The French architect, planner, and artist has been the subject of several excellent full-length biographies and studies so I won’t attempt to add the bibliography here, but there’s a certain merit to explaining his most influential legacy: the Radiant City. Le Corbusier imagined the ideal city as a set of lawn darts. Babel-like towers would house thousands of urban dwellers in one area and they would commute —typically via underground trains and highways— to another set of towers where offices and administrative facilities were housed. Everything else would be a fantastic emerald green.*
Co-Op City, along with Government Housing Projects in Chicago, Baltimore, and other parts of New York, is viewed as a condemnation of the entire theory; proof that bigger isn’t better when it comes to urban planning. Large scale theories are not immune to ironies though, and often the critics of house projects look towards what they know best rather than think about the people who actually live in those buildings. Housing Projects are also known by a general non de guerre: affordable housing. The innocuous phrase is simply a euphemism for housing for the poor.
Poverty, at least in this country, begets poverty (his blog has covered the issue of decentralization before albeit in a roundabout way). Poor people do not emigrate to urban areas for the possibility of a better life as they do in India and China; in the U.S. the poor are often already there, mired in low-wage, low-growth “careers”, disproportionately affected by crime, drugs, and unemployment. The slums of Mumbai and Detroit have very little in common; the tide in India, no matter how uneven, still raises all boats. In the U.S. the tide has receded, leaving Greenwich and Lake Forest afloat.v
The emergence of the Radiant city style housing projects in American is a geographical canard. People living in the projects aren’t poor because they live in the projects; they were poor when they got there. But urban planners usually see it the other way around because that’s the overwhelmingly visual proof and it is distinctly visceral. The truth is, while Le Corbusier’s Radiant cities are not practical in theory or in application they aren’t the why, they’re only the where.
vLe Corbusier’s ideas are flawed to be sure (however the vogue of sustainable living has inadvertently led to the reemergence of vertical living, something Le Corbusier championed) but his ideas were never meant to be applied to anything more than urban theory. He was first an artist, more Gehry than Olmsted, and had never visited American soil before his ideas were adopted sight unseen. He was also a shameless self-promoter and was wont to endorse his ideas where there was very little rationale for application. The Radiant City was geared towards the Parlor crowds of Paris when Le Corbusier was working; terrifying to the cultural bastions of vie Parisen (especially his vision of Paris’s future) and fascinating to the industrial minimalists of the day.
* The concepts runs against the grain of Jane Jacobs, a woman whose life’s work was a crusade against the top-down pursuit of Le Corbusier’s Radiant cities. An untrained urban planner, though as a journalist she was a keener observer than theorist, she considered Boston’s North End and New York’s Greenwich Village —her own home— the organic, and superior, foil to Le Corbusier’s ultimately geometric plan. I mention Jacobs very briefly here because I plan on making her the subject of a much more lengthy study in modern urban theory.