The 45th anniversary of the death of Swiss architect Le Corbusier on August 27 slipped by without a mention that I've seen, despite the fact that his ideas about building new cities with apartment towers had repercussions around the world.
His intention was good, but remember that is what the road to Hell is pave with. His aim 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. Nine decades after he began to expound his ideas, it is clear that the "tower in the park" he advocated 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 like the Robert Taylor Houses in Chicago lasted only a few decades before they were demolished.
The picture on the right was taken in 2005 in Shanghai, which then was 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 exception. 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.
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About the reviewer
Mary Soderstrom is a Montreal-based writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her new collection of short stories, Desire Lines: Stories of Love and Geography, will be published by Oberon Press in November, … more