He watched her there for what seemed like hours, her chest rising and falling, as the big boat did the same on the waves of the Atlantic. They had left Rio de Janeiro for the long trip back to France, nestled in crisp white sheets in a first-class cabin aboard the Lutetia, the black ocean outside the portal window. Time was a relative matter, as the ship made a vector for the equator. The year was 1929. The roaring twenties were about to end with the stock market crash, but no such realities would intervene in that stateroom. Propped up on one elbow, he could hardly believe his good fortune, meeting Josephine Baker in Buenos Aires several days before. In Rio they sipped caipirinha cocktails and sauntered along Impanema beach, and she was so lovely he painted portraits of her, using the colored pencils he had brought for work. On board, they attended an elaborate costume party. He dressed as an Indian soldier with a polka-dot bandana, and she was a China doll. “Oh, Monsieur Le Corbusier, what a shame you’re an architect!” she had said. “You’d have made such a good partner!”1
He smiled, knowing their worlds were not so far apart. As his stateroom companion well knew, he was no ordinary draftsman.
He had been welcomed as a celebrity just as much as she was: the man from Paris, stepping out in tailored suit, pocket square and bow-tie, filling lecture halls across the continent with those eager to hear his radical new theories in architecture and urban planning. He was breaking the mold in building homes and entire cities, just as Picasso had in painting, and Hemingway with the novel—sculpting smooth, white, streamlined buildings that had never been seen before, forgoing wood and brick and stone for concrete, replacing staircases with spirals and ramps, wrapping exteriors with long ribbons of black-framed windows, and planting gardens on rooftop terraces. Everything about his architecture was different. He perched his buildings on sturdy yet elegant concrete columns he called pilotis, freeing the ground for cars and open space, and making the structures appear to float in air. And his formula was repeatable—efficient housing built with low-cost construction methods, whether three-story townhouses or towers set in parks, linked by spacious high-speed roadways and ultimately served by planes and helicopters. The turn of the 20th century had brought the machine age—cars, locomotives, planes, and the factories of mass-production manufacturing—and that most fundamental of life’s functions, the habitation of homes and cities, required the same modernization. The dapper visitor with the slicked-back hair and round black eyeglasses was delivering a new way to live.
Becoming Le Corbusier—not just a man, but a force—had required no little marketing. He adopted the pseudonym in 1920, leaving behind his given name, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret Gris. Taking a single moniker was popular among the bohemians and artists in Paris at the time, and for him the act had a symbolism all its own. While inspired in part by his great-grandfather, Monsieur Lecorbesier of Brussels, and the 18th-century French actress Adrienne Lecouvreur, former resident of the townhouse where he lived in Paris, the renaming signaled his break with the past, with Victorian and bourgeois traditions, and the embrace of the modern. But it was also an exercise in branding. The original star architect would be forever distinguished from all other innovators in design, including his American rival, Frank Lloyd Wright. The name was reminiscent of a mystic bird of Celtic lore, the highly intelligent hunter and scavenger, le corbeau, the raven. He had taken to drawing himself as the sleek black bird, peering down from a tightly gripped perch, assessing the landscape, ready to launch in acrobatic flight.
All of Paris, wealthy clients and bohemians alike, knew where to go to find new ideas in design: 35 Rue de Sevres, the bustling atelier next door to the department store Le Bon Marche. The equivalent of a start-up in a garage, the top floor of an unremarkable building in the 6th arrondissement served as his headquarters, little more than a long corridor with drafting tables and adjustable black lamps, one after the other, rolled-up papers and plans hanging on the walls and sprouting from the floor in bunches, like some kind of crazy shrubbery. The apprentices reported in each morning, eager to work for the visionary master, alongside the team partners and like-minded innovators, his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, and the furniture designer Charlotte Perriand. Each month, it seemed, brought a new building design, a new way to organize life: the places for living, for business, for government, for recreation, and culture.
The atelier was the fountainhead for all manner of innovations—a car that was precursor to the Volkswagen Beetle, furniture made of aluminum tubing and black leather and spotted horsehair, even, in time, a women’s clothing line, an ensemble of V-neck blouse, pleated skirt and go anywhere sandals, submitted to America’s first fashion magazine, Harper’s Bazaar. At night the team would celebrate with wine and champagne in the bistros of the Latin Quarter, and in the morning, after the master had done calisthenics or played basketball and painted, his lifelong side pursuit, they would all re-assemble and get back to the blueprints and do it all over again.
It was gratifying, and utterly intentional, that the people of Latin America, a hemisphere away, would hear about all the excitement. The trip there was one of many international forays for the ambassador of the new order. The fast-growing cities of Argentina and Brazil needed his help, to be better-organized, cleaner, more orderly places. Le Corbusier was the man with the plan. In standing-room only lecture halls, he sketched the next city with charcoal on tan newsprint, never reading from prepared remarks, but instead creating a storyboard on the spot. He drew chains of apartment buildings set in open space, awash in sunlight and fresh air, recreation and circulation all around, proposing it all as the most natural of evolutions. To demonstrate how cities cannot be frozen in time, he drew the cathedral of Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, and then his towers in the park; the progression honored the past, but didn’t stay stuck in it, not least because cities of the future needed to be prepared for ever-increasing populations. But as he also wrote, the critics and the mandarins in academia were saying no to all of it. They thought it outrageous, to move on from convention and propose new forms. And that just made Le Corbusier more exciting, a true rebel. The Argentinians and Brazilians felt like they were part of something—that they were being given the keys to the future. They could even leap-frog places like Paris and even New York, in embracing the modern.
In one rendering from the perspective of being out at sea and looking onshore, he painted a set of three proposed apartment buildings in Rio, rendered in a soft yellow in a purplish haze, as if glowing with the promise of a happy future. It was a thrilling prospect, and Le Corbusier relished the role of messiah. the prophet of the new architecture, blared the headline of an advertisement for a Spanish translation of the book he published in Europe years earlier, Towards an Architecture, touted in the copy as “the bible of the perfect dwelling.”2
Fellow diners whispered to each other about the famous architect visiting from Paris, in the august interior of the Jockey Club in Buenos Aires. On the streets he was stopped