The colonial legacies of our cities: tackling the modern myth of Le Corbusier

Seafront view of Algiers, often nicknamed “Alger la blanche” (“Algiers the white”) due to its white buildings
Source: Le Figaro

   We navigate the city as passive inhabitants, moving from one organization to the other, one order to the other, from brutalism to neoclassicism. Systematically we fail to critically engage with our surroundings. We walk by St Paul’s Cathedral, by the British Museum or the V&A. We see their grandeur, their overwhelming amount of detail. Maybe it could even cross our minds that we like this kind of architecture. We could walk through Trafalgar square and comment on how the streets please us in a way we don’t fully grasp. Yet they represent an exercise in self-propaganda of the British Empire here, of the East Indian company there. This legacy that we have learned to appreciate through narratives that we do not question, a sense of nostalgia that we seem to have inherited, this is how the legacy of colonialism persist in our cities today, and how each an every one of us perpetuates it in our collective imagery: Simple innocent misjudgment through an unintentional lack of awareness.

   Is it such a big leap to consider where the collections in our museums come from? Is it so hard to look at the materials around us and question where they were sourced, who touched them, who brought them here? Is such a long leap to ask ourselves why there are two obscenely grand and powerful looking lion on this same Trafalgar square, to question was it may have wanted to insinuate. As can be expected, the answer will reflect that its a symbol of British history, of the legacies of the empire, symbols of power dynamics that we wish to keep close.

London’s Trafalgar Square
Source: Foster & Partners

   If we eventually come to establish that our cities are playgrounds full of unacknowledged symbolism of colonialism, how do we build past these legacies? This is one of the biggest issues of the cities of the 21st century, that affect us on different scales. In a scale that is semi amendable, we have begun to remove statues, such as the Rhodes must fall movement which was developed in South African universities and which later on spread worldwide, most notably at Oxford University. In the United States, the Confederate statues have been reattached to their historical context. But what do we do with buildings? What do we do of the arrangements of our streets? There’s no way to bring down whole buildings under the accusation of their explicit service to the British empire. We cannot pocket them and expose them in museums, with labels explaining their historical context and respective significance. How do we rearrange streets that were built specifically for military parades of the control of peoples? Take for example the Haussmanian boulevards of Paris, they were initially built to be especially wide, supposedly to manage crowds in case of riots (France already had dealt with such riots, so they knew better). The famous boulevards were built conveniently straight to allow cannons to fire, in case things might have gotten agitated. We find ourselves with a problem which doesn’t seem to have short term solutions. And the long term solutions seems like a headache-inducing puzzle of intentional cultural changes.

   In the field of architecture specifically, there is a way, one which is immediate and will not touch everyone, and yet is an undeniable first step towards reeducation. That is to teach the proper historical narratives associated with the architects we revere. The current Western education in architecture and urbanism has two major issues to tackle. To begin we must stop omitting the reality of colonialism in our home countries and in the cities, built around the world in order to perpetuate colonial rule, from the full story. Second, we must engage more profoundly with narratives attached to the architects studied in our curriculum.

   A simple first engagement with this is the work of Le Corbusier. Even if you have minimal interest in Architecture, it is highly likely that you have come across this Swiss, nationalized French architect, the principal representative of the modernist movement of the 1930s along with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto and Theo van Doesburg. Le Corbusier was asked in 1930 to propose a new urban plan for the city of Algiers, at the time under the rule of the French empire. Throughout his writings and drawings, it is clear that Le Corbusier had a warped vision of Algeria. Just like many French people at the time his vision of the Orient was, as Edward Said enunciates so elegantly in his works on orientalism, a construction of travel literature, paintings, and various other readings. Travel literature is especially infamous for strengthening the dichotomies of the exotic versus familiar, us versus them.

   And similarly, the writings of Le Corbusier are riddled with references to Theophile Gautier and Pierre Loti, both know to have heavily exploited stereotypical and demeaning narratives of the Orient. Works which cannot be considered of deep thinking and analytical observation. This shows in a particular instance of Le Corbusier’s life, his first arrival in Istanbul. He had read time and time again about the impression the city makes when arriving at the port. The clash of the blue sky and yellow light on the skyline of minarets and the mosques’ domes. But on his first arrival, the skies were grey and the sea muddy. Far from provoking a rethinking of his understanding of the city, Le Corbusier had time and time again revisited through his sketches of the city this moment of arrival through the port of Istanbul. His understanding, steaming not from an engagement with the territory, and it’s socio-cultural context. Likewise, he engaged time and time again with his imagined version of the city of Algiers, this shows in his postcards in ‘La Ville radieuse’, his study of Eugene Delacroix’s Les Femmes d’Alger, or his writings about Islamic women and the private life of the Muslim family.

Le Corbusier’s relationship with the city of Algiers may be one of the most problematic. Le Corbusier had an admiration for the city,  and especially for the vernacular Islamic architecture of the kasbah because of its geometric urban organization. As Le Corbusier stated, “great architecture is cubic”. Following his visit to the city for the 100th anniversary of its occupation, Le Corbusier began working on an urban plan of the city without official commission or endorsement. In the tradition of colonial planning, Le Corbusier envisioned Alger on an axis going from Paris to the French capital of Africa, in loyalty to the idea of la grande France and the French rule in Algeria. The result of this was the “Obus” plan ( translated to bombshell), a militaristic urban plan for the city of Algiers on French terms. It consisted of the reinterpretation of a green belt sometimes referred to as a ‘cordon sanitaire’ (sanitary cordon), a giant undulating structure that would connect the hillside residences for Europeans to the city center in the marine quarters, forming a bridge over the kasbah. The separation would have had inforced an urban and social separation, allowing for the control and surveillance of racial contact in an ordered and clean environment. The urban plan was also a claim over the body of the Algerian woman. Le Corbusier himself provoked the association through his comparison of the city with the female body: “Algiers drops out of sight,” he noted, viewing the city from a boat leaving for France in 1934, “like a magnificent body, supple-hipped and full-breasted… A body which could be revealed in all its magnificence, through the judicious influence of form and the bold use of mathematics to harmonize natural topography and human geometry.” This type of analogy, which claims mastery over the feminized body of the colonized territory, truly marks how deep-seated the ideas of appropriation and domination of the French empire over Algiers were in Le Corbusier mind. Later on, le Corbusier would try to sell his plans to the Vichy regime, thankfully without success. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that these ideas are part of the work of Le Corbusier. Likewise in his most famous works, we can trace inspiration from the Mediterranean vernacular architecture. It is not a stretch now to understand the colonial ideologies that accompanied them.

Related image
Visual representation of Le Corbusier’s plan for Algiers
Source: Fondation Le Corbusier

Alexia Koch

Alexia is a 2nd Year Architecture and Interdisciplinary Studies student at The Bartlett school of Architecture, University College London, writing as an contributor for Sensus.

Her particular interests of study and research include the intersection between social issues and architecture as well as geopolitics.

Contact:
alexia.koch.17@ucl.ac.uk


References:

Çelik, Zeynep.(1992) “Le Corbusier, Orientalism, Colonialism.” Assemblage, no. 17 : 59-77

Franz Fanon (1965) “Algeria Unveiled,” in A Dying Colonialism

Michele Lamprako (1992) “Le Corbusier and Algiers: the plan obus as colonial urbanism”

Le Corbusier (1933), ‘La Ville radieuse’

Corbusier,  (2007) ‘Journey to the East’ Translated by Ivan Žaknić, MIT Press

Le Corbusier  (1950) ‘Poesie sur Alger’ 1950

Image Source:

Image 1: http://www.lefigaro.fr/voyages/2018/07/20/30003-20180720ARTFIG00047-retour-a-alger.php

Image 2: https://www.fosterandpartners.com/projects/trafalgar-square/

Image 3:  http://www.fondationlecorbusier.fr/corbuweb/morpheus.aspx?sysId=13&IrisObjectId=6259&sysLanguage=en-en&itemPos=192&itemCount=215&sysParentId=65&sysParentName=