The urbanism of Le Corbusier or why we all live far away

“A city built for speed is a city built for success.” This phrase, attributed to Le Corbusier, one of the most influential urban planners of the 20th century, condenses one of the most important social processes experienced in that period.

Mobility is a central aspect in the configuration of the social fabric. For the professor of Sociology at the University of Seville Eduardo Bericat, every form of society entails a system of mobility. Therefore, its transformations suppose anthropological changes of enormous importance.

The author categorized the current era as nomadic sedentarism. The majority of people live in fixed homes, characteristic of a sedentary lifestyle. But our lives are in constant motion. It is not a question of quantity exclusively, but also of time and distance. This is where technological advances come into play, and specifically the car.

Its generalization has allowed something anomalous in the history of humanity: to travel great distances in a very short time. This noticeably widens our living space. We can be in a multitude of places in a single day –places radically different from each other–, which means that the number of social interactions we have on a daily basis multiplies. But also, that, necessarily, most of them are ephemeral. Precisely for Bericat, nomadic sedentary lifestyle is based on ephemeral sociability.

speed and distance

And that is a consequence of speed, that which Le Corbusier associated with success. This was the sign of his time. More and more people lived in cities and they were getting bigger. Traveling its growing extension required certain infrastructures, especially roads. The city was obsolete. Its irregular layout and narrow streets was not functional, it had to adapt to speed. The Voisin Plan of 1925 fits into this cultural framework.

Model of Le Corbusier’s Voisin Plan for Paris exhibited at the Nouveau Esprit Pavilion (1925)
Siefkin DR / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The objective of this urban project was to destroy the center of Paris to replace it with the buildings seen in the image. The name comes from Gabriel Voisin, a vehicle and aircraft manufacturer that sponsored the project. The urban fabric was made up of cross-shaped towers, and, as can be seen, it was perfect for the circulation of private vehicles: rectilinear and with wide spaces between buildings to build sufficiently wide streets.

Barcelona also had a similar project, Plan Macià, from 1934, in which Le Corbusier participated directly. Its name was due to Francesc Macìa, then president of the Generalitat, which shows the importance it was given at the time.

Neither of the two plans was finally carried out. However, the ideas that shaped them have continued to be successful to this day.

Highways outside the US

The construction of urban highways in the United States is a good example of this. According to the US Department of Transportation, from 1957 to 1977 more than a million people were displaced from their homes for this reason. Most of the highways cut through black-populated neighborhoods, dividing them in two and wiping out much of their commerce, with profound negative consequences for their social fabric as well.

The objective of these highways was precisely to connect the suburbs that were proliferating at that time in the country. On many occasions these neighborhoods excluded the black population, fostering de facto racial segregation. It is what has been categorized as “the white flight”.

In reality, the theory of nomadic sedentarism was being put into practice. Neighborhoods with an intense social and community life were sacrificed in the name of speed, necessary to move between increasingly dispersed urban centers with an increasingly individualistic life. The urban fabric of the suburbs contributed to the latter, low density and made up of long rows of single-family chalets.

Jacobs’ ideas vs. Moses

The famous fight between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses perfectly embodies the conflicts generated by the social changes derived from this new mobility paradigm.

Jacobs, an activist and one of the most influential urban planners of the last century, along with her neighborhood, opposed the construction of a highway that would cross her neighborhood in Manhattan: Greenwich Village. This construction had been planned by Moses, a high-ranking New York State official with great power in public works, in 1955. The highway was not finally built thanks to neighborhood struggles, although many others were.

A map of Manhattan showing a highway running through the island.
Map of the highway that crossed lower Manhattan (Lower Manhattan Expressway), according to Moses’ ideas.
Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

Jacobs, as an intellectual, advocated a complex and diverse city in which land uses were mixed. He proposed that housing, commerce and work share space in the neighborhoods, that there be a sufficient density for social life to flourish in the public space, essential for the development of community sociability.

This was the ideological engine of his fight against Moses – of course, also to prevent the destruction of the Village. He had a firm belief that the city built around the car was going to put an end to it all.

The present is distant, and the future?

On the other hand, the ideas that were mostly imposed throughout the world –in feedback with the technological transformations in the field of transport– were those of people like Le Corbusier or Moses. The cities that emerged from them during the 20th century were designed around the speed of travel, and therefore for the private vehicle. But its very design made it more and more necessary in an endless loop of feedback. Cities less and less dense and more dispersed, divided by zones according to their function, with homes, work and leisure increasingly distanced.

Dubai, a city full of highways and ring roads.
Dubai photography.
David Rodrigo / Unsplash

Already in the middle of the 21st century, is it possible that the mobility pendulum is returning? There are more and more voices calling for guiding cities towards local mobility. That we can satisfy our vital needs in our immediate environment. The urgency of climate change requires it, since the private vehicle is a large emitter of greenhouse gases.

But this claim also arises from the social drive to recover community ties, care, mutual support. That which the individualism of nomadic sedentary lifestyle has been weakening for decades.

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