The Great Scapegoat

It was deja brule all over again.

The spring riots known as Days of Rage, inspired by a labor law proposed by the French government, came only months after the country’s unemployed, underclass youth gave vent to their fury in fiery demonstrations. Many of these protesters live in banlieues (suburbs), the poor, crime-ridden areas that form isolated belts of decay around France’s city centers.

In France, the term banlieue has become synonymous with government-subsidized high rises. Built during the postwar baby boom to provide habitation a loyer modere (affordable housing) for the working class, the HLM, as they’re known, are now occupied largely by immigrants from the former French colonies. Modernist visions of a clean new world have deteriorated into graffiti-covered incubators of social pathologies, reminiscent of the run-down “flatblocks” in A Clockwork Orange—machines for living dangerously whose residents tell tales of drug dealing and gang rape.

No sooner last November had the nightly tally of fire-bombed cars returned to a pre-riot norm—one uses the term advisedly—of 98 than the critics arrived to tell us What It All Meant.

Almost from the first, the knives were out for modernist architecture and its owl-eyed poster geek, Le Corbusier. The chickens had come home to roost on their pilotis, some critics argued. “If there’s one person responsible for last week’s riots in France, it may be…Le Corbusier,” wrote Snut_Rucket, posting on the discussion site Plastic.com. “Between 1955 and 1975, when…Algerians and Tunisians came flooding into the country, the French solution was to warehouse them in Corbusier-style high-rise apartment towers in self-contained projects. Well, guess where the riots are happening?” The International Herald Tribune bemoaned the death of civic life in the wastelands surrounding the banlieues: “Inspired by Le Corbusier, these stand-alone high-rises…lack urban infrastructure, like streets.” Even former art student David Byrne, apparently still in recovery from a Bauhaus theory course he took at the Rhode Island School of Design, could barely manage his anger. “Tear the damn things down,” the singer wrote on his blog. “Admit that Le Corbusier and his legions of pseudo-followers were wrong, and…build human-scale communities.”

If you’re a Francophobe, Corbusier’s an easy target. Making fun of a guy who rode around on a white bicycle wearing X-ray specs—hell, it’s like shooting frogs in a barrel. His look was haute weenie and his visionary urbanism was risibly out-of-touch: In his Plan Voisin (1925), he proposed razing Paris’s north bank to make room for a skyscraping monstropolis. This is Dr. Evil pinky-nibbling stuff, a far cry from sane American schemes like, say, Buckminster Fuller’s modest proposal to clap a gargantuan glass dome over Manhattan.

Of course, much Corbu-bashing is nothing more than conservative anti-modernism, axe-grinding on the same stone Wolfe used in From Bauhaus to Our House. In “The Barbarians at the Gates of Paris,” a 2002 essay some believe predicted the riots, the conservative commentator Theodore Dalrymple castigated Corbu as a “totalitarian” and reviled “the inhuman, unadorned, hard-edged geometry of [the] vast housing projects” he supposedly begat as “social marginalization made concrete.”

Never mind that Le Corbusier had no direct hand in the creation of the HLM. Never mind that he imagined exurbs in the sky—“towers in a park” that stretched upward, rather than sprawling outward—in order to humanize the built world, making room for greenbelts. Never mind that he designed shops into his mixed-use vertical neighborhoods so that residents could ride the elevator to work, whereas the banlieues are far from the buzz of commerce. (Unsurprisingly, nearly one quarter of their roughly 4 million inhabitants are unemployed). Never mind that one of the few towers faithful to Le Corbusier’s vision, the 12-story Unite d’Habitation in Marseille, is a thumping success.

“It was not the physical environment that?‘criminalized’ the inhabitants,” Bernard Tschumi told me in an email. Tschumi is the former dean of Columbia’s School of Architecture and, like Corbu, of Swiss/French origins. “It was the unemployment rate, combined with the inability of successive governments from the left and the right to overcome the implications of labor laws that protected some while fully excluding others. The problem is not architectural.”

Le Corbusier is a victim of our zeitgeist. His concept of the master planner as benign dictator, of “serene and lucid” mind, comports ill with our times. The vogue in intellectual fashions these days runs more to Wikipedia and the wisdom of crowds. Emergent behavior and “the power of thinking without thinking” as described by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink are in; Corbu’s cherished “standardization, industrialization, Taylorization” are out. The orderly geometry of his buildings was “a guarantee against willfulness,” he wrote, in Towards a New Architecture (1927). The specter of social unrest—“architecture or revolution,” he warned—stalks his writings, held at bay by “a spirit of order, a unity of intention.”

Jane Jacobs is the patron saint of today’s visionary urbanists, who recall her admonition in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) to see “complex systems…as order, and not as chaos.” Meanwhile, the banlieues—Brutalist caricatures of the vertical neighborhoods, “bathed in light and air,” that Le Corbusier built in his mind—are manufacturing disorder, turning out angry, alienated mobs whose idea of a Radiant City is Paris, burning.

Mark Dery is a cultural critic who teaches media studies in the Department of Journalism at New York University. He last ranted for I.D. about Donald Trump (May 2005).

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