Destroying the City to Save It: New York in the Shadow of Le Corbusier

Destroying the City to Save It: New York in the Shadow of Le Corbusier

We often consider Le Corbusier’s top-down redevelopment ethos a dead letter from the urban renewal era, a victim of its own mistakes. But neoliberal governance, as in Bloomberg’s New York, has seen the revival of large scale architectural schemes and the return of the all-powerful planner archetype.

Construction on the Hudson Yards Redevelopment Project (CSondi via Flickr Creative Commons)

Le Corbusier would have dismantled entire cities, but he was no anti-urbanist. In fact, he intended to rebuild urban cores denser than ever. Le Corbusier was not Frank Lloyd Wright, who rejected centralized cities altogether. Nor was he Robert Moses, who thought cities required emergency surgery to escape obsolescence. But he shared with the aforementioned names an innate aversion toward cities as they existed. Hardly opposed to population density, Le Corbusier saw cities as critical battlegrounds in a planetary struggle for human salvation in the face of jarring technological change. The cataclysmic wars and depression of his times necessitated revising urban landscapes on uncompromising terms.

A career-spanning exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York thoroughly reminds us of the architect’s enduring relevance. “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes,” running through September 23, provides fascinating illustrations of his overarching planning ambitions, stirring debate on the role of concentrated authority over urban spaces. What gets built, for what purpose, and in whose interests? These questions resonate as Bloomberg-era projects redevelop large sections of New York on the terms of an elite few.

This is the largest exhibition the MOMA has ever dedicated to Le Corbusier, exploring the ways he incorporated ecological context into his varied works. It simultaneously engages his lesser known pursuits as a painter, traveler, and writer. He used these media to connect with landscapes—exercises that informed the building and planning schemes that made him famous. Though often understood as an enforcer of machine-age brutalism, Le Corbusier conscientiously sought harmony with natural surroundings.

The exhibition marshals an elaborate array of artifacts to make this case. Various representations of his elegant Villa Savoye capture its attentiveness to the outside world. His cathedral at Ronchamp glides in correspondence with undulating hills. Government buildings at Chandigarh—the closest he ever came to planning a full city—demonstrate keen awareness of the surrounding mountains afar, with reflection pools up close. These leading examples of his work evince an artist capable of creating beauty. More than that, he profoundly influenced architecture by engaging modern forms in construction technique as well as interior design.

These are delicate reeds of truth, given the artist’s controversies. Admittedly I’d have a much harder time conceding them had any of his fervently ideological redevelopment plans been fully realized. After all, Le Corbusier often undertook singular projects with these broader schemes very much in mind. His prototypical city would have decimated rather than accentuated its surroundings. He never actually got the chance to tear down a city, but not for lack of trying.

Le Corbusier’s writings reveal a base rhetorician eager to diagnose epochal destruction if authorities ignored his utopian blueprints. A self-described “man of letters,” he wrote voluminously in repetitive staccato anti-rhythms. Spare sentences lob visually evocative words in a well-honed, propagandistic jujitsu advancing his ultimatums on society. For instance, he oddly named his redevelopment proposals for Algiers after a series of explosive shells. This style spoke to what the late historian Eric Hobsbawm called an age of extremes. Simplistic juxtapositions present global society with diametrically opposed, immoderate courses of action. Here is how Le Corbusier concludes his 1923 planning classic, Towards a New Architecture:

Society is filled with a violent desire for something which it may obtain or not. Everything lies in that: everything depends on the effort made and the attention paid to these alarming symptoms.

Architecture or Revolution.

Revolution can be avoided.

This is the posturing of a self-invented character, carefully projected as a revolutionary trying to obliterate the status quo but beset by reactionary forces. At the same time he played the anti-revolutionary appealing to fearful elites. For Le Corbusier (itself a nom de guerre first deployed in journal articles), the social upheaval that shook the foundations of established power stemmed from inadequate built environments. Mass industry could either commit itself to building modern cities or use its ever increasing capacities on war production. Industrial techniques lurched ever closer toward perfection in Le Corbusier’s mind, so if humankind chose self-destruction, it would do a fine job of it. Yet the new wave of industrialism simultaneously promised perfected modes of living. Thus its leaders had no choice but to follow his blueprint.

The radiant city diagrams and their place-specific variants on view in “An Atlas of Modern Landscapes” offer closer looks at how Le Corbusier intended to solve these problems. In essence, these schemes comprise a unified theory of social harmony. Their basic elements include cruciform skyscrapers to house businesses surrounded by smaller residential structures, all connected by streets upon which cars and pedestrians would never meet. Building skyward allowed room for vast parks between buildings, eliminating suburbs entirely. This should sound familiar to anyone who has seen the cruciform-styled apartments along Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which Moses planned with the radiant city in mind. These vertical neighborhoods disrupt Manhattan’s normal grid patterns in order to separate pedestrian activity from car traffic.

As influential as they were, Le Corbusier’s self-assured diagrams mask darker political undertones. The radiant city, by Le Corbusier’s reckoning, would have conferred unassailable power to a handful of enlightened administrators. Creating and maintaining such a system meant sidelining interest groups, independent community leaders, landlords, and any other Lilliputian army that threatened the grand plan. If you read this as fascism, you aren’t far off the mark. Workers would ostensibly gain maximum freedom in the private sphere, but only in exchange for strict deference to authority. Mass mobilization, properly channeled, could in short order create built environments capable of alleviating the torments of modern work and home life.

Le Corbusier plied five continents (hence the “atlas” in the exhibit’s title) in search of cities that would implement this expansive vision. There were variations on the radiant city for Paris, Barcelona, Algiers, Moscow, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, and New York. This quest included enthusiastic courtships with the command-and-control regimes of Stalin, Mussolini, and—most controversially—Vichy France. For all these eyebrow-raising relationships, Le Corbusier feigned an aversion to conventional politics. He retained enough ideological ambiguity to reach out to whomever happened to be in power on the right or left. The radiant city is nevertheless an expression of syndicalism, a semi-coherent but essentially right-wing movement Le Corbusier attached his name to in the 1930s. Syndicalists rejected what they saw as capitalism’s chaotic system of individualistic private enterprise, favoring the collectivization of society into hierarchical administrative units instead.

Today Le Corbusier mainly invites derision for planning mistakes rather than for his polemics. New urbanists rarely evoke his name except as a metonym for over-planning gone awry. Jane Jacobs’s 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which stridently informs the current discourse, savages Le Corbusier on no fewer than seven occasions. Her repeated charge (probably correct) is that his car-centric utopia would have required paving over most of its proposed green spaces for parking lots. She classifies his radiant city model as just one in a series of heavy-handed schemes that failed twentieth-century cities, a charge that largely stuck.

Jacobs’s book anticipates the general antipathy planners conveyed toward globally prominent architects as their two professions diverged. Planning consultant Jeff Speck’s recent book Walkable Cities: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time portrays Rem Koolhaas as an egoist who detaches his designs (however interesting) from their immediate neighborhoods. Frank Gehry faced similar repudiations for his Guggenheim Bilbao, which is surrounded by a vacuous plaza. This gives the hyper-individualistic architect his pedestal but disrupts the overall urban landscape.

New urbanists care most about fostering an active street culture, to which Le Corbusier offered few answers, since conventional narrow streets stood to be eliminated. At most, he elevated many of his buildings on pilotis, creating the potential for foot traffic to pass beneath. This feature can be seen in his Unité d’Habitacion, an oft-studied apartment building in Marseilles completed in 1952. The technique has since been used many times over, arguably making superblock apartment complexes less stifling at the street level than they otherwise would be. Rather than wait for city life to develop parcel-by-parcel over time in the Jacobsean tradition, Le Corbusier prized space efficiency. Much could be accomplished on very little ground, leaving open spaces unmolested. Indeed, if all went as planned, only 15 percent of the radiant city would be built upon.

This principle applied equally to interiors. As we learn from “An Atlas of Modern Landscapes,” Le Corbusier was an aesthete who spent much of his time in a tiny beach house that he designed for himself. This was just one manifestation of a lifetime’s worth of housing schemes dating back to the 1910s. For Le Corbusier, the modern home was a “machine for living” that accommodated everyday challenges with rational humanistic precepts. This work presages the micro-studio apartment designs touted as prototypes for many high-cost global cities where space is increasingly out reach for the non-affluent.

New York is currently making exceptions to minimum-size restrictions to allow for such housing. A recent design competition initiated by the Bloomberg administration challenged architects to design fully functional housing units with as little as 250 square feet. The winning prototype (now on display at the Museum of the City of New York, with a structure scheduled to break ground in lower Manhattan later this year) incorporates an impressive array of traditional housing elements. This addresses the city’s affordable housing crisis for (presumably) single professionals the Bloomberg way. It leaves the question of spatial inequality to well-intentioned designers, keeping it safely out of political discussion.

With that in mind, consider Rafael Viñoly’s supertall residential tower now under construction at 432 Park Avenue. The building utilizes the simple geometric form of the square, conveying countless right angles, which Le Corbusier lauded as an inherently rational expression of modern intentions. This project will devote entire floors to the transient elite as micro-studios struggle to accommodate middle-class housing needs. The latter promises increased physical comfort for the non-elite within the city hierarchy without calling this skewed power structure into question.

In another example, Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards will have some of the world’s largest pre-fabricated residential structures, demonstrating the potential for mass-produced housing tracts; Le Corbusier—a champion of ever more divided forms of labor—wanted to make this technique commonplace. This, he thought, could hastily solve severe housing shortages in interwar France. The Brooklyn project, for its part, is an attempt by developers to stiff many of the city’s construction unions.

These deployments of Le Corbusieran principles are rooted in a hyper-capitalistic system he would have abhorred. Yet he did try to show that architecture offers potential end runs around political pluralism, accommodating steep stratification while mollifying restive publics.

We often consider Le Corbusier’s top-down redevelopment ethos a dead letter from the urban renewal era, a victim of its own mistakes. This is not always the case. Even though he never worked in China, Le Corbusier received due recognition at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai alongside other old urbanist castaways. Themed “better city, better life,” the Expo’s urban planning pavilions presented him favorably while overlooking Jacobs, William Whyte, and other intellectuals who promoted small-scale urbanism. This was a post-hoc affirmation of a government planning consensus that made parts of Shanghai resemble a radiant city (and displaced millions in the process).

Even in non-authoritarian states, the road is paved for the return of the all-powerful planner archetype. The Bloomberg model of neoliberal governance marked a revival of large-scale architectural schemes, though largely in service to private capital as opposed to the overarching public good Le Corbusier thought he advanced. Late great urbanists serve as touchstones in these debates. Recall that Amanda Burden, the Bloomberg administration’s most important urban planner, once promised to build “like Moses, on an unprecedented scale, but with Jacobs firmly in mind.” A prevailing lament is that local-level public processes enable a few organized interests to short-circuit development. Burden turns this notion on its head, expressing Jacobsean humanism while hinting at the necessity of drastic renewal projects.

As with the power brokers of the previous century, the neoliberal city planners broach minimal toleration for the plurality of voices that constitute politics. Whether it seeks to affirm its own changes to the urban fabric, or opposes development that might mitigate the city’s South African levels of inequality, the Bloomberg administration offers a reflexive refrain. Only its chosen course, to the exclusion of all other voices, keeps the city competitive in an increasingly hostile competition among interconnected global cities. Anyone opposed to this narrow brand of neoliberal governance risks, including the likely Democratic mayoral candidate, relegating the city to obsolescence or even fiscal insolvency.

All of these rhetorical blades shone brightly when the administration recently proposed the wholesale rezoning of seventy-three blocks in Midtown East for even taller buildings. The current building stock, the city argues, fails “to meet the needs of corporate tenants.” Furthermore, proponents contend unpersuasively that New York risks losing competitive ground to London or Shanghai without this potentially draconian change. Because the plan does little to account for badly needed public amenities in the area and risks overshadowing existing buildings, Robert A.M. Stern warned of emulating Shanghai’s “regrettable, scaleless moonscape.”

There are numerous projects underway that embody these exclusionary politics. The Atlantic Yards redevelopment scheme is irreversibly reshaping the neighborhood after the dubious use of eminent domain to evict residents. The project’s developer, Forest City Ratner, alongside its boosters in city government, touted the project as a font of social benefits, including jobs and affordable housing—all of which haven fallen well short of initial promises. Another Bloomberg legacy in the making, the Hudson Yards project on Manhattan’s West Side, also ran roughshod over community resistance. A similar story could soon take place in rezoned parts of Willets Point in Queens. Among these contemporary developments, the World Trade Center site most closely resembles the radiant city. Intermittently impressive, the site’s monotone gigantism has many of the radiant city’s aesthetic flaws. Despite heavy subsidies, this collection of towers represents a narrow range of public voices. As the Nation’s Michael Sorkin complained, “there’s no housing, no community space, no social or health services.”

Le Corbusier did not contend with neoliberalism in its current form. He wouldn’t recognize a world transformed by successive waves of decolonization and democratization, with fewer command-and-control regimes with which to press his grand plans. Who would he seek out if he were working today? My guess is that he would have plenty of potential interlocutors, empowered by the cutthroat economics that informs so much building. There’s one obvious flaw, though, in the logic of the all-powerful planner archetype he once championed. Redevelopment projects, from mega-event planning in Brazil to a proposed shopping mall in Istanbul, have sparked new debates over the legitimacy of concentrated power in nominally democratic societies. Exclude too many people, too often, and they’ll start to take notice.

Joshua K. Leon is an assistant professor of political science and international studies at Iona College. He writes on poverty, development, global health, and urbanization, and lives in Manhattan.