The Antisocial Urbanism of Le Corbusier
By Simon Richards
Celebrations of Urbanity - The Urban Reinventors, Issue Nr. 2, December 2007
"Why is socializing in cities taken to be a good thing? Why do we assume it is beneficial for people to experience urban variety, opportunity, and intrigue? These are not questions normally asked, and it feels perverse to frame them as questions. Still, we have not always been so sure about socializing in cities. We have forgotten the negative argument — that the unregulated social life of large cities is a corrupting influence best avoided.
It had never occurred to me to raise these questions until I began research on Le Corbusier. At the same time that he is celebrated as the visionary architect of such modernist masterpieces as the Villa Savoye (1928) and the pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp (1955), he is decried as an irresponsible and perhaps mentally disturbed city planner. In his Plan Voisin from 1925, for example, Le Corbusier proposed to demolish the center of Paris and replace it with towers in parkland. The prospect of German cities bombed flat by the Allies during World War II made him envious — the Germans were able to rebuild from ground zero. (Incidentally, many British planners offered thanks to the Luftwaffe for returning the favor.) He made plans that would mean (as he put it himself) the “Death of the Street.” In proposing the elimination of side alleys and shops, in granting limited space for cafés, community centers, and theaters, in dispersing them over great distances, and constructing them of uninviting concrete, glass, and steel, Le Corbusier expressed his contempt for the teeming hubbub that urbanists now esteem…"
Simon Richards is lecturer in Art and Architectural History (Department of History of Art and Film) at the University of Leicester. His research is focused primarily on the fields of 20th century architecture and planning. He is currently analyzing the different ways that assumptions about ideal lifestyles have influenced the built environment in the post-World War II period. This interested emerged from his Ph.D. research and book on Le Corbusier, and it formed the basis for a four year AHRB-research grant which he recently completed. In this strikingly original book, Simon Richards shows how Le Corbusier's ideas contradict now dominant ways of thinking about the city, and he focuses attention on the ways the concept of self can influence the shape of the built environment. Although Le Corbusier never explicitly defined his idea of self, Richards finds extensive evidence of it in the urbanist's writings and work. Richards argues that Le Corbusier was indebted to Enlightenment philosopher Blaise Pascal, who believed the individual should withdraw from society and meditate in solitude on the nature of God and self. Le Corbusier's cities were designed accordingly--to separate people in cell-like apartments for the purpose of spiritual self-exploration. Richards explores Le Corbusier's position in twentieth-century intellectual life in the light of this fresh understanding, and he identifies a previously unrecognized alignment between the thought of Le Corbusier and of such figures as Albert Camus and Georges Bataille.