Die Presse, pointed out that the architect not only made positive comments about Philippe Pétain’s collaborationist Vichy government but even about Hitler’s desire to remake Europe according to Nazi principles.

Notably, the article sought to amplify the architect’s fascist proclivities by positing  a provocative counterfactual.

The article notes that Le Corbusier refrained from informing the Vichy government that he was Swiss and proceeds to ask the rhetorical question: “what would he have done if – like Albert Speer – he had been born in Germany?  Would he have tried to become the greatest architect of Nazi Germany?  Is it unfair to make claims, such as the one made by the Lausanne architectural historian Pierre Frey, who [polemically] referred to Le Corbusier’s “spatial eugenics” and declared that he would have worked for Hitler without batting an eye.”

The article continues:
“What would have happened if….?”  Despite being viewed with suspicion by historians, this question has value even if it cannot be answered in full.  Not in order to make people responsible for things that they did not do, but in order to sharpen our sense of basic principles that can be harmless in eras of stability but dangerous in certain historical circumstances.  Perhaps Le Corbusier (and not only he) simply had luck that he was not a German under Hitler.”
The function of the counterfactual is clear: namely, to sharpen the moral condemnation of Le Corbusier’s fascist tendencies by extrapolating how far he would have gone had he been at the epicenter of wartime fascism: Nazi Germany.  Of course, the counterfactual is implausible at its core: Le Corbusier would never have been born in Germany.  And if he had, he might not have become Le Corbusier.  
How should the hypothetical scenario be regarded, therefore?  Perhaps it can be seen as an example of a “transplant counterfactual,” one where a historical figure is artificially transplated from his/her natural environment into a foreign one for the sake of imagining how things would have unfolded differently.  It’s related to a “trading places” counterfactual insofar as it involves the act of transfer, only in this version of a single person instead of two people switching settings.
I will keep my eyes open for other such counterfactuals going forward as I continue to develop my taxonomy of “what ifs.”

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