- Aviation and the Aerial View:Le Corbusier's Spatial Transformations in the 1930s and 1940s
Part One: The Aerial View
Aviation and Equipment. A London publishing house, The Studio, Ltd, sent Le Corbusier a letter in January 1935, inquiring whether he would be interested in collaborating on a new series of books to be titled The New Vision. The promoters explained that each book in the series would be devoted to a unique event in industrial design, with specific attention paid to the designers, their aims, and the potential these designs held for social and human development. They would begin the series with a volume on the airplane. Le Corbusier was asked to write an introductory essay, supply captions for the images they had already collected, and offer a few suggestions for additional illustrations.1
Accepting the invitation, Le Corbusier in his reply, however, transformed the project: instead of the word "airplane" he preferred "aviation," by which he meant all the prodigious phenomena opening vast new horizons in space and influencing the future of "equipment" in the broadest sense of the word.2 Already in Precisions (1930) he had written, "I replace the word 'urbanism' by the term 'equipment.' I have already replaced the term 'furniture' by that of 'equipment.' Such stubbornness shows well that we are purely and simply claiming tools for work, for we do not want to die of hunger facing the embroidered flowerbeds of aesthetic urbanism" . To his bag of equipment, Le Corbusier now adds "aviation," a tool of modern communication forging new modes of exchange and new links between nations.3
The material subsequently sent by the publishing house to Le Corbusier also met with lukewarm reception: he favored more lively documentation such as the view from an airplane as it flew over cities—vast open terrain, the sea, and the forests. And he wanted more picturesque treatment of the lives of aviators, their psychological and social attitudes including analysis of the great aerial routes being drawn between Europe and America, Africa, or Asia. The publishing house was unable to fulfill Le Corbusier's [End Page 93] expectations, reminding him that their focus was limited to "the airplane" and that they expected to receive all his material by May.4
What did Le Corbusier mean by "aviation" and the "epic of the air," a phrase he used in the preface of the subsequent book Aircraft (1935)? What new horizons did aviation open and how did this affect the perception of space and the process of reading the terrain as a two-dimensional map or a plan? And what did aviation have to do with "equipment"? Just the year before Le Corbusier had seen the Exposition de l'Aéronautique in Milan for which Mussolini offered the maxim: "Aviation is grand, small, or nothing at all, depending on whether public awareness of aviation is grand, small, or nothing at all."5 Le Corbusier, ever the great publicist, accepted the challenge to spread the meaning of "aviation" in the inclusive sense of the word entailing adventure and service, organization, and machinery.
The rapid growth of aviation during the interwar period was mercurial, dramatically reshaping perception of the world and of space. There were daring flights of aviators challenging the breath of oceans and deserts, the heights of Everest, the length of Africa, the uncharted terrain of the North and South Poles. The airplane not only internationalized cartography; it was a tool for exploring and controlling the colonies. While aerial photography, which recorded in precise detail the realistic shape of landmasses, coastlines, seas, deserts, and mountains, perfected the process of mapmaking and enriched the documentary archive of the planet.
Yet even more stunning, aviation continually shrunk the size of the globe after the initial KLM flight between Amsterdam and Jakarta took off in 1924. Then the time needed to navigate the 9000 miles was 55 days; within five years it had been reduced to a mere 12 days. A world map criss-crossed with national air routes came into view. In the 1930s civil airlines began to offer passenger and mail service between London and the Middle East, then on to India and...