Le Corbusier (2007)

Excerpt from Mark Pimlott’s book, Without and within: Essays on territory and the interior (Episode Publishers: Rotterdam).

Mark Pimlott
artdesigncafé - design | 21 June 2011

On Le Corbusier

[...] To the Modernist architect of the 1920s, and to Le Corbusier in particular, the city was dark and unhealthy, pitted with disease, choked with traffic, chaotic, an assessment made by Baron Haussmann before him: “The city is ruthless to man. Cities are old, decayed, frightened, diseased. They are finished. Pre-machine civilization is finished.” [1]

Yet, to the modern writer and artist of that time and before, the chaos of the metropolis was a cause for celebration: it offered freedom and anonymity and new ways of understanding reality that could be described and pictured anew. [2] The city of modernity’s natural state of flux made it different from any kind of city that existed before. In its chaos, it was not the traditional city. It was, as described by the Abbé Laugier and others, analogous to nature itself. [3] In the representation of the city and architecture in Modernism, this idea was continued in that it was the city that must be cleared away, whose darkness must be banished. This was the objective of Le Corbusier’s projects and illustrations of alternative contemporary cities: Une Ville contemporaine pour trios millions d’habitants (1922), Le Plan Voisin (1925), La Ville Radieuse (1930-1933).

In a photomontage aerial view of his Plan Voisin, Le Corbusier offers an aerial photograph of Paris north of the Ile de la Cité, which occupies the lower half of the image. It is cleaved by a motorway coursing diagonally across its fabric. Then, there is simply a break: the upper portion of the image is a blank area, onto which are superimposed the plan forms of tall cruciform blocks. The blank area is unlike that projected in Mies’s drawings for IIT and the Convention Hall in Chicago. Le Corbusier’s drawing advocates erasure, destruction. The centre of chaotic Paris is to be wiped away and replaced by a city fit for the demands of a new society: "Whether as conservative or revolutionary, Le Corbusier retained his allegiance to the Saint-Simonian vision. He never doubted that society would eventually take the form he outlined in his ideal city. The only question was which group would finally give the order to build and thus prove itself to be ‘worthy of the machine age’. The Plan Voisin for Paris (1925) assumed that the heads of the large corporations would take on this role. Acting only as businessmen, they would buy up a large tract in the centre of Paris, knock down the existing structures, and erect in their place eighteen skyscrapers. This would not only be a profitable enterprise (Le Corbusier carefully concocted a set of imaginary figures to prove this), it would also provide an international headquarters for industries who headed the largest corporations and controlled the world economy.” [4]

Le Corbusier persistently agitated for a society and a city of organization and administration, where an elite of businessmen, technicians, bureaucrats and intellectuals would be represented and accommodated in monumental new centres. A culture of administration would replace the need for political government; the logic of efficient organisation and production would fulfill human need and eliminate social unease and disorder. He saw the pre-mechanical city— the traditional city that embodied traditional and outmoded governance— as not only unfit for the imperatives of the machine age, but an obstacle to its development, shackling those whose needs would be fulfilled by its achievement. In his presentation of the Plan Voisin, this new city and society were projected as a complete rebuttal of all that existed. The photographic image of traditional Paris from the air was necessary to make this clear. Much like Mies’s photomontages of the 1920s, Le Corbusier’s drawings for the Plan Voisin illustrate an antagonistic relationship between a new architecture and the city as it is known. Everything was to be swept aside to make way for the correct— his— plan. It is consistent with his fantasy of antagonism, conflict, and battle between himself and authority that would rage again and again throughout his career. [5]

Away from this conflict, the projected world of Le Corbusier calmly states its attractions. In the perspective line drawings for the Ville contemporaine (1922), the tops of mid-rise redents coincide with the horizon line. Between them are parks and a large avenue accommodating fast-moving traffic. The road and the parks are rendered as though equivalent. Cruciform towers appear to the left in the distance above the housing blocks, which together act as their conceptual plinth. Aircraft skim across the sky. The drawings portray a city in which machines, even more than the people who might operate them, are given considerable freedom.

In a perspective line drawing of the Plan Voisin, one sees from above— from an aircraft— a city free of chaos. Almost filling the entire drawing are the simple, repeated forms of four cruciform skyscrapers and the easy flow of motor traffic that is drawn towards them and then expelled into the distance. Tiny automobiles appear to be moving with great efficiency into a structure, a plinth that connects the four towers. The plinth is also an airfield with a number of single propeller aircraft aligned in preparation for flight. One can be seen in the air above them. The viewer is flying into the scene from a similar altitude. To the side of the great traffic artery, there are areas that resemble at once great plazas and modest parks. In these terrains, ant-like people are dotted about. Some are entering the side of the plinth, which encloses a train station. The architecture and the spaces that surround them seem machine-like, utterly self-sufficient, indifferent to the movement around them. The depicted city is unlike any that the contemporary viewer has ever seen. The buildings are devoid of detail; one sees only an articulation of floor levels that repeat until they reach their end at the horizon line of the drawing. They almost completely replace the horizon of the world with their form and logic. By making the horizon line coincide with the top of the skyscrapers, Le Corbusier suggests that they, as representative fragments of the society he wishes to build, are the world. The details of the scene are but this imagined world’s necessary attributes.

The aerial view has special significance for Le Corbusier. It is from the height of a passing aircraft (of the 1920s and 1930s) that a city can be viewed almost in its entirety. This offers the possibility of the survey, of control. It is, furthermore, the height from which a plan can actually be viewed: “... to-day it is the question of the airplane eye, of the mind which the Bird’s Eye View has endowed us; of that eye which now looks with alarm at the places where we live, the cities where it is our lot to be. And the spectacle is frightening, overwhelming. The airplane eye reveals a spectacle of collapse. Being indissolubly connected in all fibres of my being with the essential human affairs which architecture regulates; having waged for a long time, without fear or hatred or ambush, a loyal crusade of material liberation by the all-powerful influence of architecture, it is as an architect and town-planner— and therefore as a man essentially occupied with the welfare of his species— that I let myself be carried off on the wings of an airplane, make use of the bird’s eye view, of the view from the air, to which end I directed the pilot to steer over cities...” [6]

The line drawing communicates Le Corbusier’s ideas with great efficiency. The drawings are like cartoons, at once familiar and easily reproduced. They are ideally suited to the printed page [leaflets, newspapers, magazines, monograph (L’œuvre complete)]. Because of this aspect, the drawings come with captions that tell the viewer what they are seeing. This parallel message allows the viewer to imagine that they are precisely where the author wants them to be: in a fast-moving car, in an airplane, on a terrace.

The most celebrated and most frequently reproduced drawing of the project for the Ville Contemporaine features an elaborate caption and also much that is not strictly architecture. The viewer is invited to take in the scene before him, which consists of two parts, two layers: a view of the new city and of a foreground promising a degree of pleasure, a few moments of a lifestyle that incorporates relaxation, culinary enjoyment and money to spend. The scene is empty, but clearly the teapots and carafes of wine suggest that people have just left, or that it [is perhaps] the viewer who must return to the table. The terrace is a viewing platform from which the city and its activity is witnessed. The viewer regards the city as a scene, very much like those scenes conjured up in the engravings of Schinkel for the Museum and the Schauspielhaus.

The scene has been arranged for the viewer’s pleasure. The furniture in the foreground and the trees in the middle and far distance are all drawn with a free hand, which lends the drawing the atmosphere of informality and intimacy which Le Corbusier would exploit to great effect throughout his career. The free hand suggests that the drawings and the schemes are creations continuous with his persona.

Le Corbusier’s drawings for the Villa Meyer (1925) were offered to his client in a form somewhere between a formal presentation and a letter. The perspectives are freely hand-drawn, though quite precise, and the interior and exterior views are filled with potted plants, carpets and furniture. One’s reading (more than seeing) of the pictures flows from one to the next by virtue of the accompaniment of hand-written notes, encouraging sympathy for the qualities and necessities of the proposal. Here, Le Corbusier opts for a direct line of communication: this is not propaganda, but a personal letter, written as a plea for the project. Words appear in clouds, lines of words loosen to become landscapes, words and fragments of images evoke well-known paintings. A view from the roof terrace through an open fenétre-pit-longeur suggests both a lifestyle and a fantasy of the client’s bond with the scene and its world: a Poussin-esque view of a partly ruined temple on a wooded isle. The drawings (or the letter) have a very charming character, even though the letter’s tone occasionally ingratiates or harangues. It is interesting to see this aspect of Le Corbusier’s work, produced at the same time as the Plan Voisin and several other commissions (Pessac, Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau, Immeubles-villas, numerous publications). At one extreme is the propaganda of the Plan Voisin, directed at the city, government, industrialists, left-wing politicians; at the other, the old-fashioned relationship between the architect and a wealthy bourgeois client on whom the architect depends for his bread and butter. It seems that specific modes of communication can be devised for both.

[1] Le Corbusier, Aircraft (London, Trefoil Publications, 1987 reprint of 1935 edition), page 76.

[2] Marschall Berman. All that is solid melts into air. (New York, Verso, 1983; 8th ed., 1995).

[3] Manfredo Tafuri. Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development. (Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 1992).

[4] Robert Fishman. "From the Radiant City to Vichy: Le Corbusier’s Plans and Politics 1928-1942" in Russell Walden (Ed.), The Open Hand: Essays on Le Corbusier. (Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 1997). page 250. See also Fishman’s description of the ideas and development of Syndicalism and Le Corbusier’s relation to the movement, pp. 244-283.

[5] Le Corbusier. (Paris, Centre Arts et Recherches de l’Union Centrale Arts Décoratifs, 1966), "Une œuvre. Un combat. Un homme".

[6] Le Corbusier. Aircraft. (London, Trefoil Publications, 1987, reprint of 1935 edition), page 5.