Few books have had such an influential effect on trends in American planning over the past two decades as Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck’s 2000 book Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. In it, these key members of the Congress for the New Urbanism slash through a century’s worth of urban-reform orthodoxy as they attempt to show how the fussy academicism of twentieth-century planning theory led (sometimes accidentally, sometimes intentionally) to a nation of sprawl: a byword for the aesthetic, environmental, and social catastrophe built of cul-de-sacs and front lawns. By placing the cement shoes of sprawl on the feet of some of the twentieth century’s most noteworthy planners, architects, and designers, the New Urbanists have been enormously successful in trashing Modernist-era planning ideals, and reorienting the discussion about American cities around their favored themes of sustainability, mixed-used zoning, and neo-traditional design. The idea that cities must now open up their centers to the consumption-oriented, densified redevelopment dreams that wed together artisanal toothpaste purveyors and speculative financiers, is now in wide currency amongst liberals.
There is no person who defines the negative space of New Urbanism’s principles better than the Swiss-French Modernist Le Corbusier. Corbusier’s ideals—rationalistic machine efficiency, bureaucratic statism, and an extreme infatuation with the possibilities of automobiles and other new technologies—stand in precise contradistinction to the New Urbanists’ belief in precious ornamentation, market-based development, and a fascination with aesthetic traditionalism. In fact, it is a quote from Le Corbusier that sets Suburban Nation into rhetorical motion:
Doubtless reading Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck, rather than heading to the original, numerous authors have borrowed that same quote to supposedly prove Le Corbusier’s pathological obsession with the automobile. Here’s Joseph Goddard, in his 2012 Being American on the Edge:
David Karjanen turns to the exact same epigraph to damn mega-retailers in an essay from a 2006 volume on Wal-Mart:
And Michael W. Mehaffy trots it out again in a Duany-edited collection of essays criticizing landscape urbanism:
Trouble is, this is bad history. Not only is the date wrong (Radiant Cities was originally published in 1933, and then reprinted in a special English edition in 1967), but the entire spirit of the excerpt is totally reversed from its original context. Here is the entire page (from the 1967 edition) on which the selection appears:
Note that Le Corbusier presents the “cities will be part of the country” passage in scare quotes, mockingly placing words in the mouths of the Soviet deurbanist planners who, in Le Corbusier’s opinion, misleadingly encouraged Soviet citizens to “entertain an idle dream” of nonsensical and wasteful suburban consumption. Those who have lifted this passage from Suburban Nation have posed it as though it somehow represents a perfect summary of Le Corbusier’s beliefs; in fact, Le Corbusier invented the passage in order to sneer at it and define his beliefs as the precise opposite!
How does Le Corbusier cast the denouement of Soviet suburbanization? “The mystic belief in deurbanization had fallen flat on its face,” he crows—a phrase which we could easily place on the lips of the New Urbanists!
It turns out, then, that this passage is not at all proof of a Corbusian dream of automotive suburban paradise. It is, instead, an economic critique, in which we find Le Corbusier counterpoising his planned city of pure, precise efficiency to a consumption-oriented theory where all spending (even wasteful spending) is necessary to prod on production and employment—a view shared by both Soviet planners as well as Keynesians in the West. In doing so, he was trying to tarnish the ideals of the Garden City-era decentralist planners, who believed (in Le Corbusier’s words) that cities should “open up new roads that will wind indefatigably away, far, far away, through inimical terrains.” In other words, Le Corbusier, at least in this particular passage, is on the New Urbanists side.
You don’t need to be a defender of Le Corbusier’s ideas in order to see that the appearance of this quote at the head of Suburban Nation is a sloppy history, if not a deliberate misrepresentation. It should be a reminder that whenever we form our ideas in the negative-space of those who have gone before, we are liable to find that, upon closer reading, their ideas have a tendency to circle back upon us.