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The Antisocial Urbanism of Le Corbusier
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I have often said that the sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.

—Pascal, Pensées

The greater part of our ills are our own making, and . . . we might have avoided them nearly all by adhering to that simple, uniform, and solitary manner of life which nature prescribed.

—Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

Thus they keep their distractions on the go to avoid having to face themselves.

—Le Corbusier, The Decorative Art of Today

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.

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Figure 1
Le Corbusier's Plan Voisin (1925) for central Paris. Sponsored by the Voisin automobile company, this plan was exhibited and caused uproar at the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. © 2003 Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/ADAGP L2(14)4, Paris/Fondation Le Corbusier

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 (figs. 1 and 2). 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.

The main criticism of Le Corbusier, reiterated without fatigue for more than seventy years, has been that he forgot cities exist to facilitate socializing.

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Figure 2
Students at the School of Community and Regional Planning, University of British Columbia, socializing over Le Corbusier–inspired towers of sheet cake.

Some commentators have gone further: Le Corbusier was not simply negligent or naive but sick, perhaps mad. Peter Serenyi has paired Le Corbusier with Charles Fourier, the nineteenth-century utopian theorist, as deeply unhappy men—"vagabond," "rootless," "single," and "lonely"—who as a consequence loathed human society. Indeed, Fourier's basic argument was that human beings are driven by antisocial "passions" and that their natural tendency is to drift apart or, if forced to live together, become hostile to one another. Fourier's "ideal" society was shaped to manage this situation. In The Social Destiny of Man (1808), he proposed to divide society into units of about sixteen hundred inhabitants apiece—live-in workshops (for want of a better description), each occupying a large building that he termed a "phalanstery." The productivity of each unit was to be managed by a professional executive, the "areopagus," which would also try managing the social relations of inmates. And just before they started killing each other, as inevitably they would, the inmates would be dispersed to new phalansteries. Serenyi argues that this plan of Fourier's and the urban designs of Le Corbusier are similarly deranged. More recently, the architecture theorist Anthony Vidler has used the word warped to characterize affinities between Le Corbusier and Blaise Pascal. As legend has it, Pascal became intensely agoraphobic after a carriage ride along the Seine nearly ended in tragedy. His horses bolted and plunged over a parapet, their harnesses snapped away...

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