In his politics as in his architecture, Le Corbusier defies generalizations. He escapes like Houdini from even the most entangling categories. In the 1920s he seemed the embodiment of the conservative technocrat, the elitist who tried to place his genius at the service of banks and international corporations. Percival and Paul Goodman, in their book Communitas (1947), denounce him as a spokesman for finance capitalism whose urban theories serve to reinforce the class structure.1 Yet, almost twenty years before Communitas was published, Le Corbusier had himself broken with capitalism and declared himself a revolutionary syndicalist. Throughout the thirties he was an influential and tireless spokesman for this doctrine, an indigenous French socialism that called for the trade unions (syndicats) to take over the means of production while the workers elect from their midst a new managerial elite.
Le Corbusier’s conversion to syndicalism was no doubt comforting to those who wished to identify modern architecture with leftist politics; nonetheless, it still fails to define the “real” Le Corbusier. His activist period of the thirties was also characterized by his growing fascination with authoritarian, quasi-fascist groups at the fringes of French political life. After the fall of France in 1940, this fasincation became commitment. He announced his allegiance to the reactionary regime of Marshal Pétain and sought to join the government himself. He spent eighteen fruitless, farcical months as a minor official at Vichy, the regime’s capital, convinced that he was destined to become the aged Marshal’s adviser and the great dictator of French architecture.
One might be tempted to conclude from this rapid summary of Le Corbusier’s affiliations and vacillations that his genius did not manifest itself in his politics. If we understand politics in a narrow sense, this is surely true. His engagement had all the shortcomings we associate with “the intellectual in politics.” He was sometimes opportunistic, sometimes utopian, sometimes both at once. As a leader, he could be spiteful, uncooperative, as sensitive to his own prerogatives as he was insensitive to the rights of others. Indeed, for a lifelong proponent of organization, Le Corbusier was singularly incapable of working within one.
Yet, if his activism had its miseries, it also had its quixotic grandeur. Even at Vichy he never lost his dedication to his own complex vision of a harmonious future. For him, politics existed only to provide the authority for the great works of environmental reconstruction that he believed could end social strife and inaugurate a new era. Political power was necessary to carry out this transformation, but, to enter the new world, power had to be guided by imagination. The true founder of the new era would be the planner: the man who combined technical expertise with social vision. His designs would not only symbolize social harmony, they would create that harmony by bringing the citizens together into a community and directing their relationships into cooperative channels. In the transformed environment the order that was always a potential in industrial society would become real; the conflicts that divided society would disappear; politics itself would wither away. Urban design would thus become the real constitution of the new society, the “manifestation in daily life of a wise social order” (Fig. 65).2
Le Corbusier’s activism, therefore, always had a double aspect. First, it expressed itself theoretically in his plans for ideal cities. These were never blueprints for building; rather, they were ideal types of the new industrial society that he believed was possible. They enabled Le Corbusier to show in graphic terms the relationship between the transformations in the environment he was proposing and the transformed social order that the environment would support. In his ideal cities Le Corbusier’s innovations in architecture and urban design appear in what he believed was their true context: as integral parts of a new civilization.
Second, his activism expressed itself in his attempts—desperate attempts, by the time of Vichy—to find the authority that would begin to carry out his plans. Of course, such an authority would necessarily belong to the old civilization, and even during his technocratic phase of the twenties he was careful to distinguish between the ethos of the great works he was planning and that of the capitalists he hoped would undertake them. Although his first ideal city, the Contemporary City for Three Million Inhabitants (1922), was put forward at the height of his infatuation with big business, he pointed out specifically that the Contemporary City was not capitalist or communist. “On my plan I wrote Administrative Services; Public Services. That will suffice.”3 This distinction did not prevent him from turning both to capitalists and then to communists for aid, but it does provide a convenient starting point for the consideration of Le Corbusier’s social thought.
Le Corbusier’s ideas began and ended with the concept that industrial society had an inherent form, an objective order derived from the nature of man and the nature of machines, an ideal structure, which—if realized—would bring prosperity, harmony, and joy. Capitalism or socialism might under different circumstances be better equipped to reach this ideal, but both must submit to the requirements of industrial society or risk chaos. For Le Corbusier, any industrial society must be centrally controlled, hierarchically organized, administered from above, with the most qualified people in the most responsible position. He believed that the industrial era would be an age of triumphant rationality, and, as Max Weber had already observed, the rule of reason in Western society means the dominance of bureaucracy. Le Corbusier did not shrink from this conclusion: he embraced it. His ideal city is above all a City of Administration. “From its offices come the commands that put the world in order.”4
In the Contemporary City the towers of administration occupy the place of honor at the center. These skyscrapers are “the brain of the city, the brain of the whole country. They embody the work of elaboration and command on which all activities depend.”5 This administrative center is the true capital of the country, the headquarters of headquarters. It is also the natural home of the elite, the directors of the great bureaucracies. Le Corbusier emphasized that the elite includes the administrators of the intellect as well as of industry. He listed the leading occupants of the central towers as “captains of business, of industry, of finance, of politics, masters of science, of pedagogy, of thought, the spokesmen of the heart, the artists, poets, musicians.”6
These leaders would bring order and beauty to industrial society through beneficent acts of administration. The whole Contemporary City is structured to serve their needs. The administrative center is designed to provide the conditions for efficient coordination. “Everything is concentrated there: the tools that conquer space and time—telephones, telegraphs, radios; the banks, trading houses, the organs of decision for the factories: finance, technology, commerce.”7 Around the towers are the luxurious apartment houses for the elite. Elaborate communal services, which Le Corbusier compared to those on a luxury liner, free the leaders from the mundane tasks of housekeeping and offer the opportunities for leisure and meditation that the elite need in order to carry out their burdensome tasks. The subordinate bureaucrats and workers, whose needs Le Corbusier considered less pressing, live in more modest satellite cities at the outskirts.
The structure of the Contemporary City thus reflects the hierarchy that Le Corbusier believed was necessary in any industrial society. Although, as we shall see, he was later to modify his narrow elitism, he never lost the conviction that modern life requires centralized administration. In putting forward this interpretation, Le Corbusier believed he was speaking as an objective “technician”; in fact, he was aligning himself with one of France’s most venerable political traditions, one which dates from the writings of the nineteenth-century utopian socialist Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825).
Saint-Simon was one of those Utopians who turned out to be far more realistic than his more hardheaded contemporaries. Writing in the turbulent Napoleonic and Restoration periods, he argued that society was evolving a new order based on the organization of industry. The future, he predicted, belonged to large-scale enterprises in which men would “henceforth do consciously, and with better directed and more useful effort, what they have hitherto done unconsciously, slowly, indecisively and too ineffectively.”8 These enterprises would impose a hierarchy of authority on all workers and bring an elite of proven ability and knowledge into the commanding positions, an elite which, he claimed, was already taking the most important decisions into its hands: the exploitation of natural resources, the development of industry, and the administration of production and distribution.
Saint-Simon looked forward to the time when the men he called industriels, the elite of managers, scientists, and artists, would, in their capacities as heads of the great organizations of production and learning, take over the functions of government. The repressive functions of the state would wither away. In Saint-Simon’s famous formula, the “administration of goods” would replace “the government of men.”9 Inequality would remain, but would no longer lead to social strife. The workers would have jobs and prosperity; they would feel themselves to be part of a great collective enterprise headed by their natural leaders, the industriels. In the twentieth century Saint-Simon’s ideas were invoked both by businessmen and socialists. The neo-Saint-Simonians, a group with which Le Corbusier had important ties, called for an elite of technically trained managers to rationalize production; this alone would end social disorder by satisfying working-class demands for higher wages and better living conditions. On the Left, Lenin and his followers invoked Saint-Simon’s industrial hierarchy as the proper model for a communist economy after the capitalists had been expropriated and an elite of communist industriels put in their place.10
Whether as conservative or revolutionary, Le Corbusier retained his allegiance to the Saint-Simonian vision. He never doubted that society would eventually take the form he outlined in his ideal city. The only question was which group would finally give the order to build and thus prove itself to be “worthy of the machine age.” The Plan Voisin for Paris (1925) assumed that the heads of the large corporations would take on this role. Acting only as businessmen, they would buy up a large tract in the center of Paris, knock down the existing structures, and erect in their place eighteen skyscrapers. This would not only be a profitable enterprise (Le Corbusier carefully concocted a set of imaginary figures to prove this), it would also provide an international headquarters for industriels who headed the largest corporations and controlled the world economy (Fig. 66).
Le Corbusier’s gradual realization that the capitalist magnates were unwilling and unable to carry out the Plan Voisin did not affect his confidence in the Plan; it destroyed his faith in capitalism. The Plan, he believed, defined the steps that any society must take to fulfill the promise of the machine age. If private enterprise was not equal to the task, then it must be replaced by a system capable of great works. Otherwise, “the life-blood of the new era will be squandered by obsolete, cruel, and inhuman organizations.”11
In 1928 Le Corbusier published a pamphlet, Towards the Paris of the Machine Era, in which he first put forward the radical themes that would preoccupy him in the thirties. The pamphlet was published, ironically enough, under the auspices of the Redressement français, an organization headed by the president of France’s largest utility, dedicated to the revitalization of France through the efforts of an “industrial elite of intelligence, talent, and character.” Le Corbusier called for land mobilization; he wanted the government to purchase all the land within a given tract at its assessed value and to deliver the tract to builders who would undertake projects like the Plan Voisin.
The main interest in this pamphlet lies not in the proposal itself, which was perfectly consistent with the technocratic concerns of the Redressement français, but in the supporting arguments. First, Le Corbusier emphasized that the growing industrialization had already profoundly disturbed the traditional bases of society and made gradual responses impossible. “[We must] put ourselves in accord with a situation that has been revolutionized. If this accord is not reached quickly, the sickness that already threatens society will disorganize social life and produce these evils: confusion, incoherence, chaos, all leading to mental disarray and panic—the revolution.”12 Neither capitalism nor parliamentary democracy had the power to forestall this revolution of panic. Capitalism was inherently chaotic, while parliamentary politics could not solve problems; it “devoured energy.”
What was needed, Le Corbusier argued, was an Authority outside the “established disorder” to assert the common good. In this pamphlet he put forward the first of many such hoped-for authority figures—the “Minister of Public Works.” This Minister would not be responsible to Parliament; he would stand above politics. He would be a modern Colbert, “at home in his own times, with a discernment infinitely precise, a man who does not bow before the present or the past. Seeking to build on a firm basis, he works out the future. The scope of his vision will be the greatness of his country.”13 The new Minister would have control over land mobilization; he would have the power to oversee projects from beginning to end, to override all opposition, and to ensure the triumph of order (Fig. 67).
Le Corbusier closed his pamphlet with four sentences that could serve as the theme of his activist period:
A machine age is born.
We still act under the authority of a premechanical age.
This leadership destroys all our initiatives.
We must create the leadership of a machine age.14
When he wrote these words, Le Corbusier still hoped that the old system would revitalize itself. This, however, was more a pious wish than a reasoned conclusion; it did not survive very long after the stock market crash in the United States. In an article published in 1931, he placed this caption under a photograph of Wall Street: “All is paradox, disorder; the liberty of each destroys the liberty of all. Indiscipline.”15 The floodtide of disorder following the Depression activated Le Corbusier’s worst fears of social chaos. He still recoiled at revolution, but he was even more afraid that capitalism and parliamentary democracy were allowing society to drift toward a catastrophe. Le Corbusier became a revolutionary out of fear of something worse.
At the same time, he fervently hoped that the crisis could be turned into an opportunity to create a new leadership and a new social structure which would have the strength to begin the era of great works. In the late twenties he investigated and then adopted the doctrine he believed would guide the society of the future: syndicalism. This complex (some might say confused) ideology combined several elements that were especially attractive to intellectuals at that time. It claimed to transcend the distinctions between Right and Left and to provide a doctrine that could unite the nation; it was revolutionary in tone without adhering to the Marxist theory of class struggle and dictatorship of the proletariat; it denounced the capitalist power structure but promised to put in its place an even more elaborate hierarchy of merit. Le Corbusier was attracted to syndicalism in part because it was undefined. Through his commission to design an office building in Moscow, the Centrosoyus, he had seen a unified ideology at work. Although he was attracted by the communists’ vigor in industrializing their country, he knew he could never be part of someone else’s orthodoxy. The disparate elements of syndicalism were the raw materials out of which he created his own synthesis. He shaped the doctrine to fit the requirements of urban planning; syndicalist ideas inspired him to alter fundamentally the form of his ideal city.
The major conflict in syndicalist thought—and the one that became the center of Le Corbusier’s concerns—was between authority and participation. Syndicalism began in the 1880s and 1890s as the quasianarchist ideology of the trade union movement. After the revolution, each syndicat would run its own factory; each member would participate equally, and there would be a minimum of organization. The syndicalist leaders were hostile to the state, and they were especially hostile to all attempts to subordinate the trade unions to a parliamentary party. Their concept of revolution was a mass rising—the General Strike.
If syndicalism originated as a participatory movement of the extreme Left, it was soon modified by authoritarian elements of the extreme Right. The agent of this modification was Georges Sorel, the movement’s first intellectual advocate. Sorel sought support from all who hated the bourgeoisie, even the anticapitalist reactionaries of the Action française who dreamed of the revival of the medieval guilds under the auspices of a resurrected monarchy. Some young disciples of Sorel sought out their counterparts in the Action française to see if some fusion of syndicalism with reaction could be found. This group, the Cercle Proudhon, met regularly before the First World War. Its members shared the belief that the era of individualism was ending, and a new age based on authority was about to begin. Laissez-faire capitalism and parliamentary democracy, the two great individualistic institutions, would both disappear. In place of capitalism there would rise a hierarchy of syndicats organized like the medieval guilds. These would control production, prices, and wages in their trades. They would also replace the parliaments. Men voted only as members of their trade. A council of Masters drawn from each trade would govern the country.16
This plan had one special merit: it could mean anything. It could be the basis for anarchy or dictatorship; it was either the victory of the proletariat or the final end of the workers’ movement. For a postwar generation that distrusted all the old ideologies, its ambiguities were its attraction. Syndicalism was a radical doctrine for workers who had lost faith in the proletariat sons of the bourgeoisie who hated the middle class, and all who knew only that the parliamentary system must go. Seen from any perspective, syndicalism seemed to promise a new order. We shall see what use Le Corbusier made of the doctrine.
He was first introduced to it by a friend, the physician Pierre Winter. Both men were physical fitness enthusiasts who played basketball together each week during the twenties. Winter was also an enthusiast for the authoritarian wing of the syndicalist movement and a follower of the self-proclaimed “French Mussolini,” Georges Valois. In 1925, Valois had founded his own party, the Faisceau, which called for the abdication of parliament, a “national dictatorship above parties and classes, under the command of a Leader,” and the formation of syndicalist assemblies.17 Winter was active in the party and occasionally expounded Le Corbusier’s town planning theories in Valois’s daily newspaper. In 1926, he concluded an article on the Plan Voisin with his own commentary: “Only a strong program of urbanism—the program of a fascist government—is capable of adapting the modern city to the needs of all.”18
Le Corbusier was still attached to capitalism and to technocracy in 1926. By the late twenties, however, he was more receptive; through Winter he met some of the leading syndicalist intellectuals. At that time the Faisceau no longer existed. Valois had grown disillusioned with Mussolini, and the syndicalists were now anxious to disassociate themselves from what they considered to be Italian fascism’s compromises with capitalism. Instead of one party, syndicalism was now expounded in many little reviews, each claiming to be the nucleus of a movement. In 1930 Philippe Lamour, a young lawyer and former associate of Valois, proposed to Le Corbusier that they found their own review, devoted equally to syndicalist politics and to the arts. The first issue of Plans appeared in January 1931.
To his careers as architect, painter, and theorist Le Corbusier added one more: editor and spokesman for syndicalism. He abandoned the Purist dream of a smoothly functioning capitalist elite and entered into the rough world of political activism. This new vocation, however, was not a rush to the barricades. He was reluctant even to call himself a revolutionary. “Nothing is more dangerous,” he observed in 1932, “than the revolutionary with beak and claws, the negator, the destroyer, the scoffer.”19 His concept of his own role was to imagine “a complete system, coherent, just, and indisputable.” Such a system would be “nothing more or less than a revolutionary event.”20 His contribution took the form of an ideal city for a syndicalist society: the Radiant City.
The Radiant City is at once a plan for urban reconstruction, a prescription for economic planning, and a call for political revolution. For Le Corbusier, the three aims are inseparable. Only a syndicalist revolution could begin the rebuilding of the cities, but only in the cities of the future could the syndicalist dilemma of authority and participation be resolved. The Radiant City is Le Corbusier’s design for an environment in which both elements of the doctrine could find intense and appropriate expression. His method, as always, is not compromise but synthesis. He first separates a hierarchical sphere of production and administration from a participatory sphere of leisure and family life, giving to each its own well-defined realm where its values are supreme. The two realms, juxtaposed, form the Radiant City. Harmony is in the structure of the whole city and in the complete life of its citizens.
In the Radiant City the world of industry is the world of planning and top-down control. Le Corbusier hoped that syndicalism would finally create the natural order inherent in large-scale organization. He tried to define this order in his “pyramid of natural hierarchies,” his version of the syndicalist program. The bottom of this pyramid is the individual syndicat: the group of workers, white collar employees, and engineers who run their own factories. The workers participate according to their own specialized knowledge; in addition, they choose their “natural leaders” as foremen and manager (Fig. 68).
The syndicat gives the workers the feeling of real participation in their work that they lacked under capitalism. But this participation does not extend beyond the syndicat. Le Corbusier was confident that everyone was “capable of judging the facts of his trade”; he was also extremely dubious of the average man’s ability to look beyond his immediate experience. Indeed, his principal critique of parliamentary democracy was that it constantly required the man in the street to judge the most difficult questions of policy. The result was chaos, demagogy, or both. In Le Corbusier’s scheme, once the average man has chosen his natural leader he has no further say in policy. The larger questions are the responsibility of those higher up in the natural hierarchy.
The plant managers form the first rank of leaders, and the regional council of plant managers represents the first step in the hierarchy. Each level corresponds to a level of administrative responsibility. The manager runs his factory; the regional leaders administer the plants in their region. The regional council sends its most able members to a national council, which is responsible for the overall control of the trade. The leader of this council meets with his fellow leaders to coordinate the production of the entire country. They allot the capital needed for each region and set the goals for production.
This hierarchy of administration has replaced the state. As Saint-Simon had urged, a man’s power corresponds exactly to his responsibilities in the structure of production. Seen from this perspective, Le Corbusier’s syndicalist hierarchy represents not the rejection of his technocratic concerns of the twenties but their culmination. The “pyramid of natural hierarchies” extends the bureaucratic organization he had extolled in the large corporation from the individual firm to the economy as a whole. No longer would the order and planning of isolated businesses be negated by the chaos of laissez-faire. Nor would such factors as the profit-motive or class conflict be allowed to disturb the efficient allocation of manpower and resources. In a syndicalist society, technocratic rationalism would have a firm base, for everyone shares a common concern that the economy be administered as efficiently as possible.
Confronting a world threatened by depression, chaos, and collapse, Le Corbusier concluded that administration must become conscious and total. Society needed above all Authority and a Plan. He was fascinated by the dream of a single Plan that would regulate the economy for an entire nation. This Plan would be the score for the industrial symphony, a “rational and lyric monument” to man’s capacity to organize. Created by a corps of experts free from outside pressure, the Plan’s complex provisions would cover every aspect of production, distribution, and construction. This Plan would be more than a collection of statistics and instructions; it would be the supreme social work of art. It would bring to consciousness the complicated and yet satisfying harmonies of an orderly productive world; it would express the unity that underlies the division of labor in society; it would sum up the full range of exchange and cooperation that is necessary to an advanced economy. For Le Corbusier, the Plan would embody human solidarity in the face of the hostile forces of nature.
The major aim of the Plan would be to marshal the resources to reconstruct the cities, and, above all, to build mass housing. Le Corbusier believed that the real test of any industrial society was its capacity to house its citizens well. The workers, who had suffered the hardships of the factory system, would comprehend its benefits only when the factories began turning out magnificent machine-age dwellings for them to occupy. They would then see the connection between their labors and the new civilization they were helping to create. The “essential joys” of the machine age would become part of their daily life.
Le Corbusier’s conception of housing in the Radiant City represents a significant departure from his earlier Contemporary City plans. In the Contemporary City, housing exactly mirrors the hierarchical structure of society: the elite live luxuriously in the center and the workers live modestly at the outskirts. In the Radiant City, however, all citizens live in the high-rise apartments at the center. This residential area is wholly egalitarian. There are no good or bad neighborhoods; apartments are not assigned on the basis of the worker’s position in the hierarchy but according to the size of his family and their needs. Everyone has equal and ready access to social services and to recreational facilities. “If the city were to become a human city,” Le Corbusier pointed out, “it would be a city without classes.”21
The Radiant City is thus divided into two cities: the hierarchical, totally administered world of production and the egalitarian, participatory world of leisure. The split corresponds to the division within Le Corbusier’s concerns during his syndicalist period. He was anxious that society be put in order, that the natural elites be permitted to organize the world, but his activist concerns had made him more sensitive to the problems of those on the bottom of the hierarchy who spent their working lives taking orders. When, for example, he visited the United States in 1935, he found much to admire in the luxury apartment houses that lined Central Park and Lake Shore Drive, but he added, “My own thinking is directed toward the crowds in the subway who come home at night to dismal dwellings. The millions of beings sacrificed to a life without hope, without rest—without sky, sun, or greenery.”22
For Le Corbusier, however, the solution was not to abandon mass production or large-scale organization. Rather, it was to intensify industrialization and administration and then to use the materials provided by disciplined labor to create a realm of freedom and individual fulfillment: the residential community. The problems of work are thus solved in leisure and family life. Out of the products of mass production the planner fashions a world of play, and this world restores to the worker his creative independence.
In the Radiant City, therefore, the egalitarian residential community is not the contradiction of the hierarchical industrial order but its completion. “Modern organization,” Le Corbusier wrote, “must, by the rational arrangement of the collectivity, redeem, liberate the individual.”23 Both the residential and the administrative realms are planned, but planning in the latter is designed to weld the work force into a tight organization, whereas planning in the residential community exists to widen the individual’s choices for self-fulfillment.
The major institutions of the residential sphere are the great apartment blocks, which Le Corbusier called unités d’habitation. They are the successors of the luxury apartment houses of the Contemporary City with important modifications. First, Le Corbusier wished to get away from both the concept of luxury dwellings, in which the conspicuous consumption of space becomes a sign of status, and the concept of Existenzminimum, the design of public housing based on the absolute hygienic minimums. He believed that housing could be made to the “human scale,” right in its proportions for everyone, neither cramped nor wasteful. The size of the apartment would vary with the size of the family that occupied it. No one would need anything larger nor get anything smaller. In designing these apartments Le Corbusier remarked, “I thought neither of rich nor of poor but of man” (Fig. 69).24
The family apartment is the real center of the residential community, the embodiment of privacy and equality within an organized world. This privacy, however, would not lead to isolation, for each apartment is part of a great communal structure, the unité. Having provided a refuge for the individual and his family from the rest of the world, Le Corbusier then set out to design the facilities that would permit individuals to join each other in freedom and cooperation. Each unité would have a cooperative food store and laundry; each would have its own day-care center, nursery school, and primary school. There would also be a health-care center adjacent to the building. These essential services would be the primary forces linking the residents with each other and creating a community. In addition to the essential services, the unités had facilities that permitted the residents to share what Le Corbusier called “the essential joys.” There were meeting rooms, youth clubs, hobby centers, and an indoor gymnasium. On the roofs of the buildings he proposed to put tennis courts, swimming pools, and sand beaches for sunbathing. Since the buildings covered only 15 percent of the land, the open space surrounding them would be devoted to playing fields, gardens, and parks.
The juxtaposition of this realm of freedom with the industrial realm of organization represents Le Corbusier’s resolution of the syndicalist dilemma of participation and authority. Both are supreme within their proper spheres; both comprise the Radiant City. The juxtaposition also represents Le Corbusier’s own attempt to sum up his basic values. In the clearest statement of his aims Le Corbusier put forward his belief that
Life flows between two poles, each capable of attaining the sublime. One of these poles represents what man does alone: the exceptional, the moving, the holy act of individual creation. The other represents what men undertake when organized in groups, cities or nations: those forces, those great movements of the collectivity.
Here, individual grandeur, the scope of genius.
There, administration, order, direction, leadership, civic action.25
Man at work creates a world which is truly human. But this world, once created, is a world of freedom where man lives in accord with his fellow man and in harmony with nature. The triumph of the realm of administration means that it no longer need engross man’s whole life. The triumph of administration is the liberation of man from its clutches, the liberation of man to live another life of individual creativity with his family. The ville radieuse is thus a city of leisure as well as order, a city of meditation as well as production. Le Corbusier’s two paths to the sublime meet at the Radiant City (Fig. 70).
The text of La Ville radieuse (1935), Le Corbusier’s most complete exposition of his syndicalist ideal city, begins with the assertion, “These studies rest on an inalienable, unquestionable truth that is fundamental to all plans for social organization: individual liberty.”26 The book, however, is dedicated to Authority. Le Corbusier refused to recognize the contradiction. The Radiant City expressed his faith that society was moving toward an order which would be at once more authoritarian and more libertarian. Even in the realm of practice he insisted that the Authority to whom he dedicated La Ville radieuse—the all-powerful syndicalist Authority that would finally decide to build the Radiant City—would rest on mass participation and enthusiasm. Whatever the merits of his theoretical synthesis, his hopes for syndicalism as a mass movement were disappointed. As the Depression deepened and support for syndicalism remained low, Le Corbusier became more and more fascinated by the idea of a leader and a small elite that would seize power and enforce order. In his quest for the new collective society he often forgot his own “unquestionable truth” of individual liberty and put all his faith in authority.
In part, Le Corbusier’s authoritarianism represented his response to trends that were already present in syndicalism. Syndicalism regarded parliamentary democracy as an outmoded relic of the liberal era. The inability of the Western democracies to combat the Depression was taken as proof that a pluralistic society could never cope with the demands of the modern age. Even liberals believed that some form of collectivism was inevitable. Intellectuals of all parties were fascinated by the idea of a charismatic Leader whose unquestioned personal authority would suppress the devisive interest-politics of the parliaments and unite the masses behind a positive program. Robert Aron, the editor of the influential syndicalist journal L’Ordre nouveau; remarked, “Russia has found her Stalin, Italy her Duce, Germany her Fuehrer. When will France find her Chef?”27 The syndicalists, who prided themselves on having “gone beyond the shibboleths of Right and Left,” looked with tolerance and even approval on the successes of both communist and fascist parties. These successes confirmed that the liberal era was at an end. Le Corbusier included a photo of a mass rally in Venice in La Ville radieuse and put this caption underneath: “Little by little the world approaches its destiny. In Moscow, in Berlin, in Rome, and in the United States, the masses gather around a strong idea.”28 This strong idea was the respect for authority—any authority that seemed capable of building the new age. “France needs a Father,” Le Corbusier proclaimed. “It doesn’t matter who. It could be one man, two men, any number.”29
Le Corbusier’s growing interest in authoritarianism must be seen in the context of a revulsion from liberal democracy so widespread in the thirties that it was almost the spirit of that troubled age. Nonetheless, this interest also reflected his own problems and preoccupations. His whole conception of planning predisposed him to authoritarian methods. For Le Corbusier, rebuilding the cities was too important to be left to the citizens. A machine-age city could never emerge from discussion, individual action, and compromise: that was the path to chaos. The harmonious city must first be planned by experts who understand the science of urbanism. They work out their plans in total freedom from partisan pressures and special interests; once their plans are formulated, they must be implemented without opposition. Planning, he declared, is a “synchronic” phenomenon; it requires the simultaneous coordination of all facets of construction, and this coordination requires overall control.30
Le Corbusier thought of politicians as, at best, the people who provide the power that enables the planners to do their work. In this conception it is the planner who is the real leader of society; the politician is merely the technician who carries out predetermined designs.
The Radiant City is on paper. When a technical work is drawn up (figures and proofs), it exists. Only spectators, gapers, impotents need the certainty that comes from execution. The Radiant City that will dissipate out anguish, which will succeed the reigning darkness—it exists on paper. We await a “Yes” from an Authority that will come and will prevail.31
This authority, however, must be absolute within its sphere. If individuals or private groups were allowed to modify the plan to suit themselves, the planners’ solutions would be mangled in execution. Le Corbusier’s concept of a rational, technically objective plan drawn up by experts thus implies the existence of an absolute authority to carry it out. Only unobstructed power could realize a work of harmony and truth.
Le Corbusier’s quest for authority in the thirties reflects finally his deeply ambivalent attitude toward industrialization. His social thought and his architecture rested on the faith that industrial society had the inherent capacity for a genuine and joyous order, but behind that faith there was the fear that a perverted, uncontrolled industrialization could destroy civilization. As a young man at La Chaux-de-Fonds he had seen ugly, mass-produced timepieces from Germany virtually wipe out the watchmakers’ crafts. The lesson was not forgotten. In the thirties he expressed it in his theory of the two stages of industrialization.32 In the First Machine Age (1830 to 1930), the machine oppressed man. It was an Age of Greed, of ugliness, conflict, and oppression. The Second Machine Age about to dawn would be an Age of Harmony where the machine’s potential for liberation would be realized. The Depression was the Time of Troubles that separated the two ages, but for humanity to reach the Second Machine Age there must be Authority to lead it.33 In the Redressement franqais pamphlet of the twenties, Le Corbusier’s fears of anarchy were answered by his hopes for a Minister of Public Works to take charge. In the Age of the Dictators this figure would take other forms.
In 1932, Le Corbusier broke with Philippe Lamour and Plans and became a member of the Central Committee for Regionalist and Syndicalist Action and an editor of its journal, Prélude. The best known member of the committee—which was more impressive in name than in fact—was Hubert Lagardelle, a protégé of Sorel and the Grand Old Man of French syndicalism. Lagardelle had close ties with the left wing of Italian fascism, those followers of Mussolini who still held to the young Mussolini’s revolutionary syndicalist pronouncements long after the Duce himself had abandoned them. Prélude, whose editors included Lagardelle and Pierre Winter, was cautiously profascist. Fascism was “worthy to be studied very closely,” even though “the financial ties which ensnare the fascist government prevent it from attempting to resolve the problem of capitalism.”34
Le Corbusier at first had little respect for fascism. In a 1933 article in Prélude he attacked both “Mussolini modern” architecture and the regime itself. “Rome imitating Rome: a foolish redundancy.”35 In 1934, however, Mussolini began to encourage progressive architecture. Le Corbusier was invited to go to Italy and was enthusiastically received; his view of fascism changed immediately. In Filippo Tomaso Marinetti’s profascist Stile futuristica he wrote: “The present spectacle of Italy, the state of her spiritual powers, announces the imminent dawn of the modern spirit. Her shining purity and force illumine the paths which had been obscured by the cowardly and the profiteers.”36 As the language clearly indicates, Le Corbusier was hoping that Mussolini would be the Authority who would decree the Radiant City. But the “imminent dawn” refused to shine. Mussolini lost interest in modern architecture, and Le Corbusier returned to France empty-handed.
This foreign adventure only emphasized the difficulties of building a syndicalist movement at home. The raw materials were there; the bankruptcy of the parliamentary system was evident, the trade unions had made syndicalist ideas widely familiar among the working class, and the “little journals” such as Plans and Prélude had spread syndicalism among the intellectuals. Le Corbusier plunged into the work, spending almost every evening writing, editing, or at meetings. His associates at the Central Committee were men like Norbert Bezard, a peasant turned syndicalist activist who persuaded Le Corbusier to design a “radiant farm”; Franpois de Pierrefeu, an engineer and fervent advocate of the Radiant City; and Father Bordachar, a priest sympathetic to syndicalism who was a leader in Catholic veterans organizations. With these modest associates he shared his surprisingly elitist hopes for revolution. “It may entail the most violent struggles,” he confided, “but the conflict will never exceed its proper limits and spread outside the official decision-making groups.”37
These groups, however, were not to be won over by the Central Committee. The most damaging blow to syndicalism came, ironically, from the left-wing parties that united to form the Popular Front in 1935. The Popular Front refocused attention on electoral politics, and its victory in 1936 made Parliament once again the center of attention. The syndicalists, who claimed that electoral politics was a snare and a delusion, now seemed increasingly irrelevant. Prélude was forced to suspend publication in late 1935.
It was in this context of disappointed hopes that Le Corbusier put forward his most revealing vision of political life in a syndicalist society: the National Center of Collective Festivals for 100,000 People.38 This Center took the form of a huge sports stadium, which, in the syndicalist era Le Corbusier still wished for, would also serve as a “civic tool for the modern age.” It would be the site of the great political rallies of the future. The huge arc of concrete on which the spectators sit is focused on a speaker’s platform behind the playing field. There the leader would inspire his people, speaking directly to all and receiving approval directly from all.
Yet Le Corbusier did not intend the spectators to be passive. Even in his most authoritarian stage he believed that a true revolution must create a collective consciousness, a spontaneous sense of participation and union. This great transformation cannot be imposed from above. It arises from the individual’s feeling of belonging to a world reborn. The collective consciousness is the highest achievement of the new order. The conclusion of every rally, therefore, would be a parade of the masses. The spectators would stream down and occupy the field. They would become the actors in their own pageant. Men and women in work clothes carrying their tools would group themselves spontaneously into columns. There would be marching, perhaps dancing.39
What is the relationship between the leader on the platform and the masses on the field? How can a regime of authority create a feeling of participation? Le Corbusier could never say. He knew only that both must be present in his ideal city. They were two elements in a synthesis he could never define. In his many drawings and plans for the National Center, the great stadium is always empty (Fig. 71).
Le Corbusier’s career as an activist might well have ended in 1935. Although he continued “with obstinacy and tenderness … to make Plans,”40 he was increasingly aware that the threat of war was making his plans irrelevant. After the First World War Le Corbusier had suggested that the heavy war industries be retooled for making houses. The “era of great works,” the alternative to the era of great wars, never took place. Now the factories were retooling, but to make new munitions. In 1938, he published a book titled Cannons? Bombs? No thanks. Housing please!! His request was not followed. When the war broke out, he received his first major commission from the French government: to build a munitions factory.
The fall of France in June 1940 created the unexpected conditions that led to the bitterly ironic culmination of his activist period. The factory was still uncompleted when the armistice was signed. There was no work or food for him in Paris; he and his wife left for the small town of Ozon, in the south of France. There he attempted to evaluate the new regime of Marshal Pétain. As an opponent of parliamentary democracy, Le Corbusier had no regrets for the fall of the Third Republic. The Vichy regime, moreover, seemed to promise the authority that Le Corbusier and his fellow syndicalists had been advocating in the thirties. In La Ville radieuse he had quoted with approval Pétain’s statement that “the leader must have three qualities: imagination, will, and technical knowledge … and in that order.”41 In 1940, Le Corbusier permitted himself to hope that the aged general himself might become the Leader who would implement his plans.
From his remote place of refuge he set out to gain a position with the new regime. He discovered that he knew Marcel Peyrouton, the Minister of the Interior. Peyrouton had been Governor General in Algiers when Le Corbusier had presented his plans for that city; in 1934, Peyrouton had presided at the public lecture at which Le Corbusier had expounded his theories. Through Peyrouton he obtained the position he sought. With his old mentor Auguste Perret he would be Commissioner for the rebuilding of devastated areas.
In January 1941, he arrived at Vichy. “I enter into the tumult,” he wrote to Father Bordachar, “after six months of doing nothing and equipped with twenty years of hopes.”42 Thus began eighteen months of fruitless attempts to persuade Authority. It was not his finest hour. There is something both comic and frightening in the spectacle of the greatest architect of his time currying favor with the decaying notables of the past; presenting plans for social harmony to the ministers of repression; begging—in vain—for an interview with Pétain; intriguing to keep the tiny hotel room that the regime had allotted him.
One is tempted to explain the episode as an artist’s total misapprehension of the politicians he was dealing with. Le Corbusier, however, understood very well at least one aspect of Vichy and wholly approved of it. A powerful faction of the regime wished to use the Marshal’s autocratic power to control and rationalize French industry, to organize the trades into self-regulating corporations and to institute planning from above. In this group were many of Le Corbusier’s syndicalist associates, including Hubert Lagardelle, as well as many of the Redressement franqais technocrats he had known in the twenties.
The technocrats were enthusiastic supporters of the idea of national planning, an idea that was also of vital interest to Le Corbusier. Franpois Lehideux, a nephew of Louis Renault, had been chosen to formulate a Directive Plan for National Equipment, which would govern the allocation of the nation’s capital investments. Le Corbusier was pleased to discover that he knew the man who had been put in charge of construction for the Plan, Robert Latournerie, a leading jurist and member of the Conseil d’Etat. He asked Latournerie to make him a consultant. At the same time he found another powerful backer within the regime, Henri du Moulin de la Barthète, a member of the elite Inspectorate of Finance who was serving as Chief of the Marshal’s Civil Cabinet. (He had been introduced to du Moulin through a mutual friend, the playwright Jean Giraudoux.)43
His efforts bore fruit. On 27 May 1941, Pétain signed a decree creating a Study Commission for Questions Relating to Housing and Building. The Commission was charged with advising Lehideux and with “proposing any measures necessary to begin and to put into effect a national policy” for building. The Commission could embark upon “all inquiries or missions which it judges useful, in France, in the Empire or in foreign countries.” The members of this Commission were Le Corbusier and two of his associates, Franpois de Pierrefeu and André Boll.44
Le Corbusier believed that Authority was about to act, and, more importantly, to act on his plans. He immediately set out to make his concept of architecture and city planning the official one for France. Through his position as adviser to the Directive Plan he would have a decisive voice in the Corporation of Architects that Vichy had already created. This Corporation was part of the regime’s attempt to organize each profession into a self-regulating guild. Le Corbusier proposed that a new elite be created within the Corporation of Architects: the Master Builders. These men would be the town planners and industrial designers of France. They would head large offices of architects and engineers that would undertake mass housing and urban reconstruction. They would have the power to override local building codes and to overrule opposition from local authorities.
The principal task of the Master Builders would be to carry out the instructions of the Directive Plan. A corps of experts in Vichy would define the basic methods of construction for the whole country; they would set up factories in which the components of buildings could be prefabricated; and they would allocate these and other materials to the Master Builders for use in the projects they would specify.45
At the head of the whole structure of authority would be an official Le Corbusier called the Regulator (Ordonnateur). He was the last and most grandiose of the modern Colberts that Le Corbusier devised. The Regulator was both an architect and an administrator, and he was supremely powerful in both fields. He was the natural leader of the Master Builders; by example and by command his doctrine of construction would become theirs. He formulated the national plan for building and thus had responsibility for the structure of the whole country. He could zone the nation, reserving some areas for cities, others for agriculture, others for wilderness. He determined the equilibrium between industry and agriculture. If the Regulator believed that the growth of a city threatened its surrounding agricultural region, he could stop that growth or even reverse it. His control over the location of industries gave him a decisive voice in the distribution of population. If a region seemed overconcentrated he could forbid new factories and homes there and assign construction to less crowded areas. The Regulator had supreme power over the environment. The Chief of State must secure his approval before any legislation affecting the environment can be approved. Aided by a staff of experts, the Regulator “serenely, lucidly puts the world in order.”46 Le Corbusier never named his nominee for so august a post. “For many years,” Le Corbusier remarked in 1929, “I have been haunted by the ghost of Colbert.”47 By 1941, it was apparent that the specter that had been pursuing him was always his own shadow.
The Regulator was a hope for the future. Le Corbusier also wished to begin building immediately a series of “exemplary works” that would reveal the grandeur of his conceptions and demonstrate his power within the regime. His attention was focused first on Algiers. He had executed three remarkable plans for that city during the thirties. They had won him a place on the Algiers Planning Commission, where he was ignored.
Shortly after his arrival in Vichy he received a letter from a friend in Algiers, Pierre-Auguste Emery, informing him that the Planning Commission there was about to approve a rival plan.48 Le Corbusier believed he had the influence to impose his will and make Algiers an “exemplary” city, “guiding the future of architecture in metropolitan France and in the rest of Europe.”
In June 1941, he flew to Algiers to present his own plan (Fig. 72). Although he delivered public lectures to arouse “collective enthusiasm,” his relations with the local authorities were distant and hostile. His real aim was always to persuade the Vichy regime to “delegate to Le Corbusier the mandate to give orders.”49 As he explained to Marshal Maxime Weygand, then Vichy’s representative in North Africa, “In the present administrative state, only the highest authorities of the country can permit the necessary innovations, create the useful precedents, authorize the ignoring of old regulations, permit the Plan to enter into life.”50 With support from du Moulin he called upon Weygand to suspend the local commission and give control over planning to Le Corbusier and his associates.
By an order from above the local plan must be interrupted and its continuance forbidden. This gesture of authority will have a decisive effect on Algerian opinion, showing that the government of Marshal Pétain has taken into consideration the most pressing problems of urbanism and that from now on it intends to impose a new orientation.51
The spring of 1941 marked the high point of Le Corbusier’s power or, rather, his illusions of power. Despite the decree signed by Pétain, his Study Commission was only one of a score of bodies, each seeking to impose its own views on a Directive Plan, which was never implemented.
The Vichy of the technocrats was not the only Vichy. Of equal influence with the Marshal were the more traditional authoritarians who argued that industry and cities had been the cause of France’s downfall. Although Le Corbusier believed he was on the verge of power, he was in fact a minor member of an embattled faction. He never understood—or refused to understand—his real position. The phantasmagoric atmosphere of Vichy, the absence of real power combined with the illusion of omnipotence, had encouraged his wildest speculations.
He was soon awakened from his dreams of Regulators and exemplary works. Lehideux, the Plan’s Director, grew annoyed at Le Corbusier’s pretensions. On 14 July 1941—Bastille Day was not celebrated at Vichy—the Study Commisison received the message that “The Minister does not envisage cooperating with Le Corbusier in any way.”52
This notice was the “decree of death,” as Le Corbusier put it, for the Study Commission. Nonetheless, continued support from du Moulin and the general confusion permitted the Commission to maintain a posthumous existence. Le Corbusier convinced himself that all his problems would be solved if Pétain gave his personal blessing to the Algiers plan. As he wrote to du Moulin, “You must be there to realize what the name of the Marshal means in Algiers and the least of the opinions he voices.”53 All his efforts were directed to securing an interview with Pétain. “I’m down on my hands and knees doing everything to get results,” he wrote to Emery. “But, my dear friends, it’s really tough to preach in the desert and make others act!!!”54
The interview was never granted. The most he obtained was a letter from Pétain’s personal secretary, Bernard Ménétrel, acknowledging that On the Four Routes, a book which Le Corbusier published in 1941 and sent to the Marshal, contained “many suggestions for the regeneration of urban life, often happy ones.”55
Writing to Emery in January 1942, he remarked that he found only “mediocrity, hostility, cliques” at Vichy. “Is this a reason for surrender? Never.”56 From his tiny hotel room he plotted a spring offensive. He prepared a complete Directive Plan for Algiers, his last and most ambitious plan. It covered seventy-five years of urban development and was to be kept secret throughout that time to prevent speculation (and, one suspects, opposition). He was concerned initially with the creation of a new business center organized around a skyscraper. This center, he hoped, would make Algiers the point of contact between Western Europe and Africa. He emphasized that the plan represented the twentieth-century equivalent of the spirit that had conquered Algeria in the nineteenth century. To the leaders of Algiers he declared, “I give you my help; the least you can think of it is that it represents the result of courage, tenacity, and an unshakeable confidence in the possibilities of our time” (Fig. 73).57
This, it seems, was insufficient. In April 1942, Le Corbusier went to Algiers to make a final effort to get his way. He applied directly to the Governor General of Algeria, A. R. Chatel, to create a Committee for the Study of Housing and Urbanism for Algeria. This committee was to be advisory, but his real aim was to turn it into a superagency that would have power over all the local bodies.58 The new plan soon provoked even more opposition than the old. The municipal officials were hostile to modern architecture and unwilling to risk the capital investment that Le Corbusier’s plan required. They objected in particular to Le Corbusier’s proposal for preserving the Casbah untouched. The municipality wished to demolish a large section of it as slums and replace it with housing for Europeans.
If Le Corbusier had been in Vichy working through his remaining friends in power, he might have saved the situation. Unfortunately, he was in Algiers, the worst position for him, for he lost no time in antagonizing his enemies and exasperating his friends. The coup de grâce was delivered when a conservative Algiers newspaper reprinted an old attack by Alexandre de Senger that identified Le Corbusier as “The Trojan Horse of Bolshevism.”59 The mayor of Algiers denounced him to the Prefect as a communist and (according to Le Corbusier) demanded his arrest.60 He returned to Vichy on 22 May, and two weeks later the Algiers City Council voted definitively and unanimously to reject his plans.61 The authorities in Vichy were unwilling to reverse the decision. Le Corbusier conceded defeat and left Vichy for Paris on 1 July 1942. “Adieux, merdeux Vichy!” was his parting judgment.62
Le Corbusier was deeply disappointed by his Vichy experience, but never deeply troubled. One more regime had proved its unworthiness by rejecting him and his plans; that was his final judgment of Vichy. What seems worst about this episode in his life is that he never acknowledged the link between his plans and the authoritarian nature of the regime. Even while at Vichy he was fond of calling himself a technician without politics who dealt objectively with problems of technology and design.
There is a certain truth in this assertion. He never modified his plans to suit the tastes of his superiors. The designs he attempted to force on Algiers in the name of the Marshal were among his most joyous conceptions of the potentials for modern life. It was precisely this self-absorption in the plan that was his integrity—but also his failure. He had reduced politics to a simple yes or no to the plan, and he was willing to support any regime that said yes. In his anxiety to build, he failed to distinguish between coercive and noncoercive authority, exploitive and nonexploitive hierarchies. In his concern for the administrative state he had lost touch with the just state.
Le Corbusier never apologized for his role at Vichy, but his social thought was irrevocably changed by it. He had gone to Vichy filled with the hope that the end of the Time of Troubles was imminent. In 1937, he had published When the Cathedrals Were White, a book whose title expressed his faith that the modern age was about to enter a great age of synthesis comparable to the burst of medieval creativity that built the cathedrals. Our age was as young and as promising as the early Middle Ages. “I feel young as well,” he added. “Before I die I hope to participate in great transformations.”63
After Vichy he no longer wished for a great wave of enthusiasm and authority to sweep Europe; the prospect scared him. He realized that the great transformation he had longed for would have to occur slowly—if at all. “The dreams of my twenties,” he predicted in 1947, “will be realized in three hundred years.”64
In the postwar years his constant adage became, “The river flows between two banks. There is no truth in the extremes.”65 This moderation was perhaps admirable in itself, but it meant the end of his search for the ideal city—for where could the Radiant City be found if not at the extremes? Moderation might build a Unité in Marseilles or even a capital in Chandigarh, but it could never erect a Radiant City. The plans of the thirties could not be separated from the hopes for radical social change that inspired them. They embodied Le Corbusier’s conviction that a triumphant syndicalist revolution would create the political conditions for his architectural synthesis of liberty and authority. They reflected his belief that an all-powerful leader would resolve to put an end to the era of conflict and compromise by carrying out his plan. When these fervent hopes were disappointed, Le Corbusier’s attitude toward collective action changed from uncritical anticipation to an equally uncritical mistrust. Although he never repudiated the Radiant City, he turned away from any political movement that might have brought his dream closer to realization. References to Colbert in his writing ceased; he compared himself instead to Don Quixote. The Radiant City survived only as Friedrich Engels’s definition of utopia: an isolated individual’s doomed attempt to impose his idea on history.