Revisiting The Radiant City

A note accompanies this photo in Le Corbusier’s The Radiant City (1933):

“outside our apartments in the Radiant City: we come home from work and change; our friends are there waiting. High spirits, physical activity. And then we can go on to think about the 'serious' things afterwards."

I can see myself now, coming home after a long day's work and running the steeplechase with my neighbors. :) Le Corbusier’s plans, while at times charmingly unrealistic, are also blamed for inspiring the spread of giant housing projects in cities around the world. But is there enduring value in his thinking?

Two possibilities come to mind: 1) his embrace of new technology to improve living conditions, and 2) his use of space to minimize the ground cover of buildings.

As for technology, Le Corbusier tended to adopt ideas of mass production uncritically. However, his thoughts on prefabricated structures have great potential. As evident in the recent exhibition Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling, the featured houses in Dwell Magazine, and the assembly of LivingHomes, prefab architecture is coming into its own. What if we could design our own houses from components displayed online? Would this result in monstrosities or homes well-adapted to our needs? Could this be a way of realizing some of the building ideas in Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language?

While Le Corbusier's use of space wouldn't work for everyone, tall buildings on pilotis with roof gardens would minimize the acreage occupied by our homes. This could bring benefits associated with energy efficiency, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and (provided that amenities are within walking distance) reduced dependence on automobiles. I don't suggest that everyone should live in this kind of building, and the architecture could use rethinking; still the idea of freeing up space for agriculture, forests, and recreation sounds promising.

Although we might not find spontaneous track meets in our yards, I think Le Corbusier was on to something.

(Photo of runners scanned from The Radiant City. Photo of the Swiss Pavillion from www.culture.gouv.fr)


Patrick said...

Are we running out of land for agriculture and recreation? Some few large cities are dense enough to be concerned about that. Most of our cities seem to have the opposite problem - too little density.

The only buildings I know of here in Birmingham supported by pilotis are sitting about parking lots. Having buildings at street level activates sidewalks and is good urban design. I don't see much use for elevated buildings.

Stephen C. Rose said...

Great bringing together of significant elements.

I have commented on your post here.

In the US it is vital that our infrastructure expense help enable settlements with the criteria you mention.

As to density or lack of it, the issue is more what lies within walking distance and overcoming the deleterious effects of automobile culture.

petersigrist said...

Patrick: Great points about density and elevation. Having smaller buildings closer together sounds much better than isolated high-rises. And not much value in empty space at street level if it isn't used in some interesting way.

Stephen: Thank you for your comments and for connecting this to larger urban issues. I'll look forward to following your writing.

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