Friday, July 2, 2010

In (Partial) Defense of LeCorbusier

It's not every day that the most influential architect and urbanist of the twentieth century gets compared to a raving pro se litigant.  As one who has spent some time recently thinking about LeCorbusier and modernism, and much more time than I care to remember dealing with pro se filings, I thought I should weigh in on Matt's previous post (linking to a Prawfsblawg post by Eric Johnson). 

I want to briefly raise two points about the post, one having to do with modernist design and the other with modernism as a political philosophy.  Both aspects of modernism have been the subject of withering critiques over the past 40 years.  Modernist design is often criticized, as Eric's post notes, for bringing us alienating industrial cityscapes of reinforced concrete towers and cavernous plazas.  At its best, however, as in the case of Mies's Seagram Building or, yes, Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye, modernist design conveys an elegance and refinement lacking in today's showy "starchitecture."  The problem with modernist design was that its acolytes believed architecture was a mechanical process rather than a craft, and thus that modernism's great exemplars could easily be replicated through the application of simple, mathematical formulae.  This was the case, for example, when New York City revised its zoning code in 1961 to encourage the creation of more Seagram Buildings through an "incentive zoning" program.  Of course, it's not so easy to duplicate a masterpiece, and the zoning code spawned many pale replicas of the Seagram Building.  Thus, one lesson modernism yields for us land use lawyers -- especially as form-based codes become more popular -- is to avoid excessive rigidity in regulating design, and especially to avoid dictating aesthetic conformity to what is currently trendy. 

As to modernism's status as a political philosophy, Eric's post wonders how LeCorbusier and the modernists successfully convinced the public to accept their "monstrosities" in the midst of our cities.  In part, Eric's question is answered by what I've just said -- the Seagram building, for example, was such a sensation at the time it was built that there was great public clamor for more buildings like it.  But that only answers the question in part, because modernist building continued long after it became clear that there would never be another Seagram Building, and long after the public had expressed its discontent with modernist architecture.  The real answer to Eric's question is, frankly, that the modernist architects didn't have to convince "the people" of anything; they had only to convince a handful of power brokers.  During the modernist era, city planners like Robert Moses and Edmund Bacon had carte blanche to carry out redevelopment schemes.  Public participation in the process was but a fig leaf.  The planners' preferred modus operandi was to eradicate the existing urban fabric and build anew on its ashes.  Their methods dovetailed neatly with modernist ideology, which preached that the past was an egregious mistake to be paved over with heroic modernist structures.  In short, modernism flattered the ego of city planners, and the city planners returned the favor by making modernist design the order of the day. 

Our current political era, largely reactive to the excesses of modernism, prizes citizen participation in the development process.  This is a trend that should of course be applauded.  However, while undoubtedly more democratic, our era has also made bold, innovative architecture far more difficult to achieve (except in China, which, of course, is not democratic).  I, for one, look back on modernism's true triumphs with a kind of nostalgia for a simpler age when it was possible to build big and to dream big without being thought delusional.   

--  Ken Stahl (kstahl@chapman.edu)

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