top of page

The Fairy CATTtastrophe

CYBER-HISTORY: Applied Heuretics; Section 4 - Cyber-history Applied: CATTt Analysis of Le Corbusier's When the Cathedrals Were White, Part 2

The most striking of the radiant moments recounted in Cathedrals is particularly appropriate for consideration here, sharing the name of the theory utilized in the analytical process: Le Corbusier’s ‘Fairy Catastrophe’:

A hundred times I have thought: New York is a catastrophe, and fifty times: it is a beautiful catastrophe. . . .

The night was dark, the air dry and cold. The whole city was lighted up. If you had not seen it, you cannot know or imagine what it is like. You must have had it sweep over you. . . . The sky is decked out. It is a Milky Way come down to earth; you are in it. Each window, each person, is a light in the sky. At the same time a perspective is established by the arrangement of the thousand lights of each skyscraper; it forms itself more in your mind than in the darkness perforated by illimitable fires. The stars are part of it also—the real stars—but sparkling quietly in the distance. Splendor, scintillation, promise, proof, act of faith, etc. Feeling comes into play; the action of the heart is released; crescendo, allegro, fortissimo. We are charged with feeling, we are intoxicated; legs strengthened, chest expanded, eager for action, we are filled with a great confidence. . . .

Everything is possible. Let the human be written into this by conscious intention, let joy be brought into the city by means of wisely conceived urban machinery and by generous thinking. . . .

For me the fairy catastrophe is the lever of hope. (Le Corbusier 1964, 90)

In a flash Le Corbusier’s external environment and his personal, interior affects resonate together and produce a powerful figure indicating possibility. Some miniscule aspect of the Second Machine Age—the contemporary space of the Radiant City—is seen, experienced or perhaps produced in the duration of this affective event.

Experiment in catastrophic movement: filling in the CATTt

To illustrate how heuretic analysis brings the ‘radiant moment’ to the foreground in a reading of Cathedrals, we shall break apart the ‘Fairy Catastrophe’ into its constituent CATTt components to show the dense crystallization of processes evident in these short bursts of experience. The Contrast is made up of those aspects of the city that induce an experience of cacophony, frustration, or anger, whether these feelings are produced from Le Corbusier’s experiences in Manhattan, Paris, or the suburbs. His Analogy is the Manhattan (or any city) that is present simultaneously with the contrasting chaos: the ‘beautiful catastrophe’. Le Corbusier keeps circling around this paradoxical condition found in his milieu, examining it from as many different positions as he encounters it, precisely because of the closeness of the Contrast to be distanced and the Analogy to be developed. Corbu will continuously attempt to render these two catastrophes in such a way as to further distinguish them. He describes the frustrating proximity of these two important guides and the process of parsing them out:

Hate or love: nothing more, nothing less. Daily debate. Better, debate through every minute in the midst of the stupefying city. Hours of despair in the violence of the city, (New York or Chicago); hours of enthusiasm, confidence, optimism, in the fairy splendor of the city. (ibid, 40)

The Theory employed is a latent deployment of Taylorist principles: the belief that increased efficiency of production has the capability of solving many of humanity’s problems (McLeod 1985), manifested as a belief in the ultimate and intrinsic value of efficiency:

It is modern society experimenting on a grand scale with the machinery which will someday enable it to create the ‘radiant city,’ when everything will be well calculated, justly valued, exactly measured out. An enormous amount of time will be saved every day. Make an effort to picture the ‘business activity’ in Paris or elsewhere: hurried pedestrians, taxis immobilized at every corner, buses full of people anxious to go somewhere quickly, subways. Business activities are so dispersed and scattered about the city that many people lose a large share of their time in a sterile struggle with distance. Every day! What loss of energy, what waste! (ibid, 67-8)

The tale is the textual narrative recounting the experience of the radiant moments, and the Target is the reader, a component that Le Corbusier manipulated to great effect in the pedagogical example presented in the next section.

The radiant moments are remarkable for their elegance. To have so many operative components deployed almost instantaneously in the mind of the active subject is an exhibition of inventive energy of a drastically different sort than the didactic, discursive activities so useful in hermeneutics. The urgency with which the radiant moments are presented in Cathedrals is an effect of Le Corbusier’s close contact with a systemic logic that creates a tuning device through the superposition of experience and thought.

Toward a radiant pedagogy

What becomes most essential for Le Corbusier in the writing of Cathedrals is the careful documentation of each ‘radiant moment’ for future replication, a repetition which must go beyond Corbu himself and include other sympathetic individuals. This representation, or recreation, begins to elucidate Le Corbusier’s motivation for formatting his works in such an idiosyncratic manner. The second radiant moment we will discuss features an additional explanation of Le Corbusier’s application of his creative-generative process in the form of a radiant pedagogy in which the target audience becomes affectively tuned to recreate the catastrophe surface and replicate the evocative phenomena experienced by Corbu to possibly create such radiant phenomena themselves. This second radiant example is Corbu’s experience entering Manhattan by crossing the Washington Bridge:

The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. . . . It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers. When your car moves up the ramp the two towers rise so high that it brings you happiness; their structure is so pure, so resolute, so regular that here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh. . . . The rose-colored towers of New York appear, a vision whose harshness is mitigated by distance. (Le Corbusier 1964a, 73)

In recounting this radiant moment, not only does Corbu document his own affective experience, he postulates the existence of a previous affective experience which acted to produce his ecstasy through the production of the exterior object of the bridge:

Little by little the spirit of modern times makes itself felt: these men said, ‘Stop! no stone or decoration here. The two towers and the mathematical play of the cables make a splendid unity. It is one. That is the new beauty.’ (ibid, 75-6)

The designers have a moment of epiphany during the process of the bridge’s production, an epiphany that features a glimpse of the Second Machine Age; they make the bridge correspond to their vision. Subsequently, Le Corbusier is affected by being similarly attuned to the reception of this radiant information and recreates the designers’ epiphany as a radiant moment. The experience becomes pedagogical when Corbu in turn attempts to pass the experience to a different Target, and the radiant moment can act as a tool for the affective tuning of the audience while simultaneously serving as the affective content:

In my lecture at Columbia University I began with the evocation of the bridge and thanked the unknown man who had saved it and had given to New York that place of grace and joy. (ibid, 76)

Corbu states the need for affective pedagogy to take the form of such an evocation:

Through personal experience I know that it is necessary to have seen; I do not care for literary evocations. Drawing cannot give you the inexpressible sensation of a work thus suspended between water and sky. Neither can photography. The reader of these lines, then, will not be able to appreciate as I do, in the fervor of his heart, the miracle which happened at the right moment, when a sensitive and sober-minded man cried: ‘Stop!’ (ibid)

Thus a typical argumentative, expositive or anecdotal text-format could not be enough to properly carry the weight of understanding needed to produce the trajectory leading to the Second Machine Age; only a fundamentally heuretic, inventive and productive output that could affectively tune the target audience would be sufficient for Le Corbusier’s treatise on method.

How do we Corbu?

When the Cathedrals were White is an experimental, affective manifesto for the production of a modern urbanism. Le Corbusier’s productive method must get us from here, the present with its constellation of contingencies, to a place that is contemporary yet not-here that, due to its absence, can only be known indirectly; this place is the Second Machine Age. We can achieve a catastrophic contact with this radiant space by being sympathetic to its conditions, by having Le Corbusier’s often discussed ‘eyes which see’. But to attain a stable position within the domain of the Second Machine Age we must come to an understanding of the larger system that produces such catastrophic events. Cathedrals, as a collection of radiant moments documented in text, is a step toward the rigorous development of a methodology that can utilize these catastrophic events in the production of a trajectory leading to the new domain of the contemporary.

Le Corbusier recounts his own affective experiences perhaps to better understand the emergence of this discontinuous movement that makes the surrounding milieu become uncanny and reveal the possible; he also seems to wish that we, the readers, might become affectively activated and recreate the proliferation of the uncanny. From this heuretic understanding of the text, the presence of the problematic historical inaccuracies to which the book owes its title become better understood. ‘When the cathedrals were white’ is an evocation repeated numerous times throughout the text, a phrase which alludes to the cultural milieu that produced the gothic cathedrals of Europe. Corbu paints a rosy picture of the culture of the Middle Ages, one which is certainly not in accord with the hermeneutic traditions that establish the characteristics of fact and truth in textual history:

When the cathedrals were white, participation was unanimous, in everything. There were no pontificating coteries; the people, the country went ahead. The theater was in the cathedrals, set up on improvised stages in the middle of the nave they told off the priests and the powerful: the people were grown up and masters of themselves, in the white church—inside and out. . . . As yet there was no Academy to govern everything. People were direct and raw, frank. (ibid, 5)

Taken within a heuretic context, this extremely questionable account of life in the Middle Ages becomes an interesting positioning device that serves to calibrate the affective apparatus of both the author and reader to properly receive the productive contrasts and analogies upon which the text relies. The simple binary contrast of black/white becomes a mnemonic that begins to sift features of the past and present into categories of here and there: stifling vs. liberated; decay and putrefaction vs. vibrant, living processes. The hypothesized time of the white cathedrals becomes the time and space of the Radiant City and the Second Machine Age through identifying an affinity of production.

Solving problems with Cathedrals

In Cathedrals, Le Corbusier utilizes a heuretic history of the Middle Ages that turns cathedrals from objects into actions and the endeavor to study them becomes profoundly productive. The heuretic analysis of When the Cathedrals were White attempted here similarly attempts to uncover a Le Corbusier who is as much a verb as an object of reverential study. The fundamental question of analysis thus changes from ‘What did Corbu do?’ to ‘How do we Corbu?’

If we follow the implications of the question ‘How do we Corbu?’ our research will be led to the productive agency that is such a vital component of urbanism’s concerns. Le Corbusier sought a new method for working with the world’s urban conditions, a method that could solve ever-emerging problems. We continue to seek solutions to the problems plaguing our contemporary cities. We conduct research into the nature of the built environment in order to hone our methods for defining and working with the urban object. While the legacy of Le Corbusier’s urban plans, particularly their intensive utilization of automobile-governed scaling and large block zoning, is received as problematic in relation to contemporary issues confronting the cities of today (sprawl, pollution due to intensive energy consumption, etc), a heuretic understanding of his work reveals that his methods for dealing with catastrophic developments in the built environment may be useful to us today. The discrepancies which emerge when we examine the usefulness of the Radiant City in stemming the escalation of contemporary urban problems are revealed as superficial divergences that do not necessarily affect the validity of a productive urban-planning methodology. Through heuretic analysis, the automobile becomes one component of Le Corbusier’s CATTt generator, a component which can be replaced with something that is sympathetic to our affective capacities. With the automobile replaced by a bicycle or pedestrian, the CATTt process can be run again, and a new experimental output obtained from the generator; in this way, a method can be re-calibrated to maintain its efficacy. One would expect that the visual form of the plan obtained would have a vastly different character and scale by running Le Corbusier’s CATTt with such a substitution.

Heuretic analysis can produce critical experiments that can revitalize the validity embodied in our discourse’s reserve of precedents. Focusing this experiment on Le Corbusier’s urban oeuvre enacts a revision process that can productively re-imagine the traditions of architectural and urban thought in the twentieth century. When the Cathedrals were White becomes a manifesto for contemporary urban methodologies, and The Radiant City becomes an experimental application of Le Corbusier’s inventive logic. Much work remains to be done in this contextual realignment of the tradition of modernism in urban-planning. The CATTt indicates a new lever of hope, inspired and fueled by the affective power of Le Corbusier’s fairy catastrophe.

< Section 4, Part 1

Le Corbusier's

When the Cathedrals Were White

as Invention Experiment

CATTt Analysis of Le Corbusier's

Vers une architecture


  • Le Corbusier. 1964. When the Cathedrals were White. F. E. Hyslop, Jr. trans. McGraw-Hill Book Co.: New York.

  • McLeod, M. C. 1985. Urbanism and utopia: Le Corbusier from regional syndicalism to Vichy. PhD Dissertation, Princeton University.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
bottom of page