Build High for Happiness 4: Vers Une Architecture (1923)


new forms of labyrinths made possible by modern techniques of construction

The brutalist architecture that High-Rise does not critique has many fathers (and essentially no mothers), but its Anthony Royal figure is no doubt Le Corbusier, the pseudonym of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, whose 1923 manifesto Vers Une Architecture (first published in English as Towards a New Architecture, but these days called simply Toward an Architecture) laid out the principles of a new, sleek modernist style, and whose Unité d'Habitation design, used as the blueprint for several 1950s housing projects, defined the specifically brutalist style with its use of rough (or, in French, brut) concrete.

As an architect, Le Corbusier is a giant. Whatever crimes may be laid at the feet of the movement he spawned (and there are many), his actual buildings were iconoclastic and compelling, and remain striking to this day. But it is in many ways as a polemicist that he really shines. Modernism produced no shortage of manifestos, but any list of the great ones that excludes Vers Une Architecture is simply off its head. It is a work of masterful provocation, full of taunting and grandiose slogans. The most famous of these, and thus, given the nature of Le Corbusier’s impact, the most important is his declaration about a third of the way into the book that “a house is a machine for living in.” Ballard echoes it, almost certainly consciously, in the first chapter of High-Rise when he describes the building as “a huge machine designed to serve, not the collective body of tenants, but the individual resident in isolation. Its staff of air-conditioning conduits, elevators, garbage-disposal chutes and electrical-switching systems provided a never-failing supply of care and attention,” a litany that echoes Corbusier’s next sentence, “Baths, sun, hot water, cold water, controlled temperature, food conservation, hygiene, beauty through proportion.”

But the Ballard quote quietly embeds the critique of Le Corbusier when it notes the distinction between serving the collective residents of the building and the isolated individual. At first glance, this is counterintuitive. Even before his turn towards the harsh greys of raw concrete, Corbusier’s aesthetic had a clear austerity to it that’s implicit in the cold inhumanity of the word “machine.” (Note Ballard’s subsequent use of it to describe how people like Laing “thrived like an advanced species of machine” in the high-rise, and for that matter Corbusier’s own praise for men who are “intelligent, coolheaded, and calm” and in touch with their “mechanical side.”) Indeed, the declaration comes in the course of a three-part essay in which he admires the construction of ocean liners, airplanes, and automobiles, praising the uniform principles of their design across multiple manufacturers, their forms standardized by the needs of the clearly stated problem they solve. The statement “a house is a machine for living in” is, for Le Corbusier, essentially equivalent to the observation that the form of an airplane is not that of “a bird or a dragonfly, but a machine for flying.” He praises at length the long and uniform promenades of ocean liners, describing them as “pure, crisp, clear, clean.” And his pre-brutalist style reflects that - starkly monochromatic buildings with flat facades interrupted only by long horizontal windows cutting across the entire structure, which is generally pushed upwards by a series of ground-level columns called pilotis that serve to make the entire building exist on a literally higher plane than mere ground-based mortals.

What exists on that higher plane, however, is a box. Le Corbusier’s visions of housing, whether mass-produced individual houses or the mass housing projects that would eventually evolve into the high-rises, were giant and monolithic boxes designed to look as giant and monolithic as possible. He sought to surround them with gardens and open space (part of the reason for boosting them up onto pilotis), but the overall point is nevertheless to dominate the landscape with boxes that seem to impose themselves from some higher space.

The archetype of this was a 1914 design Le Corbusier called the Maison Dom-ino, a template for prefabricated housing that would use columns at the corners to support solid concrete slabs, thus removing the need for any load-bearing walls anywhere in the structure. The result is that the interior can be customized, but Corbusier is clear that this is only going to be within careful limits: “mass-produced windows, mass-produced doors, mass-produced cabinets; combinations of two, four, twelve window elements; one door with one impost, or two doors with two imposts, or two doors without imposts, et., cupboards with glazed upper portions and lower ones with drawers, serving as bookshelves, chests of drawers, service buffets, etc. All these elements, which are to be provided by major industry, are to a common module; they fit together perfectly.”

Implicit and indeed necessary to this is the idea of a master plan, “plan” being a word Corbusier is particularly fond of. (“The plan is the generator. Without a plan there is disorder, arbitrariness. The plan carries with it the essence of sensation.”) Elsewhere he uses the closely related notion of the standard, as in “the standard is a necessity for order brought to bear on human labor. The standard is established on sure foundations, not arbitrarily, but with the certainty of justified things and of a logic controlled by analysis and experimentation. All men have the same organism, the same functions. All men have the same needs. The social contract that evolves through the ages determines standard classes, functions, and needs yielding products for standard uses.” Bluntly, this is the reckless hubris you’d expect of a man whose politics drifted from supporting a French fascist party to trying to curry favor with Stalin to helping design the UN complex. It’s not a vision that’s straightforwardly fascist, communist, or any other ideology, but it’s one that is clearly open to its worst instincts, dependent on a sort of magical thinking whereby some overseeing authority is capable of perfectly catering to the entirety of human activity with a single design.

It’s not hard to see how this morphs into the cult of the Great Architect in Paradise Towers, with its belief that he will return to “make all those dilapidated lifts and rise and fall as they've never done before. All signs of wallscrawl will disappear from the corridors of Paradise Towers. The floors will gleam and the windows will shine, and will be made as new.” But it’s equally easy to see how Ballard’s critiques about things being built for man’s absence, or without regard for the aggregate social mass of the residents. As Jane Jacobs put it in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the 1961 book that really started the “kicking Le Corbusier in the teeth” craze, “Le Corbusier’s Utopia was a condition of what he called maximum individual liberty, by which he seems to have meant not liberty to do anything much, but liberty from ordinary responsibility. In his Radiant City nobody, presumably, was going to have to be his brother’s keeper any more. Nobody was going to have to struggle with plans of his own. Nobody was going to be tied down.”

Jacobs is specifically critiquing Le Corbusier’s later work, in which he started offering designs for entire cities. These were by and large extrapolations of his designs for individual buildings - vast skyscrapers placed in parkland such that 85% of the city is open space, albeit open space metaphysically dominated by towering monoliths housing 2700 people apiece. (The underlying design here comes from Ebenezer Howard's 1898 design for the garden city, another instance of the 20th century's blood debts to the 19th century creating the debts that the 21st would in turn have to pay.) 

In practice the Ville Radieuse itself never got built, although Costa and Niemeyer’s design for Brasília owe considerable debt to Le Corbusier. The key difference, however, is that Brasília was a bespoke city, upon previously undeveloped land. Le Corbusier’s design, however, would have selected an existing city (he suggested New York at one point) be leveled and replaced with his buildings, a vision with a much stronger claim to the word “deconstruction” than postmodernity would ever provide.

Indeed, this deconstruction was in many ways the heart of Le Corbusier’s brutal legacy. Indeed, there’s a sense in which New York City was deconstructed along his lines after all by Robert Moses, who shared Le Corbusier’s love of automobiles and freely bulldozed swaths of the city to construct its parkway network. But it is Britain, an island where every inch of space has been developed in some form, brutalist housing projects found particular use for the poor. Indeed, this is in some ways the most dissonant note of both versions of High-Rise, in that the British tower block simply wasn’t the interclass utopian dream presented. It was an excuse to bulldoze slums and shove poor people on benefits into cheaper housing.

The literal brutality of this is aptly described by Alan Moore, who routinely laments the annihilation of the district of Northampton he grew up in, openly and unrepentantly blaming the bulldozing of his beloved Spring Boroughs for the deaths of his grandparents only a few months after their forced relocations. Having seen the fragmented rubble at the end of Le Corbusier’s kaleidoscope first hand, he mourns the depth and magnitude of the working class culture destructed in modernity’s name without defending it as somehow better than the collapsing shithole that the New Cities developments left in their wake, a denouncement of progress made without recourse to some notion of rolling back the clock, swimming back against the grain of the hypercube’s fatal flow.

But it is a mistake to view Le Corbusier’s appeal to the cynical utopianism of mid-20th century urban development as entirely a matter of his destructive impulses. The quasi-authoritarian tenor of his constructive ones appealed equally much, the same logic that would eventually morph into the neo-panopticon surveillance techniques of a city dotted with CCTV cameras. The way in which Le Corbusier blindly attempts to amputate large swaths of actual human experience in the name of making everything resemble the sleek efficiency of an automobile became a perverse selling point; once you’ve demolished a culture, all that remains is to write over it again and again, engraving the vapid lines of an empty box onto it until not even ghosts remain.


Simon Hewitt 2 months, 1 week ago

I would just make one correction - most of the British Isles is in fact undeveloped. See for instance for a figure from the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) of only 6.8% urbanisation. Land ownership accounts for this disparity.

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Phil Sandifer 2 months, 1 week ago

The key phrase is "in some form," which is to say, not just urbanization. I'm referring to the fact that even the ancient forests have been cultivated and maintained by people - that there's no untamed wilderness.

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Kevin Carson 2 months, 1 week ago

Based on the extensive direct quotes I've seen from his design philosophy I've seen via Paul Goodman, and critiques by Jane Jacobs, I would say his problems aren't just with his followers.

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