Contemporary City is No Utopia

I may have made a mistake with this week’s readings by starting with Le Corbusier’s Contemporary City, as I found it difficult to focus on any other articles for this blog. I already knew I fundamentally disagreed with his thoughts on architecture and his (somewhat misunderstood) proposal to raze Paris, but his dismissal of his critics’ fears as “mere panic” immediately set the paternalistic and egotistical tone for the article.

He seemingly never visited a successful public space, as nothing about his plan indicates he had ever seen humans sit in parks, interact with strangers, or even walk on sidewalks. His belief that urban architecture and design should be as simplified as possible to make life less complicated for residents contradicts most urbanists’ theories. Planners as diverse as James Oglethorpe, Lewis Mumford, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jane Jacobs, Amanda Burden, and Jeannette Sadik-Kahn all support the idea that urban neighborhoods work best when combined with interesting, diverse, and high-quality architectural design.

Le Corbusier’s inability to recognize opportunities within existing cities, and geographical features like rivers (which he dismisses as a “liquid railway” and likens to a set of servant’s stairs), shows he is more interested with his own thoughts and beliefs than in learning from hundreds of examples over thousands of years of human civilizations. He is not alone in this, as Wright and Howard also do not draw inspiration from (or at least do not cite) successes from any existing cities and all seem to believe that cities are so far gone that a total re-imagining of them is required. I recognize my deep love for historic cities makes me bias, but I believe it is egotistical for these men to ignore the successful aspects of historic cities and buildings. Even more frustrating is their (assumed) beliefs that they held some unique quality or character unknown to previous centuries of artists and designers that would allow them to design away all of humanity’s issues related to class, housing, employment, and equity.

I also find it ironic that in his quest to achieve a more balanced society, Le Corbusier’s plans paved the way (literally and figuratively) for massive inequality. I cannot blame him for  the urban renewal, redlining, and urban freeway projects that systemically destroyed low income neighborhoods in most major American cities in the 1960s, but his Contemporary City influence can still be seen in the highways that run through the heart of Baltimore, St Louis, DC, Philadelphia, and Detroit.

Le CorbusierPlan

Le Corbusier’s Contemporary City Plan (photo credit https://thecharnelhouse.org/2014/06/03/le-corbusiers-contemporary-city-1925/)

While I obviously cannot get behind Le Corbusier’s plan, I am interested in the idea of physical utopias. Where you live deeply impacts and shapes your life. In America, zip codes are now the biggest indicator for health and life span. And as US cities experience increases in housing costs, inequitable access to quality education, increasing gun violence, and high rates of automobile-related deaths, there is something delightful about the idea of living in Wright’s Broadacre City (without the inevitable sprawling strip malls) or Howard’s Garden City.

I am happy to report that I saved Olmsted’s article to read last, so I was able to briefly forget about my anger towards the contemporary city plan. While Olmsted came before the other men, his approach to cities, parks, people, and urban design resonates the most with me. He may have spent a large amount of his time designing gardens for the ultra-elite, but he understood how people of all economic backgrounds engaged (or wanted to engage) with public open spaces. Most importantly, like his legacy, his parks are still wildly successful today. That staying power proves he knew how to create successful urban parks that drew people of varied backgrounds together for a bit of leisure and fun.

 

Corbusier, Le. (1929) “A Contemporary City”

Fishman, Robert. (1982) Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century: Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier.

Olmsted, Frederick. (1870) “Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns”

 

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