Oculus - Winter 2014 - (Page 41)
©Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York
Samuel Herman Gottscho, 1930: View
of Lower Manhattan from Brooklyn.
Le Corbusier's first sight
of Manhattan's skyscrapers evoked a controversial
yet prophetic response
BY J O H N MO RRIS DIXO N , FA IA
uring the 1920s, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, aka Le
Corbusier, disseminated a sequence of prototypes for ideal
cities, intended not just to radically reorganize the urban fabric,
but to advance social and economic reforms. His 1933 book, La
Ville Radieuse, distilled his vision of the future city as an array of
freestanding towers rising from open spaces.
It was not until he first visited New York in 1935, however,
that Le Corbusier saw any actual skyscrapers. His expectations
were primed by the perception, widely held in Europe, that
America was the very embodiment of 20th-century progress and
efficiency. Seen from the harbor as his ship approached, the skyline of Lower Manhattan must have been a long-dreamt-of sight.
His trip to America was sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art, which mounted a one-architect exhibit of his works
for the occasion, displaying not just urban schemes but several
of his buildings. A demanding schedule of lectures across the
Northeast and Midwest had been set up. Corbu undoubtedly
hoped this focus on his ideas and accomplishments would yield
some U.S. commissions.
The ostensible love affair between Corbu and America hit
major snags from the moment his ship docked, when he complained there were no press photographers to greet him. But
reporters were present at a press conference held just two hours
after his arrival, for which he was clearly ill-prepared.
He got their attention by saying Manhattan's skyscrapers
were "too small," and explained his ideal for a redeveloped
city with "great obelisks, far apart, so that the city would have
space and light and order." The following day's New York Herald
Tribune summarized his comments with the headline "Skyscrapers Not Big Enough, Says Le Corbusier at First Sight,"
followed by "French Architect...Thinks They Should be Huge
Changing Skyline/Evolving Streets
and a Lot Farther Apart." Corbu later explained he made these
comments when "he was in a mood for joking," but his image as
an ungrateful guest had already been established. No American
His experiences here took tangible form in the 1937 book
When the Cathedrals Were White: A Journey to the Country of
Timid People. (In my English-language version, the latter half of
the title has been expunged.) His planning alternative to timidity would, he explained, open up "an immense area of ground."
And, he wrote, "it will pay for the ruined properties, it will give
the city verdure and excellent circulation." Swooping through
the green areas he foresaw elevated roadways where cars could
travel at 90 miles per hour.
His negative appraisals and cool reception notwithstanding,
Corbu's ideas were already permeating American city planning
by 1935. Housing in towers-in-the-park mode had already been
proposed in New York. After World War II, that concept of
ranks of freestanding high-rises would proliferate in both public
and private developments. In 1961, the city's zoning regulations codified the paradigm of towers rising from plazas. The
Corbusian planning ideal would remain largely unchallenged up
to the mid-1960s, when urban activist Jane Jacobs reasserted the
value of the traditional street, and many built embodiments of
Le Corbusier's concepts had begun to fall into disrepute.
John Morris Dixon, FAIA, left the drafting board for journalism in
1960 and was editor of Progressive Architecture from 1972 to
1996. He continues to write for a number of publications, and
he received AIANY's 2011 Stephen A. Kliment Oculus Award
for Excellence in Journalism.
Winter 2014 Oculus
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Oculus - Winter 2014
First Words: Letter from Two Presidents - Vision and Transition
Letter from the Editor - Tall Is as Tall Does
Center for Architecture - Center Highlights
One Block Over - Not All High Line Highlights Are On the Skyline: As a “museum of architecture” rises along the lush, elevated park, some streetscapes are coming to life
Opener: Of Sidewalks and Skylines
Hello, We’re at a Place Called Vertigo - 57th Street is sprouting residential supertalls. With great height comes great expectations. What aspects of these buildings earn so much of the sky?
Tower at the Crossroads - One Vanderbilt sculpts its top and bottom to trade additional floors for street-level amenity
The Mid-block Move - Side streets aren’t just for background buildings anymore
In Step with the Neighborhood - The new BAM South development is designed with equal attention to Downtown Brooklyn’s skyline and streetlevel civic space
LULU Hits the Streets - A sanitation garage shows how to make a Locally Undesirable Land Use...desirable
Just Another Messy Urban Neighborhood - Remarkable simply for being normal, Melrose Commons flourishes where the Bronx once burned
New Practices New York 2014 - Farms, think tanks, sausages, and nomadic operations – just some of the things these young design firms are focusing on
In Print - How Paris Became Paris: The Inventio
80-Year Watch - Le Corbusier’s first sight of Manhattan’s skyscrapers evoked a controversial yet prophetic response
Last Words - Hit the Road
Index to Advertisers - Alphabetical & Categorical Index
Oculus - Winter 2014