“Architecture has nothing to do with the various ‘styles’...Architecture has graver ends.”
I’m quoting from my tattered paperback copy of Towards a New Architecture, the formerly standard English translation of Corbusier’s modernist manifesto from the 1920’s. In doing so, of course, I’m not really keeping up with current scholarship, as there is a significant new translation by John Goodman (no, not that John Goodman) called Toward an Architecture (Text and Documents). The new title makes much more sense. Even with my lousy French I could tell there was no “Nouveau” in the original title of Vers Une Architecture.
I've been working on my 10 minutes of DCWeek fame (10 minutes!) and realized that I have way too much to say. So, if you're coming tomorrow afternoon, read up. There may be a quiz.
There’s an unsettling déjà vu quality to so much of the prose; I’m sitting here thumbing through the book, tempted to just include it verbatim. I’m reading his words on tools and technology, as I write effortlessly on this PC, toggling to the internet to check some fact or other. Soon I’ll post it—a verb which in Corbusier’s time meant to sent a message via the mail—and you, the unknown and unnamed, will read it. This is what I’m reading:
In every field of industry, new problems have presented themselves and new tools have been created capable of resolving them. If this new fact be set against the past, then you have revolution.
In building and construction, mass-production had already been begun; in the face of economic needs, mass production- units have been created...If this fact be set against the past, then you have revolution...
The machinery of Society, profoundly out of gear, oscillates between an amelioration, of historical importance, and a catastrophe...The various classes of workers in society to-day no longer have dwelling adapted to their needs; neither the artisan nor the intellectual.
It is a question of building which is at the root of the social unrest of today; architecture or revolution.”
One of the reasons to read and re-read the early modernist polemicists is make that mental journey to the past, to try to see the world as they saw it and understand how it all must have seemed so logical. It’s too easy to blame previous generations for our current problems, as if somehow they were knowingly venal or unknowingly incompetent. At one time, amidst the cratered and bloody ground of Western Europe crawling out of a World War, urban renewal, separation of functions, individual property ownership, and mobility must have seemed like enlightened policy. Le Corbusier wrote prolifically, and in full-throated exhortations, proposing futures alternately chilling and edenic. If only we had known which was which.
Corbusier idolized l’espace verde and le soleil, green space and the sun, as sources of health and well-being. At that time, there was no cognitive dissonance in worshiping the speeding motor car, as the Futurists did, and espousing proto-green principles. The early Modernists could no more foresee the unintended consequences of their brave new architecture than, well, we can foresee ours.They did, however, see quite clearly what the situation was and felt no hesitation at speaking up. He and his peers thought that architecture and planning could change the world. The good news is: they were right. Unfortunately, that’s also the bad news. We’re still oscillating between amelioration and catastrophe. The road to Pruitt-Igoe, as we know now, was paved with good intentions.
If we’re going to choose architecture—and by that I include all the design and planning professions—and avoid revolution we have to look back as well as forward in equal measure and learn from both the substance and the structure of the past. There will be unintended consequences, but the perfect is the mortal enemy of the real. Revolution can be avoided, but only through active intervention, by design and planning. This time, though, let’s leave the hubris behind.