High Modernism and Planned Cities

Matt Klinman


The focus of this presentation was to facilitate a discussion on the viability of planned cities as a solution to the various environmental and social problems that arise from urban living. Essentially the discussion centered around the juxtaposition of our desire for a well thought out and sustainable plan for the future of the human species with the desire to develop our living patterns and situations “organically” and “naturally”.

This High Modernist planned city Brasilia was used as focal point of the discussion. As described in James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State “Although it was a surely a rational, healthy, rather egalitarian, state-centered city, its plans made not the slightest concession to the desires, history, and practices of its residents.” Though not directly designed by him, Brasilia was conceived to follow the plans and architectural ideology of Le Corbusier. As the class concluded he was an ambitious but very arrogant man. His philosophy and motives can be seen a quote of his that Scott presents “(The plan of the high modernist city) has been drawn up by serene and lucid minds. It has taken account of nothing but human truths…It is a biological creation destined for human beings and capable by modern techniques (Scott 112).” We see here the general paradox of his plan. He wishes to create a living space that is rooted in what he sees as biological necessities and natural truths through artificial means.

The specifics of Le Corbusier’s arrogant vision can be explored at length but what was most important and admirable about his dream was his desire to better the human condition by self-imposed regulation. We can see a parallel in what he wishes to do with the modern city in what the class had deemed a suitable idea of the creation of a global EPA. The function of such a body would be to oversee and regulate the consumption of natural resources and the creation of pollution, ostensibly to help us all live a more ideal lifestyle. The contrasting viewpoint is seen as the capitalistic viewpoint, allow business and industry to grow naturally and without guidance and planning. The idea of a global EPA is that it would be a body that can look at human history and behavior and dictate what business practices would be best for us all environmentally. Similarly, the idea a planned city is to look at human history and behavior and dictate what living practices would be best for us all.

The debate is an interesting one and the conclusion that was reached is that a compromise of the two is perhaps in order. We must both be aware of the dangers of human activity such that we consider our behavior and its effect on our environment and ourselves, but we must also allow natural trends to take their course. The great gift of the human species is that we are able to study our own behaviors and learn from them. This gift of conscience is what we must use to dictate how we live as a community so as to create a sustainable way of life and ensure a future for our species and out environment.

Indeed, a look at Brasilia now shows that this is, to some extent what has happened. After severe sterility at its outset, the human presence in the city has begun to infuse it with organic growth tendencies. Regardless of its initial failures, many of the ideals of the city were constructive and perhaps have set up this urban environment to a better and more sustainable future than it otherwise may have had.

Scott, James C. Seeing Like a State Ch. 4 Pg. 103-146 1998 Yale University Press
http://www.geocities.com/TheTropics/3416/ Augusto Cesar Baptista Areal.

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last updated 5/11/06