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Friday, June 25, 2010

Le Corbusier and Certain Pro Se Litigants

800px-Cour_de_l'unité_d'habiation

An open area in a Le Corbusier apartment complex in the Rhône-Alpes region of France.

Part 2 of a series: Architecture
& Law Schools

[1] [2] [3]

Recently, I've been taking a peek at the writings of Le Corbusier. He's one of history's most celebrated architects, and he has had a profound influence on the modern cityscape. He has designed buildings such as the Saddam Hussein Gymnasium in Iraq. These are buildings that don't exactly exude warmth. Basically, Le Corbusier is the creative genius behind the concrete box.

What's that? You're not a fan? Well, you should know that Le Corbusier provided lengthy philosophical justification for his concrete-box style of building. Here is how he begins his argument in the book Toward a New Architecture:

The Engineer's Aesthetic, and Architecture, are two things that march together and follow one from the other: the one being now at its full height, the other in an unhappy state of retrogression. The Engineer, inspired by the law of Economy and governed by mathematical calculation, puts us in accord with universal law. He achieves harmony. The Architect, by his arrangement of forms, realizes an order which is a pure creation of his spirit ... he determines the various movements of our heart and our understanding; it is then that we experience the sense of beauty.

Here's another passage:

Eradicate from your mind any hard and fast conceptions in regard to the dwelling-house and look at the question from an objective and critical angle, and you will inevitably arrive at the "House-Tool" the mass-production house, available for everyone, incomparably healthier than the old kind (and morally so too) and beautiful in the same sense that the working tools, familiar to us in our present existence, are beautiful. It will be beautiful, too, with the vitality that the artist's sensibility can give to its strict and pure organism.

I'd quote more, but you've got a flavor for it: It sounds like a brief from one of those pro se litigants who is suing the president. If you've clerked, you definitely know what I'm talking about. In a word: CRAZY.

Sometimes you get the feeling that behind every lawsuit-against-the-president-pro-se brief, there's an unsuccessful cult leader. That's where Le Corbusier was different. He was not unsuccessful at all.

From the quoted material, you can see a central claim Le Corbusier is advancing here: My architecture is beautiful because I proved it is beautiful in writing. (A ranting, disconnected, pro-se-litigant-who-is-suing-the-president kind of writing, but that's beside the point.) 

An argument such as this one, if it thrives in the fine arts fields of literature or painting, can only do so much damage. But because we are literally overshadowed by the creations of architects through out our day, architecture has the potential to injure. And Le Corbusier's style of architecture has damaged cityscapes the world over.

Governments, universities (law school's included), and public housing authorities in the United States got hit especially hard by the brutalist architecture hysteria in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. People think lawyers are clever persuaders. But what about architects? How did they persuade people to actually erect such monstrosities? Gerry Spence, eat your heart out.

Many law schools are undertaking new construction projects. Many more will do so when the economy recovers. So, how should the legal academy judge its prospective buildings? With an architect's eye or a tenant's eye?

Several days ago, I asked for comments on which law schools have the best architecture. Two threads emerged in the responses. On the one hand, some responses regarded architecture as an artform and law-school buildings as artistic works. On the other hand, many responses heaped praise or disdain on buildings in terms of how comfortable they are, or how visually pleasing they are to look at.

This divide goes to a question at the heart of society's relationship with architecture. Commenter TJ put it this way:

Eric, you need to clarify the question. Are you asking for the "best architecture", or "the building environments that you would most like inhabit"? The two are not the same. To take but a simple example, Chicago's building is architecturally distinctive (whether in a good or bad way is debatable) on the outside, but the inside was (at least while I was there before the renovation) very far from comfortable or plush.

In fact, in my post, I tried to be deliberately ambiguous. In asking two ostensibly separate questions passed off as one, I wanted to illuminate the third question: What should be the true measure of greatness in a building?

Architecture needn't pander. But when it comes right down to it, it's better to have architecture that panders than to be stuck with an ugly building. 

All the same, it's a choice that doesn't have to be made. There are a legions of buildings that inspire admiration as art and are also joyful places to live and work. Happily, for law schools that are now making plans to build new facilities, the current era of architecture has shown itself capable of producing such designs, ones that are simultaneously bold and pleasant. I hppe that today's law schools, when they become clients of architects, will insist on having it all.

Posted by Eric E. Johnson on June 25, 2010 at 04:24 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink

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