Le Corbusier, a French architect and urban planner, intended to design a city structure on principles of rationality, orderliness, and social improvement. How did the implementation of his ideas create the centers of decay and crime that were the mid-century American urban housing projects?
Le Corbusier, born Charles Jeanneret (1887-1965), was a French architect and urbanist whose ideas had a lasting and profound influence across the globe. He was the forefather of the Modernist architectural style and led the International Congress of Modern Architecture. His theories were in reaction to the emerging Industrial Age. The new ideals of mass production and democracy inspired his vision of the built environment, while the pollution and chaos of new industrial cities compelled him towards idealistic notions of social improvement. Through planning and architectural design, Le Corbusier hoped to create a scientifically rational and comprehensive solution to urban problems in a way that would both promote democracy and quality of life. For him, the factory production process applied to high-rise buildings with prefabricated and standardized components is the most modern and egalitarian of urban forms (Helleman and Wassenberg, 4). Alike industrial processes and products meant that people could not be distinguished materialistically and would have equal access to opportunities. He had an idealized perspective on the technological advancements of modern life and a persistent faith in modernity’s ability towards progress and social improvement.
Le Corbusier was so sure of architecture’s role in social transformation that he proclaimed “Architecture or Revolution”, by which he meant that revolution is inevitable unless Paris adopted his design plan, The Radiant City (Milne, 1980, 530). The irony of this optimistic belief in design is that his legacy has been blamed for one of history’s most ill-conceived and socially detrimental housing plans and projects – the low-income housing projects in post-War America. In order to conclude if Le Corbusier’s vision was a failure, I will illustrate the intent of his theories, and then analyze if his plans implemented in practice diverged from his original ideas or if it was Le Corbusier’s vision in the first place that proved flawed. Both the ideas of Le Corbusier and a poor interpretation in the real world contributed to the failure of American housing projects. Both Le Corbusier’s overestimation of the remedial effects of the built environment and the political and economic conditions that radically altered his intentions produced negative psychological and social repercussions on the inhabitants of his designs.
Le Corbusier’s Vision, Design Influencing Social Practice, and Urban Housing Projects
Early industrialization created impromptu urban cities that were frequently overcrowded, unhealthy, and unpleasant. Because of the chaos he saw, Le Corbusier believed that the solution for social ills lies in mathematical ordering of the built environment. He claims “We strive for order, which can be achieved only by appealing to what is the fundamental basis on which our minds can work: geometry” (Le Corbusier, 1982, 95) and “Where the orthogonal is supreme, there we read the height of a civilization” (Le Corbusier, 1982, 43). The main principles of Le Corbusier’s theories include scientific rationalism, efficiency, and social improvement through design. This manifested in planning and architecture through the use of minimal ornamentation, repetitive units, high rise structures, and separation of use zoning. Crow claims that Le Corbusier’s theories revolve around two main arguments. The first is the “primacy of geometry for perception, cognition, and building”. The second is “urban growth must conform to the hierarchy of reason (geometry)” [Crow, 1989, 244]. This means that Le Corbusier believed that urban planning must follow the principles of rational design – with scientific and ordered principles including regularity, unadorned surfaces, and straight lines to promote a sense of democracy and equality among people. This was in opposition to the display of wealth and individuality that would go on a highly decorated and extravagantly designed building.
Le Corbursier had a social agenda behind his theories. He believed that there is a scientific, universal basis for everything including the needs and preferences of human beings. Thus, the same design scheme would be applicable all around. He “proclaimed democracy and equality through the built environment” and believed that “good or enlightened buildings would elicit similar attitudes or behaviors in individuals interacting with those buildings” (Birmingham, 1999, 296). The notion that the physical environment impacts human behavior remains highly contested. The relatively new discipline, related to urban planning and design, is known as ‘Design Influencing Social Practice (DiSP)’.
DiSP is a concept that believes that “certain urban forms and infrastructures confine, enforce, or suggest a corridor of behavioral choices” (Brand, 2005, 2). Le Corbusier theories suggest that he would support this notion. Le Corbusier claimed that “On the day when contemporary society, at present so sick, has become properly aware that only architecture and city planning can provide the exact prescription for its ills, then the time will have come for the great machine to be put in motion and begin its functions” (Le Corbusier, 1967, 142). Yet DiSP has not always proved successful in implementation. In experimentations using strategic design principles, people did not always respond as predicted. As an example, Brand discusses how the Panopticon, a prison structure that is supposed to control inmate behavior by creating a paranoid environment of continuous surveillance, was subverted by prisoners who secretly coordinated a revolt while maintaining a façade of normality. This incident demonstrates the unpredictability of human behavior that Le Corbusier failed to address in his theories.
The public housing program in the 1950s United States combined these two elements of Le Corbusier’s design theories and environmental determinism, “the belief that an ideal or improved residential environment will better the behavior as well as the conditions of its inhabitants” (Hoffman, 1996, 424). The Housing Act of 1949 created a public housing program, which consisted of slum clearance and urban redevelopment, in order to “enable truly rational behavior which was troublesome under the previous messy urban structures” (Brand, 2005, 14). Le Corbusier’s high-rises were chosen as the model style for the new residential building structures, under the belief that providing a safe, clean housing structure would encourage lower-income people towards upward mobility. The housing was meant to diminish social ills by providing poorer citizens with an affordable and decent place to live in the interest of social welfare. In reality, many black Americans were forced into these structures for the sake of urban renewal and infrastructure projects. In contrast to its stated benevolent purpose, many of the buildings became havens of social decay and crime and were eventually razed or renovated. The structures, designed in accordance with Le Corbusian principles, were called “architectural systems that reinforce structural racism” (Birmingham, 1999, 291).
The Inherent Flaws of Le Corbusier’s Theories
Le Corbusier theories are criticized on many grounds. He contradicts himself when he claims to be a proponent of democracy, yet paternalistically imposes an order upon people with his vision of an advanced built environment. Scholars such as Jane Jacobs claim that Le Corbusier’s vision of cities is disassociated from popular input. Jacobs says “The materiality of the building is a relational effect. It is a building event rather than simply a building” (Jacobs, 2006, 11). This means that social interactions and contexts have much to do with the nature of a building and merely providing a technical concept and “purity” of design, such as Le Corbusier’s emphasis on geometry, cannot solely predict the impacts a building will have on its inhabitants. Also, in general, democratic participation is excluded when urban planning and architecture becomes strictly under the domain of architects and planners (without consulting the inhabitants), even if the intent is to improve society. Critics believe this “elitist” approach to city planning and architecture, supported by Le Corbusier and put into practice by U.S. Housing Authorities, accounts for the unsuccessful housing projects. Rather than enlist residents in dialogue about their needs and family structures, “modernist architectural designs intended to impose order on perceived morally debilitating clutter and disorganization” and disrupted the residents’ established “family and community lives and compromised patterns of economic development” (Russell and Gaubatz, 389). The innate disregard of the preferences of the inhabitants helped to contribute to social decay in housing projects because a forced new order ruptured the residents’ previously existing social networks and natural sense of existence.
Le Corbusier’s belief that there is a scientific solution to all society’s issues has been criticized as disconnected with the real world. Le Corbusier believed that aesthetic and formal considerations would be sufficient to address social problems and inequities. Their solutions were found “through a rationalist and ahistoric process” (Leidenberger, 2006, 455). This means that Le Corbusier put form over the traditions and cultures of the inhabitants. This policy often resulted in an alienating environment that residents felt little connection to, which was the case in the Le Corbusier-designed city of Chandigarh, India and the modernist-influenced city of Bijlmermeer, Amsterdam.
Le Corbusier’s belief in social advancement through technology led him to support the emerging industrial practices, that is, mass production techniques and a car-based transportation culture. He thought standardized high rises were the ideal form of a modernist urban city and separation of zoning was the ideal format for a healthy society. Approval of modern transportation and single use districts manifested itself spatially in his theories such that the ideal location for residential buildings was away from commercial and industrial centers. In real life, this practice had an isolating effect on residents of high-rise developments because they did not have access to public transit or means of transportation to city resources. As Leidenberger states “effective transportation facilities proved crucial in tying high density residential patches to separate locations of work, education, leisure, and commerce. CIAM modernists looked at transportation as the key to maximize contacts among urban dwellers, which were considered to lie at the root of social harmony” (Leidenberger, 2006, 458).
Modernists’ focus on formal issues has been criticized as an intellectual, irrelevant exercise in technicalities – as “aesthetic indulgences masquerading as architecture, architects in retreat from any involvement with the actual world of buildings” (Ghirardo, 1984, 112). Ghirardo argues that “architecture of substance” goes beyond “trivial details” like formal elements and takes into account social and political realities and aspirations. He believes that those who try to relieve social ills singularly through design ignore the fundamental causes of problems – “the power structure, racism, manipulation of land values, prices” (Ghirardo, 1984, 114). Although Le Corbusier’s intention was to improve society, he addresses it solely through principles of design, which are also subject to criticism. Le Corbusier’s theories support radical innovation and breaking with the past, which manifests in the built environment with a sharp, plain, and austere aesthetic. This is criticized as “decontextualizing” and “shocking” (Jacobs, 2006, 8) the lives of the residents, not improving them. Some even criticize Le Corbusier’s designs as being too flawed because they are too sophisticated. Jencks states that uneducated inhabitants could not successfully “read the architectural space” (Birmingham, 1999, 291) which led to their alienation from it. Modernist architecture was “non-referential” in that it relinquished all notion of historical and discursive meaning that could be understandable to the average citizen and created a sense of crisis. Birmingham, however, counters this by saying that the actualized building was so off-target from the original intentions of modernists (Birmingham, 1999, 300) and architectural styles alone cannot “limit people’s lives or exist outside the context of its production” (Birmingham, 1999, 302). Jencks’ critique excludes the broader social and economic damages and disadvantages that these residents experienced.
The Problematic Implementation of Le Corbusier’s Designs
Alternate explanations for the failure of United States public housing place blame on the social and historical context within which Le Corbusier’s high rises were implemented. That is, racial motivations and economic restrictions. One of the most notorious projects was the Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis. Designed by the architect Minoru Yamasaki and built in 1951, Pruitt-Igoe was meant to encompass Le Corbusier’s three essential joys of urbanism: sun, space, and greenery (Birmingham, 1999, 296). Yamasaki initially imagined the structure as containing open galleries (horizontal space every third floor) with skip-stop elevators that only stopped at these galleries. This design was meant to promote sociability and foster social relations in these public spaces. It was modeled after Le Corbusier’s desire to maximize efficiency and open-spaced green areas by building vertically in order to conserve space and to improve social relations by making elevated communities – “neighborhoods”/”streets in the sky” – where residents could interact. In his high-rises, Le Corbusier imagined “airy visions of towers rising out of vast expanses of grass and greenery” (Hoffman, 1996, 431), the reproduction of “earthbound neighborhoods in the air”, and “wide, external building corridors” to “duplicate the complex functions and vitality of sidewalks and streets” (Hoffman, 1996, 432).
However the end product resembled nothing like what Le Corbusier or Yamasaki had envisioned. The structure was initially built as a segregated residence for blacks and whites but when anti-segregation legislation passed, whites refused to move in. Thus, financial support collapsed significantly. This led to major structural changes including: doubling of density, cancellation of landscaping, maintenance services, and public spaces, no open galleries, no public transit, no sidewalk connection to community, and haphazard construction. Green open space essentially became barren brownfields and served as “wastelands of concrete, a demilitarized zone surrounded by major streets” (Birmingham, 1999,301). Le Corbusier’s notion of purity with geometric shapes and lack of ornamentation became merely cheap and plain looking because of shoddy construction efforts. The structure that was supposed to create a sense of community in the landscape functioned more as an isolating and alienating tool of racial confinement. In this view, Le Corbusier’s designs and technical influences had less to do with the failure of housing projects than the fact that they were perverted by social and economic considerations, namely racism and lack of funds. Radford states “the changing organization of urban space has more to do with the logic of profit-driven development than with the ideas of those who have set out self-consciously to improve the world” (Radford, 1999, 723).
Although not as devastating as the failures of United States’ housing projects, other Le Corbusier-influenced and modernist school designs did not succeed on a level matching the intentions of Le Corbusier’s social engineering theories. In Bijlmermeer, Amsterdam a modernist designed plan was constructed. It experienced failures that generally parallel the socio-economic failures of projects in the U.S. They include: lack of amenities due to financial constrictions, a lack of good transit links to the center, lack of maintenance, and confused management and control issues. This led to the inhabitants’ indifference towards their residences and they would “dispose of garbage bags by ‘air mailing’ them over the balcony” (Helleman and Wassenberg, 6). The city did not suffer the same fate as Pruitt-Igoe’s demolishment in the 1970s because of eventual structural and service improvements. However, it demonstrates the failure of a city not because of inherent design flaws but because its actualization was corrupted by economic and infrastructural failures not related to the plan itself.
Although many critics blame Le Corbusier for devising structures that reinforce deteriorating social effects, he does have some defenders. Leidenberger states that Le Corbusier wanted a cohesive “integral design of the entire building-landscape complex” (Leidenberger, 2006, 458) in his city plans. However “only subsequently did these areas evolve into separate and uncoordinated concerns, neglect of land design, and dull nature of open land” (Leidenberger, 2006, 458). That is, Le Corbusier put more thoughtfulness into his structures than were actually materialized, and so he must not be culpable for the design’s negative impacts. Radford goes even further and suggests exonerating Le Corbusier from any involvement at all for the decay of U.S. housing projects. He states that property values interests and white homeowners’ efforts against integration prevented the approval of any site for housing projects other than slum areas and “surely these pressures alone, dictating putting the most people in the least space, would have implied a high-rise architectural solution – even if Le Corbusier had never lived” (Radford, 1999, 720). However, to me, it appears that both misguided elements in Le Corbusier’s theories for social improvement through design and the failure of an accurate realization of his vision contributed to the social and physical monstrosities that were many of the U.S. low-income housing projects. For instance, consider a specific element – transportation. Le Corbusier’s practice of segregating uses (commercial, industrial, residential, etc.) over long distances produced an overreliance on an efficient transit system to create social harmony and opportunity. When Pruitt-Igoe’s financial investment collapsed, essential and required elements of Le Corbusier’s vision (in this case, easy mobility) were abandoned. Thus, taken together, any improvement or advancement in the social conditions of the residents’ seems nearly infeasible.
To conclude, I present an example that exemplifies how both design flaw and historical context create social problems. Chandigarh, India which Le Corbusier himself contributed to was initially perceived as a failed city. Kalia claims that the problems experienced by Chandigarh were from “the absence of local authority, a lack of understanding of the local culture and values on the part of the planners, and the history of the region. Authority relations, lines of accountability, and decision-making structures never became clear” (Kalia, 1985, 135). Chandigarh experienced a sudden confrontation with modernism in what was a “tradition-bound, rural, and financially conservative” (Kalia, 1985, 135) location. Thus, his design was considered sterile and “profoundly alienating because of the absence of street life” (Fitting, 2002, 74) such as bazaars. Also, in line with the segregation of uses principle, Le Corbusier placed the capitol complex away from the city, which also had an alienating effect on the citizens – “this act rendered the monumental dimension of Le Corbusier’s vision remote and distant from the citizens” (Fitting, 2002, 79). In one sense, this could be interpreted as a failure of Le Corbusier’s ideological belief that design should be ahistorical, but the fact that managerial issues and explosive population growth were also involved shows that political contexts also contributed to Candigarh’s problems.
Birmingham, E. (1999). Refraining the ruins: Pruitt-Igoe, Structural Racism, and African American Rhetoric as a Space for Cultural Critique. Western Journal of Communication, 63 (3), 291-309.
Brand, R. (2005). Urban Infrastructures and Sustainable Social Practices. Journal of Urban Technology, 12 (2), 1-25.
Crow, D. (1989). Le Corbusier’s Postmodern Plan. Theory Culture Society, 6 (241), 241-261.
Fitting, P. (2002). Urban Planning/Utopian Dreaming: Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh Today. Utopian Studies, 69-93.
Ghirardo, D. (1984). Architecture of Deceit. Perspecta, 21, 110-115.
Hoffman, A.V. (1996). High Ambitions: The Past and Future of American Low-Income Housing Policy. Housing Policy Debate, 7 (3), 423-446.
Helleman, G., Wassenberg, F. (2004). The Renewal of What Was Tomorrow’s Idealistic City. Cities, 21 (1), 3-17.
Jacobs, J. (2006). A Geography of Big Things. Cultural Geographies, 13 (1), 1-27.
Kalia, R. (1985). Chandigarh: A Planned City. Habitat Intl., 9 (3/4), 135-150.
Le Corbusier (1982). The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning. New York: Dover. P
Le Corbusier (1967). The Radiant City. New York: Orion Press. P
Leidenberger, G. (2006). The Search for a Useable Past. Journal of Urban History, 32, 451-465
Milne, D. (1980). The Artist as Political Hero. Political Theory, 8, 525-545.
Radford, G. (1999). Housing Ideals and Realities: New Historical Explorations. Journal of Urban History, 25, 716-724.
Russell, R.L., Gaubatz, M.D. (1995). Contested Affinities: Reaction to Gergen’s (1994) and Smith’s (1994) Postmodernisms. Journal of Urban History, 26 (18), 389-390.