See how form follows fiasco

From Corbusier’s idea of the Radiant City, from La Ville Radieuse (plan 1924; book 1933). In 1925, Corbusier tried but failed to get Paris to inflict his ideas (Le Plan Voisin) on itself. (Corbusier, Oeuvre)

I’ve just started rereading the late Peter Blake’s slender 1960 hagiography of French architect Le Corbusier, born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret in Switzerland. A far better book on Corbu, as he is known by his many deluded admirers, is Le Corbusier: The Dishonest Architect (2017), but its author, Malcolm Millais, has not (and I’m sure will not) subsequently change his mind and write a book like Blake’s flip-flop, Form Follows Fiasco: Why Modern Architecture Hasn’t Worked, which he wrote in 1977. So it took Blake 17 years to come to his senses.

I have apparently read both of these books by Blake. I can’t recall my first encounter with Le Corbusier: Architecture and Form, but I underlined my copy so I must have read it; in fact, it was once  owned by the late modernist architect Derek Bradford, my nemesis in matters of design here in Providence. I didn’t steal it from him; I bought it for fifty cents at a local library sale. By the way, Millais’s enduring defenestration of modern architecture, written eight years before Dishonest, is Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture.

Here are a couple of quotes from Blake’s book on Corbu. These should whet your appetite for quotes from his book Fiasco, which I will supply as I read it.

Here at Pessac [a suburban housing project near Bordeaux], as in many other places, Le Corbusier was to run head-on into violent opposition on the part of various authorities, and his buildings stood vacant for more than three years after they were completed because some benighted local bureaucrats, who objected to the uncompromising geometry of Corbu’s open and closed cubes, refused to issue the necessary occupancy permits. …

Here, as at Pessac, Corbu was to meet a degree of hostility hard to imagine today [1960]. … At the Paris exhibition, the hatred for Corbu’s pavilion was passionate and vitriolic; indeed, it is difficult to understand why he was asked to participate in the first place, and the authorities did everything possible to sabotage his efforts. They began by giving him the worst site in the entire exhibition, a spot practically outside the exhibition grounds. Next, they erected a fence some eighteen feet high all around Corbu’s pavilion to keep out visitors altogether. It took the intervention of a cabinet minister to have the fence torn down! Finally, when an international jury decided to award the first prize to Corbu’s pavilion, the French member of the jury succeeded in vetoing the proposal on the grounds that the structure “contained no architecture.”

This is music to my ears. I haven’t had such a glow on toward authorities in a long time. One of the book’s joys, in spite of Blake’s worship of his subject, is its brutal honesty in describing how officials detested Corbusier’s buildings. Of course, Blake no doubt considers the disdain of officials as feathers in his hero’s cap. As a young architect in the 1920s, Le Corbusier ran up against the fact that building regulators in those days were not marinated in the love of ugliness as they are today. They had the sensibility of normal people. It was not until four or five decades later, in the ’60s and ’70s, that architecture schools had purged the intuitive sense of taste from students who attended schools that formed the next generations of designers, who dominate what our cities look like today.

One of the reasons I was not altogether enamored of Form Follows Fiasco was that it was really more about city planning than architectural design. I don’t recall that Peter Blake ended up hating modern architecture as much as I wanted him to. He was a modernist himself and designed about 50 buildings during his career, and, as far as I can tell, they were all modernist. At some point he must have been designing what he knew most people would dislike, following principles he knew were hollow. How did he sleep at night?

He died in 2006, at which point I hope he was finally able to rest.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to See how form follows fiasco

  1. LazyReader says:

    Rebuttal: Columns of the future? For classicism to survive, it has to get out of it’s rut of form standardized. A hint of futurism can go a long way. Classical architecture was limited by material science at the time. I’d imagine these as columns of stone/ or concrete with stone sculpted, attached.

    https://www.deviantart.com/amehroke/art/Sci-fi-Pillar-Concept-465311076

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    • Lazy, these “deviant art” metal columns are not as bad as the first batch you served up in defense of your notion that classical architecture must move into the future (or however you phrased it). But it is still nowhere near the classical columns that have been evolving beautifully and mainlining creativity for 2,000 years.

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  2. LazyReader says:

    Last week, the California legislature passed a Senate Bill 9, which bans single-family zoning. The YIMBYs — really YISEBYs (yes in someone else’s backyard) — claim this is a victory for more affordable housing, but it isn’t. In fact, it is a victory for densification, and density has never made housing more affordable.

    You can trace modern urban planning back to the late nineteenth century, when people such as Jacob Riis and shit; had alerted people to “How the Other Half Lives”. This 1890 book used photographs to show the terrible living conditions in high-density tenements found in many major cities. Early planners, who Hall called “anarchists,” sought to get working-class people out of these tenements and into the same types of suburbs then being inhabited by middle-class families.

    That eventually happened, but it was thanks to Henry Ford, not urban planners. Ford’s moving assembly line made automobiles affordable turning once enclave toys of the rich to transports fo working-class families, enabling them to buy cheap land and build cheap homes outside of the big cities. Since moving-assembly lines required horizontal real estate; ie land, the jobs moved to the suburbs too. This led to a backlash, however, which came from two sources. First was the planners themselves, who were appalled by the suburban neighborhoods built by the working class. In books published in Britain before World War II, and echoed by books published in America in the 1950s, planners complained that the suburbs were boring, sterile, and that the people in them didn’t truly appreciate country life. As Hall observed, what really offended the planners were the architectural styles chosen by the working class: instead of building modern, flat-roofed homes, they built neocolonial or other older styles that planners considered to be out of date. This ass-holey-ness, what spawned the “Mid-Century” suburban landscape look that now Stereotypes suburbia.

    The second backlash came from city governments who saw their tax revenues flee to the suburbs and downtown property owners who saw the value of their land and investments decline. Riding to the rescue was a Swiss architect who called himself Le Corbusier. According to Hall, Corbusier “argued that the evil of the modern city was its density of development and that the remedy, perversely, was to increase that density.” Specially, Corbusier proposed that all new urban development, for housing, retail, offices, and factories, be in high rises surrounded by greenspaces, and that all existing development be replaced by such high rises. He called this the Radiant City.

    Prodded by city governments and downtown property owners, and given cover by planners and other elitists who claimed to be helping the downtrodden masses, governments began building high-rise housing in major cities all over the world after World War II. Some of this was in response to post-war reconstruction needs, particularly in Europe, but much was just due to high rises being an urban planning fad.

    Congress passed a housing act in 1949 that resulted in the construction of high-rise housing projects in major cities all over the United States under the excuse that they were replacing slums with better housing. decades later these projects became the crime infested housing projects when government simply gave up.

    One of those cities was New York, where an architecture critic Jane Jacobs objected to Corbusian plans to replace her neighborhood, Greenwich Village, with high rises. Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, argued that urban planners didn’t understand how cities work, which was true, and that she did understand how cities work, which was wrong. According to her, Greenwich Village was the ideal that city planners should strive for.

    In fact, most of Greenwich Village was made up of the mid-rise tenements that had been the subject of Riis’s How the Other Half Lives. By 1960, thanks to the automobile, most of the residents had moved out and living conditions weren’t as bad as they had been. But apartments were still too small for people to entertain inside, so they did their entertainment on their front porches, which led to the lively streets that Jacobs lauded. The neighborhood still had a lot of immigrants and ethnic groups who hadn’t yet moved to the suburbs, and Jacobs appreciated the bohemian atmosphere.

    The truth is, Urban planners should be hanged from the very highrises they propose.

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  3. Dan Gordon says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading you blog tonight. Looking forward to seeing you at the Bulfinch Awards & lectures in a few weeks. Best, Dan Gordon

    Like

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