In the latest UNESCO list of 12 new sites added to the World Heritage List, Le Corbusier is the winning architect. Oscar Niemeyer nudges in with Pampulha, a 1940 garden-city project, but a portfolio of 17 buildings by Le Corbusier, stretching over 50 years, express ‘new architectural techniques [that] respond to the needs of society’. So why has their designation taken so long?
The UNESCO process is clearly highly political. Tim Slade’s fine new film Destruction of Memory (based on Robert Bevan’s book of that title) shows how the organisation stands on the very frontline of global vandalism – and there may be diplomatic reasons as to why these particular choices were made, or why other equally suitable Corbusier buildings were excluded. Where, for example is the vulnerable Immeuble Clarté of 1930, in Geneva? A list of 19 Le Corbusier buildings was considered in 2011 and then deferred.
The current selection spreads across continents and typologies, and from the birth of pure ‘white modernism’ to the apogee of Brutalism. The church at Ronchamp is there, along with the convent La Tourette, and the Punjabi capital city of Chandigarh. Interestingly it includes work that has fallen below (at least my) radar, such as the Museum of Western Art in Tokyo and Dr Curutchet’s house in La Plata, Argentina. There is also a biographical element – starting with his mother’s little house on Lake Geneva, via the Parisian studio apartment at Porte Molitar in which his wife was unhappily confined, to the Roquebrune Cabana from which he took his last fatal swim.
There is considerable heft in World Heritage listing and it might concentrate the mind in India, where all is not well at Chandigarh, or even at Pessac where several of the houses in this small garden suburb near Bordeaux are in bad shape. UNESCO is not a grant-giving body, and so has to depend on naming and shaming as loudly as it is able, whether in Liverpool or Palmyra. But perhaps there is another motive in the choice of Le Corbusier? Perpetually seen as the ogre of the future city following his polemics in Le Plan Voisin (1922–25), Le Corbusier and his Unité d’Habitation (Marseille) and other successful housing schemes are easily belittled. When, earlier this year, David Cameron lashed out at British ‘sink estates’ the media response hinged on the architecture rather than poor management or lack of maintenance. In spotlighting a portfolio of modernist buildings in varying states of repair, UNESCO is offering a valuable universal case-study, with benefits both architectural and social.