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A Vision of Utopia: Optimistic Foundations of Le Corbusier’s Doctrine d’urbanisme

Published onApr 23, 2021
A Vision of Utopia: Optimistic Foundations of Le Corbusier’s Doctrine d’urbanisme

Le Corbusier, urbanist and propagandist, Paris, 1935. (Rights reserved by Ivanoff, Paris.)

The key to city planning is a man, who may be brutalized by the disorganization of the urban phenomenon, but who may be showered with well-being if care is taken to cater for specifically human needs.1 Studies that investigate details of Le Corbusier’s work or brief periods in his development are essential to supersede the broad generalizations which until recently have often passed as informed comment, but there is a certain incongruity in thus approaching a man whose ecstatic vision and frequently intuitive thinking rid him of all fear of the broad generalization in his ceaseless quest for absolute truth.

Nowhere is this breadth of view more apparent than in his system of urban and regional planning, which he began as early as the 1920s to describe as a “doctrine” based on a number of “certainties” derived from observation.2 At the very least, this system constituted a universal program of environmental improvement; at most, it was a formula for world social reform.

Clearly, the choice of any conscious reform program rests on certain assumptions about the nature of the world and the process of change. In Le Corbusier’s case, his very distinctive world view does much to account for the individuality of his specific planning proposals. First of all, however, some outline of his doctrine must be provided.

Le Corbusier published his first major study of town planning in 1925, at the age of thirty-eight.3 It related principally to his plans for an idealized city, the Contemporary City for Three Million Inhabitants, which he had exhibited in 1922 and which had established his reputation as an architect-planner. At this early stage he was concerned almost exclusively with the problems and opportunities of Paris—the large, capital city which he had directly experienced since his permanent settlement in 1917. In the years to come the scope of his planning precepts broadened considerably, but they already exhibited that potent combination of four major modes of planning, which gave his ideas their universal, comprehensive quality.

The first mode, aesthetics, sprang from his ambition to create physical environments that would be visually and emotionally satisfying through the application of the principles of harmony and balance. This motivation had emerged from his early training in art and architecture, and he had been aware of it a least since his early twenties.4

The second mode, habitation, originated in his interest in mass housing from the early part of World War I, when he had soon recognized that it was not enough to design merely comfortable homes, but that access, surroundings, amenities, and location were also crucial to the creation of a satisfactory living environment.5

A third mode, efficiency, stemmed from his recognition that a better urban environment depended on the economic prosperity of cities. This aspect of his thinking did not emerge fully until the early 1920s, but from then on he devoted much attention to transport, industrial location, design of commercial areas, and other aspects of urban efficiency.6

The fourth mode, social reform, was the most enigmatic but also the most important, since it underpinned the other three and provided a major inspiration for Le Corbusier’s ceaseless propagandizing. It was founded on his confidence that the reform of the physical environment would be a major, if not the major contribution to the creation of an ideal society that would provide all the prerequisites of complete happiness and fulfillment. The origins of this conviction are difficult to establish in time, but it certainly informed Le Corbusier’s reactions to the Ema charterhouse in 1907 and 1911:

So here I was again at the Ema charterhouse [in 1911]. I did some sketches this time, and I understood things better too…. My first impression of the charterhouse was one of harmony, but not until later did the essential, profound lesson of the place sink in on me—that here the equation which it was the task of human wit to solve, the reconciliation of “individual” on the one hand and “collectivity” on the other, lay resolved. But in the very solution of this problem another equally decisive lesson was to be learned: that to solve a large proportion of human problems you need locations and accommodation. And that means architecture and town planning. The Ema charterhouse was a location, and the accommodation was there, arranged in the finest architectural biology. The Ema charterhouse is an organism. The term organism had been born in my mind.7

Although these four modes had considerable scope for further development, Le Corbusier’s practical approach to planning in the mid-1920s was based on a total acceptance of the big city as the home of the greatest technical efficiency, and as the provider of substantial social and cultural benefits to its residents. To resolve the apparent contradiction between the needs of this hive of activity and the maintenance of a pleasant living environment, he put forward the novel solution that has become his most important single contribution to twentieth-century planning practice—to increase the height of both commercial and residential buildings so that they could occupy only a small fraction of the ground without reducing overall densities.

Like most of Le Corbusier’s planning proposals, this procedure had more than purely utilitarian value. At the very least it assured adequate space for recreation while maintaining sufficient densities to support an active community life; on a more spiritual level it constituted both a reintegration of nature with the city and a full acceptance of the potential of modern technology. The huge increment of space also allowed him to provide express roads, totally segregated from pedestrians, to permit full freedom of movement for motor traffic, which he saw as a prerequisite of economic success. At the same time, high densities would increase land values, thus attracting the investment needed to carry out the development.

Although Le Corbusier vigorously defended his 1925 program into the late 1920s, he admitted later that certain difficulties still needed to be resolved.8 The product of his rethinking was the Radiant City, another idealized form, which appeared first as an exhibit in 1930 and was explained and justified a few years later by a second major book, La Ville radieuse. The Radiant City marked a further step toward the great metropolis as the ideal form of human habitation. Residential densities were increased to a maximum of 1000 persons per hectare from about three hundred persons per hectare in the Contemporary City,9 and a linear plan was adopted to allow unhindered growth of the built-up area. These arrangements, combined with a more efficient road network and an integrated underground railway, allowed Le Corbusier to dispense with the so-called garden cities beyond a rigid green belt to which the vast majority of the Contemporary City’s residents had been relegated. He was obviously delighted with this solution, which not only allowed him to renew his condemnation of existing low-density suburbs, but provided him with sufficient population densities to prevent his huge areas of open land from becoming “dead spaces.” He also maintained that this living arrangement was perfectly suited to the needs of “machine-age man” and was based on a careful definition of his functions.10 Yet, ironically enough, the year of the Radiant City marked the first step in Le Corbusier’s partial reaction against the great city.

The development of the Radiant City began with Le Corbusier’s acceptance in 1930 of an invitation to design a farm and cooperative center for a peasant organization in the Sarthe. Typically, Le Corbusier chose to set this problem in a broader context, that of the reorganization of the rural environment. He viewed this reform in terms of extending the benefits of planned urban life to the countryside, a process that, as he soon recognized, would blur the distinction between town and country.

At about the same time, Le Corbusier began to have doubts about the desirability of really large cities. His first misgivings seem to have occurred in 1929 during his gloomy stay in Buenos Aires, and he began to be depressed by the ceaseless struggle between individuals, which he regarded as a feature of Parisian life.11 The mass urban unemployment of the great depression probably reinforced this mood and led him to the conclusion that the relative social attraction of the big cities had inflated their populations far above the level of economic efficiency, producing mass poverty among the unskilled and unqualified elements.

As early as February 1931, he was suggesting that Paris’s population figure of three million, which he had used as a yardstick in the 1920s, was too large, and by 1934 he was advocating one million as the city’s optimum population.12 This implied a major redistribution of population, which was to be permitted by the new system of regional planning that Le Corbusier developed between the early 1930s and the mid-1940s and that he set out in a further major book in 1944—The Three Human Establishments.13

Under this new arrangement, a substantial (but unspecified) proportion of the population would remain on the land in planned agricultural communities and “radiant farms” with adequate social and cultural facilities. Manufacturing would be carried on, not in special quarters of the big city as it had in both the Contemporary City and the Radiant City, but in “linear industrial cities” stretched along major long-distance communications routes, grouping both factories and high-density workers’ housing. Only a minority would live in the business and administrative centers located at the focal points of the communications routes, which Le Corbusier now categorized as “concentric cities of exchange,” but these towns would gain in efficiency by being allowed to concentrate on tertiary activities. To offset the possible disadvantages of dispersal, he placed strong emphasis on efficient regional and interregional communications.

Having thus derived what amounted to a system of world planning, Le Corbusier scarcely modified its essentials between the end of the Second World War and his death. He continued, however, to perfect detailed aspects of his theory. The most important of these developments were his formulas for a hierarchy of urban roads (la règle des sept voies) and for the planning of urban sectors, both of which date from about 1948. Clearly, these had a greater relevance to large cities than to the other two units in Le Corbusier’s overall scheme.

Most of his detailed postwar planning schemes (as at Bogota and Berlin) also dealt with big towns, a consequence of the requests made to him and the competitions he joined. His rejection of his earlier ultraurbanism was reflected in these schemes in lower densities (though still with multistory blocks), less dominating buildings, even greater emphasis on open space, and a growing priority accorded to conservation. Generally he became much more flexible; in working on a large hospital in Venice at the very end of his life, he may even have been on the threshold of a totally new urban form based on low buildings.

On the other hand, he continued to authorize reprintings of his early books on planning without modification or qualification, and he certainly never disowned his older ideas.14 As he had neither the time nor the inclination to write more didactic works on planning after the late 1940s, his doctrine lost some of its earlier clarity, but his statements suggested that “the three human establishments” remained his basic objective.

His planning system was both comprehensive and internally consistent. These qualities allowed him to rebuff criticisms of its details with ease, not to say contempt, and he frequently expressed surprise and impatience when it failed to convince. Even that nagging criticism which any program of radical reform will attract—that it is too ambitious to have any chance of being carried out—could be rejected on the grounds that the Corbusian system was simply a more efficient reordering of current arrangements and could therefore be introduced without any serious disturbance of existing economic and political interests.

But are the assumptions on which the system was based equally invulnerable? No, they were not; indeed, an essentially optimistic view of the world inclined Le Corbusier to a utopian program of social reform and obscured both the limitations and dangers of that program and the obstacles to its adoption.15

Many investigations of Le Corbusier’s ideas have vied with one another in identifying artists and thinkers who influenced him. Valuable though these studies are, I suspect that his fundamental approach to the world and its problems was formed in early childhood, mainly through the influence of God-fearing and nature-loving parents. Self-education would then have confirmed this belief system rather than disturbed it, for wide though Le Corbusier’s reading undoubtedly was, I suspect that he used it as a source of support for his own thinking, much of which was on his own admission intuitive.16 Consequently, his basic assumptions did not substantially alter during his career.

Absolutely fundamental to Le Corbusier’s belief system was his optimistic view of the natural world. He saw it as an ordered, harmonious environment, idyllic and benign. Certainly it included death and a measure of competition, but Kenneth Frampton has surely gone too far in emphasizing its dialectical character.17 Le Corbusier made clear time and time again that balance and harmony were the keynotes of his natural world: “Yes, in everything nature shows us a picture of flexibility, precision, and unquestionable reality in its combinations of harmonious developments. Serene perfection throughout. Plants, animals, trees, landscapes, seas, plains or mountains. Even the perfect harmony of natural disasters, earthquakes, etc.”18

Le Corbusier also emphasized that man, though qualified by his intellectual capacities and inherent ambition to master the natural world,19 was very much a product of it, capable of sharing its rhythm and likely to lose equilibrium if he ignored it (Fig. 62): “Man is a product of nature. He has been created according to the laws of nature. If he is sufficiently aware of those laws, if he obeys them and harmonizes his life with the perpetual flux of nature, then he will obtain (for himself) a conscious sensation of harmony that will be beneficial to him.”20

Figure 62
The dwelling in the landscape. This cross-section of the Corbusian city stresses the combination of personal privacy with community and harmony with nature. (Source: Le Corbusier, The Four Routes, p. 65.)


Figure 63
Trees as a medium between massive buildings and men. Le Corbusier’s caption contended that trees, being on a “human” scale, would prevent his towers from dwarfing passersby. His sketch, however, suggests that both buildings and trees will dominate—a rare example of Le Corbusier’s pencil being less convincing than his pen. (Source: Le Corbusier, The Radiant City, p. 221.)

Le Corbusier believed that the achievement of harmony and order constituted the ultimate human happiness: “The highest delight of the human spirit is to perceive order, and the greatest human satisfaction is the feeling of sharing or participating in that order.”21 Certainly, this satisfaction was to be achieved by activity—his natural world offered no lotus-eating existence to man22—but it was activity directed toward spiritual ideals rather than simple material accumulation (Fig. 63): “Architecture and music are the distinctive manifestations of human dignity. In them man affirms, ‘I exist, I am a mathematician, a geometrician, and I am religious. That is to say that I believe in some gigantic ideal which dominates me, but which I can reach… ' ”23

He often expressed his abhorrence of crude materialism as an aberration that diverted man from happiness: “Contemporary society has, to its own misfortune, given itself up to the endless manufacture of objects of varying degrees of stupidity, which only clog up our lives—senseless production of sterile consumer goods.”24

Apart from the occasional reference to human weaknesses, Le Corbusier said very little to qualify this picture of man as a sober, rational, hard-working, and intensely spiritual creature, inspired by the noblest of motives. When writing of man’s natural inclinations, he never referred to such conflict-creating forces as greed, jealousy, or lust. Thus he was able to believe in a natural form of human society based on cooperation, in which relationships between individuals and between groups were governed by an implicit social contract.25 Wealth and status were not equally distributed—indeed, Le Corbusier was a firm believer in meritocratic elites—but in such a society they were not a cause of conflict, for material well-being was merely the basis for the greater joys of family life, social intercourse, and physical recreation, all of which contributed to an overall harmony with nature. The Marxist concepts of class and class-conflict were totally alien to him. In short, Le Corbusier believed in an earthly paradise as man’s natural state, and in this respect he was quite clearly utopian.

Still, it was evident to Le Corbusier that this vision of an earthly paradise did not correspond to the contemporary world in which he lived. How was the discrepancy to be explained? All utopian thinkers have to face this problem, but Le Corbusier’s solution was distinctive. It was based on his idiosyncratic identification of industrialization (machinisme) as an independent force in human development. Briefly stated, Le Corbusier believed that a happy and harmonious world26 had been distorted by the corrupting influence of the industrialization that had been suddenly and brutally imposed on it in the nineteenth century. In particular, industrialization had alienated man from nature and so deprived him of that essential element in his happiness, participation in an ordered, blissful universe:

A machine civilization established itself, slyly and secretly, under the carpet, where we could not see it clearly. It plunged us and held us in a life which is now in question. Symptoms are now appearing of breakdowns in people’s health, and of economic, social, and religious changes, etc.27

The effect of inventions has been to shatter the ancestral statute. Everything has been broken, torn asunder. Social life is different. The life of the individual is threatened.28

By emphasizing that industrialization had been a totally disruptive force, Le Corbusier was able to argue that it had produced all the defects of contemporary society and even of individuals. In effect, he diagnosed in society a pathological condition that allowed him to maintain his belief in the natural goodness of man. This point can be illustrated by some of his judgments on India when he was working on Chandigarh, notably: “India is a country which has not yet been molested by machinisme and inhumane theories. India seems to me to be supremely humane.”29

The idea of industrialization causing a pathological condition was most clearly developed in Le Corbusier’s descriptions of the unreformed industrial city. This, the location of most of the antisocial phenomena which Le Corbusier blamed on industrialization, was frequently described as “sick.” He probably found it easier to apply this image to cities than to society as a whole because of an established practice among French geographers and sociologists of viewing cities as biological entities.30 This precedent no doubt helped to confirm his own independent interest in biology31 and encouraged him to use biologicai analogies in explaining social phenomena. At least as early as 1923, he was referring to “the sickness of great cities,”32 and he eventually developed a wide range of medical metaphors. He often spoke of “the cancer of Paris,”33 and he would sometimes combine more than one biological process to grotesque effect: “City centers are fatally ill, while their outskirts are being gnawed away as if by vermin.”34

Le Corbusier most frequently applied the image of sickness to features of the urban physical structure—slums, low-density suburbs, clogged business districts, and so on. But he also believed that the behavior of individual citizens was distorted, with the influence of the physical environment, itself unbalanced, producing disequilibrium in its residents:

The tentacled cities were born; Paris, London, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires. The countryside was emptied. Here was a double catastrophe. A menacing loss of equilibrium. In these tentacled cities life is madness. Men move seated about their cities, in trams and underground railways, in cars and suburban trains, living a disordered and demoralizing existence. It is a new slavery. The wars were but explosive crises of revolt.35

The city? It is the aggregate of these local disasters [breakup of the family unit under the impact of urban employment patterns]. It is the sum of these disappropriated parts. It is equivocal. Sadness weighs it down.36

Even the Darwinian idea of a law of survival, which Le Corbusier certainly entertained, was usually portrayed as a product of the unbalanced growth of cities:

Paris is pitiless; there, a battle is fought with no quarter asked or given. It is a venue for championship fights or gladiatorial contests. We face up to one another and kill one another. Paris is paved with corpses. Paris is a congress of cannibals, which fixes the dogma of the moment. Paris is a selector.37

It is only recently that the available material means at our disposal have made it possible for a wealth of ambition to be tapped and directed into the centres of our great cities…. The law of survival operates perpetually and with a recurring and brutal force…. And these great cities challenge one another, for the mad urge for supremacy is the very law of evolution itself to which we are subjected.38

Le Corbusier blamed all divergences from his ideal of the happy man and the idyllic society on the sudden impact of industrialization, which had upset the lives of individuals mainly by creating an unbalanced environment.

To identify industrialization as a disruptive force in society was by no means uncommon in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century thought. But what distinguished Le Corbusier from thinkers such as William Morris was that his philosophy prevented him from any suspicions that industrialization might be intrinsically harmful to human happiness. On the contrary, as the product of a combination of man’s intelligence and endeavor and of the properties of the physical world, technical progress could not itself be anything but good.

Le Corbusier’s solution to this contradiction was the fulcrum of his whole system. He achieved it by using two interrelated concepts. The first was the idea of technical progress as an independent variable in human history, meaning that inventions are not dependent on general social or economic development, but are the product of chance or the operations of individual genius. In other words, technical advance is seen as an independent process with its own internal system of causation, which determines the speed at which it proceeds.39 This interpretation allowed him to apply the second concept, that of “culture lag,” first developed by Thorstein Veblen, according to which human individuals and institutions take some time to adapt to independently proceeding technical change. Thus Le Corbusier could maintain that in an industrialized world machines set the pace, with humanity in a permanent state of inadaptation to their demands: “The machine is so capital an event in human history that it is permissible to assign it a role as conditioner of the human personality …”;40 “… the machine is a reality entirely independent of human desires or wills….”41

Thus Le Corbusier had the answer to his enigma. The way to restore that blissful state which industrialization had destroyed was not to reverse the process, as William Morris had wanted, but to accept it fully in terms of behavior, attitudes, and the ordering of the environment. Once man took the plunge, he would find that the infinite resources of a machine civilization would allow him to reestablish that essential intimate contact with nature.

As far as man’s productive activities were concerned, Le Corbusier seems to have believed that this acceptance of the machine was not difficult to achieve. Man had merely to follow wholeheartedly the example already set by technology and the organization of production associated with machines. Le Corbusier made no secret of his idealized view of machinery, which, since its operations were governed by natural laws, could even be regarded as a natural form. He frequently referred to machines as “biological” or “organic”: “Modern techniques have revealed the way to other things. New things mutually coordinated by a biology which is whole, unique.”42 More than once, he even expressed a conviction that efficiently designed machinery could run in total silence.43 His admiration extended to the organization of whole factories; in 1932, for instance, he claimed that factories were the only elements in the urban environment that obeyed natural laws.44 Consequently, Le Corbusier could believe that technical and economic efficiency were natural virtues, and that their achievement would of itself create harmony with nature. This argument emerged strongly in a statement of the new editorial policy of L’Esprit Nouveau in 1923, and echoes of it are to be found in many of Le Corbusier’s later writings:

… we have shown that the machine is a product which obeys natural laws more faithfully than did the products of the artisan. The machine is, above all, a measure of our new social being, the symbol of the overriding law which governs our civilization, the law of Economy. Today we can clearly formulate a new ideal, an ideal which already shines through every aspect of contemporary activity—efficiency: in the interest of Economy, our civilization’s single guide toward Purity. Economy, Purity, the guiding light of the new spirit.45

This implicit confidence in the happiness of industrial man while at work allowed Le Corbusier to define the problem of adaptation to a machine society almost exclusively in terms of the environment experienced by the individual outside the workplace. As it was essentially the environment of the unreformed industrial city that had thrown man into a state of unbalance, it was necessary merely to provide the right environment in order to restore his equilibrium and, in consequence, to guarantee him complete fulfillment and happiness. The principal features of this environment were a healthy and comfortable dwelling to allow a natural and wholesome family life, the grouping of dwellings and the provision of facilities to permit an active community spirit, and extensive green surroundings to reestablish the link with nature. It was these requirements which the unité d’habitation was developed to satisfy:

By bringing together a natural social grouping, a community, in one harmonious unit, it [the unité d’habitation] puts forward the “vertical garden-city” solution, to replace the “horizontal garden-city” which has dominated the last century and caused the “denaturalization” of the urban phenomenon which has let loose on the world the evils, the catastrophe, of an urban planning which has no relation to its [true] objectives. These objectives are to order the social phenomenon (in this case, to co-ordinate the basic acts of daily life; that is, to live, and to know how to live). This is a universal problem.46

And “natural conditions” (conditions de nature) will be reintroduced into the lives of the men, women and children of the machine civilization.47

Here then was the cure for the sickness of cities, and henceforth both the environment and society would return to equilibrium and health. Cities, under the new dispensation, would be organized biologically and therefore naturally: “All architectural products, all city neighbourhoods or cities ought to be organisms. This word immediately conveys a notion of character, of balance, of harmony, of symmetry.”48

This is all very well, the reader may now be saying, but could Le Corbusier really have believed that a reform of the environment alone could produce an ideal world? Did he not concentrate on planning and architecture because he was qualified in those fields, leaving it to others to advocate the necessary political, economic, and social reforms? The following advice to the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) of 1930 has often been quoted as indicating Le Corbusier’s recognition of the limited role of the reform of the physical environment in the creation of a better society:

Contemporary architecture and especially city planning are direct results of the social situation; this goes without saying. By means of personal inquiries let’s keep up to date with the present evolution but, I beg of you, let’s not get into politics or sociology here, in the midst of our Congress. They are too endlessly complex phenomena; economics are closely linked to them. We are not competent to discuss these intricate questions here. I repeat: here we should remain architects and city planners and on this professional basis we should make known, to those whose duty they are, the possibilities afforded by modern techniques and the need for a new kind of architecture and city planning.49

What is most striking about this statement is how untypical it is of Le Corbusier, who rarely hesitated to pronounce on “these endlessly complex phenomena” and who founded much of his architectural and planning doctrine on assumptions made in these areas. The Radiant City itself, in which this modest statement was reprinted, contains numerous assertions of Le Corbusier’s strong belief in environmental determinism, notably: “Miraculous architectural age! Everything is architecture! Architecture is the creation of order!”50 More sober, but still assigning a promotional role to environmental planning in world reform, is the following statement from The City of Tomorrow:

A form of planning which preoccupied itself with our happiness or our misery and which attempted to create happiness and expel misery would be a noble service in this age of confusion. Such a preoccupation, creating its appropriate science, would imply an important evolution in the social system. It would denounce on the one hand the harsh and futile individualistic rush for egotistical gratification, by which our great cities have been created. It would show, on the other hand, that at the critical moment an automatic recovery had taken place; that feelings of solidarity, pity and the desire for good had inspired a powerful will towards a clear, constructive and creative end.51

In 1930, the year of his modest CIAM statement, he also wrote that the world’s cities

… could become not the reliquaries of a beauty which was revolutionary in its own time, but irresistible forces stimulating collective enthusiasm, collective action, and general joy and pride, and in consequence individual happiness everywhere. All that would be needed is an authority, a man (though he would need a certain lyric sensibility) to set the machine in motion, to issue a law, a set of regulations, a doctrine—and then the modern world would begin to emerge from behind its labor-blackened face and hands, and would beam around, powerful, happy, believing….”52

In 1946, he came even closer to isolating the physical environment as the key determinant of human happiness: “Habitation is life, knowing how to live! How to use the blessings of God: the sun and the spirit that He has given to men to enable them to achieve the joy of living on earth and to find again the Lost Paradise.”53 In 1960, he continued to reiterate this ideal and his role in it: “My duty, my research, is to try to remove today’s man from misery and disaster, and to set him in happiness, daily joy, and harmony. For this it will be necessary in particular to re-establish, or to establish, harmony between man and his environment.”54

Even if the reader has accepted the argument this far, his reaction may still be: so what? That Le Corbusier overestimated the benefits of his planning system does not necessarily devalue the system itself; however, optimism might have detracted from Le Corbusier’s planning system in three important ways. First, it might have blinded him to practical difficulties or well-founded opposition to his system and so increased the odds against its acceptance. Second, his confidence in the operations of the business world and the directive power of governments might have encouraged him to advocate planning solutions that could be applied by others to achieve personal gain or mean economies rather than the welfare of the community. Third, and most serious of all, Le Corbusier’s apparently limited awareness of the nonenvironmental causes of social problems and of the possible drawbacks of modern technology might have allowed him to incorporate in his system elements that could actually detract from the quality of the environment and even accentuate the problems of society.

Perhaps the first question to ask is why Le Corbusier’s planning system did not gain the general acceptance that he was convinced it deserved (Fig. 64). He himself blamed the atrophied minds and outdated attitudes of the human products of the unreformed industrial world. But unless one shares Le Corbusier’s distinctive view of the world, one has to explain the failure in terms of the program’s unattractive input-output ratio. In other words, Le Corbusier’s planning system would have been seen as too expensive and too disruptive of existing interests to be justified by the results anticipated. In effect, Le Corbusier failed to win general acceptance for his basic claims. That his system was the path to an earthly paradise was, of course, accepted by few, and this skepticism increased the relevance of the cost factor in any decision to apply his ideas.

Figure 64
Sketches for a worldwide urban system. On the left, a section of a linear industrial city, including an experimental low-density residential area of small houses. On the right, a glimpse of linear urbanization along the major arteries of economic activity. (Source: Le Corbusier, Oeuvre complète 1938-46, p. 75.)

Here again, Le Corbusier’s optimism did not correspond with the reality seen by those who did not share his assumptions. He always maintained that all the works carried out in his system would pay for themselves, owing to a big increase in the value of developed land, as a result of high densities. This improvement value should have overcome all opposition by landowners and doubts on the part of the political authorities, and it should have attracted the necessary investment.

But Le Corbusier apparently never realized that higher densities at a given point mean lower densities and therefore lower values elsewhere. As many landowners stood to lose as those who stood to gain, while the collectivity gained nothing. Land nationalization might have provided a firmer foundation for Le Corbusier’s planning system, but realizing that it would either place a heavy compensation burden on the community or forfeit the support of landowners and private capital, he was always careful never to advocate it. Instead, he proposed “land mobilization,” a form of cooperation between public and private interests limited to development land.55 This solution conformed to his ideal of a community of interests, but in practical terms it fell between two stools, convincing neither the private nor the public sector.

If the redevelopment of land on Corbusian lines could not alone produce a capital gain equal to the investment made, it was still possible to argue that the greater efficiency of the reformed environment would produce a bigger return on all capital, whether publicly or privately invested. As it happens, Le Corbusier, who had only a rudimentary knowledge of economics, rarely made much of this argument, but it was certainly implicit in much of what he wrote. But like the landowners, business and industry looked on Le Corbusier’s proposals with a quizzical eye. Any benefits for them would be long-term, while in the immediate future they would have to acquiesce in a radical relocation of employment. In particular, Le Corbusier convinced himself that locations along the major transport routes were the most economically efficient for manufacturing industry, as well as the most socially desirable, but firms’ actual locational decisions rarely conformed to this theory. Of course, industry could be directed into new areas by political decision, but here again the support of an influential interest would be lost.

If landowners and industrialists could at best be ambivalent, the middle and upper classes had good reasons to be totally opposed to Le Corbusier’s planning. In 1922, the Contemporary City had been very crudely divided into what could be regarded as middle-class and working-class areas, but Le Corbusier was clearly not very interested in the distinction. In fact, he stated later that ever since the beginning of his researches into city planning in 1914, he had never been concerned with rich or poor, but solely with man.56 By the time of the Radiant City he had moved to a completely egalitarian arrangement, based on the assumption that housing demands, in terms of both accommodation and location, were not related to income; the allembracing community would overcome social distinctions: “I had created the prototype of a classless city, a city of men busy with work and leisure in surroundings that made these possible.”57

This residential mixing remained a feature of his system thereafter, and was incorporated into the theory of the unité d’habitation. Le Corbusier probably based the idea on the traditional mixing of social classes in Parisian apartment houses, but even there social segregation had been emerging since the nineteenth century. To design whole cities on this basis was totally unrealistic in societies where great disparities of wealth existed. It is significant that in the only city planning scheme which he was allowed to realize (Chandigarh), Le Corbusier had to accept the residential segregation of different social groups. More significant still, this segregation raised serious problems, owing to the varying demands placed on open space and social equipment within the standardized sectors.

Le Corbusier’s system might well have worked in a socialist society without great disparities of wealth and a deliberate political effort to minimize social distinctions, but, as we have seen, he did not recognize the need for so radical a measure of political and social reform. This whole dilemma is illustrated by Le Corbusier’s tentative efforts to promote his planning in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s. It was pure irony that while Le Corbusier clung to his cherished ideal of the liberty of the individual (which the application of his planning system would effectively have restricted), the Soviets remained distrustful of this utopian who had no awareness of the class dimension, even though his planning was tailor-made for egalitarian societies.58 Meanwhile, Le Corbusier wasted his time appealing to fascist political forces and governments that were sufficiently authoritarian to apply his system but lacked the necessary egalitarianism.

Because the most influential forces in capitalist society were the enemies of Le Corbusier’s planning rather than its natural supporters, such elements of his planning as were put into effect were almost always devalued and distorted. His advocacy of skyscraper commercial buildings helped to sweep away building height restrictions in London, Paris, and other cities; but most of the resulting towers produced only profits for developers, not an improvement in the environment, because the concomitants of high building in his system, such as more open space, were usually ignored. In the same way, his call for tall blocks of flats as the modal housing type helped harassed local authorities to justify high-density slum redevelopment schemes that almost always lacked the amenities and social mixing which Le Corbusier considered essential. His ideas were used when they could help make private profits or save public funds and avoid political problems, but they rarely contributed to social reform or even environmental improvement.

Of course it was not Le Corbusier’s fault that his ideas were abused, nor was he the only modern movement architect to advocate tall buildings and high densities. But in making them part of a planning mode which his extraordinary artistry undoubtedly made visually exciting and stimulating, he did more than most of his contemporaries to help gain acceptance for elements of his system which, however, selfish interests applied totally out of context. Moreover, Le Corbusier was so eager for recognition that instead of emphasizing that it was necessary to apply the whole of his system or nothing at all, he usually welcomed these caricatures as a step in the right direction.

Although Le Corbusier’s doctrine was more appropriate to the socialist societies of recent decades than to capitalist ones, its technical content is not therefore beyond criticism. It was more suited to socialism because such societies possess the social controls to make it work, but in practice those controls may well be regarded as an intolerable intrusion into private lives. Without such controls, a Corbusian environment may well be associated with a new range of social problems. These problems would stem from his overoptimistic view of human motivations and behavior and his consequent overestimate of the influence of environmental determinism and uncritical acceptance of technical innovations. If worst came to worst, the result could easily be an inhuman environment, the opposite of Le Corbusier’s hopes.

The most dangerous of his assumptions was his belief in the strength of man’s communal instincts, which led him to maximize communal space and facilities, to reduce private space to a bare minimum, and to raise residential densities. This arrangement could well be associated with the desired result; however, if the residents proved less communally minded than Le Corbusier’s stereotype, the environment could be a disaster. The fate of the Pruitt-lgoe development at St. Louis showed what could happen when faith in the essential goodness of man proved unfounded. At least in this respect Le Corbusier may be said to have aimed high on the basis of his confidence in people, which indicates a strong respect for humanity.

But his equally strong and uncritical respect for technology led him into less pleasant paths. Even had he recognized that technical advance is more the product of investment choices than the operation of human genius, his respect for entrepreneurial capitalism would have kept him from all criticism. But as it was, he often argued that man had a duty to apply innovations. Part of his case for high building was founded on this argument, though fortunately in residential building he stopped at about twelve stories and restricted his advocacy of height-for-height’s-sake to commercial buildings.

More serious was his uncritical acceptance of the motor car. As a product of modern technology there could be nothing wrong with the car; that it appeared to be noisy, dirty, and abusive of space in existing cities had therefore to be the fault of the cities themselves. In particular, he argued, it was only the channeling effect of the traditional street that magnified noise and concentrated fumes, which otherwise would be imperceptible. The answer was to adapt the environment to machine-age demands, in this case by abolishing the street. Toward the end of his life, the generous provision of urban expressways was producing serious pollution and diffused noise up to considerable heights over wide areas, but it was too late for him to reconsider his position.

As the product of an honest, fearless, and independent mind, Le Corbusier’s environmental planning system was inspired by the noblest of motives, and it is above criticism. But Le Corbusier himself was clearly embittered by what he seems to have recognized as its double failure; on the one hand, it had been unable to secure the universal application that it required to display its full benefits, while on the other it had come to be blamed for some of the excesses of the modern urban environment, with its tower blocks, expressways, and parking lots seemingly caricaturing the Corbusian ideal. He blamed this failure on the stupidity and inertia of those in authority and on the ignorance of the masses. On occasion, perhaps, when reflecting on the rejection of his good and reasonable ideas, Le Corbusier may even have begun to doubt his fundamental faith in the virtue of the human race. But if such doubts ever entered his mind, he must have quickly dismissed them, for in apprehending the principal reason for its failure, Le Corbusier would have destroyed the very foundation on which his whole doctrine rested.


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