Le Corbusier

Today I’m feeling a little guilty* about the fact that I named this blog after Le Corbusier and have yet to write about him (this smidgen in my very first post hardly counts). I’ve been trying to compose an epic that actually ties together modern architecture and radical politics, which is my (heretofore not manifested) blog motif, but no dice. Maybe one day I’ll b able to write that. For now, I will chip away at the topic in digestible, blog-sized chunks. Today, my hack-job on Corbu (not really):

What frustrates me about the man’s work is that the individual instances of his architecture are often great. But he repeatably attempts to move beyond his natural scale and mold whole cities. These latter efforts are disasters.

The first such effort was the 1925 Plan Voisin for Paris. From Peter Hall’s Cities of Tomorrow (pg 222):

“Its 18 uniform 700-foot-high towers would have entailed the demolition of most of historic Paris north of the Seine save for a few monuments, some of which would be moved; the Place Vendome, which he liked as symbol of order, would be kept. He was apparently quite unable to understand why the plan aroused such an outcry in the city council, where he was called a barbarian.”

You do have to hand it to him. It takes serious chutzpah to suggest Paris should be leveled.

Then Hall quotes Corbusier himself:

“Statistics show us that business is conducted in the centre. This means that wide avenues must be driven through the centres of our towns. Therefore the existing centres must come down. To save itself, every great city must rebuild its center.”

This was the first time this kind of redevelopment to accommodate the car was suggested (and it would later happen in a great number of cities). Ignored is the deleterious effect this would have on the environment and the lived experience of the city.

Worse, the design explicitly assigned space to people based on their perceived social importance. More Hall:

“At the center were the skyscrapers of Plan Voisin which, Corbusier emphasized, were intended as offices for the elite cadres: industrialists, scientists, and artists (including, presumably, architects and planners);”

The lesser professions are on the periphery, ordered hierarchically. Each class has specific housing types intended for it, of decreasing size and quality as you become less important. Of course, these are the exact orderings that happen in cities normally, so it’s not like Le Corbusier is trashing our egalitarian society. However, it’s abhorrent to use state planning to reinforce social castes and divisions. In fact, that’s the opposite of what they teach you to do in planning school.

That said, it happens all the time. Corbu was inspiration to a lot of people.

*This is largely because an actual, honest-to-god architecture blog linked to me today, and thus I feel the need to up my built environment street cred. Lists of phallic buildings wasn’t going to cut it.

8 comments to Le Corbusier

  • jeremy clagett

    ah corbu…

    liberal facism at its worst.

    It’s pretty amazing how (like you pointed out) his individual buildings are incredible, and his large scale efforts were TERRIBLE. Makes you curious where the disconnect was for him.

  • I wonder if Corbu is mentioned in Goldberg’s tome? I would almost buy it for that…will check and report back.

    In Corbu’s defense though, he was equally willing to be fascist for both capitalist and commies (though I guess those are both ‘liberal’ depending on how you use the word). Later he reformulated Plan Voisin to be ‘egalitarian’ (in the creepy Stalin sense of the word) in order to sell it to the Soviet states. He was nothing if not politically flexible…

  • Your blog is interesting! Keep up the good work!

  • Ah if ever i need a reason to keep on doing what i’m doing its le corbusier! What a moron! Trouble is some architects still place him on a podium and want to demolish everything in sight and replace with huge blocks of flats! When will they learn…or rather when will they start being taught!!

  • Anonymous

    Le Corbusier is no different from Hitler when he wanted to commit architectural genocide against the historic buildings of Paris. I just hope he’s burning in the deepest depths of hell for eternity. He has inspired architects to do damage to various cities that is forever irreplaceable. What a fucking narcissist!

  • Eleanor R

    Hi, great blog!
    Am doing a project on a comparison between LeC and Haussmann, and just wanted to get some ideas:
    so, why do you think LeC’s plan voisin was never carried out-lack of funds/lack of support/historical context?
    I’d really appreciate your ideas!

  • Eleanor,

    I think Haussmann had extremely strong political backing and this was a prime motivation for his work in Paris. The carving out of grand boulevards was primarily intended to allow troops to move quickly and to stop those ‘pesked revolutionaries’ from barricading the streets. The fact that he used this to create something of beauty was his master stroke and he really defined a genre of French grand planning. His plans were however human in scale, of high quality materials and contained a built in vibrancy that has given Paris it’s incredible high quality of public realm. Corb on the other hand wanted to destroy all this for inactive public realm, no human scale and the use of modern, but cheap mass produced materials. Plan voisin would have been a disaster for Paris and would have obliterated one the most desirable areas of Paris today. I’m not sure why it didn’t get support but in answer to your question, I guess the threat of revolution in the 19th century was more threatening to the French gov and napolean 3rd than the same threat in post ww2 marais. And thank goodness they didn’t fall for corbusier’s fad!

  • Apologies I got the date wrong there didn’t realise that plan voisin was proposed so early! Just re read the top of this blog… Corb was astonishing and I will do anything to discredit this man!

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