Past Seminars Reviews

Mary McLeod – Architecture and Revolution: Le Corbusier, Politics and Architecture 1930–1942

In the Obus plan the syndicalist vision became a capitalist world made palatable by an organic metaphor, both social and aesthetic in implication. Anguish was warded off by absorbing its causes; crass materialism masked by beauty.
— Manfredo Tafuri
A PhD Seminar held in Rotterdam on March 18, 2010. The lecture is mostly referring to Mary McLeod ‘Le Corbusier and Algiers,’ Oppositions, no.19/20, 1980
1. Mary McLeod, ‘Architecture or Revolution: Taylorism, Technocracy, and Social Change,’ Art Journal, Vol. 43, No. 2, Summer 1983, pp. 132-147; quote from Le Corbusier, Urbanisme, (Paris: Editions Cres, 1925) reprinted in Paris, Vincent, Freal, 1966: “I am an architect; no one is going to make a politician of me. Everyone, in his own domain where he is an expert, can apply his special knowl- edge and carry his solutions to their logical conclusion”

Up to the twenties, Le Corbusier denied any specific political party affiliation, defining himself a professional man.[1] He further remarked his position in the last chapter of Vers une architecture (1923), opposing the neutrality of a coherent rational “Architecture” to the unrestrained violent “Revolutions” produced by a general increasing of social uneasiness. Therefore Le Corbusier deduced that “Revolution” could be avoided through the scientific application of innovative techniques and new building materials that would drive Architecture to relieve all the alarmed symptoms and violent desires of an exasperated mass discontent.

But this rather optimistic faith in the rational efficiency of the scientific progress, usually classified as the “typical” feature of the Modern Movement, has been progressively undermined by the capitalist breakdown in 1929, the subsequent depression of the thirties, the dramatic consequences of the Second World War and the final rise of the totalitarian regimes.

For these mentioned reasons, the several projects Le Corbusier elaborated for Algiers, in the decade from 1931 to 1942, not only offer a very particular cross-section of his architectural production (being developed in a crucial period positioned between the rational/cartesian approach of his first works and the emotive/poetic elaborations characteristic of his late career), but also outline a comprehensive picture of the European political and socio-economical situation at the end of the Modern Age. As suggested by Manfredo Tafuri, the economical crisis coincided with the complete subversion of the architectural discipline, shifting from its passive task of symbolic representation to its complete subjugation under the capitalist regime. The Plan became the principal instrument of the economical management, the necessary condition to tame the animal spirits of the market and to dispel the present anxieties with the project of the future. From 1929 onwards, Capital began to reinforce its apparatuses from the very concept of crisis, extending the strategy of the Plan over the entire society and recognizing the driving role of the working class.[2]

Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, translated by Barbara Luigia La Penta (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1979) from the original Progetto e utopia: Architettura e sviluppo capitalistico (Bari: Laterza, 1973)

Therefore it could be assumed that the real essence of Modernism does not only reside in the fascination for the machine or an efficient technology but rather in this particular strategy of absorbing the crisis, reconciling the improbable through the certainty of the Plan and systematizing the disasters in order to make them productive.

In this sense, the Algiers project was a first attempt to realize a sort of equilibrium of opposites, a compromise between the European and the Arab culture, the “confused” colonialist urbanization and the traditional muslim architecture, the artisanal labour-class and the middle bourgeois colonial-class. Le Corbusier understood the strategic geo-political position of Algiers within the Mediterranean basin proposing the creation of a potential Latin Federation consisting of the four major Mediterranean capital cities: Algiers, Barcelona, Paris and Rome. Therefore Algiers (a city that counted, already in 1931, 2/3 of the total 250.000 inhabitants as Europeans against the 1/3 indigenous Muslim population) was elected as the peaceful place of encounter between the Western and the Eastern civilization, where the new Mediterranean league of nations “will give the world and arrangement that is less arbitrary and less dangerous.”

This unexpected social and political commitment, at the beginning of the Thirties, was partly the result of Le Corbusier’s involvement in the French regional syndicalist movement, as active writer and editor for two important political journals of the time: Plan and Préludes. Inciting to an action directe against capitalism, the regional syndicalism advocated a strong national economical intervention and a gradual decentralization of the power apparatuses without resorting to the drastic violence of the class-struggle. Moreover, extending the needs of the working class to the entire society, they claimed the respect for the universal biological rights of the homme réel and the defense of the organic and natural environment necessary to establish a possible ordre nouveau.

The syndicalist action, devoid of the violent opposition of the radical movements and combined with a rational social organization, almost recalled the French political tradition of the XVIII and XIX century, which used to scientifically impose a revolutionary vision of society rather than achieving it by means of the historical class struggle.

The claim of the human biological necessities and his spiritual faculties generated the rise of a new kind of subjectivitywhich has been widely considered by Le Corbusier in his first project for Algiers, Le plan Obus A. The project arranged a series of territorial machines (viaducts) able to integrate the labour classes and to convey their propelling dynamism through the palliative of the free plan: the organization and accommodation of the singular 14 square meters cell was left to the inhabitants and to their personal necessities, transforming the public into an “active” participant in designing the city.

The phenomenon of personal participation in every stage of the human enterprise. Labor retains its fundamental materiality, but it is enlightened by the spirit. I repeat, everything lies in that phrase: a proof of love. It is to this goal, by means of new administrative forms that will purify and amplify it, that we must lead our modern world. Tell us what we are, what we can do to help, why we are working. Give us plans; show us plans; explain those plan to us. Unite us … If you show us such plans and explain them to us, the the old dichotomy between “haves” and despairing “haves-nots” will disappear. There will be but a single society, united in the belief and action… We live in an age of strictest rationalism, and this is a matter of conscience.[3]

3. Le Corbusier, ‘Spectacle de la vie moderne,’ Plans, n. 13, March 1932

Moreover, this internal flexibility of the linear architectural organization allowed the progressive organic growth of the community and of the relative production areas: the rigidity of the Ville Contemporaine (1922), already partially abandoned in the project for the Ville Radieuse (1930) inspired by the soviet urban experiments in URSS, found in Algiers its logical final development.

Le Corbusier understood the necessity to address the problem of the city at a territorial scale, breaking up the continuous sequence of architecture – quarter – city of his contemporaries (Tafuri). The Plan (“Directeur”) aimed at controlling the limits of urbanization and its further expansions, as well as at administering the production cycle and its social reproduction. The large horizontal viaduct, and the redents of Fort-L’Empereur constituted an unique structure conceived not only to overcome the class struggle and mediate the cultural diversity but also to frame and manage the complex territorial topography, transforming the whole landscape into a reified object (Tafuri).

4. Le Corbusier; Les trois etablissements humains, (Paris: Denöel, 1943)

The administration of the territory, the preservation of the landscape and its transformation into a productive machine by means of a constellation of architectural objects, were also investigated in a series of small-scale projects developed at the same time of the Algiers commitment. The scheme for the Ferme Radieuse and the Village Radieuse,[4] in fact, claimed the biological integrity of the homme réel, the sustainable ecosystem combined with light industrial settlements and, finally, the organization and preservation of rural realities through the creation of syndicalist cooperatives and moderate mechanized collectivities.

While in the Plan Obus A, Le Corbusier mainly focused on the traditional Muslim center of the Casbah, trying to realize a balanced integration with the European business centre, in the successive proposals he gradually abandoned the humanistic values of his syndicalist experience surrendering to the nationalist claims of the Vichy Government and leaving intact all the tensions between the Muslim and the colonial settlement. The project gradually became more and more specific, devoid of its lyrical and organic approach, turning in a self-referential and obsessive development of the Cité d’affaires completely detached from the preserved Casbah. Therefore, in the final project of the Plan Directeur, the business skyscraper achieved the ultimate focal point of the project, camouflaging, behind an articulated facade evoking the organic and emotive grandeur of the previous proposals, the symbol of a definitively conquered colonialist outpost (renamed from “Alger, Capitale de l’Afrique du Nord “ to “Alger, Capitale de l’Afrique Francaise.”)