While their intentions to create better cities were similar, Le Corbusier and New Urbanism seem miles apart. Their conceptions started from very different premises. For the first the image is rational and mechanical: the house as a dwelling machine, where the car is king. For the second, the image is organic, where 'community' is at the centre.
In the US more than elsewhere, towns and cities have been pulled apart by putting the needs of the car centre-stage. Hence the appeal of New Urbanism whose tentacles are now spreading. It has a view, a manifesto and set of principles, of how life should be lived, seeking to establish a link between the physical design of cities and social aims like 'a sense of community' providing an alternative to automobile-oriented planning that has torn and fractured most places apart, less so those whose historic cores have remained. It is a reaction against sprawl and wants to create human-scale walka-
ble places. Its major principles are to create compact, walkable neighbourhoods or districts with clearly defined centres and edges with a public space, a square or a green at its heart, surrounded by public buildings, such as a library, church or community centre as well as major retail businesses. There should be a focus on diverse, mixed activities in close proximity: living, shopping, schools, workplaces and parks. Neighbourhoods and districts should encourage walking without excluding automobiles. Streets should be reclaimed with building entrances fronting the street rather than parking spaces. Streets should form an interconnected network and public transit should connect neighbourhoods to each other, and the surrounding region. Also, a wide spectrum of housing options should enable people of a broad range of incomes, ages, and family types to live within a single area. By contrast hulky, large developments featuring a single use or serving a single market segment should be avoided. Civic buildings, such as government offices, churches and libraries, should be sited in prominent locations. New Urbanists think areas with large office, light industrial, and even 'big box' retail buildings can be made walkable with the dominant parking lots flipped to the side and the rear so avoiding setbacks. More than 600 new developments are planned or under construction in the US, using the principles. Additionally, hundreds of small-scale new urban infill projects are restoring the urban fabric by re-establishing walkable streets and blocks.
Some design fashionistas hate New Urbanism; they detest what they see as its cloying feel; its ornamentation, its dinky town imitation of a nostalgic past. Celebration, near Orlando Disney's private 5000-acre town, built on those principles and using their designers has eclipsed Seaside as the best-known New Urbanist community. Disney has given New Urbanism both a good and bad name. While Disney has avoided the label, it is a juicy target especially given its strict rules and management. Its town hall, perhaps its least attractive building, with forbidding columns, accentuates that reputation. Celebration's roads, apart from the ubiquitous use of Celebration, have names like Acacia, Mulberry and Hawthorn alluding to a natural, arcadian landscape. Celebration's conventional urban design is generally of high quality; for instance all houses front the street and cars are hidden from view. It is mostly liked by those who live there. The area feels safe. As one person noted, 'The entire focus of our lives has changed. Instead of doing everything some place other than close to home, we now can eat, do errands, cele brate special occasions and just hang out near our own home. The changes are most dramatic for our children, who now have a freedom they never had in our old neighbourhood.'
Le Corbusier equally had intentions to find better ways of living, seeking to deal efficiently with the urban housing crisis and squalor of the slums. As a founding member of the Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM) he realized early on how cars would change cities. Fascinated by the logical rigour of Taylorist and Fordist production strategies he applied this rational, some would say desiccated, spirit to city building and decreed that 'the house is a machine for living in'. It was to be designed with great clarity and a focus on function using modern materials, technologies and architectural forms so providing a new solution to urban living and simultaneously raising the quality of life of poorer people.
His core ideas are embodied in his scheme for a Contemporary City of Three Million Inhabitants (1922). Its centrepiece is a group of 60-storey glass-encased, steel-framed cruciform skyscrapers with offices and apartments for wealthier people. Set back in smaller towers were to live poorer people. Many buildings were on thin stilts. His notion of towers in parks as the ideal city plan became the dominant model for low- and mid-priced housing on the outskirts of major cities in Europe and elsewhere. The hub was a transportation centre with buses and trains on different levels with road intersections and even an airport on the top. Pedestrians were separated from the road, and cars were venerated. Ornamentation was sparse and buildings spartan and by law all buildings should be white. Brasilia is the prime example of its logic to full effect, yet his influence seeped throughout urban planning, still applied but increasingly criticized as creating cities enslaved to cars on wide, congested roads, banked with dull repetitive towers. Le Corbusier became a bête noir for critics who hated his insistence on a rational efficiency that to them diminished people.
So do we, as Rem Koolhaas suggests, 'fuck context'?36 Have Koolhaas' followers been able to create spaces people love? Indeed, the question needs to be raised: Do architects like people? Some do. Take Will Alsop's extension to the Ontario College of Design in Toronto. He rejected the solution to build an extension on a cleared site as too conventional. He suggested leaving the site open, landscaping it and linking it to the public park behind. He boldly put the extension high in the air on stilts, so doubling its space use.
Like an architectural installation it hovers above the existing college with its pixelated black and white cladding and coloured stilts. It completely transforms an unremarkable street. It is pragmatic and visionary, albeit seemingly devoid of contextual considerations. Some have criticized the internal spaces that students work in, but the exterior leaves a strong mark.
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