RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
What do an IKEA showroom floor, urban housing projects and Kanye West have in common? They have all been inspired, at least to some degree, by a man named Le Corbusier, an architect. Though his name has fallen out of the popular imagination, Frank Lloyd Wright is much more likely to ring a bell, Le Corbusier's influence is visible nearly everywhere you look in the landscape of the modern world; sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Anthony Flint has written a new biography. It is called "Modern Man: The Life Of Le Corbusier, Architect Of Tomorrow." Anthony Flint, welcome to the program.
ANTHONY FLINT: It's a great pleasure to be here.
MARTIN: In the course of researching this book, you - I understand - visited many of the buildings that Corbusier constructed. Can you tell us about one that you think really exemplifies his work?
FLINT: I guess I would say Unite d'Habitation in Marseille might have been the most inspiring and the most emblematic for how he thought about housing and efficient housing design.
MARTIN: What does it actually look like?
FLINT: Well, it really is - as you mentioned IKEA, it's straight out of an IKEA catalog when you walk into some of these apartments. They're arranged over 12 floors, essentially, like bottles in a wine rack. That was how he described it. It makes very efficient use of space. There are sliding doors that, you know, have chalkboards on them to write down grocery lists, built-in shelves. It's just a terrific, efficient use of space. And within the building itself, theater shops, on the rooftop, a gym, a school. So it was a new approach to living.
MARTIN: I mean, you say this new way of living, these are things that we've become accustomed to today. Can you just place this in context for us? What was happening at the time? Why was this part of his work considered so revolutionary?
FLINT: Well, he was looking at the city at the turn of the 20th century as a place that had grown quite tattered and worn and unsanitary. There were actually slums in Paris. And so the idea was there's going to be a lot more urban population, and how can they be housed efficiently? And that's how he got into this business of inspiring essentially urban renewal. That included, by the way, a lot of bad ideas like raising the center of Paris in the historic Murat Neighborhood. But what he was trying to do was create what he called a machine for living in that was repeatable, that could house these many millions of people that were going to be moving into cities.
MARTIN: He saw these post-war periods as moments of opportunity?
FLINT: Yes, he somewhat famously looked at the devastation of a bombed-out city in France and said what a splendid problem. And he had similarly looked at earthquakes and fires. And so yes, he looked at building and cities as an iterative process where new ideas could come into play out of the ashes.
MARTIN: He also, though, was the kind of person, it seems, who was willing to make perhaps questionable choices just to preserve his art or his vision for the world. Can you tell us about Vichy and his experience there?
FLINT: Yes, he was nothing if not an opportunist. And during World War II, he rather aggressively sought to join the Vichy government after the Nazi occupation of France. And he wanted to be the sort of urban czar for the Vichy government. And he consorted with some quite unsavory characters.
MARTIN: Is it fair to say he also thought that the idea of Hitler taking over was not unpalatable?
FLINT: He did say some things about Hitler in a letter to his mother that suggested that there was inherently a grand vision for Europe in what he did. Now he did give up on this pretty quickly. And so he ends up getting himself back to Paris. And by 1944 and of course 1945, he switched sides again and starts advising de Gaulle about postwar housing and urban policies.
MARTIN: What was his vision, if you had to distill it? I mean, he did think very grandly of himself and his place in the world. How did he want to remake it?
FLINT: Well, I think that's what's potentially quite instructive about this man. You know, he's either derided or revered. He's blamed for urban renewal, urban freeways, even countless suburban office parks with their horizontal strip windows. But what he was trying to do at the time, if you go back to the 1920s, was he was challenging the status quo. He believed that the city wasn't living up to its full potential. And this spirit of innovation, I think, is something that can be applied in today's developing world cities in the 21st century, just millions and millions of people streaming into cities and many of them moving directly to slums. So those challenges are very much before us in the same way that Le Corbusier faced them.
MARTIN: Anthony Flint. His new biography of Le Corbusier is called "Modern Man." He joined us from member station WGBH in Boston. Thanks so much for talking with us, Anthony.
FLINT: Thank you.
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