On August 27th, the forty-fifth anniversary of the death of Swiss architect Le Corbusier slipped by with nobody noticing. His legacy, however, lives on in cities around the world.
His idea was to make things better for people. Getting rid of substandard, unhealthy housing, and separating industry from residential areas was supposed to reform both cities and the people who lived in them. But nine decades after he began to expound his ideas, it is clear that his best-known solution to the problem, the “tower in the park” idea, has been a failure nearly everywhere except under special conditions.
Apartment towers for rich or upper middle class people seem to work reasonably well, but where corners were cut in construction and the poor were isolated in them, urban disaster has been nearly universal. Many such projects in the US lasted only a few decades before they were demolished.
The picture to the left was taken in 2005 in Shanghai, which was then razing low-rise traditional housing in order to build towers. The jury is still out on how well they will succeed, but recent rumbles of dissatisfaction have been heard as far away as North America.
The photo at bottom is of Singapore, which is probably the one successful, large scale exceptions to the rule. There, people were able (or strongly encouraged, or maybe even coerced, depending on your point of view) into buying apartments in buildings where care was taken to mix income and ethnic groups. Good public transit and nearby jobs were also part of the planning.
The fact that I’ve seen no other mention of Le Corbusier’s legacy in the last week is a measure, I think, of the just disrepute his ideas have fallen into.
Moral: bad ideas are sometimes dangerously popular. Better not to destroy but add to what is already working, as Jane Jacobs advised.
Tags: Chicago, Housing, Le Corbusier, Modernism, Shanghai, Singapore, Urban Renewal