Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Guilty? Le Corbusier in proper context

The current rioting in France has led many commentators to evaluate the living conditions of the rioters themselves. It is particularly convenient when describing where most of the criminal acts are taking place to call these places suburbs, since in France this word is often synonymous with public housing complex designed in the modern style. Several writers have pointed to the repressive environments in which the young muslim vandals live as an important influence on their violent behavior and sadistic worldview. Whether it’s the wise Theodore Dalrymple, Ed Driscoll, or other writers, they often link these public housing complexes to the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, considered to be one of the most influential champions of the Modernist movement that came to dominate architecture during the twentieth century. Not only was Le Corbusier among the first to fully synthesize large ribbon windows, white planar walls, suspended floors, roof gardens, cubic volumes, and roof gardens into a new “International Style”, he also was also a passionate urban designer and theorist who most clearly illustrated and articulated modernist principles in planning.

Ralph Goergens at Chicagoboyz has written thoughtful posts about the relationship between the architecture of the French public housing districts (cités) and the criminality of the population they house. Ralph provides the reader an introduction to Le Corbusier in order to explain the origins of the obviously dysfunctional planning and design of these suburban ghettos, since his original concept for the ideal modern city provided the most visceral inspiration for younger architects to follow and practice..

From my study of the architectural history of the last century, I find that non-architects make the mistake of attributing far too much blame on Le Corbusier for the presumably ugly output that the Modernist architectural movement produced around the world. It’s naturally convenient to scapegoat one man, as it makes the narrative of describing what went wrong in the evolution of architecture that much easier to comprehend. Singularly blaming Le Corbusier also allows opponents of modernist architecture to paint themselves in a more favorable light.

Le Corbusier, (real name Charles Edouard Jeanneret), is indeed a conspicuous target. He was without a doubt one of the most charismatic figures of the modern movement, publishing bold manifestoes on architecture, industrial design, and urbanism that were widely circulated early in his career beginning in 1924 and throughout his life. His book Vers Une Architecture (Towards a New Architecture) has been read by almost every architecture student ever since its appearance and inspired a radical departure from the orthodox Beaux Arts style of architecture in favor of unornamented planar facades, large expanses of glass, flat roofs and modern building methods. He advocated the abandonment of traditional styles, notably Greco-Roman and Gothic elements, by arguing that the long history of architecture demanded new forms appropriate to the age, which, in the 1920s was a dynamically industrial one. He compared great monuments like the Acropolis to a contemporary motor car, and urged the reader to look to industry for formal inspiration. With its terse Nietzchean phrases, ironic yet thought-provoking photographs, and samples of his own built and un-built works, Vers une Architecture was less a detailed technical manual than a spiritual call to arms against the historicist status quo of the time.

He continued the ideological onslaught with books about urban planning, as well as urban design projects that proposed demolishing much of central Paris and replace it with equally spaced Cartesian towers. His scheme for a city of 3 million provided one of the most vivid illustrations of the future in urban development, with its highways, skyscrapers, vast tracts of greenery and an overwhelming sense of scale. His illustrations for that project would inspire numerous modern landscapes around the world, and look eerily similar to many of the French suburban cites. His ideas about the design of cities would evolve over time, respecting landscapes more and more as well as inserting more expressive aesthetic gestures. But Le Corbusier, who fancied himself as a Nietzchean superman, thought big, in which big problems resulting from the destruction of the First World War needed big solutions. His rules for the architecture of singular buildings were but a piece of a larger unified vision of an entirely new urban environment which would have to be built from the ground up. He constructed for the 1925 Decorative Arts Fair in Paris a single residential unit that actually would have been part of a larger housing complex comprising of many similar units.

Predictably Le Corbusier’s proposals for mass housing and urban design were rejected outright due to their infeasibility and their radical departure from traditional styles. He would not be able to realize his ideas on public housing until relatively late in his career, and he would not live to see the completion of his only city plan. Beyond a promising string of white villas he realized in and around Paris during the 1920s, Le Corbusier struggled financially for most of his life, experiencing years of unpaid work, and pleading desperately for fascist leaders to sponsor his urban plans. Counter to what most present-day critics of Le Corbusier would like to believe, the architect did not profit in any tangible way from his ideas nor was he able to directly subject people to the potentially inhumane conditions his schemes presented. Although he won the adulation of his peers in architecture and among the cultural avant-garde, his built work is relatively scarce compared to other heroic architects of his day. Aside from consistently following formal rules that he had set for himself, a closer look at his buildings reveals an artistic and spiritual dimension that openly contradicts his rigid doctrine. His idiosyncrasies are evident throughout, informed by his Calvinist lifestyle and his alternate vocation as a painter (he was closely associated with the Cubist art movement).

Even upon closer inspection his one mass housing prototype in Marseilles demonstrate Le Corbusier’s affinity for relatively generous double-height loft spaces (a common feature in today’s condo boom) private yet generous balconies (what he would call suspended gardens, now popular in high rise condos in Florida) a whimsical roof-scape with pool (again fashionable in ritzy condo developments) and a shopping concourse on an intermediate floor that would exclusively serve the residents of the building. The exterior façade allows each unit to be a bit different from the next while providing shade for all, and a dignified composition that contrasts itself from the monotony surrounding housing units. It’s no surprise that the apartments in the building have been converted into pricey condominiums. In conclusion, Le Corbusier’s effort to address the shortage of housing in France by means of a modular and reproducible system unintentionally resulted in creating a prototype for high-end housing popular today!

Does Le Corbusier share responsibility for the look and feel of the blighted French suburb? To some extent yes, since he furnished a vision that subsequent generations of architects absorbed that faintly inspires the design of these ugly social housing districts. It’s doubtful that he understood the needs of the lower working class, and likely saw his schemes inhabited by a people with bourgeois predispositions. Le Corbusier lived in a very different time with different social mores and priorities. There was no way he could have predicted the crisis of immigration that would inflict France decades after his death in 1965. What he knew was the crisis in public health caused by poor living conditions in dense slums of cities around France and responded by providing an architecture that invited light, air, and greenery. Le Corbusier may have been guilty of a failure to imagine the adverse psychological affects his urban plans and housing schemes, but it is the French social welfare system that is responsible for the reckless planning and execution of housing the underclass.

No comments: