Readings for our second session are up on McGill Mycourses. Please post your comments here.
It’s hard not to agree with Koolhaas in his critique of le Corbusier Cité Radieuse: ‘’…he solves the Problem but kills the Culture of Congestion’’. Conceptually and especially in the context of the 1920’s, the Cité Radieuse is an incredible project. Strange is his obsession for a Cité Radieuse on Manhattan. Le Corbusier seems to be in research of a context. Therefore it might make sense that he chooses, as a target, the one city perceived as the modern expression of the time. But the Congestion is what makes New York. Alarming is the Cité Radieuse’s perspective sketch superimposed on a vision of New York with its continuous flow of people and cars. I am not surprised that Dali is the more perceptive and sharp-eye of the two. Reading Dali, one realizes that he was in constant research of impression on and of his surroundings. Thus, besides New York itself, context is what seems to link these three readings.
Every time I read about LeCorbusier utopian’s urban plans I wonder: if Corbusier was asked and given all the tools to put his drastic plan in action would he do it?
Once you ask yourself this question you realize how unlikely this was to happen and so is today. Plan Voisin will never be build. LeCorbusier was very probably an intelligent man and I am sure he was fully conscious that his grandiose plan will not be put in action. The answer that come to my mind every time is no : LeCorbusier would have never build a Plan Voisin. I even argue that he never really wished to have such a city. These utopias are only piece for reflections upon the changing city, frame of thought a way of reopening the debate. I always get annoyed by criticisms of those utopias, such as the one by Rem Koolhaas, that seem to consider them to seriously.
Of course I might be wrong because I am not in LeCorbusier’s mind and maybe he was just am insane man wanting to destroy everything around him. But I still believe that these criticisms make no sense, because they don’t understand the project as it should be. For example, Chandigarh, a city he actually designed, does include a lot the same concepts but is certainly not as drastic. Utopias are not made to be taken so literally.
I believe LeCorbusier’s vision of Manhattan was just as surrealistic as Dali’s.
Last winter, I lived in New York for three months and a half: although my apartment was in Brooklyn, I was in Manhattan almost everyday since I was a full-time intern at the MoMA. Because of the height of Midtown skyscrapers, sun rarely reached the sidewalk. Even on a glorious early spring day, my colleagues and I would be freezing on the large and windy avenues of Midtown. We became ‘sun-hunting’ experts: we knew precisely when the sun would be shining in the sculpture garden. If, for any reason, we had to delay our daily lunch meeting, there was no point going outside as we would be shivering under the grey shadows of Midtown skyscrapers.
Reading Le Corbusier’s criticism of New York City’s skyscrapers as too small seems totally absurd today. Le Corbusier’s dream for a hyper-hygienic city, deprived of dust and filth, was a modernist utopia that never took shape. His fascination for the Euclidian order of New York City, and desire to tear down the ‘small’ skyscrapers is, as Rem Koolhaas argues, the European attempt to reclaim Manhattan. For Le Corbusier, the clear checkerboard plan of New York was a promise for a greater freedom of mind, as it simplified orientation. His tabula rasa gesture was not irrational, it was informed by solid arguments and thinking, but it neglected the humanist dimension of architecture, tailored on his idea of a machine for living.
According to Koolhaas, entity is favored over identity since bigness has become the ultimate architecture. But the race for the highest skyscraper – evoked by Le Corbusier with the Tower of Babel – is endless. Confronted to this dead end, some architects have abandoned this mythic pursuit to return to the question of identity in architecture. Beyond mere dimensions, architecture should be meaningful.
The Experience of Modernity in the Metropolis (New York)
LeCorbusier wanted to build HIS ideal city in correspondence to the demands and potential of the machine age, however in order to do that he needed to prove that such a city did not already exist. Unfortunately by this time New York City, namely Manhattan had already achieved this. In the same way Columbus thought and assumed that North America was India and its native’s Indians, creating a false reality, LeCorbusier did the same thing with New York. He criticized New York, saying it was too timid with its buildings and that most of them should be destroyed or torn down. Dali termed this false reality Paranoid Critical Method; where people start to see things in a new light. LeCorbusier also suggested that New York should be rebuilt but only bigger, which ties in with Rem Koolhaas’ notion of BIGNESS.
LeCorbusier also claims that New York is immature, not quite modern yet, however New York never claimed to be a modern city, it is more of a collection of worldly artifacts living simultaneously next door to each other and often in the same building. In some instances new buildings were made to look older than they actually were to give it a European flare. In that same building one could also find art from El Greco. New York is just a mixture of reinvention of different architectural style from all over the world, so it is ironic that LeCorbusier tried so hard to tear down New York for not be modern, when it was never its intention to be so.
Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse is a utopian dream to connect the individual within a well-ordered environment. In Koolhaas’ “Delirious New York”, Corbu attempts to show that New York doesn’t comprise the favorable components that dictates the organized conditions exemplified in the Cité Radieuse. In a way he tries to pretend New York doesn’t really exist so that there is room for his “Cité” to emerge. Although in his own book Le Corbusier seems to prefer New York to most European cities, particularly Paris, due to his appreciation for the architecture, infrastructure and most notably the cleanliness. He appreciates the ‘new event in human history’ created by New York’s vertical skyscrapers as Europe cities tend to sprawl out rather than up. He values the “Euclidean clearness” of the New York grid as oppose to the labyrinth of tiny cobblestone streets in Paris but then debates against the congestion present in New York. Dali’s paranoid critical method is necessitated by a ‘reality shortage’ brought on by this congestion that Corbusier so dislikes. The metropolitan congestion causes the symbolic exhaustion of things, as illustrated by Koolhaas’s metaphor of the saint’s big toe “the higher the frequency of the Kiss, the faster the process of consumption of the reality of nature and artifacts”.
Solving contemporary problematics through PCM ?
The BIGNESS theory of Rem Koolhaas is a theoretical reflection about the use of an architectural object as a developping model for large city scale planning. The progress of mechanical technologies permitted monumental construction in architecture, in which, Koolhaas sees an opening for a futurist model of developement. In fact, this theory wishes to give form to a new kind of city based on a total architectural empowerment. This just borned vision establishes itself with disregards for its present environment and act as a directive concept to the futur developement of contemporary cities. The ponctual irrigation of those BIGNESS entities would be the new way of giving structure and direction to the contemporary urban issues. All those monumental pieces, would act as a whole by developping conceptual linkages in between each other and by then, would requalify the landscape and lifestyle qualities. Rem Koolhaas is redirecting the development tendancies of Manhattan throught visionnary ideas that flirt with the PCM of Dalì. In fact, he is promoting with passion an untheorised and unverified doctrine to direct the construction process of futur cities. He is deaply convinced that the way to reconnect the actual fragmentation and chaos of the urban scenes would be possible through is architectural densification concept. Under the enlightment of this exemple, could we say that most of the conceptualisation exercices would be the result of delirious steps of our thoughs ? Is architectural and design innovations come from a reflexion process feeded with series of excentric speculations which could eventually lead to realization of an unique idea ? Is the PCM more used and usuful than we think ? Would it be the way to literally switch off our mind of all influences and give place to a new interpretation of our reality ?
If, as Koolhaas claims, ‘BIGNESS is the ultimate architecture’, than what is the role of the architect in the construction of the modern metropolis? The texts of Koolhaas and Le Corbusier suggest a modern crisis for the architectural profession, where architects seek in desperation to confront or locate themselves in the expanding scale of the metropolis as it grows too fast and too large to be conceived of or understood as a whole. As the modern city takes on a life of its own, individual buildings, and by extension their designers, are no longer relevant. Koolhaas’ use of the term ‘bigness’ suggests a complexity implicit in terms of sheer scale that pushes building or construction beyond the realm of architects – the making of ‘bigness’ is a team sport.
Le Corbusier too recognizes in the speed of the modern city the threat of redundancy for architects: “Style is developing without them [architects], outside of them, by the result itself, by the formidable internal pressure which mobilizes their efforts”, but he remains unsatisfied by Koolhaas’ conclusions. There is a place for design in this context – which is to obliterate the context, and impose a new organizing principle on the surface of Manhattan through the ideal of the Cartesian skyscraper. He proposes to add his signature to the evolution of the metropolis through its redesign, to bring to Manhattan a freedom of space absent from its existing configuration.
The question of the role or contribution of the architect is a question that continues to plague the profession today. Projects conceived of at the scale of the megastructure are products of comprehensive teams of specialists that work together at almost every stage. By expanding the canvas beyond the question of individual buildings to the scale of the city, is the role of the architect diluted, or elevated?
The impact of 1807 block grid of New York ignoring the topography of the land resulted in Manhattan. The superimposition of the grid horizontally and vertically to cater to the demands of the rising needs of its population gave rise to the fantastic and promising skyscrapers as the icon of success and freedom.. This illusion is still as vivid as was in the early 20th c, especially, in the rising nation states from Dubai to China into global efficient cities. As Koolhass, coins it the performative driven urbanism – the culture of congestion, call it the madness or success of NY could not have be conceived either by Corbusier’s modern rationality or Dali’s paranoid-critical vision. Manhattanism, (Koolhass) amidst human density, technological ingenuity and capitalistic greed is a model that new emerging global cities are striving for still today, driven by the desire to make it to the global cities index (Tate: The 2008 Global Cities Index.)
Reading the text and moving beyond the bigness of building/ and what it embodies to what it can achieve in the present urban conditions of territorial conflicts and ethics is where Koohass wants to take architectural debate to. The huge repercussions of the power of a few individuals at the top governmental and policy making level, mapping large geographical maps with a simple tool like pencil/marker can have on the lives of ordinary citizens. “WHAT YOU SEE IS NOT WHAT YOU GET.” Countless examples haunt us everyday of the ruthless power of Colonialism and its impact on urbanism. Architects and designers should be at the forefront of such decision-making processes, says Karen Lee, a fellow at GSD. Her practice is based on Resolution Planning, looking at territorial issues from a spatial perspective in aid of conflict resolution processes, negotiations and decision-making. Her pioneering work in the Israeli-Palestinian context, often produced in collaboration with Palestinian architects, has served Israeli-Palestinian leaders during key negotiations. Theorizing BIGNESS can open up new opportunities for architects and planners.
Le Cobusier’s praise of New York
When I read Le Corbusier’s praise of the dynamic rise of New York (in particular the high density skyscrapers) is his essay “New York is not a completed city”, I cannot help to recall Jane Jacobs’ critical stance on Le Corbusier’s Radiant city, in her seminal work “ The Death and Life of Great American Cities”. Jacob argues that Le Corbusier’s misguided view of the modern city has reshaped the planning of many cities around the world. The most scathing criticism against Le Corbusier’s radiant city and its derivatives (high-rise public housing projects, etc.) is their effect on the street-life and sidewalks of the city. Jacobs argues that in these types of structures, the “elevators and corridors” are in fact streets: “Streets piled up in the sky in order to eliminate streets on the ground and to permit the ground to become a [deserted] park”. Perhaps not surprising, in describing his concept of the Cartesian skyscraper, Le Corbusier talks in length about the quality of the spaces within the building, but fails to address any of the attributes of the park-like spaces the lie beneath these crystal-like objects rising into the sky.
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