Book ReView – The Radiant City

Hello readers – I’d like to begin this post by apologizing for my somewhat intermittent posting over the past month and a half. The summer season is particularly busy at my job that pays, and my blogging time unfortunately has had to take a hit. I am by no means finished with this project, and as long as I remain in suburbia a new post will always show up, sooner or later.

A big part of my free time in these past six weeks has been spent reading influential books on urban planning, architecture, and whatever else I’ve been able to get my hands on. In this new series, I’ll be writing about those books as I read them – the good, the bad, and the Le Corbusier. If you have any suggestions on books I should read and review, please leave them in the comments. I have a long list already built up, but I’m always looking for more reading material.

Review: The Radiant City – Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier’s rambling manifesto should be mandatory reading for all budding planners, not as a guide but as a warning: this is where arrogance can take you. The Radiant City is based around a simple idea: the modern planner knows what’s best for a city, thank you very much. It’s easy to crack a smile reading the book now when the idea that we would completely raze Paris in favor of a utopian “paradise,” featuring gargantuan mass-produced buildings set in idyllic park scenery, is ludicrous. It’s harder to laugh when you realize how much these ideals have shaped the modern city. So many of the 50’s and 60’s housing projects that have become some of the most crime-ridden areas of major U.S. cities mirror his “city in a park” philosophy, and the “planner knows best” concept pervades urban planning culture even today.

Let’s back up for a minute. What exactly is a “Radiant City?”

A major component of the ideal deals with the physical construction process. Le Corbusier’s modern city is built with modern means, namely using then-new prefabrication techniques. The only remaining construction job is that of fitter, and all of the pieces of these cities would be manufactured in factories out of concrete, glass and steel before being shipped and assembled on-site. All rooms would be the same height, all apartments built of the same modular components, changing only based on the number of residents. Each apartment would be within a short walk of an elevator (for making a person walk up more than three flights of stairs “should be a crime”). They would even take advantage of climate control techniques to ensure that the natural world would never impinge upon utopia, and modern sound-reducing technologies to prevent any transmission of noise between neighboring apartments.

Each building would be build on pilotois to ensure that the maximum ground space is available for what is apparently the only appropriate use of ground space: landscaped parks. These walking paths meander from building to building, but one wonders why any resident would ever bother to leave their immediate vicinity, for all amenities are accommodated for in short walking distance. The only “street” traffic would occur at the opening and closing times of nearby factories, as streams of drones leave their buildings, enter the factories, and leave five to six hours later.

“Idle hands are the devil’s plaything” – surely the modernist Le Corbusier wouldn’t claim to support this religious cliche, but his writings betray a deep fear of what a city’s populace might get up to if given an overabundance of leisure time. His at-the-time not unreasonable assumption that the workday would be rapidly reduced through more efficient manufacturing techniques left him quivering with fear. To solve this issue, he provides for extensive athletic facilities and walking paths, counting on every citizen to fulfill the ancient Grecian ideal of the perfect man. As much as he ignored the trend of some of his contemporaries to blatantly copy the architecture of the ancient world he took the Athenian philosophy to heart in his idea of what a citizen (read: male) should be.

And what about transportation in the “Radiant City?” He provides for the complete separation of vehicle traffic through frequent elevated highways for cars. Although he anticipated sunlight and fresh air for every citizen, it’s hard to imagine how either of these would be accomplished as great swaths of the city sit in the shadow of housing complexes and the park scenery is constantly interrupted by multi-lane highways rumbling above. He also provided for a complete underground rail network, but it’s difficult to understand where anyone would want to go in the Radiant City. When every section is identical, why travel outside of your small sphere?

If Le Corbusier’s influence weren’t so abundantly evident in cities today, it would be easy to study him simply as the quintessential modern architect. All of the arrogance of that movement is evident in his writings. The arrogance that modernism was entirely superior to all traditional techniques, and more importantly, that nothing would ever surpass the modern. It was truly the end of history, and, like every other time that claim has been made, it was definitively wrong.

Unfortunately, you can’t walk around modern cities without seeing his mark everywhere. It is nowhere more evident than New York City. As you approach on I-95, your first view of the metropolis is Co-op City, a true radiant ideal. Everything identical, everything “perfect.” As the big box stores reveal, it is hardly a design conducive to innovation or creativity. Co-op city functions far better than many of the other areas that show his influence.

The ultimate irony is that Le Corbusier would have recognized the flaw in the haphazard implementation of his ideas. He didn’t want to augment existing cities with new projects – he wanted to destroy the cities and replace them with his utopias. It’s impossible to say now whether or not this would have worked, but I can’t imagine a “Radiant City” turning into anything more than a droll, lifeless semi-suburbia where every resident who could afford to would depart for a city with life, a city with culture, not a “Radiant City” but a city that was radiant. Le Corbusier forgot that the best thing a city has to offer to the world is its people. I hope our next generation of urban planners can avoid his mistakes.


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