Le Corbusier’s Grip on Developing Cities

The ideas of the visionary modernist Le Corbusier are still shaping development around the world, sometimes to the detriment of cities and their inhabitants. according to a group of high-profile urbanists and scholars at a session at Habitat III, the United Nations international sustainable development that took place in Quito, Ecuador, last week.

The session featured renowned urbanists and professors Saskia Sassen, Richard Sennet and Richard Burdett, along with Joan Clos, former mayor of Barcelona and director of UN Habitat.  Burdett also runs London School of Economics Cities (LSE Cities), which had a big presence at the Habitat III conference.

Sassen, Sennet and Burdett have just completed what they are calling the Quito Papers, soon to be released online, which respond directly to Le Corbusier’s writings in the Athens Chapter in 1943. Those writings advanced Le Corbusier’s vision of a modern, auto-oriented, utilitarian city of tall buildings, surrounded by open space. While Le Corbusier’s theories have been rejected by many urbanists as cold, top-down and unfriendly to people, they were highly influential in the development of U.S. cities in the middle of last century, and, as Sassen and Sennet noted, are still shaping rapidly urbanizing areas across the world.

Le Corbusier’s influence is evident throughout New York, in large-scale developments such as New York City’s public housing developments or the Trump Place project on the Upper West Side, or, farther north, in downtown Albany’s Empire State Plaza.

Sassen’s and Sennet’s writings challenge how cities are quickly being developed in China and other parts of the developing world based on the ideas of Le Corbusier. Their vision of the city is one that is dense, but open to new people and ideas, adaptable and porous, with development that happens organically over time. They cite Barcelona and London as examples of cities that are finding the right balance between growth and livability.

That vision resonates at RPA, where in our work on the Fourth Regional Plan we have called for a lot of growth to happen across the region, but in a way that is participatory, tied to infrastructure development and designed with residents’ health and quality of life in mind.

Side note: The panel happened to follow a screening of Citizen Jane, a new documentary about Jane Jacobs, in which Le Corbusier and his vision for the auto-oriented city with tall buildings and large highways was presented in stark contrast to Jacobs’ belief in organically developed places for people.

Also, for a fresh interpretation of Le Corbusier’s legacy, see Anthony Flint’s recent biography, Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier.


Photo: Panorama of Stuyvesant Town by Eden Pictures


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