Today, Le Corbusier lets the airplane indict the
city. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
"L'avion accuse ... !"
shouts Le Corbusier. "The airplane indicts ... the
city." It's 1935, and the wild iconoclastic
architect Le Corbusier has written a picture book
Le Corbusier wasn't his real name. It was Charles
Edouard Jeanneret. He was born a Swiss in 1887. He
trained in art, engraving, and architecture. Then
he emerged as an artistic revolutionary in Paris
just after WW-I.
He started an avant-garde magazine, L'Esprit
Nouveau -- The New Spirit. He
took on architecture, science, technology -- even
music. Darius Milhaud was a collaborator. Le
Corbusier waged war on every part of the
establishment. Education and cities were favorite
targets. "The 20th century wasn't built for men,"
he cries, "it was built for money." The old orders
of architecture are hopelessly inhumane. They've
forgotten function and human need.
So Le Corbusier created a new architecture of
rough-hewn concrete. It was lovely stuff -- light
and open. But as he built dwellings, he also built
a complex new dialectic of architectural values.
And the world was hard put to understand it.
Now the airplane becomes the perfect metaphor to
explain his belief that the world has been built
ill. It's a wholly new form. It is pure function.
It derives its beauty from function.
"The airplane," he says, "embodies the purest
expression of the human scale and a miraculous
exploitation of material."
The pictures are beautiful. Such wild
machines filled the skies before WW-II. Graceful
gliders, lumbering transports, exotic racing planes,
amphibians, airplanes with three engines -- or with
"No door is closed." he says. "Everything is
relative. . . . If a new factor makes its
appearance, the relation alters. . . . In aviation
everything is scrapped in a year."
And to get from here to there, an
airplane simply flies in a straight line.
For Le Corbusier, machinery and craftsmanship are
the one truth in a world full of lies. Machines are
truly humane, but we don't know machines. He says,
"The world lacks harmonisers to make palpable the
humane beauty of modern times."
Those ideas are a little frightening in hindsight.
They were all too close to fascist thinking, then
laying a hold on Europe. But look at the photos in
his book. There's a terrible beauty in his
airplanes. Each is different. They're all
transient. Each struggles with the rigors of
carrying us into an unwelcoming sky.
So we catch a glint of his meaning. The airplanes
of 1935 -- buoyant and fluid -- did indeed indict
the static cities below them. Le Corbusier shows us
what he means by harmonizing their beauty -- and
making it palpable to us.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Le Corbusier, Aircraft. New York:
Universe Books, 1988 (reprint of a 1935 English
Choay, F., Le Corbusier. New York:
George Braziller, Inc., 1960.
Baker, G.H., Le Corbusier: An Analysis of
Form. Hong Kong: Van Nostrand Reinhold
(U.K.) Co. Ltd., 1984.
For another look at the variety of airplanes in the
time when Le Corbusier wrote this book, see Episode
As I thought about Corbusier's indictment of
cities, a verse about cities from A.E. Housman's
19th century work, A Shropshire Lad,
kept tickling the nape of my neck. It was:
By bridges that Thames runs under,
in London, the town built ill,
'Tis sure small matter for wonder
if sorrow is with one still.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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