A Response to Le Corbusier’s “New York is Not a Completed City”

As skyscrapers spring up at an alarming rate, the tremendous rapidity of New York City’s incessant construction render it an unfinished breeding ground of possibilities. In his work, Le Corbusier unveils the reasons for which he prefers New York to most European cities- particularly Paris.  His rationale is rooted in an appreciation for the architecture, infrastructure and cleanliness of New York, not to mention the metropolis’ unpredictability. New York, pregnant with prospect, is unique in that it is “a city in the process of becoming.  Today it belongs to the world.” (98) Personified as Janus, the Roman god of beginning, past and future, New York emerges as an epicenter in a crowd of international cities.  Yet, “at present, it is like a house-moving, all the furniture in confusion scattered about, unkempt.” (99) It is for this reason that Le Corbusier claims the city has yet to be completed.  This volatility, however, leaves the question as to whether it will evolve to be “an ass or a king”(99) unanswered. Perhaps it is this blind anticipation that fuels Le Corbusier’s predilection for New York.  Paralleling it with Paris, he dissects the disparity between the two and aspires to distinguish what exactly it is about New York that makes it unlike any other city.  First off, he comments on its immaculate conditions, asserting that “cleanliness is a national virtue in America” (99).  Moreover, there is a unique style to New York’s cleanliness, which baptizes the city with a revived vibe.  European cities, he argues, embrace the faithful abrasion of time as if “to prove that they possess an age-old culture” (100).  Yet the dust gathered from several centuries, he finds, elicit the impression of negligence. The dilapidated, old buildings lacing the streets of European cities are not only waging war against steady decay but are also inefficient in that they fail to fully utilize space.  In short, the cities of Europe sprawl out rather than up. The skyscrapers of New York mark a  “new event in human history” (99).  Salvaging each inch of land, such edifices prove to be a genius means of concentrating the masses. The Soviets pawn off the structures as “capitalist” and in a sense they are.  The architectural movement is incredibly economical, as is the infrastructure of the city.  Le Corbusier argues that the labyrinth of tiny cobblestone streets in Paris is backwards and confusing rendering the composition of the city complicated, rather then charming. The avenues ending with magnificent edifices are superfluous and stem from an age-old traditions rooted in the prior appeasement of royalty. The anatomical simplicity of New York, on the other hand, yields a “Euclidean clearness.” (101) Constructed in the vein of a grid, the metropolis is divided by twelve parallel avenues intersected by several hundred streets, all of which at right angles to one another and numerically named.   With such order your “mind is free instead of being given over every minute to the complicated game imposed on it by the puzzle of our European cities.” (100) However, interestingly enough, Le Corbusier refers to this layout as something of the “American way” yet the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and even the French built many of their cities in a like fashion.  The quotation marks perhaps are meant to undermine the statement, as the “American way” is in truth just a cornucopia of countless culturesa

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