6. Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture (1923) and The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning (1929)

1: Bleak Houses

 

One of the traps of historical study is a tendency to overlook conditions which fall outside the direct line of inquiry and whose relevance is masked by a kind of blatancy. For instance, a biography of Walt Whitman might cite the fact that this most patriotic of poets was embraced by the Marquis de Lafayette during a Fourth of July parade in 1825. This same biography might fail to contextualize the encounter by suggesting that Brooklyn’s vanishingly small population might have helped to facilitate it. In 1820, Brooklyn had about 11,000 citizens. That is roughly the same number of inmates on Riker’s Island. While it is true that much of Brooklyn had at that time been platted with street names and neighborhoods familiar to us today, calling Walt Whitman’s Brooklyn “Brooklyn” is akin to referring to one of the Wright Brothers’ Flyers an aircraft. It’s true as far as it goes, but you must be careful not to take it too far.

 

When one tries to picture the historical city, one fills in an existing template with historical conditions. But what if the template itself needs to be reimagined? To take an example from my own life, the building I live in was erected around 1900 in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. What preceded it was almost certainly not another brownstone, but either a wood-frame house or, more likely, farmland. To point out that Brooklyn in 1900 was smaller and newer than it is today merely colors within the lines of the city I already know. In 1900, Brooklyn was as close to its eighteenth century prehistory as I am to 1900. For the earliest tenants of my building, the pastures of Park Slope and the woods of Flatbush (from the Dutch “Vlackte Bosch,” or flat forest) were still accessible to living memory. In other words, by saying that Brooklyn was newer and smaller, I am saying that Brooklyn had not become Brooklyn, a notion with larger implications than numbers alone would suggest.

 

* * *

What is easy to forget about most of the world’s major cities is that they were almost entirely built in the nineteenth century. Demographics, which are the weather of history, tell part of the story. In 1801, the population of Paris was 546,000. By 1901, it had swelled to 2,714,000. The centuries which bookend this growth are hardly proportional in their own gains and losses. In the eighteenth century, Paris saw a modest increase of only 31,000 people, while the twentieth century shrunk the city by half a million so that by 1999, its population stood at 2,125,900. London’s expansion in the nineteenth century was even more exponential: there, the population skyrocketed from 959,300 in 1801 to 6,507,000 in 1901. If this growth is wildly out of proportion with what went before it, it is equally at odds with the consistency, going back to the Middle Ages, of these cities’ cultural and political relevance. Their latter-day growth doesn’t make the cities seem correspondingly less consequential before they were enlarged. Rather, the cities’ centuries-long importance makes us overlook how new they are in terms of industry, parks, concert halls, theatres, hospitals, department stores, universities, government buildings, offices, shipping yards, and railways – nearly all of which were introduced in a breathtaking hundred-year spree.

 

What oil is to fire, industrialization was to the city: an accelerant which made luminous what it didn’t destroy. The factory, today mostly zoned out of the cities it previously subsidized (and terrorized), attracted unemployed migrants like moths to increasingly crowded metropolises. In New York, where the migration was global, conditions in working-class neighborhoods were unimaginably squalid. By 1893, Russian and Polish exiles were packed into Manhattan’s 10th Ward (roughly today’s Lower East Side and part of the East Village) at more than 700 people per acre. Parts of the adjacent 11th Ward were crammed with nearly 1,000 people per acre, the densest concentration of humanity in the world – and this at a time when most buildings contained no more than five stories. By contrast, the average density of Manhattan today, with its hundreds of high-rises, is around 112 people per acre. The city became a study in contrasts: hellish for many; comfortable for some; unprecedentedly gilded for a few. Before the introduction of zoning, the disparity must have been particularly pronounced. The effect on the middle class of coming daily into contact with acute poverty and extreme wealth gave rise to reform movements to combat to the former and an embrace of Marxism and socialism in response to the latter.

 

By the end of the nineteenth century, the idea that the city was in crisis seems to have been unanimously held. In the introduction to Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1902), the English reformer Ebenezer Howard, arguably the father of urban planning, begins his text by running through a list of contemporary controversies, from alcoholism to drug-addiction. He writes: “There is, however, a question in regard to which one can scarcely find any difference of opinion. It is wellnigh universally agreed by men of all parties, not only in England, but all over Europe and America and our colonies, that it is deeply to be deplored that the people should continue to stream into the already over-crowded cities.” Just as the turn-of-the-century reform movements cannot be understood without reference to the conditions to which they were a response, the twentieth century’s professionalization of urban planning must be contextualized by social as much as aesthetic imperatives.

 

Previously, the planning of cities, where it existed at all, was largely an ad hoc affair. When it was executed by skilled designers like Michelangelo, it was limited in scope, as in his layout of a single plaza on the Campidoglio in Rome. Medieval and Renaissance plans tended to focus on fortifications, with the proliferation of star-shaped designs of military engineers like Vauban. It wasn’t until the arrival of the Baroque, with its grandiosity and authoritarianism (strains of which would reappear in different forms and to much more devastating effect in the destructive visions of highway builders like Robert Moses and utopians like Le Corbusier) that the layout of streets became both an artistic and citywide undertaking. The diagonal platting of the gardens at Versailles was the model by which Georges-Eugène Haussmann rammed crisscrossing boulevards through the center of Paris and which Pierre Charles L’Enfant was able to apply more ruthlessly to the clean slate of Washington.

 

versailles
Versailles

Haussmann and L’Enfant were exceptionally influential because they were exceptional. The visions of most early planners were, by contrast, largely utilitarian, their enhancements designed either with real estate speculation in mind, as in Inigo Jones’s plans for Covent Garden, or with defense as the primary concern. Haussmann’s boulevards prioritized profit over beauty. His appointment by the third Napoleon in 1853 came in the midst of a financial depression in France. His roads offered an opportunity to clear slums and fill the Emperor’s coffers with the taxable profits of speculators.

Although the distinction between urban planning and engineering/architecture was hazy before it was codified by academicians, it is important to note that the professionalization of planning had more to do with social than with physical engineering, and with the architecture of societies rather than the design of particular buildings. This helps to make sense of the irony that the most influential of planners, Ebenezer Howard, should be an anarchist, and his vision one of deurbanization. When Howard first formulated the notion of self-sustaining Garden Cities (a then-novel combination of the hygienic qualities of the country and the employment and entertainment opportunities of the city), the London in which he lived featured slums as bleak and cramped as those in New York. The British Royal Housing Commission of 1885 found that the average slum dweller in London had considerably less space to live in than that officially mandated for the inmates of prisons and workhouses. It is not an exaggeration to say that urban planning arose from urban revulsion; that is, from the idea that there was something intractably diseased about the nineteenth century city which needed to be dealt with holistically. The massive and rapid population migrations into urban centers should be answered not with more and better construction in those centers but by the opposite: the relocation of millions of people, the destruction of entire districts. As Le Corbusier puts it, the choice facing the planner is between medicine and the knife. “Surgery,” he writes, “must be applied to the city’s centre.”

2: The Visionary

Le Corbusier, born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris in 1887, began his career as a watchcase engraver in Switzerland, an inauspicious beginning perhaps for a designer who would go on to become the face of architectural modernism. In addition to the buildings he designed, Le Corbusier was the author of three major plans for cities. The first two listed below are explored in the architect’s 1929 book, The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning:

  1. Ville contemporaine (1922): alternately called the Contemporary City, or the City for Three Million People. A tabula rasa project with no geographical location and no sponsor.
  2. Plan Voisin (1925): a complete re-platting of the center of Paris.
  3. Ville Radieuse or Radiant City (1924): a more linear platting than that articulated in Voisin or Contemporary City. Greater focus on administrative aspects, with a strong reliance on syndicalism. A so-called “pyramid of hierarchies” would mimic the rigid structure of the physical city.

Rare is the artistic idea which retains after nearly a century its power to shock. Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin for the center of Paris is such an idea. If anything, its offensiveness has increased with the passage of time, distracting from the plan’s details and the (cautionary) lessons it contains. Though the plan overlaps with the Contemporary City in ways that are not always clear, the basic idea – which seems to be applicable to all of Le Corbusier’s urban plans – can be summarized in the following four points.

  1. Decongest the center of the city through greater density. This is Le Corbusier’s signature paradox: in order to become less crowded, we must become more so. How is this resolved? By concentrating greater numbers of people within smaller footprints, more space is freed up for parks.
  2. Build in the center of the city, not on the outskirts. The center is the center for a reason. It is here that the planner should focus. (This is both a point against Howard’s Garden City and its erroneous conflation with the garden suburb.)
  3. Facilitate faster transportation by decreasing the number of roads – and thereby the number of crossings and, by extension, stoplights – and increasing their width.
  4. Strictly regulate building types through zoning. Clear separation of families, working professionals, industry, and offices.
Voisin
Plan Voisin

Plan Voisin proposed the wholesale destruction of the Marais on Paris’s Right Bank, with here and there an architectural treasure preserved (but relocated) and left to ruin as a kind of memento mori for the decimated city it stood for. The models Le Corbusier created for the Plan Voisin are startling to behold for a number of reasons, not the least of which is how un-Parisian they are. At the center are eighteen cruciform towers at uniform heights of 700 feet. The towers are spaced at equal distances from each other, allowing for landscaping between each building. In the models, Le Corbusier has gone to the trouble of filling in the surrounding area with the existing maze of Paris streets. This context is fatal to the acceptability of the plan. The intention seems to have been a favorable contrast between the clean lines of Voisin and the chaos of Paris, but the comparison is entirely to the plan’s detriment. What we can see all too plainly by the superimposition of Le Corbusier’s linearity on the organic layout of Paris is not the rationality of Voisin but its nihilism. The architect entreats us to “imagine all this junk, which till now has lain spread out over the soil like a dry crust, cleaned off and carted away and replaced by immense clear crystals of glass, rising to a height of over 600 feet.” Such an injunction presupposes not only our approval of the classification of the untidy furniture of the historical city as junk, but also of the desirability of its replacement with a scheme whose chief characteristic is an anti-contextual symmetricality primarily discernible from the air.

The other reason the models for Plan Voisin are startling is that they are familiar. This is a contemporary reaction. When Voisin was proposed, it was certainly new. To our eyes, however, its vulgarity has more than a little to do with the discomfort of coming upon something we’ve seen before removed to a context where its offensiveness is maximized. Voisin, it goes without saying, was never built. But it did become the model for innumerable twentieth century housing projects, particularly in the United States and Great Britain. To behold the arrogant and discredited superblock marching across the center of Paris is rather like watching one’s neighbor wander onto the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in his bathrobe.

Corbu 1
Contemporary City

Certainly there is more to Le Corbusier’s plan than meets the eye. But it does not validate the architect’s anti-pedestrian vision to point out that none of his many imitators did the thing right. New York is littered with housing projects which glancingly reference Le Corbusier by taking the most superficial aspects of his plan and mindlessly repeating them: the cruciform tower, the vapidly generous spacing, the unresponsive linearity. When we try to experience Le Corbusier’s city on its own terms, either as a pedestrian or motorist, the program becomes more detailed.

Acknowledging that “when man finds himself alone in vast empty spaces he grows disheartened,” the architect suggests that we “tighten up the urban landscape” in order to achieve human scale. He proposes therefore to interpose between his isolated towers and the street “buildings not more than three storeys high and with receding stages.” These shorter buildings would line his oversized boulevards with restaurants and shops. Between them, alleys of trees would lead away to the parks surrounding the towers.

stuy-town
Stuyvesant Town

How one wishes that this aspect of Le Corbusier’s plan were better known! The architect’s vagueness and disinterest are largely to blame. None of his models are explicit about what these storefronts would look like, nor is it clear that these shorter buildings are even modeled at all. This is not where Le Corbusier’s interests lie. The low-rise shops are, as the architect himself concedes, traditional elements of the city he wants to revolutionize. They are introduced in order to defend the grander scale with which they are at odds. Still, the concession itself is revealing, particularly when contrasted with built examples. Had the designers of Stuyvesant Town in New York kept this feature in mind they might have avoided the clumsy remediation lately introduced along Second Avenue where badly-needed retail is shoehorned between existing towers.

It is easy for those of us who have lived all our lives surrounded by cars to identify the ways in which the efforts of Le Corbusier (who was born the year the first motor car was sold in Europe) to accommodate vehicular traffic were misguided. The ample provision of express lanes is all the more striking in a city which seems to have nowhere to park. Before such a scheme had actually been put into practice, how were engineers to know that the routing of elevated expressways between towers would result in a clamor more intolerable than railway clatter because less uniform in pitch and more erratic in frequency? In an attempt to secure funding for Plan Voisin, Le Corbusier appealed to Citroën and Peugeot: “The motor has killed the great city. The motor must save the great city.” He was half right at least. What both the Contemporary City and Voisin (which was named for the aircraft manufacturer which finally paid for it) propose to do with the car is to “classify” it. Previously, vehicular traffic was sorted by one category only: where it was going. Le Corbusier adds the following distinctions:

  1. “Heavy goods traffic” (a slightly confusing category having to do with delivery vehicles)
  2. “Lighter goods traffic” (what we would call local traffic)
  3. “Fast traffic” (what we would call through traffic)

What laymen like myself understand about urban planning is the street grid. It is a useful simplification. If the city is distinguished from the country, it is due primarily to a more intense concentration of citizens. The immediate concerns of density are housing and transportation: buildings and streets, in other words. When it comes to transportation, you can see Le Corbusier devoting all of his formidable intellect to solving the city’s most intractable problem: how to metabolize so many citizens in such limited space. While the idea of separating through and local traffic was not original to Le Corbusier, his integration of roadways with buildings was a shrewd extension of his central idea of the consolidation of space. As an architect, Le Corbusier was obsessed with piloti, the practice of supporting a building with piers so that its ground floor remained open. In his city plans, the three categories of traffic listed above would be handled on three different levels of roadway, two of which would be routed through the interiors of buildings. By raising the towers on piloti, Le Corbusier accommodates “light” or local traffic on the buildings’ first floor, and “heavy” traffic on the ground floor. The layer for heavy traffic, which is basically a category for the delivery of goods and people, is something like a system of porte cocheres and loading docks. As Le Corbusier puts it, “Below ground there would be a street for heavy traffic. This storey of the houses would consist merely of concrete piles [piloti], and between them large open spaces which would form a sort of clearing-house where heavy goods traffic could load and unload.”

Ville Contemp

Unmentioned are the noise and pollution which would come from directing so much traffic between and through buildings. By anticipating the inundation of the city with the automobile, Le Corbusier also preceded the lessons of highway overbuilding. Nevertheless, there was congestion.  Le Corbusier attributes this, fairly, to “narrow streets” which were “not adapted to modern traffic.” But to say that Paris’s cramped roads were fit “for horse-drawn vehicles only” suggests that their unfitness for cars makes them unfit in general. What Le Corbusier proposes is the widening of avenues and the guiding of them “through the centres of our towns. Therefore the existing centres must come down [emphasis Le Corbusier].” The contemporary reader knows where this kind of thinking leads – or led, rather.

The clearance of slums by means of highway building would become one of the most reviled and discredited urban renewal practices of the twentieth century. In New York, thousands of people would be displaced by their city’s willful and indiscriminate mania for highways. What these highways did for traffic was to increase it. What they did for neighborhoods was to penalize them for deterioration to which the roads themselves contributed. Given these tragic results, it is difficult to see Le Corbusier’s transportation network as anything other than hopelessly utopian. But that is hindsight. The reason that the ills of pollution, noise, and congestion don’t complicate the architect’s models is that the models were designed to preempt these problems. Had the models functioned properly, the cars on the “fast traffic” roads would have zoomed unimpeded at uniform speeds of sixty miles per hour. The “lighter goods traffic” would have negotiated local roads without the spasmodic movements of delivery traffic to slow its pace. The “heavy goods” traffic would have been kept out of sight in basements for loading and unloading. What this wholly rational approach didn’t account for was the principle of induced demand. Introduced in the 1960s by a British traffic engineer named J.J. Leeming, induced demand posits that the alleviation of congestion by the increase of roads is a fallacy: by temporarily alleviating traffic, additional roads induce more of it and thereby perpetuate congestion. Hindsight aside, it is nevertheless surprising, given Le Corbusier’s central idea of more space through greater density, that the architect should have missed what would become the most injurious inefficiency to afflict the modern city: the space-per-person required to facilitate the movement and storage of private automobiles. It is a huge oversight. Le Corbusier’s plans demonstrate the perils of futurism: that an innovative method should undermine solutions by introducing unexampled problems.

3: Dissent

As a result of urban sprawl, a movement began to coalesce in the 1980s around the idea of transit-oriented development (TOD). New Urbanism, as the movement came to be known, is only new in its application of traditional planning principles to car-oriented environments. The rediscovery of these principles suggests their recent abandonment. But although they were neglected, these ideas were not forgotten. One of the more striking things about reading Le Corbusier is the extent to which he gives a hearing to the kinds of objections New Urbanists would posthumously use to indict him. Partly, this is a reflection of the durability of certain aesthetic principles. When the Austrian architect Camillo Sitte wrote The Art of Building Cities in 1889, he was opposing the formality and scale of Baroque planning by contrasting it with the “comfortable snugness” and irregularity of medieval street patterns. Whether one approves of the grandeur of Washington and Versailles, it is hard to argue with Sitte’s advocacy of a less imposing scale. Sitte also suggests that because pre-Baroque street layouts are more disorderly on the drawing board than on foot, the modern draftsman is inclined to devise for the contemporary city a symmetricality which can only be appreciated on a map. It is interesting to watch Le Corbusier grapple with this contention; by taking a swipe at Sitte, he anticipates New Urbanism. Captioning an aerial view of Paris, Le Corbusier asks:

Is this a picture of the seventh circle of Dante’s Inferno? Alas, no! It shows the terrible conditions under which hundreds of thousands of people have to live.  . . .  This general bird’s-eye view is like a blow between the eyes. In our walks through this maze of streets we are enraptured by their picturesqueness, so redolent of the past. But tuberculosis, demoralization, misery and shame are doing the devil’s work among them. As for the ‘Committee of Old Paris,’ it is busy collecting antiques.

Le Corbusier’s denunciation of “a spirit of reaction and a misplaced sentimentalism” is directed at the incoherence of what he calls “the pack-donkey’s way;” that is, medieval cities laid out according to the plodding movements of animals instead of the motorized locomotion of man. It is certainly true that most medieval cities follow an arrangement which appears arbitrary on paper. It is also true that many of these cities were sited on hilly terrain for reasons of defense, and that the winding path is better suited to gradual ascent. In his book, Le Corbusier includes a photo of Lombard Street in San Francisco, a hilly city platted with an uncompromising grid. Lombard Street, of course, is notable for the way it departs from that grid with a series of hairpin turns in order to reduce the steepness of the hill it climbs. In addition to being a tourist attraction, Lombard Street gives the lie to the grid it deviates from. On the rugged terrain of San Francisco, ease of movement is exchanged for navigational clarity. The resulting grid is the same whether on flat or uneven ground, leading to the question, which is more arbitrary? – the geometrical rigor of San Francisco or the responsive platting of Siena?

Le Corbusier is surprisingly alive to the argument that linear platting might be seen as too rigid by half. He seems to be answering Sitte directly when he concedes that “a straight street is extremely boring” and that “the winding street, on the other hand, is interesting because of the variety of succeeding shapes.” Then again, what is picturesque for the pedestrian is inexpedient to the motorist. The possibility that vehicular traffic would saturate even the widest and straightest of avenues to such an extent that cars would be slowed to the pace of pedestrians must have seemed remote indeed in an age of low car ownership. In New York, whose wide and straight streets Le Corbusier approved of while wishing them wider and straighter, streets that aren’t impassibly congested have been marked by the city for traffic calming measures like speed bumps. The medieval city may have been built by the donkey, but the twenty-first century city must still halt for walkers.

* * *

Le Corbusier could hardly have foreseen that the most effective form of slum clearance in Paris and New York would not end up being the eviction of the poor but their pricing out: buildings which only the wretched would consent to inhabit would be converted into homes which only the wealthy could afford. Writing in 1929 about the Marais, where today one-bedroom apartments are routinely sold for over a million Euros, Le Corbusier says, “When it comes to a question of demolishing rotten old houses full of tuberculosis and demoralizing, you hear them cry, ‘What about the iron-work, what about the beautiful old wrought-iron work?’” Well, what about it? It is a revealing lament. The fact that some of the most expensive real estate in Paris today used to be slums does not mean that this same real estate used to look like Pruitt-Igoe. Rather, the Marais looked neglected but worthy of refurbishment, while Pruitt-Igoe looked like Le Corbusier and would be demolished less than twenty years after its disgraceful erection. Even the Nazis, with whom Le Corbusier tried to make friends with in Vichy, couldn’t bring themselves to destroy Paris.

Pruitt-igoeUSGS02
Pruitt-Igoe

So what can we make of the overwhelming influence of this architect-planner throughout much of the twentieth century? Why did Le Corbusier catch on and why was he so ubiquitous? What seems in retrospect like the most risky of fads is emphasized by Frederic Osborn, one of Ebenezer Howard’s disciples, in a 1952 letter he wrote to Lewis Mumford. “The young men under [Le Corbusier’s] influence are completely impervious to economic or human considerations. … it was just as if I had, in my youth, questioned the divinity of Christ. I had the same impression of animal unreason.” Perhaps the best way to make sense of Le Corbusier’s appeal is through his generation’s embrace of the avant garde, which came to maturity in the interwar period in which The City of Tomorrow was published. Le Corbusier’s architecture was heavily influenced by the deconstructionism of Cubism. When Le Corbusier wasn’t designing buildings he painted. In fact, he expected that his legacy as a visual artist would equal his reputation as an architect. The avant garde, however, poses a major problem to architecture and urban planning. Its mission, epitomized by Ezra Pound’s exhortation to “make it new,” rewards the kind of experimentation which painting and poetry can easily accommodate but which can be treacherous when applied to permanent structures. People do not like to be experimented on. And experiments which are irreversible aren’t really experiments but mistakes. (A successful experiment in design graduates to the level of innovation.) Moreover, the avant garde’s fixation with newness can become as inhibiting as the conservatism of the academy when it is given the mandatory spin of doctrinal innovators like Pound. The last thing a designer wants is to be thought of as stodgy. Osborn’s letter to Mumford about the trap presented by criticism of Le Corbusier is a lament against groupthink rather than modernism.

types

In Le Corbusier’s 1923 book, Toward an Architecture, an examination of modern and historical buildings is suddenly interrupted by a series of photographs of ships, airplanes, and automobiles. The point, in case we should miss it, is repeatedly made: “A house is a machine for living in.” According to Le Corbusier, the reason the house doesn’t work as a machine is that “the problem of the house has not yet been stated.” By contrast, the “problem” of the ship is to sail, the airplane to fly, the automobile to drive. These are machines which are “the product of close selection.” On facing pages, photos of the ruins at Paestum and the Acropolis are juxtaposed with photos of Humber and Delage automobiles. Such a provocation is dangerously susceptible to overdetermination. What the Acropolis manifestly isn’t is a disposable consumer good meant to be replaced every few years. The companies Humber and Delage are now extinct, their designs obsolescent. Le Corbusier died in 1965, but we are still living with his designs.

 

4: India / Appraisal

 

Still, there is something to be said for Le Corbusier’s zeal, the range of his thought, his desire for single solutions to multiple problems. His ambition is particularly piquant in an era of planning timidity and knee-jerk preservationism. But what is most radical about Le Corbusier’s proposals for the city (as opposed to his architecture) is their authoritarianism. It is no wonder that such an ambitious visionary would follow Pétain to Vichy where he made the craven assertion, “France needs a Father. It doesn’t matter who.” Perhaps it is churlish to point out that it mattered deeply to the 75,000 Jews who were deported to death camps with the consent of Pétain and Laval. In any case, the subtext of Le Corbusier’s claim might be read as, I need a sponsor. I don’t care who. Politically, the architect was a pragmatist, and his reputation after the war would recover. But as Robert Fishman points out in his invaluable book, Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century (1982), what was worst about Le Corbusier’s collaborationism was that “he never seems to have realized its meaning. He never acknowledged the link between his plans and the authoritarian nature of the regime.”

 

Le Corbusier’s solution for Paris – and for cities generally – was so all-encompassing that it would have precluded another Le Corbusier. Naturally, the architect would have mooted such an irony by suggesting that the completeness of his vision obviated further innovation. But that is not the way cities work. They are not unilateral compositions the way a book or a piece of sculpture might be. When the architect was finally given the clean slate and blank check he’d been chasing all his life, he attempted to apply his uncompromising palette to India, where the formality of his design for a new capital at Chandigarh was almost comically ill-suited to the culture on which it was imposed. As Peter Hall notes in Cities of Tomorrow (2002), “The result was a set of rich multiple ironies. Corbusier found his patron in a post-colonial government steeped in the traditions of the British Raj. He produced for them an exercise in the City Beautiful decked in the trappings of modern architecture. . . . The relationship between streets and buildings is totally European, and is laid down without regard for the fierce north Indian climate or for Indian ways of life. There is a total failure to produce built forms that could aid social organization or social integration; the sections fail to function as neighborhoods. The city is heavily segregated by income and civil service rank, recalling La Ville contemporaine, there are different densities for different social groups, resulting in a planned class segregation.” In Chandigarh, where the architect didn’t have the rationale of Paris’s preexisting disorder, the rigidity of his design shows how limited it is. The former Swiss watchmaker had laid out a city that would only work if its citizens became cogs.

briey_unite_d_habitation
Unité d’habitation

In his 1849 book on the virtue of Gothic forms, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, John Ruskin suggests that the two paths to immortality are literature and architecture. “When we build,” he writes, “let us think that we build forever.” It is possible – indeed, likely – that Le Corbusier’s books will outlast many of his buildings. Had the Contemporary City been built, however, its durability would have withstood the destruction and replacement of any number of structures it might have contained. As Lewis Mumford writes, “Cities are like trees: once established, they must be destroyed to the roots before they cease to live: otherwise, even when the main stem is cut down, shoots will form about the base.” Le Corbusier’s reputation today rightly rests on innovative designs like the chapel at Ronchamp, Villa Savoye, and Unité d’habitation. By contrast, his legacy as an urban planner is subtler but more far-reaching and pernicious. This is a paradox. Only one of Le Corbusier’s cities was actually built, Chandigarh, and it hardly represents the platonic ideal stipulated for Plan Voisin, Contemporary City, or Radiant City. On the other hand, throughout the 1950s and 60s, wherever planners had sufficient acreage, they tended to arrange their buildings according to the towers-in-the-park model conceived of by Le Corbusier. In Brasília, Le Corbusier’s model was brought to the jungle, where a new capital was established with vast highways, arid parking lots, and dead zones of sterile parkland between formidable towers. In Brasília, says Peter Hall, “streams of pedestrians cheat death daily as they weave between speeding cars on the central mall. This is a detail; the real failure was that, just as in Chandigarh, an unplanned city grew up beside the planned one.” Only a few years after the founding of Brasília in the mid 60s, one-third of the city’s population, 100,000 people, lived in favelas on the outskirts of the capital. This figure would soon grow to more than one half.

A question lingers over the objection of New Urbanists to Corbusian principles, having to do with the reactionism of the opposition. But misgivings about urban forms can and should be separated from one’s feelings about architectural forms. A distaste for “autopias” and a liking for Brutalism of Bauhaus buildings need not be mutually exclusive. Furthermore, an aversion to the Corbusian results in my own city does not diminish my admiration for the architect’s iconoclasm. His writing, though it is frequently repetitious and diffuse, shows an admirable desire to use modern solutions like prefabrication and concrete to solve longstanding problems like housing conditions for workers. Le Corbusier had a genius for self-promotion and his books sometimes savor of the prospectus and the pamphlet; when he didn’t have a commission, he would write about what he wanted to build. But not many architects are the authors of indisputable classics of architectural theory. Le Corbusier wrote at least two. If they describe some of his zaniest ideas (the notion of turning the roofs of buildings into a network of sidewalks comes to mind), they also show a tireless intellect searching for new ways of conceiving the built environment.

Today, when many cities are contemplating the expenditure of billions of dollars to reverse the sins of highway construction and islanded housing projects, Le Corbusier’s vision looks particularly maladroit. But the mind behind that vision remains vexingly clever. “The following considerations are not fanciful,” he claims. “They are merely, once again, a train of thought taken to its logical conclusions.” Today we can follow Le Corbusier’s train of thought much further than he was able to see. The conclusion is dismaying. The architect’s company, however, is as brilliant as ever.

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