Le Corbusier's Journey to the Country of Timid People

Jean-Louis Cohen considers Americanism in the Thirties

In 1935 Le Corbusier in turn discovered New York, then in the grips of the Depression, and at once criticized the skyscrapers (“too small”) and Central Park (“too big”), and went on to recommend “cellular reformation” of the metropolis. Published in 1937, his account of the trip mingled declarations of allegiance (“I am an American”) with critical asides concerning Manhattan, which he saw as a “fairy catastrophe.”

The circumstances and vicissitudes of this journey are too well known to require further comment here.1 However, it is useful to point out that Le Corbusier familiarized himself very early on with European descriptions of America, be it working class accounts (such as Dubreuil’s Standarts) or economic studies. In the sphere of architecture, he read analyses published by Werner Hegemann, one of whose illustrations he published in Urbanisme (whereas Hegemann was critical of Le Corbusier’s Ville contemporaine).2 He continued his investigations of the modern skyscraper with a series of projects in which the steel cages remained visible behind their glass envelopes. A remarkable episode from this period was the preparatory work carried out from 1931 on the plan for Algiers, involving the Turin engineer Guido Fiorini (inventor of a structural principle known as Tensistruttura) and the metal construction firm Savigliano, resulting in several types of office skyscrapers shaped like radiators.3

  1. Koolhaas, Delirious New York, pp. 235-282; Mardges Bacon, “Le Corbusier et l’Amerique: premiére rencontre” and Mary McLeod, “Le reve rransi de Le Corbusier: l’Amerique ‘catastrophe féérique,’” in Cohen and Damisch, eds., Americanisme et modernite, pp. 191-207 and 209-227.  

  2. Le Corbusier, Urbanisme, Paris: G. Cres & Cie, 1925, p. 144: Werner Hegemann, letter to Le Corbusier, 12 March 1924, Fondation Le Corbusier, A 1(4).  

  3. Anna Maria Zorgno, Fiorini-Le Corbusier 1931-1935, Turin, Centre Culture! Français and Politecnico di Torino and SN delle Officine di Savigliano, 1988.  

From the early twenties, Le Corbusier was eager to drive out all signs of Beaux-Arts influence in America, deeming that only engineers were worthy of respect. Yet he remained unimpressed by the analyses of Jacques Gréber, and of the French in America only Jean Labatut found favor in his eyes. In 1935, following responses to the program of the Franco American Housing Group, and having become an active campaigner in favor of Taylorism, he published a series of articles in the review Plans which posited the dilemma of modern society: “Americanize or Bolshevize?” In his own case, the Depression had made him an anti-capitalist—or at least hostile co the power of “money.” In another text he advocated a more specifically architectural analysis of the “disorder” reigning in New York. He asked the question “Is Descartes American?” to justify his own “Cartesian” skyscrapers.1 Having returned from America, where he gave so many lectures that he claimed to have produced “three hundred yards of drawings (six rolls of paper 50 yards in length),” Le Corbusier published in 1937 Quand Les cathedrals etaient blanches, voyage au pays des timides (When the Cathedrals were White),2 a heterogeneous collage of texts—articles from the review Prélude, travel notes, lecture notes, articles such as “What is America’s Problem?” and his response to a questionnaire formulated by Percy Goodman—together with a series of explanatory drawings. The book’s eclectic structure is a reflection of these materials; from the outset, Le Corbusier explains his troubles in France, and the account of his travels takes the form of events, anecdotes, and more ambitious analytical remarks.

Following the trans-Atlantic crossing on the Normandie (an “invigorating liner”), Le Corbusier echoes the amazement invariably expressed in the travelogues of the day in his description of the arrival in New York, “an image of incredible brutality and savagery,” the opening scene of an experience which left him both indignant (like Duhamel) and enchanted. The chronological description of his travels describes his “conquests” and reiterates paradoxes concerning the excessive number and diminutive scale of skyscrapers and the timidity and outmoded habits of Americans (which the New York press cited in 1935).3 He also describes his encounter at the Hartford Atheneum with A. Everett Austin, James Thrall Soby, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, “meteors… who play a hazardous and exhausting ride,” and alludes to the work of Wallace Harrison with a curious mixture of sympathy and paternalism.

  1. Le Corbusier, “Descartes est-il americain?,” Plans, n° 7, July 1931, pp.49-64. 

  2. Le Corbusier, Quand les cathedrales elaient blanches, voyage au pays des timides, Paris: Pion, 1937; Engl. trans.: When the Cathedrals Were White, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. (c) Reyna! & Hitchcock, 1947.  

  3. “Nor Big Enough, Says Le Corbusier at First Sight.” New York Herald Tribune, 22 October 1935.  

Boris Mikhailovich Iofan, architect, Project for the People’s Commissariat for Heavy Industry, Moscow: perspective, 1938, CCA

The title of his book is doubly enigmatic. In “Is Descartes American?” he contrasts the image of Notre-Dame Cathedral with that of the skyscraper. In Cathedrals, he is alluding to the moment when building resumed in the Middle Ages, when Europe “put on a white robe of churches.”1 Metaphorically, however, the tide refers to a period of intense energy, creativity, and purity. For Le Corbusier, the cathedrals of the twentieth century had yet to be built, and he was ready to do just that in the United States. The world is “to be put in order … as once was done before on the debris of antiquity, when the cathedrals were white.”2 Whiteness is here synonymous with novelty and a refusal to countenance disabling regulations. He states that “the cathedrals were white because they were new … when the cathedrals were white, there were no regulations.” Here the allusion is to a lawsuit in which he had become embroiled over the technical solutions adopted for the Salvation Army’s Cité de Refuge in Paris. He invokes the idea of collective forces at work in construction: Greatness is in the intention, and not in dimensions. When the cathedrals were white, the whole universe was raised up by immense faith in the energy, the future, and the harmonious creation of a civilization.3 For Le Corbusier, at this privileged moment in history “there was a common idea; Christendom was above everything else … The journeymen masons paid no attention to being charming … no one thought that height was the sign of a degeneration of spirit … the spirit was triumphant.” Today, on the other hand, “the cathedrals of France are black and the spirit is bruised.”4 He harks back nostalgically to a time when “there were no government diplomas; the crafts (and architecture) were practiced regionally in terms of local resources, raw materials, climates, customs. Controls were worked our in the midst of jobs to be done, within the corporations.”

The second enigma concerns his “journey to the country of the timid”: despite the face that he everywhere encounters “a young people-sturdy and athletic,” he is of the view that “American city planning in its very gigantism reflects a dangerous timidity, at a time when the problem is to react, and to act rightly.” He claims to understand “the anxieties, the timidities, and the brusque, reckless aces natural colourful forces,” but he perceives a certain “imbalance” at Vassar College where he witnesses girls studying Caravaggio. He recalls this in pictorial imagery mingling awe and fear of American industrial strength: The blinding light of the blast furnaces of Pittsburgh and the yellow brilliance of gold are accomplices of the grctn flames in the crypt of Caravaggio and on the altars of Surrealism, bleeding with sacrifices and roses.5 Much of the book is devoted to New York, which Le Corbusier regards as “the first city to be constructed on the scale of modern times” (whereas he created the city with some condescension in previous texts on city planning published after 1922). “A vertical city,” New York seen from the harbour resembles a pin cushion or a giant hedgehog. Unlike Paris, New York is “a great diamond, hard and dry, sparkling, triumphant.” Central Park, “an immense treasure untouchable in the very centre of Manhattan,” is, however, “too large, a hole in the midst of buildings.” The question of scale is a recurrent theme, and Le Corbusier never misses an opportunity to stress that “Manhattan reminds us that man is an ant or a bee subject to the necessity of living in a box.” Yet over and above his observations of the city as a static entity, he identifies its crisis cycles, with particular reference to the evolution of Chicago. There are accents of Maxime Gorky in his denunciation of the city’s “moral slums” and “gold… a crusher of hearts.” In his discussion of the city’s territorial expanse, he notes that the New York region is suffering from “encephalitis” yet he cannot hide his emotion when faced with the spectacle of everyday life, which he celebrates in terms evocative of Fritz Lang’s vision. Broadway “streams with moving light at the heart of this “fairy catastrophe” which is at once a “lever of hope” and “diabolical.”6 The question of the skyscraper is a major component of Le Corbusier’s account. He regards it as both a “magnificent instrument” and a “proclamation” - but in technical terms only (an “acrobatic fear”). Though they are paralyzed by an elevator attendants’ strike, he notes that “the elevators do work,” unlike their Parisian counterparts. He considers constructions such as Howe and Lescaze’s Philadelphia Saving Fund Society Building or Rockefeller Center as acceptable social amenities: to work in the complex built by Hood and Harrison is a mark of “self-respect.”7 Yet his disappointment is present from the outset: alluding indirectly to the cupola of James M. Reid’s San Francisco Call Building, which he had attacked in Vers une architecture, he stares that “in contrast to our hopes the skyscrapers were not made of glass, bur of tiara-crowned masses of stone.” In a later passage he declares that “we laugh are the crowns of New York skyscrapers, which seem like chased decanter stoppers.” The skyscrapers are “not big enough,” though they are nonetheless “greater than the architects” of such misplaced fantasies, and represent mere “architectural accident … imagine a man … the torso remains normal, but his legs become twenty times too long.” Finally, skyscrapers are “irrational from top to bottom.” For Le Corbusier, this absurdity extends to the city as a whole; he (paradoxically) is in favour of an urban form which he also denounces: “here the skyscraper is negative; it kills the, 8 street and the city … it is a man-eating monster.”

  1. From Raoul Glaber’s writings, as quoted in Le Corbusier, Cathedrals, p. 28. 

  2. Le Corbusier, Cathedrals, p. xxii 

  3. Ibid., pp. 20, 26. 

  4. Ibid., pp. 32, 37, 68. 

  5. lbid., p. 148. 

  6. On New York: see ibid., pp. 95, 36, 44, 89, 72,192.86, 156, lll, 42, 87, 91,157, 84. 

  7. Ibid., pp. 41, 51, 63, 54. 

  8. Ibid., pp. 109, 112-13, 51, 59, 61, 189, I 91, 89. 

His observations of the city’s infrastructure are less clear-cut, given the fact that architects had been “dismissed” from such sectors of activity (as in the case of the George Washington Bridge). He admires this recent bridge, but also Grand Central, which he describes as “strong and rugged as a gladiator.” Outside Manhattan, he reflects on the suburbs dotted with “a sinuous, charming, picturesque—and slightly arranged” system of parkways.1 He rightly sees the suburbs as “reflecting Ford’s lesson,” contrasting them with the garden cities of Berlin, London, France, and Morocco. The suburbs of New York and Chicago suffer from the “cancer” of the automobile. Unlike the “city of modern times,” which has no suburbs, he sees the dilated urban agglomeration, with its “distended” garden cities, as the epitome of waste. The country is “on wheels” and “the family is cut in two … because the great cities are constructed against the grain.”2

The American universities opened Le Corbusier’s eyes to the human resources of the nation. He notes that “at the age of Olympic champion … athletic body, with a youthful heart at once strong and weak,” the Americans are “every one an athlete,” as against “the students of Paris, in poor shape physically and ill-fed.” At Princeton he discovers “large, rich tribes encamped in the midst of greenery” yet is gripped by “a fear at seeing the doors open on the unknown of tomorrow.” At the Cranbrook educational complex at Bloomfield Hills, Michigan (where he met its designer, Eliel Saarinen) he admires a “paradisaic retreat for disheartened combatants.” In the course of his lecture tour, a savant in isolation, he visits the “young girls constantly renewed” of Vassar, which he describes as a “joyous convent,” ambiguously singing the praises of the American woman as a “beautiful animal, a very beautiful animal” who “lives, in American society, by intellectual labour,” but who frightens him to the point of preferring “the people eating cookies.” He was doubtless more charmed by the “wax mannequins on 5th Avenue … idols on pedestals,” revealing the “woman masters, with conquering smiles …”3

  1. Ibid., pp. 76, 77, 136. 

  2. Ibid., 153, 214, 152. 

  3. Ibid., pp. 140, 139, 135, I IO, 138, 134, 142, 144, 165-166. For the image of the American “girl” in French literature, see Theodore Zeldin, France 1848-1945, vol. 2: Intellect, Taste, and Anxiety, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977, pp. 129-138; and esp. Th. Bentzon, Les Ambicaines chez el/es, notes de voyage, Paris: Calmann Levy, 1895. 

In his observations of American society as a whole, Le Corbusier meditates gravely on its history and its specific features, and identifies the United States with an awkward adolescent. This “tall young man afflicted by the obscure evils of his age” is “in a state of repression,” and remains “strongly marked by the disciplines and irruptions of a society which in a sense just disembarked.” With their “maladjusted hearts,” the Americans have not yet “tasted the joys of (lively, active) thought … which contains the joy of a profusely flowered field.”1 He is not blind to divisions of race and class, and is mortified by Doctor Albert Barnes’s refusal to let him visit his arc collection at Merion, Pennsylvania, which Le Corbusier regards as symptomatic of the “fat contentment of the men who have made America.”2 Elsewhere, “our millionaire” Rockefeller “is no more than a poor man whose name figures on the signpost for mountains of gold” (here Le Corbusier reiterates Mendelsohn’s phrase), while he regards the “bosses” of the New Deal as no better “informed” than their French or Russian counterparts.

Le Corbusier is not content simply to observe and describe, interpret and criticize. As after all his travels, from Moscow to Latin America, he proposes practical solutions. In the first place, and unlike Gréber, he perceives instances of the “bankruptcy” of French “good taste” in America, though he also advocates cooperation—his watchword is “work together.” Faced with competition from the skyscraper, which he acknowledges to be an idea specific to “these mad Americans,” he wishes to correct its imperfections by eliminating noise (and the use of stone, for “in your eyries, you seem to be in cellars”). More generally, he aims to “rectify” New York by creating a new network for automobile traffic and renovating the riverside docks so as to render them “superb and pure.” In order to “save” the city, he advocates a third metamorphosis, with the introduction of a new scale and new networks to reform its current “cellular state.” Extrapolating earlier Parisian strategies in which he used exhibitions as a means of disseminating his ideas, Le Corbusier aims to use the 1939 World’s Fair to make his positions known.3 The program outlined in Cathedrals is designed to pave the way for a new Middle Ages in which everything will be rebuilt, at the same time abandoning the laissez-faire policies and waste intrinsic to autonomy. The idea was in fact to espouse the logic of the “right angle,” which Le Corbusier deems “American,” and which he would exploit fruitfully despite the fact that he returned from America more frustrated than stimulated.

  1. Le Corbusier, Cathedrals, pp. 105-107. 

  2. This chapter was excised from the American translation. In Plon’s 1937 French edition op. cit., iris found on pp. 153-56. 

  3. Le Corbusier. Cathedrals, pp. 56, 67, 185. 

This article is an excerpt from Jean-Louis Cohen’s Scenes of the World to Come: European Architecture and the American Challenge 1893-1960.




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