Was France A Victim Of Architecture?

In the wake of the deadly French Riots, many are now claiming that architects like Le Corbusier are at fault for fostering the high-rise, low-income apartment complexes.

"But blaming Le Corbusier for the banlieue riots is like blaming the inventor of the automobile for the SUV. Not only do the banlieues--which were built without his input--look nothing like what he intended, but those "machines for living" he did construct are today considered some of the finest, most sought-after addresses in France, precisely because they have maintained his ideas about modern living. Ultimately, the fatal flaw lies not in the architecture but the system that operates within it. In other words, the riots in the banlieues don't condemn Le Corbusier; they condemn the governments that failed to follow his vision."

Full Story: No Fault

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The Real Problem with Le Corbusier

Wasn’t the whole point of Modernism to provide an affordable, mass produced alternative to the proletariat? Doesn’t anyone see the irony in using Unité d'Habitation, a unique, well crafted, richly detailed structure produced by a Modernist master as the prime example of this theory? And what about its notions of community – isolated and exclusive – that fail to make any sort of connection to the greater community as a whole?

Sadly this is the real problem with Modernist ideology; the notion that buildings are unique, individual objects which should be designed and planned without regard to the context of the greater urban whole. Traditional cities can handle a few of these types of structures, but build enough of them and you essentially kill off not only the sense of community, but the very essence of the city itself.

Thus the failure of Le Corbusier and Modernism as a whole isn’t so much one of architectural style, as it is a failure to acknowledge the importance of urban design principles. The real genius of traditional architectural forms isn’t the warmth and richness of the styles, though these are important. It’s how easily and how well they integrate to create a coherent and meaningful urban context, really the building blocks of cities such as neighborhoods and districts, and in the process form a rich urban tapestry where the whole is literally greater than the sum of its parts. Essentially it’s what Christopher Alexander to as a “pattern language”, an easy to understand everyday vernacular architectural language in which the building blocks of cities, high quality individual structures, can be produced by anyone from highly skilled craftsmen and architects to ordinary laborers and production builders.

The reality is that Le Corbusier’s particular brand of Modernism is the product of an esoteric, dogmatic building philosophy mastered by few and thus not easily duplicated. The resulting built environment is a bipolar one at best, mostly defined by mediocrity – a cheap, mass produced, throwaway style of construction that few care about – mixed in with a few isolated, high quality structures produced by a cadre of ‘starchitects’ who only care about the interest of their elite clientele.

So is the solution as simple as hiring these modern day equivalents of Le Corbisier? Hardly. While the wealthy can function quite well in isolation, whether it’s in suburban ‘gated communities’ or Unité style towers in the park, the same can’t be said about the poor and disadvantaged. Indeed concentrated and isolated, poverty and misery only breeds more of the same creating the type of viscious decades long cycle which recently came to froth in France. If we really want to examine the shortcomings of Corbusieren type planning we need to consider not how immigrants in the Parisian suburban slabs relate to their more well heeled counterparts in Marseille, but rather how they compare to other traditional immigrant communities throughout France and Western Europe.

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