The Individual and the City

Originally published in , No.5, 1989

In the introduction to her landmark book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, Jane Jacobs states flatly, “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.”[1] “My attack is not based on quibbles about rebuilding methods or hairsplitting about fashions in design. It is an attack, rather, on the principles and aims that have shaped modern orthodox city planning. “[2]

That orthodoxy was the emerging coalescence of thought that had begun to form in response to the earlier twentieth-century visions of Ebenezer Howard, Sir Patrick Geddes, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and others. Jacobs viewed the new planning orthodoxy as having two camps – one she calls the “Decentrists,” inspired in particular by Howard, Geddes and Wright and led in America by Lewis Mumford, Clarence Stein, Henry Wright and Catherine Bauer, and the other comprised of followers of Le Corbusier, who accepted a greater density of urban life, albeit still in landscape-dominated cities. “Virtually all sophisticated city designers today combine the two conceptions in various permutations,”[3] Jacobs observes. “By now, these orthodox ideas are part of our folklore. They harm us because we take them for granted.”[4]

From her point of view, Modernist planning notions had been cruelly foisted on an unsuspecting public through the insidious propagandizing powers of its advocates.

No other aspect of our economy and our society has been more purposefully manipulated for a full quarter of a century to achieve precisely what we are getting. Extraordinary governmental financial incentives have been required to achieve this degree of monotony, sterility and vulgarity. Decades of preaching, writing and exhorting by experts have gone into convincing us and our legislators that mush like this is good for us, as long as it comes bedded with grass.[5]

Virtually all versions of the Modernists’ urban visions catch Jacobs’ verbal darts. Ebenezer Howard, she claims, “hated the city. His prescription for saving the city was to do it in. “[6] Mumford, Stein, Wright and Bauer are deemed “incurious about successes in great cities. They were interested only in failures. All was failure.”[7] She escribes Mumford’s book, The Culture of Cities, as “largely a morbid and biased catalogue of ills.”[8] But the major figure of Modern city planning orthodoxy Jacobs most loves to hate is Le Corbusier, whom she calls “the man with the most dramatic idea of how to get all of this anti-city planning right into the citadels of iniquity themselves…. “[9] She observes mournfully that “Le Corbusier’s dream city has had an immense impact on our cities. It was hailed deliriously by architects, and has gradually been embodied in scores of projects ranging from low-income public housing to office building projects. “[10]

Throughout the book, Jacobs’s credo is clear. The traditional city of streets, sidewalks, small blocks, tight building fabric, and mixed-use will work because it has worked. Its formula should not be tampered with. Her definition of “city” is a narrow and singular one, leaving no room for intermingling the forms of “town,” “suburb,” or other such “inert types of settlement.” “To be frank,” she confesses, “I like dense cities best and care about them most…. Towns, suburbs and even little cities are totally different organisms from great cities.”[11]

Decrying the notion of powerful new visions for the city, Jacobs prefers “adventuring in the real world” to what she calls “the pseudoscience of city planning and its companion, the art of city design. “[12] She asserts,

The practitioners of this discipline (if such it can be called) have ignored the study of success and failure in real life, … and are guided instead by principles derived from the behavior and appearance of towns, suburbs, tuberculosis sanatoria, fairs and imaginary dream cities-from anything but cities themselves.[13]

Hers is an ultra-conservative point of view, and, as Robert Fishman has pointed out, it was no mistake that her positions were quickly endorsed by the likes of William F. Buckley, Jr., who included a long section of her book in his anthology of conservative American thought.[14]

The Death and Life of Great American Cities ushered in an era that for almost 30 years now has seen a marked waning of interest among leading urban design theorists in the visions of the early Modern masters and, indeed, in the notion of extraordinary new visions in general. Jacobs’s critical voice was joined by contemporaries such as Kevin Lynch, Gordon Cullen and Edmund Bacon, all of whom admired, investigated and learned from the traditional city and wrote influential books in the 1960s.[15] Although certainly less vitriolic than Jacobs, their perspectives are nevertheless implicitly critical of the emerging modern city.

And yet in those 30 years, the American city has, for the most part, burgeoned in an unabashedly Modern mode. Some forces have propelled Modernism well beyond the first 25 years of dramatic impact, as cited by Jacobs, and well into our own time. Certainly economics, transportation (especially the automobile) and legislative inertia are notable in this regard. But is there something else in the Modernist city that has spoken to the collective American psyche in a way that the traditional city has not, or cannot? Is there some power, especially in those early modern social notions, in how people relate to the land and to each other in the new city that represents a kind of quintessential twentieth-century American reality?

I approached this topic initially as a skeptic, with many qualms about the way the modern city has developed over the last 50-60 years. And yet, in America today we live, work, and, as architects, build in environments that are significantly Modern in most parts of the country and dominantly Modern in many regions. It seems responsible to investigate the cities we have created in the recent past, or, as Jacobs might put it, to “adventure into the real world,” to assess the correlation or lack of correlation between their physical form and the life and aspirations of the society that inhabits them. This is, of course, a long and continuing task, one well beyond the scope of this paper. I would, however, like to take a step in that direction by focusing on a very small set of social issues in the visions of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, assessing their validity in the context of American culture of the recent past.

These issues center on the role of the individual in the city and on the importance of the city as an environment that supports and nurtures personal development and self-actualization. This is, perhaps, not a traditional measure of the city, which we more commonly see in its collectivist role rather than a role of support for individual initiative. It is, however, a notion that has gained significant philosophical validity over the last decades. Susanne Langer, for example, in an article published originally in 1958, noted that the deepest of the radical changes in mankind’s existence in the twentieth century

is really a change in our picture of mankind …. Today, natural tribes and isolated communities have all but disappeared…. Society tends to break up into new and smaller units-in fact, into its ultimate units, the human individuals that compose it. The atomization of society is most obvious in the great cosmopolitan city.[16]

Viewing this as a positive, progressive and certainly not antisocial development, Langer contrasts advanced human settlement patterns with those of lower animals. She observes,

The beehive … owes its harmonious existence to the fact that its members are incompletely individuated None of them performs all of a creature’s essential functions Direct involvement of each bee with the whole lets the hive function with an organic rhythm that makes its members appear wonderfully socialized. But they are not really socialized at all, any more than the cells of our tissues are socialized; they are associated by being unindividuated. That is as far away from the human ideal as one can get.[17]

It seems to me that both Wright and Le Corbusier deserve significant credit for elucidating very early the growing importance in the twentieth century of the city as an individualist environment, where the very smallest units of the city, the individual and the family, could truly prosper. Both architects were adamant individualists themselves, and their city visions are inseparable from their own personal perspectives of life. The writings of both are replete with an advocacy of the rights and stature of the individual as the foremost element of society. The lives of both were struggles as well for individual freedom and expression.


Frank Lloyd Wright sprang from a heritage of strong-willed independence. His grandfather, Richard Lloyd Jones, was an outcast in his native land because of his radical Unitarian religious beliefs.[18] He sought economic and cultural independence by isolating himself and his kin in the Wisconsin valley, where Wright would later build Taliesin and isolate himself against threats to his own strong personal and moral convictions.

When Wright was first developing his notions for Broadacre City, he was at the same time conducting a personal struggle for full self-actualization and identity. Biographer Robert Twombley notes of Wright in the period following 1909,

As he gained knowledge and confidence-as he came to believe in himself-his self-image began to change, making him even more jealous of his individuality. Gradually he realized that his suburban, as well as his professional, situation was too confining. He could never be a truly free and independent person, nor could he be happy in any fundamental way, until he broke certain patterns and boundaries defining his new life.[19]

Twombley continues,

Caring less for community customs as the years passed, he became more individualistic in his personal mannerisms or, as a noted social scientist might put it, less ‘other-directed.’ He let his long hair fall over his collar, and his clothes, although expensive, were unusually casual; flowing neckties and smocks, English jackets and riding breeches, and high-laced boots were hardly the suburban norm.[20]

Wright also began building his home at Taliesin In Wisconsin during this period. Twombley notes, “As much a declaration of independence as his recent actions, and as much an autobiography as the book he later published, Taliesin was an index to Wright’s psychological and intellectual attitudes in 1911.”[21] The complex was, as Twombley observes, a “social experiment” as much’ as a place to live. Taliesin was a microcosm of the later Broadacre City marriage of humankind and the land. House and nature-indoors and outdoors-were merged easily and repeatedly by frequent architectural symbols and gestures. The independence, solitude, integrity and freedom Wright sought in his personal life were achieved via an intimate and nurturing relationship with the natural environment. The longstanding symbiosis of free man and nature implicit in the social stance of Jefferson, Emerson and Thoreau was transferred to an architectural expression at Taliesin and an urban expression in Broadacre City.

Wright’s outward manifestations of individuality in his behavior, his dress and the design of his new home were signals of deep and growing social convictions. He had long aligned himself with Jeffersonian political ideals. He read and quoted Emerson and Thoreau, admiring American thought that celebrated self-reliance. Wright was adamant that the only appropriate foundation for the true democracy he so ardently supported was an environment of physical and economic independence for its citizens. As Robert Fishman has noted, “Wright wanted the whole United States to become a nation of individuals. “[22] “He began planning an American city in which he could be a citizen, a city that expressed his faith that he still represented the true spirit of his country.”[23]

In Broadacre City, the individual and the family took the offensive. As a center for production, education and socialization, the family recaptured the focus it had sacrificed to urban institutions. “The true center … in Usonian democracy,” Wright claimed, “is the individual in his true Usonian home.”[24]


Like Wright, Le Corbusier also sprang from a rebellious, individualistic ancestry. His forebears were part of a persecuted sect of French Huguenots who fled to Switzerland seeking religious freedom in the sixteenth century. He frequently remembered with pride his revolutionary grandparents-one of whom died as a rebel in prison and another who was one of the leaders of a successful revolution in the family’s home of La Chaux de Fond in 1848.[25]

Like Wright, Le Corbusier placed a high value on his own personal freedom and independence. Unmarried until age 43, he was, as Charles Jencks has noted, “wary of taking on any personal responsibilities that would cut into his time….”[26] His extensive travels alone as a young man as well as his adamance for self-education in Towards a New Architecture demonstrate his powerful urge toward individual self-actualization.

Le Corbusier’s descriptions of himself as the lonely artist are well known. As a young man he spoke of a “deep love of one’s ego, which one seeks in retreat and solitude.”[27] Like Wright, Le Corbusier tailored his personal living and working environments to meet his needs for individuation. His own creative activities generally took place in quiet, separate places. In his architectural office he built a small “cell”-a nine-foot box with blank walls-where he often generated projects before bringing them to others for collaboration. His small cabin at Cap Martin in southern France was likewise a cell-like structure, placed in the midst of nature. As Tim Benton has noted, it exemplified Le Corbusier’s belief that industrial man “needed to be rejuvenated and cleansed by frequent contact with pure and unadulterated nature.”[28]

Le Corbusier’s apartment on Nungesser et Coli in Paris, which he built for himself in 1931, also bears out the life of the individual in a way that is tied to his urban visions, just like Wright’s Taliesin was tied to Broadacre City. The penthouse apartment is strategically located in a block which (very unusual for Paris) sits freestanding, with no buildings of comparable bulk across the street to the front or back. The eastern or front exposure of the building faces the Parc du Princes and Boulevard Peripherique, both of which were built in the space remaining when the last walls of Paris were torn down. Beyond the park and the expressway one has a long view all the way to the Eiffel Tower and the center of Paris. Similarly, to the rear or west of the apartment is another long view that stretches past the vast gardens of the Bois de Boulogne.

From his painting and sculpture studio Le Corbusier could watch athletes six floors below playing on soccer fields amidst trees and greenery dotted with small buildings such as the Piscene Molitor where he himself swam regularly. From the dining room and bedroom he and his wife Yvonne could enjoy grand views of the sky and the park with little intrusion from the Parisian masses or the hustle-bustle of the street. It was in this environment that Le Corbusier sought his own individual development.

When he was first generating his grand urban schemes, Le Corbusier wrote that Modern Man “has need of the ideal certainties which previously religion gave him; doubting it now and metaphysics also, he is driven in on himself where the true world goes on within.”[29] This, as well as other of his writings in the period, bears a relation to the attitudes of his contemporary and countryman Carl Jung. Jung’s respect for the introvert, his emphasis on self-actualization, and his acknowledgment of the value of an inner-directed orientation all draw a parallel between the psychoanalyst’s perspective on emerging twentieth-century society and the perspective of Le Corbusier as an urbanist. As Anthony Stoer has noted, Jung believed that

it is the ‘individual who is the carrier of culture… The development of individuality, the discovery of what an individual really thinks and feels and believes, as opposed to the collective thoughts, feelings and beliefs imposed on him by society, becomes a quest of vital significance.[30]

Le Corbusier’s personal quest for individuation was generalized for the whole of society as well. He traced many social ills to a general lack of adequate solitude. Since the time in his youth when he spent 18 days at the monastery at Mt Athos, Le Corbusier had been fascinated by the introspective life of the monk, with its emphasis on the strength of the individual within a collective community, Indeed, at the head of one of his plans for the Radiant City Le Corbusier wrote, “These studies rest on an inalienable, unquestionable truth that is fundamental to all plans for social organization: individual liberty.”[31]


In their quests for an architecture and urban fabric that would support and nurture a deep-seated individual freedom and expression, both Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright were expressing poignantly a fundamental spirit of their age and, indeed, a fundamental social concern of the twentieth century that lay before them. Extraordinary political upheavals were occurring that emphasized a dispersion of power rather than the concentrations in church or state that had been traditionally prevalent Developing democracies in both the United States and Europe were finally beginning to come to terms with the concept of individual political representation for all people, not just males or landowners or certain races. In many disciplines, from politics to economics to psychoanalysis, a new awareness of an individualist culture was developing.

Although a great deal has been made of a “spirit of the age” in the twentieth century which relates to technology and the machine, it is striking that both Le Corbusier and Wright frequently viewed the machine as a means to a social purpose rather than a phenomenon to be celebrated in itself. Le Corbusier spoke longingly in 1925 of a time when man would be “in a position to guide himself and choose among the technical means those which permit him to satisfy his spiritual needs.”[32] In the same year he also wrote of “the new machine age society.” Of it he observed,

The worker’s house already occupies a few beautiful and healthy spaces, and the bathroom enters into everyday usage; first class in the metro differs from second only by four sous; the bus stop is a democratic place where men both in bully’s cap and top-coat queue up.[33]

The ideal of individual freedom and esteem, achieved through the machine as a great equalizer, was a notion prevalent in the thinking of Frank Lloyd Wright as well. Wright saw the personal automobile (and later the personal helicopter) as a new mastery of space and time which would introduce unprecedented personal freedom of movement Since virtually any point would be accessible from any other, people would not need to cluster into compact areas or be herded like animals into streetcars or rail lines. Wright assumed that twentieth-century man had an inherent right to possess an auto and with that right would come independence. As with Le Corbusier, the machine was seen as an opportunity to finally accomplish a socially desirable end.

The individualism imagined by Wright and Le Corbusier and noted here as a spirit of their age is notably gentle and benign. It is not an aggressive, egocentric self-expression of greed or power. For Wright, the model of the individualist was the self-reliant rural proprietor-the simple mid-western farmer he knew as a child. For Le Corbusier, it was the humble monk whom he had visited and admired at Mt Athos and at the Charterhouse of Ema. The cities they imagined were planned for cultures where “the people were grown up and masters of themselves,” as Le Corbusier noted in When the Cathedrals Were White.[34] They were indeed utopian environments.

But it seems that much of the sort of individualism that these visionaries celebrated represents, in fact, a recurring twentieth-century cultural aspiration, especially in the United States. Both architects’ plans raise new possibilities for the individual in the context of society, and for humankind in general, in a world of increasing population and a threatened dominance, rather than liberation, at the hand of industrialization and the machine.


Many of the issues raised by early twentieth-century visionaries became, in fact, prophetic of concerns that would dominate redirection of urban character well into the latter decades of the century. In particular, the social values of the individual as a dominant unit in society, as espoused by Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, have coincided with concerns that are still very much with us half a century later. There are also a remarkable number of physical forms and arrangements suggested by Wright and Le Corbusier that, again, coincide with those that have developed and that continue to develop in the urban landscape up to the present.

One can certainly find direct lineages and influences that have projected the visions of Wright and Le Corbusier into our own time. But what seems far more striking and dominant are coincident physical forms in the city that are the expression of shared values independent of influence. The forms imagined by Wright and Le Corbusier for the individualist city seem to be an almost inevitable expression of a culture with strong interests in individuation and self-actualization.

In The Greening of America, Charles Reich referred to the “choice of a lifestyle” as “the heart of the new awakening” in American culture in mid-century.[35] The idea, which actually seems very commonplace to us now, was that individuals should be able to choose the way they dress, the way they talk, sexual preferences, domestic arrangements, etc., for themselves without risk of constricting limitations imposed by collective society. It was, of course, exactly these sorts of restrictions in choice of lifestyle that both Wright and Le Corbusier rebelled against in their own personal lives. Wright’s idiosyncratic dress and especially his marital arrangements expressed an effort to “choose his own life-style” in an era in which such personal independence came only with severe penalties.

The cities that Wright and Le Corbusier imagined were for people with the freedom to “choose their own life-style.” Both authors were suspicious of economic dependencies that might compromise such freedom. Wright believed that the independence he wished to safeguard rested in the last analysis in the individual’s absolute right to property.[36] That right was translated in Broadacre City into the private homesteads that drive the shape and scale of his ideal city. Le Corbusier’s inhabitants are likewise often “freeholders”-workers with the power of self-determination. An accepting society with respect for individual choice inhabits both Broadacre and Le Corbusier’s cities. Independence of thought and action prevail over control and coercion.

The individual and the family become the basic units of organization in the city. Wright’s emphasis on the family is widely acknowledged, but Le Corbusier’s emphasis on the domestic unit is less commonly focused upon. Corbusier’s childhood in La Chaux de Fond exposed him to the healthy Swiss system of self-sufficient home workshops, which he never forgot. In Towards a New Architecture he depicted a “natural” and “stable” society where “the father watched over his children in the cradle and later in the workshop.”[37] Corbusier’s emphasis on the house and housing in his early career is indicative of his disproportionate concern .for this element of the city.

American culture in the latter part of the twentieth century has likewise focused great energy on domestic environments. Popular culture has found significant interest in domestic life as evidenced by the proliferation of journalistic and entertainment attention to the topic. The American “home” is repeatedly seen as the bastion of American cultural values. Burgeoning American cities of the latter twentieth century reflect these values with enormous quantities of land and vast transportation networks invested in the maintenance of ‘desirable” domestic patterns.

The home has become, in recent American culture, a means of self-expression and of identity. This notion of an individual’s right to choose his or her own expression in personal domestic environments is a powerful characteristic of Wright and Le Corbusier’s urban visions as well. Although both architects are often viewed as dictatorial master designers, the idea of inhabitant expression in housing is very strong both in Broadacre and at least in Le Corbusier’s Plan Obus of 1932.

Wright envisioned the common worker of Broadacre purchasing and assembling the essential mass-produced components of his house. These would be flexible enough to allow each family to put them together in their own way. The houses would grow over time as the family’s needs and resources grew. They should grow, Wright said, “as the trees around the man himself grow.”[38] The design of the house would be shaped by the individual’s needs, resources and an understanding of his own site.

Corbusier’s Viaduct building in the Plan Obus of 1932 is a larger-scaled version of the same inhabitant-determined notion about housing. Here, Le Corbusier separates the public support system from the private dwelling and lets the individual have full control over the latter. The result is a wide variation of stylistic expressions from Moorish to Modern but is infused with a great vitality that only personal expression could offer.

Although certainly imperfectly achieved, the goal of self-expression through individualized domestic environments has remained strong through recent decades in American cities. From the so-called “hand-made houses” of the 1960s to the compulsively differentiated developed suburbs of the 1980s, American culture has sought, but only occasionally mastered, the kind of responsive personalization envisioned by Wright and Le Corbusier.

Certainly, the most fundamental formal break of Broadacre City and Le Corbusier’s various urban visions with the traditional city lay in their extensive domains of landscaped open space. In this regard as well, recent culture has sought but imperfectly achieved fundamental innovation. Wright’s childhood experiences on the farm in rural Wisconsin prepared him for a lifetime romance with the land. Le Corbusier’s Sunday walks through Alpine landscapes of Le Chaux de Fonds with his father, who was an expert mountain climber, began a perhaps more studious appreciation for nature. That interest was propelled by his early teacher Charles L’Eplanthenier who Corb credited with observing, “Only nature is inspiring and true and should be the support of human endeavor.”[39] Le Corbusier himself wrote in 1925, “The mystery of nature, which we attack scientifically and hardly exhaust, always grows deeper and more profound the more we advance.”[40]

This latter quotation seems to be profoundly ahead of its time. The notion that as a society advances technologically it might actually grow in respect for and need for primitive nature is an idea that did not gain a significant following in modern western culture until the late 1960s. The “back to the earth” movements, extensive. legislative action to protect natural environments and to reverse damage inflicted by industrialization and pollution, as well as a renewed cultural enthusiasm for outdoor recreation, are all symptomatic of an appreciation of the importance of the natural environment in advanced culture. These signs, although perhaps less poetic, bear a similarity to the appreciation Le Corbusier expressed for nature.

Le Corbusier responded to his love of nature by giving great importance to outdoor space in his cities. His Freehold Maisonettes of 1922 offer modest personal living quarters coupled with generous outdoor terraces. Between the large buildings in his densest proposals are vast open spaces – gardens and parks laced with informal paths and shady walks.

Le Corbusier’s executed housing of Pessac of 1925 was drawn with extensive and lush gardens including private production gardening plots. What might otherwise have become a monotonous architectural environment is broken, shaped and varied by a wide range of landscape devices from a tree-lined axis to informal bosques.

Broadacre City is, of course, similarly infused with a diverse vocabulary of landscape treatments. Wright’s far less dense city is now dominantly landscaped with buildings only claiming a modest realm within vast open spaces. In Wright’s and Corbusier’s cities as in, I believe, recent culture, the appreciation of nature has to do at least in part with the notions of individualism previously outlined. Corbusier’s private terraces as well as Wright’s isolation by distance allow citizens to live in private communion with the sky, the clouds and the horizon, and to watch the cycles of the seasons and plant growth as a simple measure against which to meter their own daily existence.

Partly in response to this greater generosity of open space, the cities of Wright and Le Corbusier were much more decentralized than the traditional city. In much the same way, American cities have become more and more decentralized in recent years. Frank Lloyd Wright was very comfortable with the label “Decentrist.” He was careful not to create any single focus for community life which might detract from the “true center,” which was the individual home. Certainly there were local gathering spots, like the “community center” with its golf course, racetrack, art gallery, restaurants, theaters, etc. There were also mercantile concentrations such as the “great Roadside Market.” In Broadacre City there would be no “congested crowds senselessly swarming in from the country onto hard pavement.” Rather, at the intersection of two highways there was to be a permanent “County Fair” which would’ bring together under a single roof a variety of small entrepreneurs of a decentralized economy.

Wright proposed the Roadside Market as “the most attractive, educational and entertaining single modern unit to be found among all the features of the Broadacre City.” Buying and selling at the Roadside Market was to become a form of recreation and mutual enjoyment. The parallels between such visions and the dispersed shopping centers and malls that have proliferated around American cities over the last 25 years are striking indeed. Even the crossroads location of Wright’s center predicts the results of the hundreds of market study analyses conducted for such facilities every year.

Even Le Corbusier’s plans, which are generally more axial and may in fact have some geometric focus, seldom have a singular focus for activity. There is generally no forum or public square or even main street. The most prominent spot in the Ville Contemporaine is, in fact, a sort of Kamakaze landing field and transportation exchange, but it is certainly not a focus of communal activity. Concentrations of people, when they occur, are often in distributed shopping areas, along linear pedestrian routes or in polycentric points of focus. Too little attention is paid to Corbusier’s many schemes for decentralized settlement, such as the “Radiant Farm,” the “Linear Industrial City,” and the “Radio-Concentric City of Exchange,” which complement his schemes for the denser Ville Contemporaine and Ville Radieuse.

This decentralization is consistent socially with a view of the city as a place of interchange between individuals rather than as a collective body at all. Both Wright’s and Le Corbusier’s descriptions of their ideal cities are replete with notions of exchange, interchange, communication and transportation. These are cities, not of solidarity, but of individuality. Le Corbusier saw the health of the city in its capacity for speed. “The city that achieves speed,” he observed,” achieves success.” Speed is freedom-freedom to be alone, to meet, to exchange, to trade, to coordinate.

The city is a great coordinated system of transportation with freeways, subways, arterials, bicycle paths and pedestrian ways. Appropriately, the center of the city is a multilevel crossroads for the whole system. The two major freeways intersect there. Below, subway lines converge. A rail terminal is above, and the roof, as previously noted, is an airplane runway. Le Corbusier believed that the city existed for interchange-the fastest possible movement of ideas and information and abilities.

Wright’s view of the city of interchange is not so different. Early in his book The Disappearing City[41] he tells a story in which mankind is divided into two groups, the “radical” wanderer and the “static” cave-dweller. The cave-dweller built the traditional walled city but the wanderer refused to be so confined and “lived by his freedom and his prowess beneath the stars.” In his own time, Wright surmised, the machine was coming to the wanderer’s aid by undermining the justification for static establishments. Tomorrow’s city would have no walls. It would be the city of the wanderer, with mobility and, thereby, freedom.

The city of interchange for both visionaries has the freedom of the powerful, independent individual at its core. Perhaps that is the prime motivator for the kind of cities we have been building in America in the last few decades, where freeways, transportation and exchange are major ingredients. Often in our propensity to see these simply as technology, we miss the point of their importance as support systems for social values that revere a more fundamental force than technology-the urge for independence and individuality.


Reactions against the modern city in recent years have seldom addressed seriously the very real social changes of the twentieth century which have fueled revolutionary changes of urban character-especially in emerging American cities. It is not just technology and the car that have altered traditional urban character but a fundamental shift from a collectivist view of society to an increased respect for individual independence. Wright and Le Corbusier not only envisioned such sociological changes for the future but, being individualists themselves, they were advicates of these shifts.

American society has become increasingly heterogeneous. Even local bastions of ethnic, religious or political solidarity have been eroded significantly. Exposure to a wide range of choices through increased communication and ease of mobility have enticed individuals to seek their own directions apart from their collective group of origin. Imagining a re-emergence of the cohesive multi-generational urban neighborhood of the traditional city is not only nostalgic, but it also implies a willingness to sacrifice some of the personal independence now taken for granted by American urbanites. Recent post-modern resuscitation of the forms of Baroque urbanism with great focal squares and cohesive well-defined districts belie the social reality of our culture.

It seems far more appropriate to seek elegant urban expressions of the values and social structure of our own time-values which are in many ways laudable and progressive. For Wright and Le Corbusier there were great challenges in imagining the forms of the Individualist City. In the conservative and reactionary mode of more recent urbanists, however, this challenge has not bee pursued vigorously. The values of the populace and of the marketplace have often endorsed the values implicit in early Modern urban visions but the design dedication to bringing those values to mature form has waned significantly.

It is certainly appropriate at this juncture to re-evaluate the best of what early Modern urban visions had to offer. But the plans of Wright and Le Corbusier were embryonic and primitive. Their revolutionary character destined them to be experimental and often naive. Their shortcomings, however, must not be taken strictly as evidence or wrongheadedness. Careful attention must be given to an evaluation of directions and goals within these plans that maintain a validity and might inspire mature design reactions in our own time. Sociologically we remain a modern culture and must seek for ourselves a real and appropriate urbanism synchronous with contemporary values.

[1] Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York, 1961), p. 3.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, p. 23.

[4] Ibid, p. 16.

[5] Ibid, p. 7.

[6] Ibid, p. 17.

[7] Ibid, p. 20.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, p.21.

[10] Ibid, p.23.

[11] Ibid, p. 16.

[12] Ibid, p. 13.

[13] Ibid, p. 6.

[14] “William F. Buckley, Jr., Did You Ever See a Dream Walking? (Indianapolis: 1970).

[15] See Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge: 1960); Gordon Cullen, The Concise Townscape (London: 1961); Edmund N. Bacon, The Design of Cities (New York: 1967).

[16] Susanne K. Langer, “Man and Animal: The City and the Hive,” Philosophical Sketches ( ), p. 96.

[17] Ibid, p. 104.

[18] Roben Fishman, Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century (New York: 1977), p. 100.

[19] Roben C. Twombley, Frank Lloyd Wright: An Interpretive Biography (New York: 1973), p. 98.

[20] Ibid, p. 99.

[21] Ibid, p. 105.

[22] Fishman, p. 9.

[23] Ibid, p. 121.

[24] Frank Lloyd Wright, The Living City (New York: 1958), p. 207.

[25] Charles Jencks, Le Corbusier and the Tragic View of Architecture (Cambridge: 1973), p. 18.

[26] Ibid, p. 99.

[27]Letter from Charles-Edouard Jeanneret to Charles L’Eplattenier, Paris, November 25, 1903, Aujourd’hui Art et Architecture, ovember 965, p. 10.

[28] Tim Benton, “Historic Houses: Le Corbusier’s Cabanon,” Architectural Digest, December 1987, p. 203.

[29] Le Corbusier, Le Peinture Moderne (Paris: 1925), p. 10.

[30] Anthony Star, The Essential Jung (Princeton: 1983), p. 191.

[31] Le Corbusier, La ville radieuse (Boulogne-Seine: 1935), p. 9.

[32] La Peinture Moderne, pp. 153-54.

[33] Le Corbusier, L’Art decoratif d’aujourd’hui (Paris, 1925), pp. 39,42.

[34] Le Corbusier, When the Cathedrals Were White, A Journey to the Country of Timid People (New York: 1947), p. 5.

[35] Charies A. Reich, The Greening of America (New York: 1970), p. 350.

[36] Fishman, p. 127.

[37] L’Art decoratif d’aujourd’hui, p. 198.

[38] Ibid, p. 128.

[39] Le Corbusier, Vers une architecture (Paris: 1923), translated as Towards a New Architecture (New York: 1960), p. 252.

[40] The Living City, p. 153.

[41] Frank Lloyd Wright, The Disappearing City ( ), pp. 3-8.

Thinking about Urbanism
Originally published in , No.5, 1989