Less an Architect Than a Visionary Planner of Planetary Ambitions

Long before the TV show Madmen, artist and oddball Salvador Dali noted that the difference between him and a madman, is that he’s not a madman.  Point taken.

Every now and then though, you have to be armed for dinner parties with stories of mad people.  One of the best to bring up is Swiss-born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret.  Adopting France, he became an essayist, painter, architect, and planner.  He also adopted the name Le Corbusier.  Pretty well all books on urbanism, planning, design, and architecture make a few comments on this nut.  I’ve just read James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State and am reminded of just how nutty.    

Scott turns a witty phrase by calling him “less an architect than a visionary planner of planetary ambitions.”  He was mainly a paper architect, meaning that most of his schemes never got built.  But Chandigarh, the capital of the Punjab in India and a big apartment complex in Marseilles (L’Unite d’Habitation) did.  He sampled from revolutionary syndicalism and utopian modernism.  This flexibility allowed him to design in Soviet Russia and in Vichy France for Marshal Petain.  

One must be able to discuss Jeanneret (Corbu) because the Athens Charter of the Congres Internationalaux d’Architecture Moderne (CAIM) reflects his views.  The most powerful architects of the time, organized by Corbu, used a series of meetings between 1929 and 1959 to promote modernism.  When discussing this, it’s good to work in Pierre Jeanneret, Corbu’s cousin who also attended.      

Corbu was the Mr. Big of urban planning, with one example being a housing scheme for about 90,000 residents in Rio de Janeiro.  He didn’t care if anything fit in with anything else—he was content to supplant if not destroy.  “We must refuse to afford even the slightest concession to what is:  to the mess we are in now” said he.  

He liked order and the linear.  Apparently he was also a spokesperson for machines.  “We claim, in the name of the steamship, the airplane, and the automobile, the right to health, logic, daring, harmony, perfection.”  Before him, modes of transport did not have a voice.

As Scott points out, some of Jeanneret’s drawings show he may not have even liked cities.  His plan for Paris is from afar.  Buenos Aires is seen from miles out at sea–five shiny bumps that must be buildings reflected in the water.   Rio is seen as if from miles up in an airplane, and so is Alsace—mainly featuring the striations of ploughing or crop growing.  

If you want to one-up dinner companions in the fashionable suburbs who quote from his 1933 book The Radiant City, just retort, “He would say that, wouldn’t he?”  It doesn’t matter what he said, it’s that he would say it.   

In fairness to Jeanneret, he advocated the “prefabrication of houses and office blocks, whose parts were built at factories and then assembled at the building sites.”  This is a good idea and should be more prevalent.  I refer to these factories machines for making machines for living in.  This will be too clever by half (as the Brits say) for those who know the Jeanneret quote, “a house is a machine for living in.”

Another quote is his “death of the street” because he didn’t like people and cars mixing, or even slow cars and fast cars.  He also advocated segregation of city districts by function.  He liked communal food preparation and laundry to save space, ignoring, as Scott points out that much of food preparation is a private event for families.     

Jeanneret lives on in our cities, getting the last chuckle if not belly laugh in the ‘park-like settings’ and other unused space between huge apartment blocks.

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