SAH Blog

“Nothing is Transmissible but Thought”: Le Corbusier’s Radiant Farm Made Real

Jul 31, 2014

As a participant in the Graduate Student Lightening Talks at the 2014 SAH Annual Conference, I used my five-minute slot to sketch, per the title of my paper, the transmission of Le Corbusier’s “thoughts”—specifically, on his Radiant City as it was appropriated by young Californian architects between 1936-41. To my delight, Dr. Esra Akcan was the panel respondent. Her recent book, Architecture in Translation, was a touchstone as I prepared my dissertation proposal last fall. What follows is an abbreviated version of my talk and, I hope, the initial investigations that will form the second chapter of my dissertation.

Shortly before his death in August 1965, Le Corbusier began to collate two decades of his writings, which resulted in Mise au point (1966). The architect outlines what Charles Jencks later characterized as the “tragic view” of his career, lamenting a life devoted to the study of housing that was, in Le Corbusier’s eyes, underappreciated by the French government and the wider public.[1] Shunned in the postwar rebuilding of Paris, Le Corbusier only ever partially achieved his Radiant City in the form of the controversial Unité d’Habitation housing block at Marseilles (1947-52). Reflecting on the fact that this was his first and only French governmental commission, granted at the age of sixty, the architect begins and ends Mise au point by noting that in the end “nothing is transmissible but thought, the fruit of our labors.”[2] This is a prescient epitaph given that Le Corbusier’s thoughts concerning standardized high-density housing and urban planning were often more influential than were any of his built projects.

My dissertation focuses on the legacy of Le Corbusier’s unbuilt Radiant City plans (first pub. in 1935 as Ville Radieuse) through their piecemeal translation and realization by other architects and local administrations in California, Great Britain, and Poland.[3] Rejecting polarizing accounts repeated over the last five decades that fashion the architect as either a twentieth century visionary, or as a scapegoat for the perceived failures of the Modern Movement, I propose an alternative method of analyzing Le Corbusier’s legacy—through the work of others who chose to adapt, translate, and realize certain parts of this key urban planning project. I argue this approach offers a newly multifaceted reading of the project’s—and, to some degree, its author’s—contested place in the history of twentieth century architecture and urban planning. Prof. Akcan went further, offering provocations for my continuing research. In her response to my paper, she asked questions I will need to fully investigate in my dissertation chapter: “Where do these translations stand in the spectrum that may range from excessive domestication to abrupt intervention, from appropriating to foreignizing translations? How do the multiple agents that set them into motion differ from each other in their opinions about the translatability or untranslatability of architecture, in their ethical and political positions about how or whether to open themselves to what were hitherto foreign ideas? What were the tensions during these processes?”

The Radiant City published as Ville Radieuse (1935) & included in Des Canons, Des Munitions? Merci! Les Logis … S.V.P. (1938)

At SAH, I focused on the translation of one element of the larger Radiant City plan, the Radiant Farm, to the west coast of the United States between 1936-41. Le Corbusier’s unrealized rural plans were developed alongside “peasant-activist” Norbert Bézard during the architect’s association with French regional syndicalist groups in the 1930s, presented at CIAM 5 in Paris in 1937 and, along with the wider results of this international conference, were showcased in Corbusier’s Pavilion Des Temps Nouveaux that opened in July 1937 at the Paris International Exhibition. The Radiant Farm (and City) reflected the architect’s broader philosophical shift in urban planning proposals, from the radical, sky-high utopianism of the Ville Contemporaine (1922) and the Plan Voisin (1925) to a more humanist approach, a “second machine age.”[4]

Le Corbusier. Des Canons, Des Munitions? Merci! Les Logis … S.V.P (1938)

Leaf from Des Canons, Des Munitions? Merci! Les Logis … S.V.P (1938)

Young Californian architects Vernon DeMars, and colleagues Garrett Eckbo and T.J. Kent, took up Le Corbusier’s exhortation in Des Canons, Des Munitions? Merci! Des Logis ... S.V.P. (1938) to turn from bombs to homes. Vernon DeMars identified the Radiant Farm as offering, if not an already-tested solution, a modern and avant-garde philosophy that he adapted in over forty projects for rural communities during his tenure as San Francisco district architect for the FSA, including Yuba City and Woodville (both in California, 1939-41), and the earlier Chandler, Arizona (1936-37). On farmland bought by the government, usually well outside existing town limits, FSA architects built tent platforms, single cabins, and ancillary community spaces. Weedpatch (1936), made famous by its inclusion in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), was the first such camp, built south of Bakersfield, California, initially using tents, then wood frame houses to shelter the workers, with wood frame buildings for the communal facilities such as the post office and the local hall.[5]

Where Le Corbusier was often politically and historically hamstrung, the locally governed Farm Securities Administration satellite offices were conducive to practical experimentation. In FSA Camp Chandler, a project that preceded DeMars’ formative travel to Europe, and in Yuba City, directly after his return, DeMars referenced the Radiant Farm as the inspiration for the internal logic of the farmhouses he built for Dust Bowl migrants. Indeed, DeMars later saw Yuba City as “our opportunity to do something that he [Corbusier] wasn’t able to build … [the Farm house and the Cooperative Farm] were things we were doing. I knew Corbu’s hadn’t been built … Supposing he were given this job, what would he do? He might have done this thing we did at Yuba City, I thought.”[6]

FSA Chandler, illustrated in Elizabeth Mock’s/MoMA’s Built in USA: a survey of Contemporary American Architecture (1945)

FSA Chandler, illustrated in Elizabeth Mock’s/MoMA’s Built in USA: a survey of Contemporary American Architecture (1945)

Further—and to be explored in much greater depth in my dissertation chapter—the inaugural 1940 exhibition of the San Francisco-based planning group, Telesis, founded by, among others, FSA architects Vernon DeMars, T.J. Kent, Garrett Eckbo and Fran Violich after the FSA was disbanded was closely based on Le Corbusier’s Temps Nouveau Pavilion.[7]  DeMars returned from six months travel to Europe in the fall of 1938 with a copy of Des canons, des munitions, the catalogue for the 1937 pavilion, and explicitly based the Telesis exhibition—the foundation for the later San Francisco Department of Planning—on Le Corbusier’s conceptual framework for the 1937 pavilion.[8]

Entry to the "A Space for Living" Telesis exhibition. Fran Violich Collection, Visual Resources Center, College of Environmental Design, UC Berkeley

Day-care center at Woodville, Ca., by Vernon DeMars, from the Museum of Modern Art catalogue, Wartime Housing

The Telesis exhibition demonstrated perhaps even more so than the FSA work that it wasn’t merely, or perhaps even primarily, form, I think, that DeMars was interested in in his one-sided dialogue with Le Corbusier—he could find those forms anywhere he looked. Instead, DeMars honed in on Le Corbusier’s validation of agrarian planning as a purposeful and CIAM-endorsed activity. He used Le Corbusier’s site-less utopian dream—the Radiant farm—to legitimize his own very real work as a young architect at the FSA. The FSA localized and radically adapted the utopian Radiant Farm, sensitizing Le Corbsuier’s untested cipher for CIAM-endorsed modern architecture to the needs of America’s displaced during a time of local and national crisis—and to the needs of a small group of young architects looking for meaning in their Depression-era work.

In the recent MoMA exhibition on Le Corbusier (Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes, 2013), curators Jean Louis Cohen and Barry Bergdoll argued that Le Corbusier’s engagement with landscapes and geographies was, in contrast to the often-unforgiving stereotypes, subtle and precise. They connected their reconsideration of the architect to “the major realignment currently underway in the study of masters of modern architecture [as] one in which place, cultural specificity, and attention to landscape have displaced the idea of modern universals.”[9] Their impulse is not so new. In 1948, Lewis Mumford suggested that mid-century architecture in California was “universal” precisely because it allowed “regional adaptation and modifications.” MoMA's curatorial thesis was perhaps most compelling realized in the exhibition catalogue rather than the galleries. Its methodological provocation is relevant: how does displacing the idea of universals—not least the entrenched narratives that often suffocate analyses of Le Corbusier’s work—allow for a richer reading of landscapes and the built environment? I suggest that tracing the history of the reception of Le Corbusier’s ideas, and the way they were used by (often very anonymous) others is a process that recovers points of contact between Le Corbusier and architects working in a geographic location not usually foregrounded in Corbusian scholarship, and interrogates modern architecture’s “conviction about its own translatability.” In this way, we may reconsider the claims for universal applicability that have been made for Le Corbusier’s grand plans, in this case from the perspective of the “Radiant Farm made real.”[10]

Michelle Millar Fisher is a doctoral candidate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center and a Curatorial Assistant in the Architecture + Design department at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Her research centers on social histories of architecture, contemporary art, museums, and pedagogy. She is currently at work co-editing a book on collaboration in the visual arts and architecture, to be published by Courtauld Books Online in early 2015.

[1] See Charles Jencks, Le Corbusier and the Tragic View of Architecture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1973).

[2] Le Corbusier. Mise au point. (Paris: Éditions Forces-vives, 1966).

[3] Although never built, the Radiant City stemmed from Le Corbusier’s broader communications with and travel to Russia, beginning in 1928 and his “Reply to Moscow” of June 1930. However, the rural farm component was developed once he was fully immersed in French regional syndicalist journals Plans, Prelude and L’Homme Reel from 1931 to 1936, with issues devoted to Agrarian Reorganization plans and their implementation. Le Corbusier’s writings from all three of these syndicalist journals would become the foundation of the Radiant City, Village, and Farm published as Ville Radieuse in 1933, and Des Canons in 1938. Mary Caroline McLeod. Urbanism and Utopia: Le Corbusier from Regional Syndicalism to Vichy. (Princeton, NJ: Unpublished Dissertation, 1985). 213.

[4] See McLeod, 111-115. Le Corbusier’s stance in the 1930s was not so much a rejection of technocracy and function as a humanizing of them and a rejection of the capitalist systems that underpinned them. Planning simply extended technocracy. As McLeod states, “the Plans members endorsed Taylorism and Fordism, but like their peers, they condemned the system that had engendered such methods.”

[5] For a review of FSA origins see Suzanne B Reiss., comp. A Life In Architecture: Indian Dancing, Migrant Housing, Telesis, Design for Urban Living, Theater, Teaching. Oral History Transcript. (University of California, Berkeley: Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, 1989), 124 – 127. See also Greg Hise. "From Roadside Camps to Garden Homes: Housing and Community Planning for California's Migrant Workforce, 1935- 1941." Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, Gender, Class, and Shelter, no. 5 (1995): 243-58. Hise states that the FSA “planned and managed thirteen labor camps for California’s seasonal agricultural workers between 1936 and 1941.” 243. California was unique in the relief housing it provided because it not only built permanent farmsteads but addressed the needs of a laboring population that fluctuated in number depending on the season.

[6] Reiss, 140. Chandler appeared as one of only two American examples in Alfred Roth’s 1940 Die Neu Architektur under the names of DeMars and Burton Cairns, and Chandler and Woodville in Elizabeth Mock’s 1945 Built in USA. In less than a decade Catherine Bauer Wurster, now a friend of DeMars’, had her call for modern American social housing answered.

[7] Le Corbusier’s work became widely disseminated in the US through his 1935 lecture tour (concentrated on the East Coast, although he had intended to come to San Francisco), the discussion and publication of these travels and lectures in the architectural press, and an exhibition of his work at MoMA in the same year which later traveled to, among other places, the de Young Museum in San Francisco in October 1937. See Mardges Bacon. Le Corbusier in America: Travels in the Land of the Timid. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001). 29. See also Bacon appendix B for full lecture and exhibition tour details. Interestingly, the exhibition that preceded Le Corbusier’s at MoMA was Contemporary Architecture in California [MoMA Exh. #42c, September 30-October 24, 1935]. Recent Work of Le Corbusier, held between October 1 and 22, 1937 at SFMoMA originated at MoMA in New York in 1935 and traveled to a total of fourteen venues between 1935 and 38, including Yale and Wesleyan universities.

[8] The Telesis exhibition, A Space for Living, was held at the San Francisco Museum of (Modern) Art, opening on June 29, 1940. It was the museum’s first architecture exhibition and projected a brighter future for the city under the slogan “progress intelligently planned” – the West Coast version of the syndicalist slogan action directe.

[9] Jean Louis Cohen, Barry Bergdoll et al. Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2013), 20. “Le Corbusier was engaged not with the ways in which things are similar around the world but rather with the ways in which they are distinct, with layers of culture that resonate even in worlds in mutation from the forces of modernization.” Sarah Williams Goldhagen re-evaluated the work of Louis I. Kahn as “culturally contingent” and a “situated modernism.” Caroline Constant argues that Le Corbusier “carefully calibrated his building designs to their specific locales” despite his often militant tone. Cohen, Bergdoll, 21.

[10] Influenced by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s The Politics of Translation (1998), scholar Esra Ackan has recently suggested translation in architecture as “a contested zone where geopolitical tensions and psychological anxieties are exposed,” arguing persuasively for translation as a productive methodology for “an architectural culture better equipped for a global future.” Ezra Akcan. Architecture in Translation: Germany, Turkey, & the Modern House. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012). 4. 


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