Designs for Living

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Attending the excellent Le Corbusier exhibition at MoMa last week I was struck by a sad truth.

That the architecture proposed by Le Corbusier works brilliantly when applied to the private residences of the rich but rather less well when applied to the lifestyles of the poor.

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Take his proposed solution to the problem of the slums of 30’s Paris, Immeubles Villas (1922)

It called for large blocks of cell-like apartments stacked one on top of one another, with plans that included a living room, bedrooms, and kitchen, as well as a garden terrace.

These blocks would then be surrounded by open green spaces where residents could enjoy a kind of countryside-lite.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s the prototype for most of the inner city tower block dwellings we see throughout the urban world. Far from providing a solution to slum dwelling it just created a slum by another name. We might point out at this juncture that maybe Le Corbusier was too concerned with function and modern materials than he was with truly understanding the effects his structures had on people.

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Contrast his efforts on behalf of the Parisian poor this with the Villa Savoye in Poissy, France. Even though it’s made of reinforced concrete it’s design is dedicated to allowing nature into the building, from its glass walls to its roof top garden.

Inside you’d find the kind of furniture any middle class person would recognize. It’s the type you find at expensive retailer ‘Design within Reach’. Hardly, the kind of legacy the egalitarian Le Corbuiser’s would have envisioned.

In short it’s a kind of middle-class fantasy that many would happily buy into today.

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No surprises there. After all this was a world Le Corbusier knew only too well. These are essentially his people. The sophisticated upper middle classes who love the arts and walks in nature and have the incomes to live the life they aspire to.

I prepared to bet that his understanding of the working poor was a little more sketchy.

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Of course, there’s no denying Le Corbusier’s imagination or his influence but the results of his efforts are questionable simply because there’s one thing left out of the equation. No kind of architecture can ever be successful in delivering a better quality of person, only a better quality of life. The former is dependent both on policies of government’s and the will of the individual assistance is given too.

We can expect a lot from architects like beautiful structures or revolutionary design but not a cure for societies ills.

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