How buildings shape (and ruin) community.
I recently visited a lovely little square in a very old, a very nice, historical city. My friends and I had just come from a local community meeting which had gathered an assemblage of people representing all cuts of the proverbial cloth. It had been a pleasant summer evening. The late sun set an orange tinge to the cool muggy air as we walked outside and surveyed the street scene before us. Our meeting place had been an old church, the kind with the tall tower rising above its neighboring buildings.
It was a pleasant enough evening, so we took a seat right on the steps leading up to the church which, being raised just above the level of the sidewalk and the people upon it, afforded a very picturesque scene. Across from us in a small triangular park there was a group of young people lying on blankets conversing with each other. No books, no picnic basket. Just people and conversation. A few cyclists rode by on the road, slowing just slightly before riding on through the quiet intersection. Several people exited one of the corner stores, loaded their groceries into their cars which were parked lining the street or walked a block up the way and entered their townhouse or small home which fronted the several streets and park within view. I’m fairly certain I counted at least three couples walking casually on the sidewalk pushing baby strollers, not counting the half dozen or more with children or walking arm in arm by themselves.
You may be wondering by this point where I could have been enjoying such a charming and comforting little scene; perhaps one of the romantic public squares in Paris; maybe a homely marketplace in a London borough; perhaps one of the great plazas in Rome, or Venice, or any other of the world’s old and famous cities. After reading this list you’re probably not surprised to learn that it wasn’t any of these places at all. I was, rather, sitting right in the middle of a very common neighborhood close to the heart of Richmond, Virginia.
Politics and Place
These few observations didn’t even form part of our conversation that evening. We were merely concerned with the issue of political life and leadership in the local community. Odd actually, that this should be our topic. Because what we were watching was in fact a political scene. Each of these people was participating in and contributing to what Tocqueville called the “public spirit” of a place. Here was a place where people were exercising ownership of their community by partaking in its public life, an extremely public public life I may add. These simple acts of walking, talking, and making small purchases don’t take place behind closed doors but rather in the company or at the exposure to others. This leaves open the occasion for interaction where a communal interest may come up for discussion. But even should you choose not to speak to someone you may pass on the street, you are forming political associations in the back of your head – because you are cognizant that you don’t exist in isolation, but rather form a small part of something to which you can attach spaces, places, people, and therefore meaning.
It’s hard to imagine anyone devoting their life to the destruction of everything good in the story just described, but that in fact is what the famed architect, urban planner, and philosopher Le Corbusier sought to do. Corbusier developed his principles in the political climate of 1930s Italy, France, Germany, and Russia…not the happiest of times for modern political thought. Corbusier, outside of the Soviet Academy of Architecture, made the strongest connections between political ideology, architecture, and culture of any architect of his, and subsequent, generations.
Theodore Dalrymple provides us with a very thorough examination of Corbusier’s influence in his essay, “The Architect as Totalitarian.” Dalrymple’s essential point is that were Corbusier to rule the world, it would be a very dry and barren place void of humanity. It’s difficult to argue anything against Corbusian principles because of his status enshrined in the academy as the pantheon of all architectural ideals.
Corbusier’s many plans for the rebuilding of great European cities and towns after the World War II called for the complete decimation of all the old, historic city quarters and the erection of tall concrete and glass towers connected not by streets, but by roads. It may seem like a pedantic distinction, but a street is a road for people, and a road is a street for machines. Up until the technocentric development of the modern age cities had been built with streets. Essentially, beginning with Corbusier they would be built with roads.
This small difference is vastly significant because it would go on to make all the difference in the world for how people would use their cities, and consequently how pleasant their experience of them would be. It may also serve as a metaphor for the age of the machine, the age of automation, and the age of efficiency which made speed, precision, and streamlined perfection our god in the temple of minimalism. This minimalism evidenced itself in his scorn for humanity. Corbusier disdained regular streets because they were theatre for “disorderly human conduct.” It was unpredictable. It was incalculable. It was social. It was messy.
In his architecture, Corbusier denounced humanity and all of its historical expressions. Dalrymple calls it “inhumanity” or “ahumanity.”
“This manifests itself in several ways, including in his thousands of architectural photos and drawings, in which it is rare indeed that a human figure ever appears, and then always as a kind of distant ant, unfortunately spoiling an otherwise immaculate, Platonic townscape.”
Corbusier wanted humans “out of sight, out of mind” because the landscape would be “cleaner” that way, less adulterated. He dehumanized every facet of design as machines; a “machine for living” (house), a “machine for moving” (cars), or a “machine for sitting” (chairs).
Corbusier criticized Gothic architecture because it provided “an ingenious solution to a difficult problem” but it is an irrelevant solution because it ignores basic primary forms (or in other words, it isn’t streamlined minimalism).
The Egotism of the Age
Everything about Corbusier is a mark of the egotism of the age, especially prevalent in the Architecture profession. Architects heralded themselves literally as the builders of a “new” modern age and made certain that they alone held the adulation of the public in such a way they could manipulate themselves to the highest stratas of society and command the reverence of all those beneath them. Much like the architect himself, “A Corbusian building is incompatible with anything other than itself.”
By Dalrymple’s fascinating and appealing study, Corbusier’s influence couldn’t have been more devastating or more total. From the grave he reaches out and still manipulates architectural thought and practice to the detriment of society. All it should take to convince his most ardent fan is to see the ruin and desolation of his built work in places like Chandigarh, India, and the Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles and then visit a place like that small neighborhood in Richmond. It is places like those church steps that make us more human and make life more worth living. Corbusier, for all his lofty ideals and “primary forms,” cannot account for an ounce of humanity of which we can choose to be a part.
David Parker studied architecture at the University of Georgia.