In a corner of the Living Cities display, at Tate Modern’s Switch House, hangs a photograph of the Swiss-French architect, writer, and civic planner, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier. The modernist—dressed in a heavy black coat and bowtie, sporting his characteristic thick black-rimmed glasses, eyebrows raised slightly and brow furrowed—seems to be in the middle of a conversation, poised to answer the questions posed by the artists and viewers around him.
- Living Cities, Tate Modern.1
- Barjeel Art Foundation Collection: Imperfect Chronology – Mapping the Contemporary II, Whitechapel Gallery, 23 August 2016 – 8 January 20172
- Gideon Mendel: Dzhangal, Rivington Palace, 6 January - 11 February 20173
The photograph is part of Kader Attia’s installation, Untitled (Ghardaïa), which also consists of a photograph of another French architect, Fernand Pouillon, a copy of UNESCO’s certificate designating the city of Ghardaïa a World Heritage Site, and, finally, laid out in a circle, overlooked by the photographs and certificate, a three-dimensional model of Ghardaïa built entirely from couscous. Le Corbusier visited Algeria in the early 1930s, and the trip, along with his travels in South America, greatly influenced the ideas he developed around urbanism. However, in the grand plans he later proposed for different cities, he rarely acknowledged his debt to the indigenous architecture he encountered in Algeria, and little attention has been paid to his appropriation of the Mzab architecture of Ghardaïa since. Furthermore, Le Corbusier’s aesthetic has been reproduced throughout the world, especially in huge, concrete low-income housing projects, like in Paris, where many of the Algerian immigrants who have arrived from the former colonized nation now live.
As James Scott wrote in Seeing Like a State, Le Corbusier was “the embodiment of high-modernist urban design… a Colonel Blimp, as it were, of modernist urbanism.”[i] He proposed sweeping plans for urban restructuring in Paris, Algiers, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Moscow, Stockholm, Geneva, and Barcelona. Due to the immense financial and political backing required for his monumental city-planning schemes, most of the proposals were never implemented, and remained theories on paper. Among the few gargantuan schemes that were brought to completion are Chandigarh, the planned capital of India’s Punjab, and L'Unite d'Habitation, a residential complex in Marseilles. Despite the failure of many of his individual proposals, his influence is ubiquitous. The Athens charter of the Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), the key document of urban planning after World War II, devotedly reflects his ideas.
As many modernists, Le Corbusier embraced the machine-age, advocating for the transformation of dense and organically tangled cities into ordered and centralized networks. He obsessively repeated straight lines and right angles in his designs. He wrote in The Radiant City:
An infinity of combinations is possible when innumerable and diverse elements are brought together. But the human mind loses itself and becomes fatigued by such a labyrinth of possibilities. Control becomes impossible…. Reason…is an unbroken straight line… in order to save himself from this chaos, in order to provide himself with a bearable, an acceptable framework for his existence, one productive of human well-being and control, man has projected the laws of nature into a system that is a manifestation of the human spirit itself: geometry.
Based in monumentalism and linearity, Le Corbusier hoped to convert curves and crowded meeting places into rectilinear axes and grandiose squares with little regard for existing traditions. His impatience with disorder led him to maniacally prescribe models that throttled social habits and smoothed over complex histories. This model of development naturally resulted in austere and rigid plans that had no basis in the actual daily lives and aspirations of people beyond the basic functions of eating, sleeping, and working.
an exhibition that deals directly with the tangled disorder of displaced communities, spaces that defy the planned utopias of modernism, is Gideon Mendel’s Dzhangal. Installed in the Autograph ABP gallery at Rivington Palace, the show puts on display everyday objects—toothbrushes, playing cards, trainers and clothes—that Mendel collected during visits to the refugee camps at Calais, which were demolished last year.
The refugee camps had grown over several years, haphazardly adjusting to space as increasing numbers of migrants streamed in. Even the very name given to the camps, “Jungle,” signals their organic difference from urban plans; surely a nightmare for Le Corbusier—a clear failure of geometry to render obsolete tangled, sedimented disorder and the histories of violence that give birth to it. Interestingly, the artist, Gideon Mendel, tries to do precisely that: attempt to bring order to tragedy by installing the objects in neat patterns. The toothbrushes are lined up in rows, torn jackets hung up on a clothes rail, teargas canisters grouped together. The objects are also photographed, either individually or in groups, and the photographs are hung on the walls of the gallery. The viewer is caught between the dirt, rust, and ashes marking the objects, claiming them as traces of irreconcilable catastrophe, and the desperate attempts to categorize and order them.