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What Are Le Corbusier's Towers in the Park?

4 minute read

Part of a movement that sought to modernize cities through a rational reorganization of the urban form, "Towers in the Park" is a style of housing development that emphasizes a separation of uses and access to communal green space and amenities.

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Created by Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (widely known as Le Corbusier), "Towers in the Park" is a style of high-rise housing complex that gained popularity in the 1960s and 1970s. The style is defined by clusters of high-rise residential buildings surrounded by green space and aimed to provide dense, low-cost housing for urban workers while reducing congestion. It was often used for public housing projects in American cities and, despite its short-lived popularity, the style has had a lasting influence on urban housing design.

To Le Corbusier, the issue of mass housing was "the problem of the epoch." As urban populations grew in the mid-20th century, the architect envisioned a strictly regimented "Radiant City" plan featuring soaring towers that would "decongest the city centre while augmenting its density," "improve accessibility and mobility," and expand access to parks and green space. Le Corbusier saw skyscrapers as the solution to urban congestion and a powerful symbol of what he called the "machine civilisation." 

Le Corbusier believed that "[t]he city of today is a dying thing because its planning is not in the proportion of geometrical one fourth. The result of a true geometrical lay-out is repetition, The result of repetition is a standard. The perfect form." Le Corbusier saw the city as analogous to a living organism or a machine, with each parts fulfilling specific, preordained functions. As such, the architect envisioned a perfectly rational urban plan that would reflect a perfectly rational social order, with complete segregation of urban activities and transportation modes linked by super-highways and grade-separated routes for pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, and public transit.

However, contrary to popular belief, Le Corbusier designed his tallest towers as offices rather than residences. The residential buildings in his Ville Contemporaine plan only rose to twelve stories, and business uses were starkly divided from dwellings.

While the Radiant City never came to full fruition, Le Corbusier's residential tower design (however inaccurate to his original vision) has had a powerful impact on urban housing developments around the world. The Indian city of Chandigarh, arguably "his most complete urban achievement," was built to reflect modernity and progress as the first planned city in a newly independent India. Le Corbusier designed the Punjabi capital from scratch, drawing on the principles of the Garden City concept and his own passion for order and symmetry. Yet even in a city whose master plan he controlled, Le Corbusier's vision for residential architecture went unfulfilled, with the government instead assigning the residential design to other architects. Le Corbusier's vision is also vividly apparent in the ultra-modern design of Brasilia, the Brazilian capital designed by Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer as "a perfectly geometrically ordered city that segregated the monumental administration zones and the identical housing districts, owned entirely by the government."

Le Corbusier's work, with its highly standardized and universalist principles, has been heavily criticized in the decades since his heyday. Urban critic Lewis Mumford called Le Corbusier's fusion of the business district with the natural environment a "sterile hybrid" that failed to meet its goals and created an "imposed order," while Jane Jacobs, who rejected the hyper-planned urban designs popular in the early 20th century and championed mixed use neighborhoods, attacked the Radiant City for its destruction of the traditional neighborhood and its elimination of the daily, casual street-level interactions that Jacobs believed made cities thrive.

Critics further condemn the Radiant City as standardizing and rationalizing the city with no regard to local conditions, as evidenced by Le Corbusier's proposals to raze historic Paris neighborhoods in favor of completely new plans. He also had well-documented connections to both fascist and communist regimes, building major projects in the USSR in the 1930s, unsuccessfully courting Marshal Pétain's authoritarian government in Vichy, France, and "enthusiastically underlined" passages in Alexis Carrel's eugenics-promoting book, Man, the Unknown.

Le Corbusier's idea of replacing "blighted" neighborhoods wholesale with glimmering towers on a rational grid echoes much of today's discourse on redevelopment and urban renewal, while the critiques of his universalist concepts reflect current concerns about gentrification, displacement, and zoning. He remains a highly controversial figure with a complicated legacy.

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