A Response to Marshall Berman’s “In a Forest of Symbols”

Marshall Berman feels as if the onslaught of modernity is deracinating the roots of the past, whereas Le Corbusier believes that the aforementioned is indispensable if humanity aspires to progress.  To fully understand the reasoning behind each conflicting argument, one must consider the disparity in experiences from which each perspective stems. Marshall Berman’s[1] birth in the early1950’s unveils his life laced the dawn and progression of modernity, which perhaps triggered his inclination towards Marxism.  Le Corbusier[2], on the other hand, was an architect born in the late nineteenth century. The repercussions of modernism were unknown to him, as he lived to see only the birth of the movement.  In his article, Marshal Berman illustrates growing up in the Bronx as his neighborhood deteriorated at the hands of Robert Moses.  An architectural giant, Moses’ was responsible for the construction of the West Side Highway, Grand Central Parkway, the Triborough Bridge and, most notably, the Cross-Bronx Expressway. In response to the implications of such grand endeavors, Berman cites Moses’, effectively exemplifying his cruelty: “there are more houses in the way…more people in the way…when you operate in an over built metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.” (Robert Moses, Berman 134) Coined as progress, the Cross-Bronx Expressway cut through the neighborhood of Berman’s childhood, shattering the economy and littering the streets with abandoned buildings.  Even today the scars have yet to mend, as “rage, despair and violence spread like plagues” (Berman 153) through the decaying district.  For Berman, this is not progress.  He believes that the paradox of modernity is such that the movement towards ‘urban renewal’ has savagely devastated “the only kind of environment in which modern values can be realized” (Berman 150) and that its very development “has made the modern city itself old-fashioned, obsolete.” (Berman 143) Le Corbusier, on the other hand, embraces the architectural vision of Moses, which sought “to overawe and overwhelm.” (Berman 142)  For him, these “monoliths of steel and cement, devoid of vision or nuance or play” define progress. (Berman 142) He praises, in his text, the architects who “rush in with their heads down; after having worked over the ‘styles’ firmly and worthily” (Le Corbusier 99) for they pave the “paths of the modern spirit.” (Le Corbusier 99) Berman, too, admitted at first to having a shred of faith in the modernist movement, as in the late 1930’s, Moses’, at the height of his career, established parks and edifices which esteemed the masses. He concedes that “the uptown Hudson riverfront, one of Moses’ finest urban landscape, is especially striking when we realize that it was a wasteland of hoboes’ shacks and garbage dumps before he got there.” (Berman 138) Furthermore, neither one can deny “Moses’ projects marked not only a new phase in the modernization of urban space, but a new breakthrough in modernist vision and thought.” (Berman 139)  Yet, unfortunately, as the saying goes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. After the onslaught of World War II, Moses’ vision was perverted as “ the ‘modern movement’ in architecture and urbanism turned radically against modern romance: they marched to Le Corbusier’s battle cry, ‘we must kill the street.”’ (Berman 149)  Like a Venus Fly Trap, the perpetual reformation of New York City, to this day, attracts countless.  Le Corbusier embraces this incessant progression and curses the ‘urban romance’ that Berman nostalgically reflects upon. In the end, Berman surrenders to the diluted American dream. Helpless, he acknowledges the tragedy of modernity, as progress paves over the past.

[1] Berman, Marshall, Adventures in Marxism, London; New York : Verso, c1999.

[2] Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow and its Planning, London, J. Rodker, 1929


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