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Giedion's Space-Time Figures as Analytical Framework

Pruitt-Igoe on the Beach, Part 2- A Proposed Alternative: Giedion’s Space-Time Figures as Analytical Framework

Lecturing on modernism at Harvard University in 1938-39, Sigfried Giedion described historical conceptions of urban space and time using emblematic spatial arrangements that he called figures (Giedion 1949). Medieval urban space-time was summed up by the leaning Asinelli and Garisenda towers in Bologna; Renaissance space-time found culmination in the nineteenth century through the perspectival spaces of Haussmann’s boulevards cutting through Paris; and contemporary, modern developments in urban space-time could be previewed in Cubism and Rockefeller Center. Giedion used the space-time figures to uncover an imperative in contemporary urban planning to think at increasingly larger scales, a space-time necessitated by industrialization.

As an example of an alternative approach in architectural historiography to uncover a valid ulterior narrative of modernism, Geidion’s space-time figures of the historical urban subject are here used to analyze Le Corbusier’s urbanisms. By looking at Le Corbusier’s publications on urban planning using the topical framework of Giedion’s figures, we find that a non-perspectival, synthetic and/or collaged space of representation was an operative component in his invention of a modern urbanism. This idiosyncratic manner of presenting urban space corresponds to Giedion’s utilization of Cubist collage techniques to communicate new possibilities for thinking about large-scale developments, possibilities implied in the dynamic public spaces of Rockefeller Center and a new scale of space introduced to the city by the parkway as a new spatial type. The spaces of industrial society, and the scale and complexity of new transportation networks are too vast to be communicated from a fixed point, or a single view obtained by looking along a primary axis conveniently provided by the architect or planner. According to Giedion, the synthesis of heterogeneous and sometimes contradictory spatial experiences into the image of a larger system, be it a single Modernist building or the entire city, must take place in a synthetic frame constructed in the mind of each subject. An inventive agency is required to gain understanding of contemporary space-time.

The ingenious conceptual structure that Giedion used to communicate the new problems of the industrial city was also used by the Modernists whose work he studied and presented to the world. In attempting to solve the problems of cities besieged by the rapid mechanization of means of production and transportation, the avant-gardes of the early twentieth century sought new methodologies when existing conceptual tools seemed to become obsolete. Le Corbusier’s career as a prominent revolutionary artist and architect/urbanist, is a good example of the development of new space conceptions in art preceding and fueling developments in architecture and city planning. The dynamic frame of Cubist and Purist synthetic space became a key component of Le Corbusier’s urban methods several years after his rise in prominence as an artist. This application of the synthetic space of avant-garde painting to urban analysis can be seen in Le Corbusier’s early urban plans, such as the Plan Voisin exhibited in 1924 as part of the Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau alongside a prototype housing unit. Later publications like Précisions (Le Corbusier 1930) and When the Cathedrals were White (Le Corbusier 1937) show the continued influence of synthetic space-time on urban projects throughout the architect’s career, culminating in the massive tome, the Poem of the Right Angle (Le Corbusier 1955). These works describe a trajectory into increasingly obscure formats of communication. The format Le Corbusier chose for these works indicates aspects of the invention of a modern urbanism radically different from those presented in his more famous urbanisms that tend to convey information using highly didactic formats. These more didactic, popular works include CIAM’s Athens Charter (CIAM 1938; Le Corbusier 1973), and the plans and perspectival renderings of innumerable urban projects produced by Le Corbusier’s studio.

To begin a re-survey of Le Corbusier’s urbanisms with the aim of uncovering an obscure but fertile trajectory for modern urbanism, we will summarize Giedion’s three figural frames and discuss their implications for modeling urbanity as an object of knowledge. Then in a later post, we will examine one of Le Corbusier’s early format-experiments, the Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau, to show how the application of Giedion’s figures can reveal new opportunities for understanding historical precedents, finding the thread of continuity for more obscure aspects of modern urbanism. Giedion’s historical figures reach back to Medieval Europe, through the Renaissance and Enlightenment and into a projective and experimental present. Identifying Giedion’s space-time figures as a nascent historical analysis will allow us to use the figure-concept to continue this analytical experiment using material more specifically relevant to contemporary practice. This application of figural history will bring Le Corbusier into focus as an important figure whose work repeatedly appears in discussions of value and direction in architectural discourses of the late twentieth century.

Giedion's Figural Space-Time Frames

First frame: the towers of Bologna

The Asinelli and Garisenda towers in Bologna date from the early twelfth century and are two early examples in the city that would eventually have nearly 100 towers, with construction and modification reaching a fevered pitch by the end of the fourteenth century (Jones 1997). In his lectures at Harvard in 1938-9, Sigfried Giedion invested these towers with a vast historical significance; he made it clear that being able to view the interrelations of the two towers in space, leaning toward one another at the intersection of five streets leading to gates in the city’s walls - a relationship easily comprehended from any number of stationary points - indicates a manner of understanding the city in the time and space of a historical subject.

[T]he leaning towers of the two noble families of Asinelli and Garisenda in Bologna . . . can be embraced at a single glance, in a single view. There is no uncertainty in the observer concerning their relation to each other. (Giedion 1949, 641)

So, what does this figure tell us about Medieval Bologna’s space and time? It is indicative of what we might call a “clotting” of the space-time of the city. Bologna’s towers date from the height of the Investiture Conflict that pitted groups of noblemen throughout the Holy Roman Empire against each other, siding with either the sovereign power of the Emperor or the Pope. In Northern Italy, local noblemen, merchants, and prominent families asserted their bids for local power amidst these chaotic alliances. The political, social and economic consolidation of Italian City-States into relatively independent, localized systems of governance was contemporary with the questions of sovereignty and right of rule and law implicated in the conflict. The particular form of urbanity that would eventually emerge as the northern Italian City-State by the fourteenth century, legible at the macro scale of the city and its surrounding lands, was fraught with violent clashes between clans within individual cities (Martines 1979; Hyde 1973).

The internal rivalries raging in cities like Bologna in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries produced an extremely divided urban environment, where it was common for people to live their entire lives rarely setting foot outside a single neighborhood populated by familial relations. This divided or “clotted” urban social sphere was pervasive and prolonged enough to produce detectable variations in spoken language, such as different accents, in the different neighborhoods of Bologna. Dante mentions these differences in speech, sometimes tied to an urban space only a few hundred meters in diameter (Martines 1979).

The towers of Bologna were used as spatial tools tying a clan to a particular space in the city, aiding in the ability to protect and defend the surrounding buildings from rival factions. Objects were frequently thrown or dropped from the tops of the towers, easily injuring or killing pedestrians on the open streets below. This activity was so common as to result in specific laws punishing anyone who dropped objects from urban towers (ibid). The clan-space indicated by the towers was contingent on physical lines of gravitation and bodily occupation. The physical manifestation of a clan’s dependency on the tower as a spatial-gravitational tool is exemplified by the unusual practice of building bridges and flyovers connecting various buildings within the family neighborhood directly to the tower. The formative urban space of the City-State was dependent entirely on physical occupation. Visual or measurable distances were irrelevant in this localized and haptic space. The tower-type allowed each local system or family clot to obtain global legibility through cohesion via physical proximity and fulfilled the need for global validation at the scale of the City-State for protection against vying family systems. The city that produced the Asinelli and Garisenda towers had little use for the abstracted, homogeneous and infinite concept of space that would emerge during the Renaissance.

Second frame: perspectival space of the Parisian boulevards

For Giedion, the linear network of Haussmann’s Boulevards cutting through the dense fabric of the ancient city of Paris was a grafting of the abstract, homogeneous, and infinite space of Renaissance linear perspective onto the space-time of an existing urban environment (Giedion 1949). Thus, the nineteenth century Haussmannization of Paris is a late expression of Renaissance space-time, brought to bear by a series of rulers on the haptic, clotted space-time of medieval urban neighborhoods to produce a new hybrid urban condition.

When Haussmann was appointed to the position of Prefect of the Seine Department by Napoleon III in 1853, the work of making Medieval Paris correspond to the industrial age and the rule of the Empire had already begun. For Giedion, documenting the series of rulers who commissioned the changes of Paris in the nineteenth century was necessary to show the slow unfolding of power-relations indicated by each urban invention, stretching back at least to the developments of Louis XIV that introduced large-scale Baroque space to the city’s environs. Under the Second Empire, Napoleon III would immediately begin attempts to systematize the extension of Renaissance space through the existing city. These early attempts were initially plagued by embarrassing engineering and surveying failures, leading to Haussmann’s appointment as a qualified planner who would support the Emperor’s expensive plans.

The “Haussmannization” of Paris corresponds to the city’s industrialization performed through “perspectivization”. The development of the boulevards began as a process of extension and connection of urban elements. First, an 1854 extension stretched the Rue de Rivoli from the Tuileries to the tangled mass of streets and buildings in front of the Hôtel de Ville. This dense neighborhood, which had previously been the starting point of various Parisian revolts, was replaced with the open space of the Place du Châtelet (ibid). In 1858, the wide, arrow-straight Boulevard Sébastopol was extended to connect the Île de la Cité to the Gare de l’Est, linking the new administrative center in the middle of the city to a new railroad station on its north-eastern edge by a tree-lined space, bounded in the distance only by perspectival convergence. The Rue de Rivoli and the Boulevard Sébastopol, connecting to the Boulevard Saint-Michel on the south side of the Seine, intersect in the center of the city to form “la grande croisée”, effectively establishing a large-scale, linear and homogeneous access-space within the medieval city fabric of Paris.

Like the medieval, clotted space-time figured by the Asinelli and Garisenda towers, the space-time of the Boulevard indicates a static frame of reference for comprehension of the city. An individual placed anywhere within the monumental Boulevard-spaces of Paris can view a linear, occupiable space extended through the city, bounded by the optical convergence created by the individual viewer as an entity occupying the space. This perspectival figure created by literally carving and cutting through the dense space of medieval Parisian neighborhoods encodes complex urban power relations: the individual viewer need only occupy the boulevard-space to effect the dominance of the newer spatial system, manipulating the surrounding milieu and freeing the clots. Movement along the perspectival network will only confirm the relations of the urban system as visible from a single point.

Third frame: the virtual frame of Cubism

The new scale of development necessitated by industrialization and mechanization of the city renders the static frames of medieval clotted urban space and Renaissance perspectival space insufficient for contemporary urban comprehension:

The use of a new and larger scale in town planning which would coincide with the scale already being used in the parkway system is an imperative necessity for the salvation of the city. . . . It is closely connected with the space-time conception of our period. (ibid, 633)

The examples that Giedion used to illustrate the change in the relationship between the perceiving subject and the large scale of the industrialized urban environment are the Parkway and Rockefeller Center. Meant to be occupied only from within a moving automobile, and facilitating rapid movement through the city, the Parkway as a spatial system cannot be comprehended from any single point, and offers little comprehension of the surrounding environment to which it provides a means of access. Understanding how to navigate a city using the networks created to facilitate mechanized transportation—whether automobile, train or plane—requires movement and memory, and calls for the individual to organize, categorize, and prioritize sensory information. No one image or static spatial figure can be guaranteed to sum up the industrialized urban environment; a dynamic, synthetic frame of reference is necessary.

Artists quickly found ways to express and to cope with the alienation of their rapidly industrializing environment. The Cubists found some measure of expressive solace by rupturing the single picture plane to depict spatio-temporal simultaneity. Soon, architects like Le Corbusier, who participated in the development of the dynamic/synthetic frame in the realm of painting, were able to apply transparency and spatio-temporal simultaneity to the built environment. Giedion found that large-scale developments like Rockefeller Center seem to utilize a dynamic frame in their approach to ordering the space of the city. Rockefeller Center’s pinwheel configuration offers varied and sometimes contradictory spatial arrangements and hierarchies to the occupant, creating an urban space that is consistent with the space-time of industrial society:

[N]othing of the essential character of an organism like Rockefeller Center is revealed in a view restricted to its central axis. It possesses symmetries which are senseless in reference to the aesthetic significance of the whole. It requires comprehension in space and time more closely analogous to what has been achieved in modern scientific research and in modern painting. (ibid, 642)



  • Giedion, S. 1949. Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass.

  • Hyde, J. K. 1973. Society and Politics in Medieval Italy: The Evolution of the Civil Life, 1000-1350. St. Martin’s Press: New York.

  • Jones, P. 1997. The Italian City-State: From Commune to Signoria. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

  • Le Corbusier. 1930. Précisions sur un etat present de l’architecture et de l’urbanisme. Crès et Cie: Paris.

  • Le Corbusier. 1937. Quand les Cathédrals étaient blanches: Voyage aux pays des timides. Librairie Plon: Paris.

  • Le Corbusier. 1955. Poème de l’angle droit. Tériade: Paris.

  • Le Corbusier. 1973. The Athens Charter. Anthony Eardley, trans. Grossman Publishers: New York.

  • Martines, L. 1979. Power and Imagination: City-States in Renaissance Italy. Alfred A. Knopf: New York.

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