The architecture of intolerance: From Wahhabism to Le Corbusier and back again

Wahhabism is an extreme, fundamentalist strain of Sunni Islam that was created in the 18th century in central Arabia. It was originally founded by preacher and scholar Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and was greatly influenced by Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s patron, the military leader Muhammad Ibn Saud. The chief characteristics of Wahhabism are its literal interpretation of the Quran, hostility towards other Islamic faiths, and strict adherence to sharia law, including beheading, flogging and stoning as punishments for a variety of ‘crimes’, such as apostasy (The Week, 2015; Wikipedia).

Wahhabism is the state religion of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has been promoting the spread of Wahhabism to communities in the Islamic world as well as in the West, by funding the building of mosques, madrasas, schools and cultural centers, and the Saudi clerics who preach and teach there (Burke, 2015, p. 43; The Week, 2015). Saudi-funded indoctrination in Wahhabism is connected with multiple terrorist groups worldwide, including the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Boko Haram in Nigeria (Armstrong, 2014; Burke, 2015, pp. 45 and 154; The Week, 2015). ‘In July 2013, the European Parliament identified Wahhabism as the main source of global terrorism’ (Armstrong, 2014).

From its very beginnings Wahhabism has been inimical towards the popular cult of saints and the idolatrous rituals at their tombs and shrines, which were widespread in Muslim communities. According to Wahhabi doctrine these practices are heretical innovations (bidah). The aim of Wahhabis is to purge Islam of bidah and shirk (polytheism) (Armstrong, 2014; Burke, 2015, p. 109).

‘[D]estroying the rich architectural and cultural heritage of the more pluralist and tolerant forms of Islam’ has always been central to the ‘purification’ program of Wahhabis (Burke, 2015, p. 125). As part of this program, ‘on coming to power in the early 19th century, the Wahhabis destroyed all the Sufi and Shia shrines in Arabia and Iraq’ (Dalrymple, 2004). Wahhabis ‘have systematically demolished centuries-old mosques and mausolea, as well as hundreds of traditional Hijazi [western Arabian] mansions and palaces’ (Kane Finn, 2002). Wahhabi aid organizations after the Bosnian War destroyed mosques, and forced Balkan Muslims to destroy their ancestors’ graveyards in exchange for financial assistance (Kane Finn, 2002). Wahhabi indoctrination is associated with the destruction of 1,200-year-old statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan by the Afghan Taliban, and the attack on the libraries and shrines of Timbuktu in Mali (Kane Finn, 2002; Burke, 2015, pp. 45 and 125).

Wahhabis replaced the mosques they destroyed with their own constructions. Jason Burke gives a characteristic description (2015, p. 255):

‘Mosques had traditionally used local materials and incorporated local building styles, and thus reflected the pluralism of Islamic observance as it had evolved in different communities across the world. The new constructions were identical boxy, whitewashed, charmless cement constructions resembling places of worship in poorer neighbourhoods in Gulf cities. There were none in northern Iraq or Pakistan in the early 1990s when I travelled there. A decade later, they were ubiquitous.’

ISIS continues the Wahhabi tradition of destruction of architectural and cultural heritage (Burke, 2015, p. 90):

‘Along with the careful and spectacular operation of violence on people, there was violence against objects associated with other beliefs too. The primary targets of these were shrines and religious buildings which were seen as contrary to tauheed, the strict unicity of God. Folksy, popular practices such as worshipping at the tombs of long dead holy men, even decorating graves, were considered a danger to the common good and therefore to the survival of the new caliphate. … [W]ithin days of taking control of Mosul IS moved to destroy local shrines to … prophets. … Any pre-Islamic archaeological site was a reminder of the era of jahiliyaa, or barbaric ignorance. … In January 2015, remaining portions of the old walls of the city of Nineveh, near Mosul, were razed. Two months later, IS destroyed much of what remained of the 3,000-year-old city of Nimrud using bulldozers and explosives.’

Le Corbusier (1887–1965) was a Swiss-French architect and urban planner. He is one of the most celebrated leaders of 20th century Modernism. His magnum opus is a collection of essays comprising a manifesto of modern architecture first published in 1923. The book is titled Vers Une Architecture, commonly known in English as Towards a New Architecture. The correct translation of the book’s title is Towards an Architecture, or, quite probably, Towards One Architecture. It is in this book that his famous motto ‘the house is a machine for living in’ can be found (Le Corbusier, 1931, p. 4).

Le Corbusier’s main goal in Vers Une Architecture was, as he writes, to state ‘the problem of the house [which]has not yet been stated’ (p. 4) and solve it, or to define how houses should be built, in less cryptic language. This might sound like a benign and chivalrous endeavor. But by stating and solving ‘the problem of the house’, Le Corbusier attempted to provide a straitjacket for how people should live. For Le Corbusier ‘the problem of the house’ is a problem of people—to be solved by enlightened architects.

Le Corbusier believed that, at the start of the 20th century, people lived in discord with their increasingly mechanized environment. In his opinion, their houses expressed that discord. According to Le Corbusier ‘the machine’ was marching forward to social progress—it was people who were lagging behind and dragging society backwards. In his favorite apocalyptic tone, he characteristically says: ‘The machinery of Society, profoundly out of gear, oscillates between an amelioration, of historical importance, and a catastrophe’ (p. 8). He continues (pp. 13–14, emphasis mine):

‘A question of morality; lack of truth is intolerable, we perish in untruth. ... We throw the out-of-date tool on the scrap-heap. ... This action is a manifestation ... of moral health. But men live in old houses and they have not yet thought of building houses adapted to themselves. The lair has been dear to their hearts since all time. To such a degree that they have established the cult of the home. A roof! then other household gods. Religions have established themselves on dogmas, the dogmas do not change; but civilizations change and religions tumble to dust. Houses have not changed. But the cult of the house has remained the same for centuries. The house will also fall to dust.’

For Le Corbusier, moral progress is the embrace of technological progress. Failing to embrace technological progress is a sign of moral decay. In his words, embracing technological progress is ‘a manifestation of moral health’. In that sense, he argues that people do not know how to ‘adapt their houses to themselves’; they are ignorant of their own needs.

Le Corbusier calls the features of traditional houses that people are fond of ‘household gods’. The totality of these ‘household gods’ comprises the ‘cult of the home’. For Le Corbusier, the traditional house is a ‘dogma’. ‘It will fall to dust’, he confidently declares. Le Corbusier’s dream is that all people would live in mass-produced houses, in accordance with the technological spirit of the time. This would have been for him the peak of moral progress (pp. 6–7):

‘Economic law inevitably governs our acts and our thoughts. ... We must create the mass production spirit. The spirit of constructing mass-production houses. The spirit of conceiving mass-production houses. If we eliminate from our hearts and minds all dead concepts in regard to the house, and look at the question from a critical and objective point of view, we shall arrive at the “House-Machine”, the mass-production house, healthy (and morally so too) and beautiful in the same way that the working tools and instruments which accompany our existence are beautiful.’

‘Entire cities have to be constructed, or reconstructed, in order to provide a minimum of comfort, for if this is delayed too long, there may be a disturbance of the balance of society’, Le Corbusier claims later (p. 101). ‘The balance of society comes down to a question of building. We conclude with these justifiable alternatives: Architecture or Revolution’ (p. 265), he says in the last chapter of Vers Une Architecture.

Le Corbusier’s radical techno-utopianism is most clearly expressed in one of the last passages of the book (p. 277):

‘There is no real link between our daily activities at the factory, the office or the bank, which are healthy and useful and productive, and our activities in the bosom of the family which are handicapped at every turn. The family is everywhere being killed and men’s minds demoralized in servitude to anachronisms.’

The factory, the office and the bank are ‘healthy and useful and productive’. It is ‘the bosom of the family’ — the house — where all the unhealthy and useless and unproductive activities take place. According to Le Corbusier, this is because of all the ‘anachronisms’ that people live by — the traditional ways of building and living.

Part of the cover illustration of François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters’ 1993 graphic novel ‘Brüsel’.

Le Corbusier did not confine himself to writing about ‘the problem of house’; he also wrote about what I believe he would not mind me calling ‘the problem of the city’. His most famous city design is his 1920s ‘Radiant City’ (‘a city of repetitive skyscrapers in a park’, according to Jane Jacobs (1961, p. 213)), and his most famous piece of writing on urban planning is The Athens Charter, published later in 1943. In The Athens Charter Le Corbusier outlines his ideas on centralized urban planning, strict spatial separation of the different ‘daily functions’ of the city (known as zoning), the obsolescence of traditional urban forms, and general ‘creative destruction’ (‘The suburbs are often mere aggregations of shacks hardly worth the trouble of maintaining’, he characteristically states in Point 22 of The Athens Charter).

Le Corbusier’s ideas on urban planning were not put to practice until the 1960s. The realization of his ideas was a kind of extreme ‘urban regeneration’: wiping out entire neighborhoods to erect skyscrapers. Walking in European cities, one can recognize those districts by their desolation after five in the afternoon, and by the sad sight of long-distance commuters dozing their way back to ‘residential areas’ (or, more aptly, sleeping areas).

One of the European cities that had the misfortune of being submitted to such a Le Corbusier-inspired experiment was Brussels, Belgium. The grandiose name of the equally grandiose experiment was the ‘Manhattan plan’ (Demeulemeester, 2006, p. 20):

‘58 skyscrapers were to be built,with heights varying between 40 meters and 162 meters plus an additional 30 buildings with heights between 18 meters and 40 meters, for a total surface of 53 hectares. Everything would be centered around a World Trade Center … which would consist of eight skyscrapers. The Manhattan plan, as it soon came to be called, was accepted in 1967.’

The Manhattan plan was to be realized in Northern Quarter district of Brussels. The shorthand for the envisioned district was MHBxI (Manhattan, Brussels), echoing MHNY (Manhattan, New York). During a period of more than ten years 11,000 people were evicted or had their houses expropriated (Martens, 2009). The reconstruction took more than forty years and is still not completed. So deleterious was the process that the city went through during the Manhattan plan and other similar projects that the term ‘Bruxellization’ came to refer to ‘the destruction of the city by architects and developers’ (Doucet, 2013, p. 237).

I first heard about the Manhattan plan in an urban planning lecture by Professor Dimitris N. Karydis at the National Technical University of Athens in the spring of 2006. Karydis used the 1993 graphic novel Brüsel by Brussels-native illustrator François Schuiten and Parisian writer Benoît Peeters to introduce us to the effects of Bruxellization. The illustration above is from the graphic novel, and shows the protagonist, an evicted flower-shop owner, wandering in desperation in the midst of a human-scale model of the ‘Manhattan plan’ of the (not so) imaginary city of Brüsel, that would soon to go to ruin (in the graphic novel at least).

Despite its adherents’ appeal to ‘rationality’ and ‘economic law’, Le Corbusier-inspired grand-scale urban planning is an act of faith. As John Gray argues in his work, it is the faith that technological progress gets automatically translated into social and moral progress. In fact, for Le Corbusier technological progress is social and moral progress in and of itself. It is not coincidental that he links mass-produced houses (the technological innovation of his time) to morality. It is not coincidental either that he himself attacks ‘the cult of the house’ and calls it a ‘religion’ that ‘will fall to dust’. Only a religious fanatic sees manifestations of imaginary hostile religions in everything he disagrees with.

In that, Le Corbusier’s attitude is very similar to the Wahhabi attitude towards ‘heterodox’ architecture. One could counter this statement by saying that Wahhabis destroy monuments of humanity’s cultural heritage, while Le Corbusier had explicitly argued for the preservation of the ‘historic heritage of cities’ in The Athens Charter. ‘Architectural assets must be protected, whether found in isolated buildings or in urban aggregation’, Le Corbusier clearly states (Point 65). But he continues (emphasis mine): ‘They will be protected if they are the expression of a former culture and if they respond to a universal interest’ (Point 66). Furthermore, ‘[t]he practice of using styles of the past on aesthetic pretexts for new structures erected in historic areas has harmful consequences. Neither the continuation of such practices nor the introduction of such initiatives will be tolerated in any form’ (Point 70). The important point here is, I think, Le Corbusier’s appeal to ‘universal interest’. For Le Corbusier there is a single type of good architecture, a single scale of value for historical architectural forms, and all those who do not believe what he believes will not be tolerated. Naturally, Le Corbusier and his followers think of themselves as the arbiters of ‘universal interest’.

Comparing Le Corbusier to the Wahhabi attitude towards ‘heterodox’ architecture one must, in my opinion, pay particular attention to Le Corbusier’s attitude towards the house. In a secular society, there is no more sacred place than the house. And this is precisely why Le Corbusier is attacking the house: he is a religious fanatic. People want their houses to reflect their individual personalities and connect them with the history of their communities. For Le Corbusier this is the equivalent of the Wahhabis’ shirk — the heretical polytheism of the ‘household gods’.

The difference between Wahhabism and Le Corbusier’s creed is the direction of their radicalism. Wahhabism looks for salvation backwards to a golden past, while Le Corbusier looks for salvation forwards to a golden future. As Karl Popper observed in his The Open Society and Its Enemies, on Plato and Marx, this is only a superficial difference that obscures the affinity between these two types of radicalism.

Perhaps you would be thinking while you are reading this that, surely, Le Corbusier’s ideas cannot really be comparable to Wahhabism. Maybe I am just being metaphorical, or, worse, I have stretched my analogy too far — Wahhabism is clearly connected with terrorism after all.

In October 1940, Le Corbusier wrote to his mother: ‘Hitler can crown his life with a great work: the planned layout of Europe’ (Henry, 2015).

In November 2015 and then March 2016, Brussels came at the center of global attention as the home of a large group of European radical Islamic terrorists. Many articles were written since, trying to fathom the reasons behind the transformation of Brussels, and the now notorious district of Molenbeek in particular, into a terrorist breeding ground. Chief among those reasons is the funding of Wahhabi mosques and clerics by Saudi Arabia (Cendrowitz, 2016). One former Molenbeek inhabitant, journalist Teun Voeten, says that Belgium is characterized by a ‘culture of denial’ regarding radical Islam. He says (Voeten, 2015):

[T]he most important factor is Belgium’s culture of denial. The country’s political debate has been dominated by a complacent progressive elite that firmly believes society can be designed and planned. Observers who point to unpleasant truths such as the high incidence of crime among Moroccan youth and violent tendencies in radical Islam are accused of being propagandists of the extreme-right, and are subsequently ignored and ostracized.

I agree with Voeten that modern educated Westerners live in a such a culture of denial regarding radical Islam. But I do not think this is because of complacency; I think it is because of their dread of confronting their own intolerance.

An educated Westerner will visit Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou or MoMA to see an exhibition of Le Corbusier’s work, and admire him for his ‘genius’ and ‘his major contribution to the Modernist movement’. Le Corbusier is admired by students and (predominantly leftist) professors of architecture all over the Western societies as a symbol of the power of architecture to remake society. It may be hard to believe, but Le Corbusier is an idol in architectural schools.

How can those educated Westerners not be in a state of denial about radical Islam, when they are in a state of denial about radical Western ideologies? They cannot go beyond a politically correct (and always conspicuously public) indignation over the destruction of cultural heritage by Wahhabis. This would bring them face-to-face with their own intolerant ideologies. As long as their intolerant ideologies are felt to be culturally dominant and thus politically tolerable other intolerant ideologies are let be. I would say that, more than being in a state of denial, educated Westerners are in a state of cognitive dissonance. The reason they tolerate intolerance is to purge themselves from their own intolerance.

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Karen Armstrong, ‘Wahhabism to ISIS: how Saudi Arabia exported the main source of global terrorism’, New Statesman, 27 November 2014.

Jason Burke, The New Threat From Islamic Militancy, 2015.

Leo Cendrowitz, Brussels attacks: How Saudi Arabia’s influence and a deal to get oil contracts sowed seeds of radicalism in Belgium, The Independent, 23 March 2016.

Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 13th ed., 1931 (published by John Rodker, translated by Frederick Etchells).

Le Corbusier, The Athens Charter, 1943 (published by Grossman Publishers)

William Dalrymple, ‘Saudi Arabia created the monster now devouring it’, The Guardian, 14 June 2004.

Kasper Demeulemeester, Manhattan, New York — Manhattan Brussels: Postwar Urban Planning in the Grip of an Island, 2006.

Isabelle Doucet, ‘Counter-projects and the postmodern user’, in Kenny Cupers (ed.), Use Matters: An Alternative History of Architecture, 2013.

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961.

Helena Kane Finn, ‘Cultural terrorism and Wahhabi Islam’, Council on Foreign Relations, 8 October 2002.

Albert Martens, ‘Ten years of expropriations and evictions in the Brussels North Quarter (1965–1975): what are the legacies today?’, Brussels Studies, Issue 29, 5 October 2009.

Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1945 (Routledge Classics, 2011).

Herny Samuel, ‘Le Corbusier was “militant fascist”, two new books on French architect claim’, The Telegraph, 16 April 2015.

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, Brüsel (Les Cités obscures, vol. 7), 1993.

The Week Staff, ‘How Saudi Arabia exports radical Islam’, The Week, 8 August 2015.

Teun Voeten, ‘Molenbeek broke my heart’, Politico, 21 November 2015.

Wikipedia, ‘Human rights in Saudi Arabia’.