The 10+ Pathologies of Le Corbusier

A TOWN is a tool.

Towns no longer fulfil this function. They are ineffectual; they use up our bodies, they thwart our souls.

The lack of order to be found everywhere in them offends us; their degradation wounds our self-esteem and humiliates our sense of dignity.

They are not worthy of the age; they are no longer worthy of us. (Prologue – xxi)

Le CorbusierI should have read Le Corbusier (1887-1965) long ago. I thought I knew more or less what he was about, but not at all. Not until I read his words did I understand just how fiercely he declared war against most of what I love about cities, just how pathological a paradigm he created. I see him, now, in all of the great horrible, alien city centres I have known built upon destruction. David Harvey and Neil Smith argue rightly I think, that capitalism needs to constantly tear down and rebuild to keep expanding, so Le Corbusier can’t get all of the credit or blame. But I think his writings shaped urban renewal and regeneration in very fundamental ways, coming when they did, perfectly and emphatically justifying the destruction of all that had come before to build anew. Idealism perfectly suited to profit.

In this I think he is much like Friedman and Hayek (this trio together almost makes me like Hayek), creators of theory and ideology perfectly suited to justify the needs of capital expansion and the dubious moral and technical ground of business men. Thus cast aloft as victorious.

This is true of Le Corbusier, despite the fact he was the product of a slightly earlier age:

I think back twenty years, when I was a student; the road belonged to us then; we sang in it and argued in it, while the horse-‘bus swept calmly along…

— or perhaps that explains everything, perhaps because he was imagining something not yet seen and the pathologies are much more obvious to modern eyes. Except that planners still seem to mobilise many of them. I have tried here to summarise what I think they are, here are the 10 pathologies unrolled in Planning the City of Tomorrow (with two other revealing points):

1. Men are the pitiless masters of the pitiless universe.

Not the rapture of the shining coachwork under the gleaming lights, but the rapture of power. The simple and ingenuous pleasure of being in the centre of so much power, so much speed. We are a part of it. We are part of that race whose dawn is just awakening. We have confidence in this new society, which will in the end arrive at a magnificent expression of its power. We believe in it.

Its power is like a torrent swollen by storms; a destructive fury. The city is crumbling, it cannot last much longer; its time is past. It is too old. The torrent can no longer keep to its bed. It is a kind of cataclysm. It is something abnormal, and the disequilibrium grows day by day. (xxiii)

Natural forces, torrents and storms, power and more power, rahr.

My scheme is brutal, because town existence and life itself are brutal: life is pitiless, it must defend itself, hemmed in as it is on all sides by death. to overcome death, constant activity is necessary. (298)

Our cities themselves are in a struggle to the death:

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. (87-88)

2. Where the past is not quite dead, we must kill it. Gloriously.

Decorative art is dead. Modern town planning comes to birth with a new architecture. By this immense step in evolution, so brutal and so overwhelming, we burn our bridges and break with the past. (xxv)

In these cases the only right of individual sensibility is to embody the collective will…a mathematical medium which must be deeply important to us, since it provides for the multitude a single outlook and a unanimous sensibility. With a cold and clear accountancy the + and — of an epoch are established. A way of thinking, of general application, arises. (52)

Our world, like a charnel-house, is strewn with the detritus of dead epochs. The great task incumbent on us is that of making a proper environment for our existence, and clearing away from our cities the dead bones that putrefy in them. We must construct cities for to-day. (244)

3. All the things must be straight:

Man walks in a straight line because he has a goal and knows where he is going; he has made up his mind to reach some particular place and he goes straight to it.

He has this whole things about ‘The pack-donkey’s way and man’s way’, the wandering, idiotic path taken by the pack-donkey which defines our towns. He has a go at Camille Sitte — what he calls ‘a most wilful piece of work’ in its celebration of the picturesque and the curved line.

The circulation of traffic demands the straight line; it is the proper thing for the heart of the city. The curve is ruinous, difficult, dangerous; it is a paralyzing thing.

The straight line enters into all human history, into all human aim, into every human act.

We must have the courage to view the rectilinear cities of America with admiration. (10)

He continues, drawing interesting political parallels between the political and the material:

The winding road is the result of happy-go-lucky heedlessness, of looseness, lack of concentration and animality.

The straight road is a reaction, an action, a positive deed, the result of self-mastery. It is sane and noble.

What becomes of a heedless people and their winding roads?

It is in this way that cities sink to nothing and that ruling classes are overthrown. (12)

It’s true that those on the other side of this battle tend to champion curves, variety, mystery, and all too often urban revolution. May we heedless people win in the end.

Check out this definition of culture as well, I think this is still operating in many a mindset actually, it is helpful to see it written down, to see it tied to a physical manifestation such as a straight line, a straight road:

Cities can be seen emerging from the jumble of their streets, striving towards straight lines, and taking them as far as possible. When man begins to draw straight lines he bears witness that he has gained control of himself and that he has reached a condition of order. Culture is an orthogonal state of mind. Straight lines are not deliberately created. They are arrived at when man is strong enough, determined enough, sufficiently equipped and sufficiently enlightened to desire and to be able to trace straight lines.  (37)

4. We Must Have Order and Exactness — all the Rest is Terror.

Whereas in walking through a city our minds can estimate the value or the uselessness of the suggested general development in the future, and can appreciate a co-ordinated and noble plan, our eyes, on the contrary…can only see cell after cell; and the sight of these provides a jagged, loose, diversified, multiplied and nerve-wracking spectacle; the sky is seen against a ragged outline and each house suggests, even by its very shape, some different order of thing. …

This is the critical point to which our analysis of the city brings us; the spectacle of individualism run riot, fatal and inevitable. A weariness arising out of chaos! There is, and there will be, no common standard until such time as a new age of discipline, wisdom and unanimity in the sphere of art, is born. (71)

It is almost impossible for me to find an ounce of empathy with this viewpoint. I feel it borders on actual pathology, obsessive-compulsive and horrifying. I cannot imagine viewing the world through this lens that fears everything I love:

The house, the street, the town, are points to which human energy is directed: they should be ordered, otherwise they counteract the fundamental principles round which we revolve; if they are not ordered, they oppose themselves to us, they thwart us, as the nature all around us thwarts us, though we have striven with it, and with it begin each day a new struggle. (15)

When man is free, his tendency is towards pure geometry. It is then that he achieves what we call order.

Order is indispensable to him, otherwise his actions would be without coherences and could lead nowhere. (22)

But the details of this development [of the city] involve the growth of individual cells (houses), each of which is an individual thing; this tends to a lack of coherence, and is a grave menace. (70)

This is life and death stuff to him, and only order can save us:

We struggle against chance, against disorder, against a policy of drift and against the idleness which brings death; we strive for order, which can be achieved only by appealing to what is the fundamental basis on which our minds can work: geometry. (93)

Especially regarding Paris, I don’t think he cares much for individual human beings:

Paris is a dangerous magma of human beings gathered from every quarter by conquest, growth and immigration; she is the eternal gipsy encampment from all the world’s great roads; Paris is the seat of a power and the home of a spirit which could enlighten the world; she digs and hacks through her undergrowth, and out of these evils she is tending towards an ordered system of straight lines and right angles; this reorganization is necessary to her vitality, health and permanence; this clearing process is indispensable to the expression of her spirit, which is fundamentally limpid and beautiful. (25)

and New York, he really hates New York:

New York is exciting and upsetting. So are the Alps; so is a tempest; so is a battle. New York is not beautiful, and if it stimulates our practical activities, it also wounds our sense of happiness. (60)

5. Geometry contains the only soul we have

…we shall come to consider as more important than the mechanism of the city, what we may call the soul of the city. The soul of the city is that part of which is of no value from the practical side of existence: it is, quite simply, its poetry, a feeling which in itself is absolute, though it is so definitely a part of ourselves. (58)

The power of Le Corbusier is here perhaps, the truth that there is indeed a poetry to geometry and clean lines.

The forms we are discussing are the eternal forms of pure geometry and these will enshrine in a rhythm which will in the end be our own, going far beyond the confines of formulae and charged with poetry, the implacable mechanism which will pulsate within it. (65)

6. Speed, we need more speed.

A city made for speed is made for success. (epigraph chapter XII)

Roads are not meant to connect people, as Cullen argues, but to separate them, to provide space for infrastructure and to facilitate the movement of cars:

The modern street in the true sense of the word is a new type of organism, a sort of stretched out workshop, a home for many complicated and delicate organs, such as gas, water and electric mains. (167)

And while he likes high speed trains connecting one city to another, Le Corbusier really hates the idea of public transportation on other scales:

The tramway has no right to exist in the heart of the modern city. (169)

7. We must rebuild the centre — but first, we must destroy

The centres of our towns are in a state of mortal sickness, their boundaries are gnawed at as though by vermin.

His words stand alone really, and my heart mourns the empty and soulless centres of too many cities, razed to the ground and recreated along these lines.

How to create a zone free for development is the second problem of town planning.

Therefore my settled opinion, which is quite a dispassionate one, is that the centres of our great cities must be pulled down and rebuilt, and that the wretched existing belts of suburbs must be abolished and carried further out… (96)

BUSINESS INEVITABLY GRAVITATES TOWARDS THE CENTRES OF GREAT CITIES (114 – yes, those are his capital letters yelling at you in the greatest factual error of the century)

Therefore the existing centres must come down. To save itself, every great city must rebuild its centre.

WE MUST BUILD ON A CLEAR SITE. The city of to-day is dying because it is not constructed geometrically. To build on a clear site is to replace the “accidental” lay-out of the ground, the only one that exists to-day, by the formal lay-out. Otherwise nothing can save us. And the consequence of geometrical plans is Repetition and Mass-production. (220)

8. Scientists can know everything, plan everything, see everything, and solve everything.

Statistics are the Pegasus of the town planner. They are tedious things, meticulous, passionless and impassive. All the same they are a jumping-off ground for poetry…(107)

I understand, now Cullen’s rant about statistics.

Science has given us the machine. The machine gives us unlimited power. And we in our turn can perform miracles by its means. (150)

… no one is going to make a politician out of me.

Economic and social progress can only be the result of technical problems which have found a proper solution.  (301)

9. We don’t need skilled craftsmen, we have mass production.

The mason dates…from time immemorial! He bangs away with feet and hammer. He smashes up everything round him, and the plant entrusted to him falls to pieces in a few months. The spirit of the mason must be disciplined by making him part of the severe and exact machinery of the industrialized builder’s yard. (176)

Down with skilled craftsmen and pleasure in workmanship and individuality in anything.

10. The best planners are regal, imperious and infinitely powerful, while democracy is just crazy and dangerous

And finally, that magnificent legacy left by a monarch to his people: the work of Haussmann under Napoleon III.

In order that our enthusiasm may not be tainted with cowardice and that possible support may be emboldened, it is essential, if we are to make a strong assault on compromise and democratic stagnation, to describe clearly the equipment which our forerunners have bequeathed us. (141)

The final plate of the book is a painting: ‘Louis XIV Commanding the Building of the Invalides’, its caption: Homage to a great town planner.

This despot conceived immense projects and realized them. Over all the country his noble works still fill us with admiration. He was capable of saying, “We wish it,” or “Such is our pleasure.”

Servants are Always Sulking

Nothing says more than Le Corbusiers addressing his reader as one of a class that has servants as a matter of course — this helps explain his views on democracy.

And once we get on to the subject of servants, we begin to see ho really free we are! One day a week we have to do for ourselves. If you like company of an evening, your servants sulk and there is domestic crisis. …

As for food, you maid goes to the local store and wastes a lot of time, and everything is very expensive. (214)

He goes on to talk about sulky servants coming on night shift, sulky servants asked to do a little extra polishing…sulky servants everywhere, except I am not quite sure where they are supposed to live.

What an opportunity for Capital!

He admits he is no good at sums, and no economist volunteered for the job of costing this out, but

The moral is that we must not say, “but . . . what immense sums would have to be sunk in all this expropriation and reconstruction,” but rather, “What an opportunity for capital for almost incredible amounts would be created by such an attempt at revaluation!” (295)

That about sums up one of the principal reasons this kind of thinking and this version of planning has become so ubiquitous. It also deeply disturbs me just how well this discourse sits alongside and uses so many of the same clusters of ideas as those of white supremacy, colonial mastery, misogyny and many another evil. They all seem to spring from the same well.

You put all of this together, and what do you get as the ideal town?

Le CorbusierLe Corbusier Le Corbusier Le Corbusier

His attempt to find soul and poetry through an architecture of mastery here create the landscape of my greatest fears, and one with elements that are eerily too familiar.

We shall leave the last word with Ivan Chtcheglov then, one of the situationists who took up this gauntlet and fought this concept of space to the death:

We leave to monsieur Le Corbusier his style that suits factories as well as it does hospitals. And the prisons of the future: is he not already building churches? I do not know what this individual–ugly of countenance and hideous in his conceptions of the world–is repressing to make him want thus to crush humanity under ignoble heaps of reinforced concrete, a noble material that ought to permit an aerial articulation of space superior to Flamboyant Gothic. His power of cretinization is vast. A model by Corbusier is the only image that brings to my mind the idea of immediate suicide. With him moreover and remaining joy will fade. And love–passion–liberty. (35)
‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’ Gilles Ivain (aka Ivan Chtcheglov) Internationale situationniste no 1 (June 1958)

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