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Le Corbusier was the most important architect of the 20th century. Frank Lloyd Wright was more prolific--Le Corbusier's built oeuvre comprises about 60 buildings--and many would argue he was more gifted. But Wright was a maverick; Le Corbusier dominated the architectural world, from that halcyon year of 1920, when he started publishing his magazine L'Esprit Nouveau, until his death in 1965. He inspired several generations of architects--including this author--not only in Europe but around the world. He was more than a mercurial innovator. Irascible, caustic, Calvinistic, Corbu was modern architecture's conscience.
He was also a city planner. "Modern town planning comes to birth with a new architecture," he wrote in a book titled simply Urbanisme. "By this immense step in evolution, so brutal and so overwhelming, we burn our bridges and break with the past." He meant it. There were to be no more congested streets and sidewalks, no more bustling public squares, no more untidy neighborhoods. People would live in hygienic, regimented high-rise towers, set far apart in a parklike landscape. This rational city would be separated into discrete zones for working, living and leisure. Above all, everything should be done on a big scale--big buildings, big open spaces, big urban highways.
He called it La Ville Radieuse, the Radiant City. Despite the poetic title, his urban vision was authoritarian, inflexible and simplistic. Wherever it was tried--in Chandigarh by Le Corbusier himself or in Brasilia by his followers--it failed. Standardization proved inhuman and disorienting. The open spaces were inhospitable; the bureaucratically imposed plan, socially destructive. In the U.S., the Radiant City took the form of vast urban-renewal schemes and regimented public housing projects that damaged the urban fabric beyond repair. Today these megaprojects are being dismantled, as superblocks give way to rows of houses fronting streets and sidewalks. Downtowns have discovered that combining, not separating, different activities is the key to success. So is the presence of lively residential neighborhoods, old as well as new. Cities have learned that preserving history makes a lot more sense than starting from zero. It has been an expensive lesson, and not one that Le Corbusier intended, but it too is part of his legacy.
Architect and educator Witold Rybczynski is writing a book on Frederick Law Olmsted
Five For The Ages: Buildings That Will Last
By Belinda Luscombe
When does a building become more important than its purpose? Why do some buildings become such reference points that they may never be torn down? After all, many works of architectural merit and structural solidity have been destroyed in the name of war or progress (witness New York City's Pennsylvania Station). Some buildings, it seems, put down foundations in the psyche of their location; they may grow old but will never become dated. Le Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamp is a certain survivor. Here are five others likely to outlive us all.
Guggenheim Bilbao, 1997
Architect: Frank Gehry Shrouded in titanium, this massive gallery gleams like a voluptuous Spanish spaceship that has landed in an ancient town. Spectacular outside, gracious within.
Chrysler Building, 1930
Architect: William Van Alen Manhattan's Roman-candle skyscraper, with hubcaps for gargoyles and one of the most recognized crowns anywhere, is 1,048 ft. of shimmering charm.
Seagram Building, 1958
Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe His best office tower includes a plaza, then a rarity in New York City. Its bronze-and-dark-glass skin gives it a classically refined stature.
Sydney Opera House, 1973
Architect: Joern Utzon Is it all roof or all walls? As beloved now as it was controversial during construction, the building is a blissful union of unique structure and breathtaking location. Sydneysiders fight over what buildings are worthy to go next to it.
HongKong and Shanghai Bank, 1985
Architect: Norman Foster All the workings of a high rise from escalator machinery to cross braces are displayed in Hong Kong's forceful steel-and-glass tower.