The Court of Public Discussion on current Berkeley development matters now evokes Time magazine’s ‘Architect of the Century’ for his take on things.

When the leaders of post-Great War Paris decided on massive ‘slum’ clearance—the second in 60 years—the rising, Swiss-born Le Corbusier presented a comprehensive solution, gratefully not taken. Influenced by the emerging International Style, stiffly formal French and English gardens, and the motorcar, he envisioned in 1922 a gridded flatness of towers isolated by gardens and expressways as intended quarter for an idealized 3 million people. He hoped to carpet one side of the Seine with this mess.

Shuddering terms stuck to this Neoplatonic vision: ‘a machine for living’ and ‘machine aesthetic’. His would be a Procrustean world; if you don’t fit, as his exemplary ‘new man’, you can’t stay. Managers and leaders will—will want to—inhabit the flat-roofed towers or “Grattes-ceils Cartesiens” when not whizzing by on interstate-sized boulevards.

At the New York World’s Fairs of 1939 and 1964, General Motors pushed this vision, which hinted at self-driving cars and no traffic jams. Just where they’d go isn’t clear, but it’s unlikely they’d head to the cheap-rent voisins where those who didn’t belong were obliged to settle. On the other hand, some might want to decompress with a nice family-inn supper or casual walk.

These lesser, outer places presumably kept what Le Corbusier had troweled clear in his operatic “City of Tomorrow”: community, trade, schools, real gardens, kids and other human inconveniences… and, as well, a constant resonance of uncertainty in a new world of the planners and the planned (out). “Rues corridors”, our ‘Main Streets’, alone would have kept the Great Man away from these new Bohemian groves, as he thought face-to-face interaction unpleasant, and felt everyone naturally agreed.

Le Corbusier’s rectilinear views softened over time. Called the ultimate structure of the 20th century, his Chapel Notre Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamp (1955) has nary a straight line in it. Alas, his earlier influence has persisted, shadowing post-war Brasilia and Pyongyang, and arriving at American shores as ‘urban renewal’. The New York of Robert Moses, and New Haven, and San Francisco show the scars. ‘The Projects’ built in many cities remain the most degrading example of what had been seen as an ennobling experiment by a genius who surely had better results in mind.

While the uniform installation of radical re-housing isn’t quite what has been afoot in Berkeley, some issues raised by Le Corbusier bear stark review. The five towers (75 feet or higher) ‘allowed’ by the 2012 Downtown Plan will, if built, greet a wave of invading renters who can and will pay market rates here, because they are lower than those there. They will frolic among his windproof roof-top gardens, but developers will probably pass on the 2-story living rooms. (At this point, I have to wonder: will there be even one piano in any of these aeries? Given the necessitated wealth behind the leases, surely someone will be entertaining in the grand style.)

The Master’s updated visionary attention to transit forsakes his beloved independently targeted ‘voitures’ for an overstressed BART-and-bus delivery system, just a brisk walk from the door. Some of those who cannot afford the new rents will be driving them, nannying double-income children or arriving on the opposite track to work where they used to live. Others may intercept commuting tenants with pleas for alms. They, too, are right at home.

Whither that priced-out community, residents and local retailers alike? Will Berkeley re-form as a theme park, importing barkers? The resulting ‘market’-based exodus is underway; is it permanent? Where to..west? As a formerly set citizen/indigent noted before the city council, “..there’s no place to go, even out of state.”

If these broadstroke swipes seem over-simple or unfair, consider the brutality of permanence. These five towers, with others allowed to follow, and then the expected contributions from fireproof UC, taken with the accommodating public-funded infrastructural upgrade.. and we have a new downtown of costly dormitories for commuters and conventioneers—Le Corbusier’s apparent tower-dwelling ideals.

I don’t think The Master understood ‘community’, as demonstrated by his dystopian vision, nor do his spiritual descendants that we, the community, frequently tilt with before commission and council. Brittle evasive concessions are offered for the right both to build and to destroy. Alternatives to the prevailing approach to building local habitation and the grotesque economic model that supports it must be asserted, and they are.

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Phil Allen is a retired blue-collar worker living in West Berkeley, who dotes on supporting ‘lost’ causes.
Phil Allen is a retired blue-collar worker living in West Berkeley, who dotes on supporting ‘lost’ causes.