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September 21, 2011 / Leo Hollis

The Problem with Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier hangs over twentieth century architecture like a dark thunder cloud.

Le Corbusier was born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret in 1887 in Switzerland; after a early career traveling, teaching and working on a small scale, he changed his name in 1920 and gave up designing in order to dedicate himself to more theoretical pursuits. In 1923 these were summed up in Vers Une Architecture, a manifesto for modernist design: architecture was a machine that was severely out of sync with society: ‘the primordial instinct of every human being is to assure himself of a shelter. The various classes of workers in society today, no longer have dwellings adapted to their needs; neither the artizan nor the intellectual. It is a question of building which is at the root of social unrest of today: architecture or revolution.’  Thus a revolution in design was the only thing that could halt the coming catastrophe. And what did this new revolution look like?

Already, Le Corbusier is imagining a new type of city: a regulated city of sky scrapers, in which the plan is at the centre of the work because ‘without a plan you have lack of order and wilfulness’. The idea thus became more important than the place, theory superseded experience. The rightness of the plan itself would ensure the evolution of a peaceful, happy society, whose voices were not encouraged. This revolution demanded men ‘without remorse’ who could see the project to its end without swaying to public opinion: ‘the design of cities are too important to be left to the citizens.’

In 1925 he hoped to test his ideas with projections for the Plan Voisin that was the centre piece exhibition in the Pavillion L’Esprit Nouveau at the World Fair. His dreams demanded the leveling of most of the historic neighbourhoods of Paris, north of the Seine – from the Marais to the Place Vendome, and replaced by long avenues, organised into a rigid grip system, filled with parkland and gardens. At the centre of each island was a vast tower blocks –  the new machines for living. Thankfully the Plan Voisin was nothing more than an attempt to shock and never intended to see the light of day; that did not mean that Le Corbusier was not absolutely serious and his ideas further evolved into the concept of the Ville Radieuse, published in 1933.

Le Corbusier’s City of Tomorrow was the solution to the problem of traffic as the architect saw poetry in speed. How can the massed chaos of the city be reordered to allow for maximum velocity? While Patrick Geddes saw the relationship between the past, landscape and present as integral to any city plan, Le Corbusier wanted to smash history, ‘burn our bridges and break with the past,’ Where Ebeneezer Howard desired the marriage of city and nature, Le Corbusier saw the city as the enemy of uncontrolled nature, a machine to defend man against the vagaries of the unpredictable and inhuman, including human nature itself.

Unfortunately Le Corbusier’s ideas did not fall on deaf ears but were rather embraced as the most perfect vision of the future. Le Corbusier himself was feted as a prophet and was invited to built and design across the world. In addition his words were translated into every language and treated as gospel in most architectural schools and town planning departments. he was the founding member of CIAM (Congres International de Architecture Moderne) that was started in 1928 and continued until 1959 that brought together the leading architects of the era and attempted to unify the whole discipline, offering one solution to every city’s problems. In particular, the Athens Charter which Le Corbusier published in 1943 came out of the 1933 conference, which took place on a cruise liner between Marseille and Athens, and set in stone the laws of ‘the Functional City’.

The ideas could not have found more fertile ground; while Le Corbusier himself moved from the political right to the left during the interwar period, his philosophy was adopted from designers of all stripes thus they worked just as well in Soviet Russia, Fascist Italy, Vichy France, India in the aftermath of Independence, Clement Atlee’s 1945 Government that oversaw the beginning of the rebuilding of Britain following the Blitz. One of the unexpected outcomes of the war was the diaspora of numerous European designer to America where CIAM’s ideas found an eager market where speculative developers saw the commercial advantages of the planned city while civic authorities could accumulate huge powers by creating central planners department.

In effect, Le Corbusier offered a one-stop solution to the urban problem; the solution, however, involved complete destruction. It was a bitter pill, and we are still trying to get rid of the taste.

The irony can be seen in the story of one of Le Corbusier’s earlier projects: the Les Quartiers Modern Fruges, on the outskirts of Bordeaux. In 1926, three years after the publication of Vers Une Architecture, Le Corbusier was invited by the eccentric industrialist Henri Fruges to design 150 new houses for his workers. Le Corbusier saw this as an opportunity to turn his theory of the modern ‘house-machine’ into reality and devised a series of designs; in the end only 50 or the 150 houses were completed but each one conformed to the 4 basic designs he had projected. Each house had direct light, a roof garden, good ventilation and windows as well as a small frontage. Inside, all was standardised and regulated The designs expressed Le Corbusier’s passion for the mass produced house for the masses; as he noted in his book, the workers should be forced into appreciating the mass produced house for it was ‘healthy (and morally so too) and beautiful in the same way that the working tools or instruments which accompany our existence are beautiful’.

Except nobody told the workers who were meant to move in to these new machines. The first group of proud homeowners refused to come, disliking the look and the style of the houses, and the houses were thereafter given to poorer workers. Almost immediately these new tenants started to adapt and improve Corbusier’s designs: traditional wooden shutter were added to the plain facades as well as stone cladding; window boxed bursting with flowers blurred the clean, modernist lines of the building; walls were knocked down and re arranged to make more space for internal rooms;  sloping, tiled roofs replaced the flat concrete covering that was starting to leak; windows were replaced to let less light in, and keep the houses cooler. It is a story that is often washed out from history of architecture, and should not be ignored. In time, the Le Corbusier Foundation would blame not the architecture but the sales methods of 1928 that allowed a low class of house buyer into the neighbourhood. Le Corbusier himself would say with some irony: ‘you know, life is always right and the architect who’s wrong.’

Yet ignoring life is what so much of the history of urban planning has been about; yet as can be seen here life has a way of coming up from the streets.

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