CONTEMPORARY CITY FOR THREE MILLION INHABITANTS


Urban design by Le Corbusier, 1922
Exhibited in 1922 at the Salon d’Automne in Paris, the Contem-porary City for Three
Million Inhabitants was Le Corbusier’s first comprehensive urban-planning project.
Accompanied by a 100-square-meter diorama, it consisted of a rigidly geometric,
centralized orthogonal plan with monumental axes, uniform modern buildings, vast
expanses of open space covering 85 to 95 percent of the surface, and a system of
highways. The project was seen simultaneously as a breathtaking modern vision and as
the destruction of the familiar urban setting. Influence on the project ranged from
American gridded cities, Peter Behrens’ work, and Tony Garnier’s Une Cité industrielle (1901–04, 1917; An
Industrial Town) to Bruno Taut’s Utopian Die Stadtkrone (1919; The City Crown). By 1922 Le
Corbusier was one of the major figures of the Modern movement, and the Contemporary
City marked a high point in a period of extraordinary activity. It incorporated two ideas
that he had been developing since 1915. One was the ville pilotis , a city built on stilts, which had
independent skeletons rather than supporting walls and was in-spired by Eugène
Hénard’s Rue future (1910; Street of the Fu-ture). The other was the Dom-ino House, which would
be the basis of most of his houses up to 1935. While developing a standardized, universal
house form, he also sought to develop the urban context of his architecture. The
Contemporary City was aimed at achieving fundamental, standardized principles of town
planning.
Four times the size of Manhattan, the City consisted of a series of concentric,
rectangular belts. At the center was the ad-ministrative and business section of 24
cruciform 60-floor towers that were spaced far apart. Their plan profile recalled Khmer or
Indian temple forms and symbolized the centrality of the secular power of control. The
towers had evolved from the ideas that Le Corbusier had published in L’Es prit Nouveau in 1921, following
the suggestions of Auguste Perret. The cruciform tower was opposed to the American
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skyscraper, which in 1920 appeared as a viable urban form. What was new was not the
cruciform shape but the rigid geometry that was part of the purist machine aesthetic.
The next two rings contained residential blocks of immeublev illas , six stacked-up duplexes with
garden terraces that were either grouped around vast interior courtyards or arranged in a
linear pattern of “setback,” or redent, formation. Each repre-sented a different conception of the
city. In the former the cellular perimeter blocks formed streets, with the vertical plane
form-ing both a barrier and a linking screen. The redent blocks, taken from Hénard,
represented the wall-less, “antistreet” idea. They were to allow for a maximum of open
view, lighting, variation, and rhythm. This open-city idea would culminate in the Ville
Radieuse (Radiant City), an elevated city with a continuous park at the ground level.
Surrounding the residential area of the Con-temporary City was a wide greenbelt, beyond
which lay garden cities for workers and industrial districts, a port, or a sports complex.
The immeuble-vi lla, an adaptation of the Citrohan House, is the most enduring contribution of the
Contemporary City. The immeuble-vil la was worked out in detail and exhibited as the Pavilion of
L’Esprit Nouveau in 1925. It contributed to the formation of the five essential elements
that Le Corbusier published in 1926 as Les 5 Points d’une architecture nouvelle (Five Points for New Architecture): the pilotis ; free
plan; free facade; long, horizontal sliding windows; and roof garden. Both the cruciform
towers and the apartment blocks posed a possible rational solution to the urban problems
of overcrowding and traffic congestion. Although Le Corbusier’s emphasis on air, light,
and greenery recalled the garden city, his solution was radically different in its emphasis
on centralization and increased densities. Another major aim of the project was
facilitating traffic. Fast automobile traffic was completely separated from the pedestrian
traffic. Elevated highways intersected the city and were joined to a peripheral highway
system. Pedestrian traffic was to take place amid parks and gardens. Despite the abstract
and general character of the Contemporary City, its program addressed the postwar
situation of Paris. Next to the Contemporary City, Le Corbusier exhibited a small sketch
proposing an adaptation of the plan to the situation of Paris. In 1925 the reorganization of
Paris was the theme of the Voisin Plan for Paris.
The influence of the Contemporary City was immense. As Le Corbusier remained an
outsider of the planning establishment and received few design commissions, his
influence was largely indirect. Yet the Contemporary City formed the basis of one of the
most pervasive urban images of the 20th century, a conception of environment that
underlay every radical major city plan discussed through the 1960s. The project
synthesized many prevalent concepts of urban design, including the idea that the modern
city represented a problem to be solved and the idea of the separation of the road,
pedestrian route, and buildings.
Although much more developed than most precedents, the Contemporary City
contained Utopian and dystopian characteristics. Many streets would, in reality, be
practically empty of pedestrians. Related is the preoccupation with nature. Derived partly
from the tradition of Parisian urban planning incorporating public gardens, the idea of
bringing nature into the city was more philosophical than practical and reflected Le
Corbusier’s deep belief in nature and an interest in broad vistas. In practice, from the
office high-rises one would lose any contact with nature. Amid the lower, residential
blocks, the parks had a more useful function. Whereas Le Corbusier continuously
evolved any given type, unfortunately the midcentury American urbanrenewal projects
Entries A–F 579
ignored Le Corbusier’s immeubles -villas and only replicated the towers, which now served as the model
for social housing.
The undifferentiated open space also posed difficulty in developing varied types and
sizes of open space for a range of uses. Moreover, one of the most decisive consequences
of the cutting off of the building from the land was the separation of architecture and
landscape design, which in practice made the total environment suffer. Not only shortfalls
but the apparent success of large-scale planning has also generated concern. The
philosophy underlying the Contemporary City was inspired by regional syndicalism
emphasizing the idea of participation and the Fourierist notion of harmony and
collaboration. Ideologically, the Contemporary City was a middle-class utopia of social
order based on management and technology that prefigured the cities of the industrialized
world in the post-World War II era.
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