Politics and Place
These few observations didn’t even form part of our conversation that evening. We were merely concerned with the issue of political life and leadership in the local community. Odd actually, that this should be our topic. Because what we were watching was in fact a political scene. Each of these people was participating in and contributing to what Tocqueville called the “public spirit” of a place. Here was a place where people were exercising ownership of their community by partaking in its public life, an extremely public public life I may add. These simple acts of walking, talking, and making small purchases don’t take place behind closed doors but rather in the company or at the exposure to others. This leaves open the occasion for interaction where a communal interest may come up for discussion. But even should you choose not to speak to someone you may pass on the street, you are forming political associations in the back of your head – because you are cognizant that you don’t exist in isolation, but rather form a small part of something to which you can attach spaces, places, people, and therefore meaning.
It’s hard to imagine anyone devoting their life to the destruction of everything good in the story just described, but that in fact is what the famed architect, urban planner, and philosopher Le Corbusier sought to do. Corbusier developed his principles in the political climate of 1930s Italy, France, Germany, and Russia…not the happiest of times for modern political thought. Corbusier, outside of the Soviet Academy of Architecture, made the strongest connections between political ideology, architecture, and culture of any architect of his, and subsequent, generations.
Theodore Dalrymple provides us with a very thorough examination of Corbusier’s influence in his essay, “The Architect as Totalitarian.” Dalrymple’s essential point is that were Corbusier to rule the world, it would be a very dry and barren place void of humanity. It’s difficult to argue anything against Corbusian principles because of his status enshrined in the academy as the pantheon of all architectural ideals.
Corbusier’s many plans for the rebuilding of great European cities and towns after the World War II called for the complete decimation of all the old, historic city quarters and the erection of tall concrete and glass towers connected not by streets, but by roads. It may seem like a pedantic distinction, but a street is a road for people, and a road is a street for machines. Up until the technocentric development of the modern age cities had been built with streets. Essentially, beginning with Corbusier they would be built with roads.
This small difference is vastly significant because it would go on to make all the difference in the world for how people would use their cities, and consequently how pleasant their experience of them would be. It may also serve as a metaphor for the age of the machine, the age of automation, and the age of efficiency which made speed, precision, and streamlined perfection our god in the temple of minimalism. This minimalism evidenced itself in his scorn for humanity. Corbusier disdained regular streets because they were theatre for “disorderly human conduct.” It was unpredictable. It was incalculable. It was social. It was messy.
In his architecture, Corbusier denounced humanity and all of its historical expressions. Dalrymple calls it “inhumanity” or “ahumanity.”
“This manifests itself in several ways, including in his thousands of architectural photos and drawings, in which it is rare indeed that a human figure ever appears, and then always as a kind of distant ant, unfortunately spoiling an otherwise immaculate, Platonic townscape.”
Corbusier wanted humans “out of sight, out of mind” because the landscape would be “cleaner” that way, less adulterated. He dehumanized every facet of design as machines; a “machine for living” (house), a “machine for moving” (cars), or a “machine for sitting” (chairs).
Corbusier criticized Gothic architecture because it provided “an ingenious solution to a difficult problem” but it is an irrelevant solution because it ignores basic primary forms (or in other words, it isn’t streamlined minimalism).