Notopia Part 2 – The Contemporary City

4 mins read

By Fredrik Thorslund

This article is the second in a three-part series exploring the notion of utopia, the human search for a perfect society – and specifically – those who have tried and failed to establish them. You can read the first article of the series here.

In Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel ”The Fountainhead”, the plot circles around the epic battle of wills between protagonist Howard Roark, the incorruplable, visionary architect, and his archenemy Ellsworth Toohey, a malevolent architectural critic. Toohey, the villain, systematically corrupts the minds of young architects and artists by preaching selflessness and submission to the greater good (the collective), thereby dismanteling their artistic integrity in favor of obediance – obediance, of course, to the ideals of the powerhungry Toohey himself.

Rand’s inspiration for Ellsworth Toohey partly originated from Lewis Mumford, a prominent sociologist and architectural critic in New York during the 20th century. Mumford, too, had a fetish for utopian architecture, which he explored in his book ”The Story of Utopias”. Mumford made a distinction between two different types of utopia; the pipe dream utopias that serve only as a haven for the mind, which he called the utopias of escape, and the constructive utopias that seek to redefine the world and the human condition, which he called the utopias of reconstruction:

”The first leaves the external world the way it is; the second seeks to change it so that one may have intercourse with it on one’s own terms. In one we build impossible castles in the air; in the other we consult a surveyor and an architect and a mason and proceed to build a house which meets our essential needs; as well as houses made of stone and mortar are capable of meeting them.”

Lewis Mumford, ”The Story of Utopias”, 1922

The notion of reconstruction, of creating better societies ground-up, was not idiosyncratic to Mumford; the idea thrived amongst the ruins of the world wars. In 1922, the very same year as Mumford published ”The Story of Utopias”, Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier presented the first urban plans for his ”Ville Contemporaine” – the Contemporary City – constructed from a tabula rasa with a capacity of three million inhabitants. 

Le Corbusier’s Ville Contemporaine. Source: Flickr CC

Le Corbusier envisioned a city that would function like a machine, where rationality and social order would have conquered the individualism, chance and compromise that had shaped organic cities. His Contemporary City was a manifestation of this. An ultra-symmetric city, divided into different functional sectors: commercial districts, industrial districts, resdidental areas and a transportation network constituted the brain, motors, power supplies and circuits of his machine-society. A set of cross-shaped sixty-story skyscrapers acted as the city’s dramatic centerpiece, slashed through by straight, angular highways reaching across the landscape.

Le Corbusier despised the chaotic randomness of American cities. In an editorial for the New York Times in 1932, the European architect could be seen ranting on relentlessly about the urban planning of New York and Chicago, likening them to cataclysms and ”broken machines”. Le Corbusiers editorial provoked the interest of another architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, a protegé of Lewis Mumford himself. Wright was invited to reply to the article, and did so by presenting his own urban utopia – Broadacre City

Frank Lloyd Wright’s sketches for Broadacre City. Source: Flickr CC

Broadacre City was the complete antithesis of Corbusiers Ville Contemporaine. Broadacre City was, in fact, barely a city as much as it was a spatial concept. The idea was an anti-metropolis; a wide streched, de-centralized community that would strech across the country and consist of a loose patchwork of private land lots. Families would be given an acre of land from the federal reserves to build a home. There would be minimal government interferance, if any – instead, a single county architect would be responsible for constructing the necessary communal infrastructures. People would travel the land by car or by personal helicopters, and enormous entertainment-palaces would be erected to satify the need for shopping, culture and community. Whereas Le Corbusier dreamt of social order and concentration, Wright’s utopia was the haven for the anti-statist individualist.

From there on out grew a frosty relationship between the two idealists, who would later come to be known as the defining characters of modern architecture. Wright voiced a strong and public disgust for Le Corbusiers urban ideals, and when by chance their roads would cross, they would refuse to even shake hands.

They became competitive in realizing their plans. In an attempt to trump one another and give their respective ideas a booster shot of intellectual credibility, they both started to pursue Albert Einstein, the Austrian physicist, to convince him to embrace their work. Neither of them succeded (Wright, who wouldn’t take no for an answer, ended up instead forging Einsteins signature in a petition to implement Broadacre City in the US). Wright then turned to the Roosevelt administration, urging them to embrace his Broadacre plans as a national objective for future urban development in the US. On the other side of the Atlantic, Le Corbusier had refined the plans for the Contemporary City into an edgier version, ”The Radiant City”, and sought cooperation with the fascist regimes of Mussolini and Vishy (the French vassel state under Nazi Germany) to put his plans to action.

At the end of the day, neither one of the architects ever suceeded in implementing their utopian plans in their full-fledged, unhinged forms. Wright died, still obsessive over his unrealized Broadacre City. His dreams of a low density anti-city, however, is said by many to shine through in the modern American suburbia that streches far across, for example, Los Angeles and Wisconsin (a question of correlation rather than causality, perhaps). Le Corbusiers urban ideals resonated with governments, architects and urban planners throughout the century, and throughout the world. The legacy of his machine-city utopia can be found in the planning of Chandigarh, the Indian capital of Punjab, in the Brasilian capital of Brasilia, and in the (in)famous housing projects of Marseille, France, called Unité d’habitation. His plans are still today being praised by some as a potential lever for social reform and equality, and just as vividly discarded by others as a proportionless, misanthropic clusterfuck. 

The roof of Unité d’habitation in Marseille. Source: Flickr CC

And so, sobered up by the passing of time, Wrights and Le Corbusiers reconstructive utopia eventually evolved into ”impossible castles in the air” – utopias of escape, to cite Mumford – more relevant as abstractions than as blueprints. But then again: were it not for the impossible, out-of-touch conceptuality of Broadacre City and Ville Contemporaine, the plans would never have won their utopian legacy in the first place – as utopia (from the greek οὐ τόπος) literally translates to ”no place”.

By Fredrik Thorslund

Banner photo: Flickr CC

Previous Story

Who is who in the Iranian Election?

Next Story

Notopia, Part 3 – Crypto Rebels and Pirate Utopia