The static frame and the aporia of Le Corbusier’s legacy

Pruitt-Igoe on the Beach, Part 5- The static frame and the aporia of Le Corbusier’s legacy

As discussed in our previous post, Charles Jencks’s definition of Post-modernism in architecture can be applied to many orthodox modernist works like Villa La Roche, and Le Corbusier is a figure who bridges between the categories of “modern” and “post-modern”. Jencks is not alone in having trouble placing Le Corbusier and his works as either a victim or survivor of the death of orthodox modernism. In 1979, Colin Rowe painted an extended metaphorical picture of modernism’s death in a lecture at the Royal Institute in London:

We may ascribe her death (Modern architecture is surely a she) to the ingenuousness of her temperament. Displaying an extraordinary addiction to towers and completely unconstructed spaces, when young she possessed a high and romantically honorable idea of life and her excess of sensibility could only lead to later chagrin. Like one of Jane Austen’s more extreme heroines—though she was simultaneously morally reserved, passionate, and artless—it was her juvenile notion that, once she was perfectly wedded to society, this so much desired husband would, by the influence of her example, become redeemed of errors. . . . [E]xcessive sensibility abused by inadequate experience, motivated by a quasi-religious sentiment not well understood and complicated by the presence of physics envy, Zeitgeist worship, object fixation, and stradaphobia must be considered the greatest factors contributing to the demise. (Rowe 1999, 167-8)

Perhaps because of its indirect, metaphorical delivery, Rowe’s autopsy and death certificate for modernism is more nuanced and empathetic than that of Jencks, but no less decisive: modernism must be killed off (at least temporarily) to end its active influence on contemporary practice in order to gain a necessary critical distance. Rowe would join Fred Koetter to blaze a new direction for architectural and urban thought: the “collage city” (Rowe & Koetter 1983). As part of their development of the “collage city”, Rowe and Koetter deploy the analytical dichotomy of “fox vs. hedgehog”: “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing” (ibid). According to their analysis, Aristotle and Joyce are foxes, Plato and Proust are hedgehogs, as are the vast majority of modern architects (Mies, Gropius, Fuller, etc) (ibid, 92). The beauty of this dichotomy is that, in use, its categories are inclusive and fuzzy: it is likely that an individual will fall one or the other side in some regard. So, Le Corbusier is found to be a fox in hedgehog disguise (ibid, 102). Rowe and Koetter propose that because architecture is always involved in value judgments, it can never be resolved in terms of any empirical theory of facts (ibid, 105). The “collage city” uses democratic politics to support decision-making: “why not allow a theory of contending powers (all of them visible) as likely to establish a more ideally comprehensive city of the mind than any which has, as yet, been invented” (ibid, 106). Rather than attempting to find a basis for decisions in logic, Rowe and Koetter place architectural and urban thinking in the realm of politics and the art of rhetoric. The analytical conclusion of a discursive collage-reasoning will not yield hedgehog or fox, white or gray, modern or post-modern, but always both-and, depending on an infinite variety of specificities and different points of view.

Rowe and Koetter’s politics of the city is particularly well-suited for understanding Le Corbusier’s work. The “fox in hedgehog disguise” avatar corresponds to Le Corbusier’s use of rhetoric and the tools persuasion in his lectures and publications, while couching the discussions in terms that are apparently logical. Tim Benton conducted a detailed analysis of varieties of logic deployed in Le Corbusier’s lectures (Benton 2009) and specified that the tools of reason used in a lecture to an audience, or similarly in writing a book targeted at a large and diverse audience, are not strictly speaking logic at all, but rhetoric. Contemporary popular usage has long since lost the features of Aristotle’s original distinction between logic and rhetoric: logical rules are employed by philosophers to seek absolute truths and are not understood by the general public, while rhetorical rules are for uses of persuasion and argument where logical rules cannot be applied due to lack of knowledge or the presence of differing values amongst interlocutors (ibid). So, even if Le Corbusier frequently called his urban plans and their supporting propositions “logical”, they could not possibly be so and still be useful for disseminating his ideas to a broad public. We might speak instead of Le Corbusier’s utilization of a politics of figures to question and develop methodologies for urbanism.

The definitions of an “orthodox Modernism” sought by those who wished to move away from it in the later half of the twentieth century never seem to clearly delineate modernism in practice. The modernism of both the Whites and the Grays, of Banham, Rowe and Koetter, Stern, and Team X, is a rhetorical modernism, constructed to support movement in a new direction. The search for clearer picture of modernism, one that more often than not corresponds to the instances provided by individual works designed by people falling under the category of “modernist”, is exhausting and fruitless, tracing a discursive trail marked in sand and desiring stronger stuff. The tracks of reification read like footprints, indexes of directions taken by past searchers. We should no more ignore these previous marks than we should harbor any illusions about their nature once they’re left behind. The subjected sands remain, crossed by trails in many directions; sometimes the trails overlap and bundle, packing the material into something harder. The workings of the tide and storms, an unmaking and redistributing in larger movements of time, need not make this scene futile, but merely shift the focus from the following of paths in the sand to the larger scale of the beach as a system, where people, crabs, and gulls wander. Rowe and Koetter’s desire for a politics of architecture and urbanism is an attempt at such a shift, but one that fails to reach far enough to include the image of modernism in practice and the effervescent activity of those trying to propagate or destroy it.

This difficulty in pinpointing exemplars does not plague Beaux-Arts architecture, a “dead” cultural material that was likened to the condition of modernism after the 1960s. The Beaux-Arts described a fairly comprehensive method for designing public buildings. The products were frequently lack-luster, but rarely total failures, leading to a track record of conservative mediocrity. The modernists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries attacked the Beaux-Arts design methods because they offered little guidance to architects grappling with new industrial materials, techniques, and conditions. If Beaux-Arts academicism was a method for producing appropriate and legible buildings for the public, the modernists were led to their critical stance because of widely perceived changes in the public sphere due to the emergence of an industrial society. A new method would need to be developed for making the built environment appropriate for that new society. The difficulty in pinning individual projects to a modernism that produced them—moving from specific instances to a general condition describing them—comes from the fact that the invention of a new method is usually a shot-in-the-dark, and the process of creating modernism involved diverse experiments effected by individuals and groups responding to the global changes of industrialization. These experiments and their results should be regarded as such when evaluating their significance in the equally ambivalent milieu of the present.

Reworking Precedents, or Modernism as an Incomplete Method

The lack of correspondence between the chosen avatar of modernism (here we call it Pruitt-Igoe) and the discursive record of modernism (CIAM and the Athens Charter) is mirrored in the perceived divergence of Le Corbusier’s later built works from the fundamental principles of design he put forth earlier in his career. This divergence sent the architect’s admirers into a fury at the sight of Ronchamp, and indicates radical problems in the propagation of modernism as a method for making the built environment. To qualify the discrepancy we can compare Pruitt-Igoe with large-scale working class housing development projects designed by Le Corbusier at around the same time: the Unités.

Pruitt-Igoe was used by supporters and detractors as a synecdoche of modern urbanism. If this rhetorical figure is valid, then the Unités, which Le Corbusier presented as modern urban projects, should exhibit methods of production similar to American social housing projects like Pruitt-Igoe for there to be an analogical equivalence in the evaluation. Of course, there are undeniable differences between slum-clearance projects and the Unités. On the one hand, the Unités, while working-class, did not need to ameliorate difficulties of life in impoverished communities; they were proposals to rebuild housing for the general public that was destroyed during World War II. Pruitt-Igoe, on the other hand, was developed to replace extremely impoverished slum housing. Both projects attempted to effect an improvement in standards of living, but with the Unités Le Corbusier was focused on improving housing for the average worker, driven by a belief that average housing conditions in Europe before the war were in fact impoverished; post-war slum clearance initiatives were dealing with decidedly more abject housing conditions of undeniably impoverished urban citizens. This is a significant difference, but it cannot completely explain the effected differences in design. Both sets of projects were meant to provide affordable housing with increased amenities in comparison to existing options, and both were new building types that included novel formal vocabularies, industrialized and standardized materials and construction techniques, a critical divergence from traditional urban forms, and increased efficiency through clearly conceived programmatic functions. The litany of similarities between the Unités and Pruitt-Igoe should allow our analysis to be fairly precise in distinguishing the differences that contributed to the disparate results of the built projects in fulfilling their intended goals.

The Pruitt-Igoe scheme as designed by Minoru Yamasaki was decidedly different from the housing that was built. Yamasaki’s design featured a considerable amount of diversity in housing types and detail, offered greater engagement of the individual dwellings and their inhabitants with exterior space, and lacked the famous elevators that only stopped on every third floor. The final built form of Pruitt-Igoe was achieved through successive budget cuts and construction problems, and similar issues plagued most of the urban renewal developments of the 1950s and ‘60s.

The method that produced the Unités did not feature these dramatic budget cuts and changes in built form from commission and conception to completion, and thus bears little resemblance to the methods used to produce slum-clearance housing schemes in the U.S., or contemporary schemes in France such as the banlieue developments surroundings cities like Paris. If we want to avoid the disasters indicated by Pruitt-Igoe and the banlieues through changes in practice, then we should take a close look at the methods used to produce these projects, for only that will indicate the proper changes in practical methodology necessary to avoid similar problems today and in the future.

Where Does This Leave Us? Casting Sand: Pruitt-Igoe on the Beach

Le Corbusier’s proliferation of space-time figures created a system that was a guide for decision-making in complex creative processes, where the success of an analytical figure is evidenced through its repeated use in new situations. Each new figure appears as part of an experimental set also peppered with older repeating figures, all waiting for further application and evaluation. For Le Corbusier, these space-time figures were conditional and temporary generalities, contingent on constantly changing subject/object relations. Each individual figure can reach from specific instances to generality only by cobbling together recognizably heterogeneous materials. Existing materials are continuously re-used in new figure systems, remaining in existence while changing in value and meaning. This is a form of objectification without reification; the object remains contingent on the working of a subject engaged in intellection through continuous predication.

Returning to the beach, and thinking at the level of the coast as a complex system rather than trying to identify, classify, and map the paths indexed within it at a smaller scale, Le Corbusier’s proliferating cognitive figures indicate a way of working with the multiple temporalities of a dynamic milieu. The dynamic relations of sand, wind, water, and animals that coalesce to form the vague and vibrating idea of beach can be likened to the relation of images, reified concepts and value-formation in discourse. Le Corbusier’s fascination with capturing the divergent temporalities of general mental figures and specific physical moments was played out through personal experimentation with the coast as a creative site. In addition to the historical figure of the right angle found on a beach in Brittany, Le Corbusier was fascinated with a technique for producing sculptures by casting plaster in molded sand at the beach. He was introduced to this method by Constantine Nivola, with whose family he frequently stayed while working in New York on the plans for the United Nations Headquarters. Using the beach sand to produce something permanent between the periodic erasure brought by the tides is a powerful manifestation of the contingent right angle of will-power and invention. Here, on the coast of Long Island, Le Corbusier brought history into contact with the beach as a dynamic system, and produced objects imbued with traces of both projective planning and memory. The sand and the beach are left behind, cast to the nebulous system of the coast, while the sculpture remains with its owner sitting in a garden, relegated to a different system.

Architects’ ability to confirm the “death of Modernism” in the 1970s relied only on the identification of orthodoxy, a firmness and weight obtained through rhetorical figures. But what if we base our values on something fuzzy and amorphous while affectively potent, something that bears a more immediate resemblance to the dynamic milieu of practice? Le Corbusier sought increasingly multivalent figures over the course of his career as an architect, painter, and writer. The naïve system that he created to guide his creative endeavors and explain them to others can also serve as a guide for the present when similar problems need to be addressed. Whether or not the sculpture standing next to Le Corbusier was ever given a name is of little importance in this figural history of the death of architectural modernism, but in this context, a fitting name has emerged. Le Corbusier is standing next to his sculpture, “The Demolition of Pruitt-Igoe”. The object, standing vertical like the rock seen off the coast of Brittany, is no less solid for having been built on sand. On the contrary, this sculpture gains its only lasting form through the mutability of the system used to create it. The Demolition of Pruitt-Igoe is a lesson in soft reification.


< Part 4


  • Benton, T. 2009. The Rhetoric of Modernism: Le Corbusier as a Lecturer. Birkhäuser Verlag AG: Boston.

  • Rowe, C. 1999. “The Present Urban Predicament: Some Observations.” In, As I Was Saying: Recollections and Miscellaneous Essays vol. 3. MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass.

  • Rowe, C, & F. Koetter. 1983. Collage City. The MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass.

#cyberhistory #lecorbusier #pruittigoe #deathofmodernism

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