Exhibition curator: Grzegorz Piątek Exhibition design: Marcin Kwietowicz Graphic design: Magdalena Estera Łapińska Organisational support

: Jakub Supera Brochure design: Magdalena Piwowar Brochure editor: Agnieszka Rasmus-Zgorzelska Translating: Małgorzata Sochańska, Krzysztof Ścibiorski Proofreading: Michelle Smith ISBN: 978-83-934574-4-1



Honorary patrons of Le CorbusYear:

Partners of Le CorbusYear:

Subsidised by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage

Photo on the cover: Za Żelazną Bramą housing estate Warsaw photo: Ireneusz Sobieszczuk, Leszek Wróblewski/Forum 1985–1986

Walkhibition organised as part of the artistic-educational programme Le CorbusYear celebrating the 125th anniversary of Le Corbusier’s birth Za Żelazną Bramą housing estate, Warsaw, 15 July – 6 August, 2012
2 Krochmalna Street 3 Krochmalna Street 30 Grzybowska Street 39 Grzybowska Street 11 Chłodna Street
Chłodna 2 JP II 11 Krochmalna 3 30 Grzybowska 39

Le Corbusier at Za Zelazna Brama estate
Le Corbusier never visited Warsaw, nor did he participate in design work on Za Żelazną Bramą estate. And yet the estate appears to deeply bear his imprint. The 1961 competition entry created by Jerzy Czyż, Jan Furman and Andrzej Skopiński was repeatedly revised and completed more than a decade after its inception. Nonetheless it remains one of the boldest execution of Le Corbusier’s urban ideas in Poland. Erecting a large scale estate on the site of high density low-rise housing (considered low value and not worth rebuilding) implements one of Le Corbusier’s most radical ideas – the Plan Voisin (1925). The Plan envisaged substituting a substantial part of the urban tissue in the centre of Paris with tower blocks surrounded by greenery. Execution of the Plan would involve demolition and dispossession on a massive scale. Twenty years later in Warsaw,
4 Varsovie Radieuse. Return of Le Corbusier to Za Żelazną Bramą estate

the destruction of WWII, combined with the Bierut’s Decree (single-handedly nationalising privately owned land in Warsaw), freed vast tracts of land in the very centre of the city where Le Corbusier’s formula could be easily implemented. The ideas of Le Corbusier and his followers were collected in the Athens Charter (1933) and in the book La Ville Radieuse (The Radiant City, 1935), from which the title of the exhibition has been borrowed. Whereas the “radiant city” has never been fully realised, the Charter became immensely popular in the postwar years: urban planners as well as politicians from both sides of the Iron Curtain approved the postulates for reconstruction of cities excluding all their past flaws. Postulates selected from the Athens Charter for the occasion of the Varsovie Radieuse exhibition make a

Plan Voisin © Fondation Le Corbusier

guide to Za Żelazną Bramą estate. Here and now, in 2012 Warsaw, they also serve as a guide to our urban concerns. The diagnosis of 80 years ago sounds alarmingly up-todate: chaotic urban sprawl, real estate profiteering, green areas diminishing within the cityscape – these are all demons fought by the Athens Charter petitioners. Nowadays, despite the widely known flaws of the ZŻB scheme (small flats, low floor height, long corridors), we can yet again recognise some advantages which are regarded as luxury in the newly-built estates: appropriately large distances between the buildings, lush greenery, leisure equipment, spectacular views from the windows. These are scarce in Warsaw's sprawling suburbs of Tarchomin, Wilanów or Skorosze. Za Żelazną Bramą estate was built tall, but with adequately large distances between the buildings. Nowadays we build tall and dense.

The Athens Charter (which appeared in Poland only once, and in a very limited edition) will soon be published in its full version by Centrum Architektury. The book asks crucial - albeit uncomfortable - questions: were we right to assume that a city will simply “take care of itself”, and that there is no real sense of control to be had over the process? Do we have to accept the fact that private initiative has no limitations and that financial considerations are more important than public welfare? Are we brave enough to diagnose and solve these problems? Grzegorz Piątek


Who was Le Corbusier?
Le Corbusier (real name: Charles Edouard Jeanneret, 1887-1965) is considered to be the most influential architect and urban planner of the 20th century. His acclaimed buildings, along with lectures and publications, had a huge impact on a number of generations of designers in Europe, and after WWII – all over the world. Le Corbusier belonged to a generation deeply disillusioned with the state in which cities emerged from the 19th century, chaotically expanding and overcrowded. He set out on a quest to find efficient ways to improve them. His proposals were radical: demolishing old, malfunctioning urban tissue, sparing only the most precious heritage buildings. He also advocated combining residential and leisure functions by way of building blocks surrounded by carefully designed greenery. Le Corbusier coined the expression “the house as a machine for living in”: a house designed efficiently, as if it were an automobile or an airplane. He promoted the construction of high-rise buildings, made possible thanks to the properties of reinforced and prefabricated concrete. He held most of his contemporary architects in low esteem and admired the logic and purposefulness of engineers. Le Corbusier was the chair of CIAM (Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne – International Congress of Modern Architecture), a network for the exchange of ideas and information, which brought together numerous European architects (including Polish ones) between the years 1928 and 1959. The major achievement of the Congress was the Athens Charter, a set of guidelines for modern urban design (1933), followed widely in many countries during postwar reconstruction and in the development of cities. Le Corbusier’s ideas spread all over the world through his books, the most acclaimed being Towards a New Architecture (Vers une architecture, 1922; first Polish edition to be published in 2012 by Centrum Architektury). The nearest building designed by Le Corbusier can be found in Berlin, the so-called Unité d’habitation (Housing Unit, 1957). Other prominent executed projects are Housing Unit in Marseille (1947-52), the church of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, Alsace (1950), La Tourette Monastery near Lyon (1957-60) and numerous small residential schemes such as Villa Savoye near Paris (1929-31). Special attention should be paid to the urban project for Chandigarh, a brand new city in India, the capital of Haryana and Punjab (1952-59). Le Corbusier’s unexecuted projects made no less of an impact on the work of several generations of architects; notably, the Palace of the League of Nations in Geneva (1927) or Palace of the Soviets in Moscow (1931) as well as urban visions such as La Ville Contemporaine, La Ville Radieuse or Plan Voisin.
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Le Corbusier (1887–1965), photo © Fondation Le Corbusier


Athens Charter 1933–2012
At the exhibition we are presenting quotes from the Athens Charter (1933), illustrated by Magdalena Estera Łapińska. We have chosen those excerpts that will help understand the underlying principles of the Za Żelazną Bramą housing scheme, at the same time provoking us to reflect on the condition of the contemporary city.

All quotes from the Athens Charter translated from French by Anthony Eardley, Grossman, New York, NY: 1973

Commentaries by Grzegorz Piątek

The sun is the master of life. (26) The sun, which governs all growth, should penetrate the interior of every dwelling, there to diffuse its rays, without which life withers and fades. (12) The sun must penetrate every dwelling several hours a day even during the season when sunlight is most scarce. Society will no longer tolerate a situation where entire families are cut off from the sun and thus doomed to declining health. Any housing design in which even a single dwelling is exclusively oriented to the north, or is deprived of the sun because it is cast in shadow, will be harshly condemned. (26)

The sun has set on urban planning. Of course, rules and standards for natural light exposure still exist, but investors will do just about anything to get around them or at least bend them. Architects willingly give the developers free reign in sorting these matters out. Buildings are deep, and even large apartments have windows facing just one direction. Accessible rooftop terraces have become a rarity in today’s design, even though they would allow residents to enjoy sun and fresh air even in the city centre. Has the sun been re-privatised with an appropriately high price-point?
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The resources offered by modern techniques for the erection of high structures must be taken into account. (28) High buildings, set far apart from one another, must free the ground for broad verdant areas. (29) The new green areas must serve clearly defined purposes, namely, to contain the kindergartens, schools, youth centers, and all other buildings for community use, closely linked to housing. (37) Hereafter, every residential district must include the green area necessary for the rational disposition of games and athletic sports for children, adolescents, and adults. (35)

Deregulation in city planning means that, in many places, tall buildings can be densely built-up without any recreational spaces between them – save the obligatory, forlorn sandbox. Greenery outside a window has become a scarce resource. We should once again demand that green surroundings, sunlight and beautiful views compensate for the assorted inconveniences of living in a tall housing block.


In dealing with material evidence of the past, one must know how to recognize and differentiate that which is still truly alive. (66) The life of a city is a continuous event that is expressed through the centuries by material works — lay-outs and building structures — which form the city’s personality, and from which its soul gradually emanates. They are precious witnesses of the past which will be respected, first for their historical or sentimental value, and second, because certain of them convey a plastic virtue in which the utmost intensity of human genius has been incorporated. They form a part of the human heritage, and whoever owns them or is entrusted with their protection has the responsibility and the obligation to do whatever he legitimately can to hand this noble heritage down intact to the centuries to come. (65) (…) under no circumstances should the cult of the picturesque and the historical take precedence over the healthfulness of the dwelling, upon which the well-being and the moral health of the individual so closely depend. (67)


We continually bask in history. We wear '80s glasses, '90s-style shirts and hippie-inspired hats. Every quaint apartment building, small factory or modernist pavilion deserves to be protected and saved. Of course, many still fall victim of the wrecking ball, but there probably isn’t a single older building which wouldn’t find protectors. The modernist planners, on the other hand, wanted to carefully select structures which merited saving. Even though some of their choices were inexplicable, it still seems that their ‘scientific’ approach to selecting valuable buildings to be protected is much healthier than the current all-encompassing nostalgia. Are we destined to bounce between lovers of the past and their inexhaustible demands, and the developers and their ability to discover pseudo-objective reasons for destroying truly valuable buildings? Could we develop cohesive and transparent criteria for assessing which buildings deserve to be saved, and stay true to them in the future?
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The daily hours of free time should be spent close to the dwelling. (33) Urbanism is called upon to devise the rules required to assure city-dwellers of living conditions that will safeguard not only their physical health but also their moral health and the joy of life that results from these. The working hours, often exhausting for the muscles or the nerves, should be followed every day by an adequate amount of free time. (32) (…) it is not enough to make the dwelling healthier; its outside extensions — places for physical education buildings and various playing fields — must be created and planned for by incorporating the areas that will be set aside for them into the overall plan ahead of time. (24)

We work hard and we’re entitled to rest and relaxation. However, we must pay for it: swimming pools, gyms, and practising football games in rented school gymnasia all cost money. Other costs include sports equipment, apparel, and the transport to and from unequally distributed recreational facilities. A local club’s playing field or a small park often turn out to be a developer’s target, while a stretch of woods is deemed the optimal location for an office park or mall. Do we work so that we can afford to relax? Can we ensure that our own and future generations have untrammelled access to parks and sports facilities close to home?


(…) space should be generously dispensed. Let us bear in mind that the sensation of space is of a psychophysiological order, and that the narrowness of streets and the constriction of courtyards create an atmosphere as unhealthy for the body as it is depressing to the mind. (12)

While there is still plenty of open space left in Warsaw, we are too eager to think that any undeveloped spot is a potential site for investment and construction. Is construction the only sensible way of dealing with vacant land? Do we want to live in a city composed entirely of buildings and housing code-mandated setbacks?

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The practice of using styles of the past on aesthetic pretexts for new structures erected in historic areas has harmful consequences. Neither the continuation of such practices nor the introduction of such initiatives will be tolerated in any form. (70) Such methods are contrary to the great lesson of history. Never has a return to the past been recorded, never has man retraced his own steps. The masterpieces of the past show us that each generation has had its way of thinking, its conceptions, its aesthetic, which called upon the entire range of the technical resources of its epoch to serve as the springboard for its imagination. To imitate the past slavishly is to condemn ourselves to delusion, to institute the “false” as a principle, since the working conditions of former times can not be recreated and since the application of modern techniques to an outdated ideal can never lead to anything but a simulacrum devoid of all vitality. The mingling of the “false” with the “genuine,” far from attaining an impression of unity and from giving a sense of purity of style, merely results in artificial reconstruction capable only of discrediting the authentic testimonies that we were most moved to preserve. (70)

Pastiche has once again become an acceptable means of “fitting” new architecture into older surroundings. Pseudo-historical facades contain modern functions, construction and systems. More than 60 years after the war, serious arguments are still being made for reconstructing buildings that were destroyed. Isn’t it time we call off the masquerade ball and dare to build grand new buildings alongside the stately historical ones?


Private interest will be subordinated to the collective interest. (95) Individual rights have nothing to do with vulgar private interests. Such interests, which heap advantages upon a minority while relegating the rest of the social mass to a mediocre existence, require strict limitations. In every instance, private interests must be subordinated to the collective interest, so that each individual will have access to the fundamental joys, the well-being of the home, and the beauty of the city. (95) The ruthless violence of private interests provokes a disastrous upset in the balance between the thrust of economic forces on the one hand and the weakness of administrative control and the powerlessness of social solidarity on the other. The sense of administrative responsibility and of social solidarity is daily driven to the breaking point by the keen and continually renewed forces of private interest. (73)

We believed far too easily that the city “will take care of itself”. A city is a game, but it cannot be a game without rules, or one in which the players continuously renegotiate them. If somebody were to do so playing Monopoly, they would eventually be asked to leave the playing table. How do we create an effective and trustworthy mechanism for defining and executing the “public interest”? What can we do to believe in the institutions which are supposed to represent it? How do we launch a constructive debate between citizens, experts, government and investors?
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The city must be studied within the whole of its region of influence. (83) Once the city is defined as a functional unit, it should grow harmoniously in each of its parts (…). Intelligent forecasts will have sketched its future, described its character, foreseen the extent of its expansions and limited their excesses in advance. (84)

Every agglomeration is a network of subtle relationships which cross cities’ and district’s administrative boundaries. Unfortunately, towns continue to act like sovereign principalities, competing for new residents and investors (tax payers), developing in an uncoordinated, haphazard manner. The result is a free-for-all exploitation of lands on the outskirts and an uneven burden on the infrastructure and environment – which we pay for with money, time, and health. Warsaw does not end at its borders. Will we eventually achieve planning tools which will allow a harmonious development of the entire organism? Will chance (...) give way to foresight, and program (...) replace improvisation?


The craft occupations, closely bound up with the urban life from which they directly arise, must be able to occupy clearly designated places within the city (49). The handicrafts (…) call for appropriate dispositions. They emanate directly from the cumulative potential of the urban centres. The crafts of bookmaking, jewelry, dressmaking, and fashion find the creative stimulus they need in the intellectual concentration of the city. They are essentially urban activities, whose work premises can be situated in the most intensely active points in the city (49).

Local (rising rents) and global (the flood of cheap, mass-produced replaceable objects that don’t get fixed or repaired) trends have caused small craftsmen to disappear from city centres. Craftsmanship, once necessary and popular, is fast becoming a luxury available to only the select few. While a fight against global processes is difficult, shouldn’t we use bold rental, tax, and educational policies to save craftsmanship, not only as a sentimental artefact, but as a revitalised part of the urban economy and social landscape?

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For the architect occupied with the tasks of urbanism, the measuring rod will be the human scale. After the downfall of the last hundred years, architecture must once again be placed in the service of man. It must lay sterile pomp aside, concern itself with the individual and create for his happiness the fixtures that will surround him, making all the movements of his life easier. Who can take the measures necessary to the accomplishment of this task if not the architect who possesses a complete awareness of man, who has abandoned illusory designs, and who, judiciously adapting the means to the desired ends, will create an order that bears within it a poetry of its own? (87)

One of the main criticisms of modernist urban planning was the fact that it lost sight of the so-called “human scale”. However, looking at urban development since the symbolic end of modernism (the 1972 destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe projects in St. Louis), we are hard-pressed to claim that urbanism has entered a new, harmonious era of human-centered development. As it turns out, the highest ideals espoused by both the modernists and postmodernists faltered in confrontation with the rapid and unplanned growth of cities. Are we ready to put down arms? Can we finally agree on what is “human scale”, and attempt to implement these ideas through actual plans and regulations? Are we ready to instill architects with an understanding of this ideal and the assertiveness to employ it in their projects?

Ferocious Growth vs Paternalistic Reason
Joanna Kusiak

What’s dear to our heart? – Everything’s dear to our heart. The whole, round, slightly flattened at its poles, happiness of the planet. The whole, oval, elliptical happiness of the galaxy. Everything. Peace to the nations and pax tibi. And even that doghouse builders don’t put the entrance facing west, since here, at these latitudes, that’s where the prevailing winds come from and the dogs get cold. Edward Stachura, Cała jaskrawość Violence everywhere, grim wastelands of the large blocks estates, leaking batteries, burning bikes, computer simulations of the slag heaps Dorota Masłowska, Między nami dobrze jest

People’s problem with modernism is, to a large extent, similar to people’s problem with Marxism. First, there are Karl Marx’s works and the theories contained in them. Second, there are various types of Marxism which, while originating from the ideas, developed them in ways which did not necessarily reflect the author’s words and intentions. Marx himself famously claimed that he was “no Marxist”. Finally, there was historically a period of an “actually existing socialism” which justified its existence with Marx and the Marxists’ ideas. Actually existing socialism has implemented some of the Marxist ideas, but also did not hestitate to use political strategies that were clearly at odds with Marx’s intentions. After the collapse of the actually existing socialism in 1990, many intellectuals split into two camps. For some, socialism’s totalitarian reality and the manner in which it failed are absolute and final proof of the fiasco of both Marx and Marxist ideology. Any reference to Marxist ideas or any attempt to defend some aspects of the socialist system are labeled by this group as creeping Bolshevism. Phrases such as “class warfare” and “nationalisation of the means of production” scare them. Naturally, this group has hardly read any of the Marx’s books in their entirety, but
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has firmly held beliefs about what they contain. The second camp includes the overwhelming majority of Western leftists who, up to 1968, had great hopes for the so-called Eastern Bloc as a functioning alternative for the capitalist system. Many of these intellectuals felt disappointed or in a way even offended by the fall of real existing socialism. It is remarkable, to what extent these intelligent people who professionally deal with Marxism are disinterested in the actual results of Eastern Europe’s experiment with Marxist ideas. According to them, the Marxism that existed in this part of Europe was a pure perversion of the ideology, attributable to Stalin and his successors, and had nothing at all to do with real Marxism or real socialism. They reverentially study Marx’s works, and devalue any efforts to blame the experiment’s collapse on ideological grounds. It seems that a sober and factual analysis of Marxist thought, in the context of current social inequalities and the history of the socialist experiment (considered together), would free the first group of their preconceived notions and illusions and push the latter onward in their efforts. Similarly, common opinions on modernism are also emotionally charged. “Actual existing modernism” has left behind a number of unequivocal examples of its failure. Much like the collapse of the Berlin Wall is viewed as the day when Communism ended, Charles Jencks¹ claims that modernism died on July 15, 1972, when the Le Corbusierinspired Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis (USA) was blown up. Built only 17 years earlier, this subsidised complex replaced old slums, and was initially hailed as a breakthrough in American urban planning. The iconic scene of the collapse of a gigantic Pruitt-Igoe superblock, accompanied by Philip Glass’ music, is one of the strongest points of the cult-status experimental film Koyaanisqatsi. The juxtaposition images which “spoke for themselves”
1. Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, New York, 1984, p. 9.

with Glass’ music were supposed to serve as an alternative to language that is no longer able to describe the modern reality. The implosion of the concrete behemoth of PruittIgoe, which turned into a cloud of dust in mere seconds, was commonly viewed as the death of modernist utopias. It was also at this time, that the phrase “modernist utopia” became a popular and natural reference to Le Corbusier and the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM). Modernism became associated with a host of disfunctions familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in architecture. These included inhuman scale, biopolitical ambitions, the desire to control all aspects of human life, the over-aesthetisation of urban design (e.g. Brasilia - which, when seen from above, is shaped like a bird), the ugliness of particular buildings, monotonous form, unsightly aging, destruction of the urban fabric with highways and the spread of high-speed car traffic, the sprawl of cities into endless housing estates, the brutal destruction of the past (e.g. Le Corbusier’s frequently cited “We must kill the street!”), the standardisation of housing and life needs, and the destruction of traditional urban communities. Jane Jacobs, a New York activist, hammered a few nails into modernism’s coffin when she showed that everyday life on a traditional urban street is both more dynamic and safer than that in housing estates, which fail to provide traditional social control by the neighbours. This list of complaints is often augmented with vignettes from the life of “actually existing modernism” which include former farmers keeping chickens on their balconies, hypodermic needles left in dark staircases by junkies, broken elevators, stalkers in neighbouring blocks, favelas attached to the wings of Brasilia’s not-quite soaring bird, young Romanian women throwing fetuses down garbage chutes after athome abortions², and taxi drivers hopelessly searching for an address in Warsaw’s vast Ursynów estate. This is the common image of what Dorota Masłowska called “the grim wastelands of the large blocks estates.” Le Corbusier’s iconic LC4 chaise lounge seems in the end to be his only fully non-controversial project. Despite the considerable number of modernist architecture lovers, despite the fact that many (well-liked!) houses are still built in the style, modernism as an urban planning ideology and a holistic world-view is seen as laughably compromised.

2. One of the more powerful scenes of Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 film 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, which skillfully captures the atmosphere of fear and guilt pervading the dark landscape of an evening in a grim housing.

Today, the Athens Charter is hardly ever read except for historical research. One of the biggest surprises in store for its modern reader will be its sober reasonable tone and a clear criticism of trends, which, several decades later, were to be considered modernism’s most popular legacy. Large parts of the Charter discuss issues which were the main points of anti-modernists’ critique, such as the need to make sure that urban planning must maintain a human scale, that cities should not sprawl without limits, and that their development should be “harmonious.” The architects and urbanists who sailed with Le Corbusier from Marseille to Athens in July 1933, based their manifesto on a scientific analysis of the conditions urban life and their roots, proclaiming the need to improve them. The unavoidable question is how does this factual, commonsensical document, whose diagnoses (as I will argue) have actually gained in significance in today’s world, relate to the popular image of Le Corbusier arbitrarily drawing precise inhuman cross-shaped towers on his Plan Voisin? I believe that the key to the answer lies in comparing the character and content of the Charter with the historical arguments and ideological motivations which led public opinion to condemn modernism. Equally important are political and economic circumstances under which modernists were removed from their visionary urban projects to a ceaseless production of chairs, Bauhaus-inspired luxury villas, and the occasional public building. The most significant facet of this question is the lack of balance between modernism’s humanistic and technological aspects. The Athens Charter is a professional document which combines a scientific humanistic assessment of living conditions and the problems of cities with an engineering proposal for addressing them. The Charter – contrary to popular opinion – is a document of modern humanism: it espouses a holistic view of man and an organic social order, while also considering the individual with a great deal of, admittedly paternalistic, care. At the same time, an analysis of “actual existing modernism” shows that in creating grand public projects, most of the attention was devoted to their engineering/construction aspects. If modernism truly became a utopia, it was a techno-utopia. In this respect, it is hard to defend architects who wrote about human-scale developments and criticised the “ferocious rythm” of technologically-driven changes and acceleration, since they became completely seduced by the idea of technological progress. This is why Le Corbusier’s acolytes saw no fundamental dissonance between writing about maintaining a “human scale” and the design of the gigantic Unité d’habitation in Marseille or the above-mentioned PruittIgoe estate. They claimed that a building was no longer just a building, but, rather, “a machine for living.” “Human

Pruitt-Igoe Housing Estate, St. Louis, USA, ’60s, photo: United States Geological Survey, via Wikipedia

scale” was no longer measured by human intuition, but by Le Corbusier’s own anthropometric scale of proportions – the Modulor. While the failure of projects such as Pruitt-Igoe was mostly attributed to their form (unclear, depersonalised, encouraging criminalisation), the critical wave actually resulted in a rejection of modernism’s humanistic ideas. Its forms, on the other hand, largely survive – in a “high-end” version aimed at the middle class and lacking governmental subsidies. The social aspects of modernist ideas have been largely abandoned. At the same time, an unbiased reading of the Charter’s diagnoses shows that they are more relevant now than ever before. This should not suggest that all our doubts should be swept under the carpet. In fact, it seems that drawing factual conclusions from the old utopia’s history is more productive than pretending that the current situation is any less dystopian. We cannot use the claim that “modernist utopia’s failure means we should let things develop naturally” to justify the uncontrolled growth of the Southern Hemisphere’s slums, the mass evictions in the United States, or the recent Polish idea of locating social housing in intermodal containers. Below, I attempt to briefly analyse key ideas of the Athens Charter in the context of their history and modern
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social and urban conditions, while disproving several myths regarding modernism.

First: housing
Many claim that modernism was based on a total (some even say totalitarian) vision, in which individual existence had to be completely subsumed. However, our contemporary reality, despite its appearances, cannot claim to be a significantly more “bottom up” one. In fact, the opposite is true. While individualism forms the basis of today’s urban planning (or the basis of lack thereof), the individual human being as such is the Charter’s main protagonist. Admittedly, the urban dweller is an abstract entity there – lacking gender, age, occupation, any determined interests, family plans or personal problems. Still, the very idea of urbanism is founded on humanism. Today, on the other hand, planners mainly speak of growth, competitiveness, development and promotion. The modernists were much more interested in people’s everyday lives: “The first task of urban planning is fulfilling basic human needs.” These needs were ranked accordingly: housing, work, leisure and movement. The Athens Charter was much more interested in the city’s inhabitants than most modern strategies and similar documents. According to the Charter, a city ought

Ville Contemporaine, photo © Fondation Le Corbusier

to be organised in a way that provides a solid minimal level necessary to function. These included a well-lit apartment, a job, and the ability to commute there easily, green spaces for the residents to relax in and good communication networks between cities and regions. Today, there is an unspoken agreement that once the city attracts enough investors, all these problems will be solved automatically. Pruitt-Igoe has not only been used to prove modernism’s failure, but also as proof of the failure of social housing in general. However, as Katharine G. Bristol has argued, such conclusions are largely unfounded: The claim that Pruitt-Igoe failed because it was based on an agenda for social reform, derived from ideas of Le Corbusier and the CIAM, not only presupposes that physical design is central to the success or failure of public housing, but also that the design was implemented to carry out the architects’ social agenda. What this obscures is the architects’s passivity in the face of a much larger
3. Katharine G. Bristol, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, Journal of Architectural Education, vol. 44, no. 3, May 1991, p. 170. 4. According to UN reports, levels of extreme poverty in the former Comecon countries rose from 3 million in 1988, to almost 170 million today. (UN Human Settlements Program, The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, Earthscan Publications and UN-Habitat, London, 2003.)

agenda that has its roots not in radical social reform, but in the political economy of post-World War II St. Louis and in practices of racial segregation. Pruitt-Igoe was shaped by the strategies of ghetto containment and inner city revitalization – strategies that did not emanate from the architects, but rather from the system in which they practice. The Pruitt-Igoe myth therefore not only inflates the power of the architect to effect social change, but it masks the extent to which the profession is implicated, inextricably, in structures and practices that it is powerless to change³. It was not superior design or construction that allowed Warsaw’s Bródno or Za Żelazną Bramą housing estates not to become ghettos like Pruitt-Igoe. In both Warsaw and St. Louis cases there was cost-cutting on materials; as a result, elevators broke down and door handles fell off within weeks of the buildings being occupied. However, socialist housing policies provided for socio-economically mixed inhabitants, and the system did not allow unemployment – partially limiting the drastic nature of social problems�. Remarkably, current urban policies are heading for a repeat of the Pruitt-Igoe fiasco, but without the modernist aesthetical approach and without even any ambitions to improve human existence. This makes a bitter difference. In the documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth,

former residents tearfully told the film’s director that their first days in the housing project were the “happiest days of their lives” as they believed in a change of their lives. The idea of building social housing estates out of intermodal containers, as proposed in Poland, is an example of showing the utmost contempt for city residents. The idea’s creators are proud that their vision is fully anti-utopian – as the welfare of the residents or the cohesiveness of the urban fabric does not figure in their thinking at all. It is truth that moving the slums into a modernist building will not solve the structural social problems of its inhabitants. This however does not mean that slums should be left to themselves. The problem does not lay in modernism but rather in the political and economic system. The Athens Charter clearly noted the systemic roots of these problems: A butcher would be condemned for the sale of rotten meat, but the building codes allow rotten dwellings to be forced on the poor.

provide its inhabitants with the minimal means of survival in any case of eventual economic turbulence. This is why the first priority ought to be addressing basic human needs. The city organism should take advantage of opportunities for better growth, but should not subsume its development to economic fluctuations: The degree of tension in the economic spring, though partly dependent on invariable circumstances, may be modified at any time by the advent of unexpected forces which chance or human initiative may render productive or leave inoperative. Neither latent wealth requiring exploitation nor individual energy has any absolute character. (Athens Charter, 46) Urban planning should always consider the possibility of an economic crisis. Currently, however, urban planning has ceased to be the domain of planners and has become the realm of politicians. The latter’s populist rhetoric is more useful in promoting spectacular investments rather than long-term defensive strategies. For instance, all the stadiums built in Poland for the Euro 2012 tournament were political decisions, and no unbiased analysis of the way these stadiums will change the functioning of their cities was carried out. While economic discourse has become dominated by financial flows, the classical idea of economy as rational management of resources in a way that foresees and organises the inhabitants’ everyday life has faded.

Second: economy
The current crisis proves that housing paradigms are most directly tied to the economic situation. As David Harvey� systematically argues, this has been an urban crisis. Its foundation is the insufficiency of the American Dream – a social construct in which the majority aspires to the suburban ideal of a single-family home and several cars. This system destroyed many American cities. As it is snarkily said of Los Angeles, the city has become a set of suburbs that accidentally ran into each other while looking for a centre. But the “house with a picket fence” ideology has also ruined the world economy, convincing thousands of people to take out mortgages they could not afford. These people are being now massively evicted from their homes. The whole districts and suburbs are emptied and fall into disrepair. While economic concerns have come to dominate modern urban planning discourse, the economic analysis provided by the authors of the Athens Charter is much more sober than that of their modern counterparts. The current breed appears to be intoxicated with the idea of continuous economic development, and, to quote the bold language of the Charter, “ferocious growth.” “Economics is never anything but a momentary value,” wrote the passengers on SS. Patris, a claim which can be perfectly illustrated by modern-day photographs of Łódź or Detroit. This is why, while we cannot separate economics from urban planning, the latter should not adjust its planning to economic cycles. In other words, a city should
5. David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, Verso, London, 2012.

Third: private property and the common good
Private property has once again become a controversial subject. “Once again” is an apt reminder, as after the fall of Communism it seemed that private property will maintain its status of a “sacred right”. Yet during the current economic crisis, societies began recognising its root causes and the radically uneven character of wealth distribution between social classes and geographical regions. As a result, the conviction that an unlimited right to private property was just, began to wobble. At every political level, the issue is now very pressing. Moreover, property has begun developing new forms, such as public debt (not as a debt that will eventually be repaid, but rather, as an interconnected web of obligations), intellectual property, and virtual property. These problems will continue to grow with the increasing scarcity of natural resources. As absurd as it may sound, Utah recently passed a law banning the collection of rainwater, arguing that it was the state’s property. The states of Colorado and Washington passed regulations regarding the allowable methods of collecting rainwater, and its uses. In Japan, you can buy fresh air from vending machines. Buying bottled water has become

24 Varsovie Radieuse. Return of Le Corbusier to Za Żelazną Bramą estate

Pruitt-Igoe estate, St. Louis, USA, demolition in April 1972, photo: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, via Wikipedia


so natural as to no longer be amazing. Also gentrification can be treated as a dispossession of the right to live in one’s own neighbourhood. Access to sunlight, green spaces and a view from a window were all capitalized a long time ago. Pre-war modernists argued against mass exclusion from access to natural resources. To them one such resource was the land, especially land in a city, where its use by private persons for private purposes may affect the quality of life of the whole community. Of course, this does not mean that an immediate nationalisation is the obvious and inevitable solution. Yet we can no longer pretend that our choices are limited to either neo-liberalism or Soviet socialism. Viewed as an association of individuals, a city needs mechanisms which protect the public good while leaving individuals the greatest possible margin of freedom. We must abandon the ideology which claims that an unfettered competition of private interests will result in harmonic life of the communities. The uncritical faith in the free market is significantly more dystopian than all the Athens Charter’s premises put together. However, the images of neoliberal dystopia are discretely moved out of sight (to slums on a city’s outskirts, or, more broadly, to other countries and continents). In this respect modernism was more honest, as it was forced to shoulder the blame for its failed projects. Urban neoliberalism always seeks to place the blame on external factors, leaving critical decisions to improvisation, which may occasionally favour the individual but which always overburdens the collective. This improvisation is often no more than a simple calculus of power.

One is struck, contrasting these earlier modernist architects with contemporary star architects, by these themes of normality and reproducibility. Whatever we think of them now, they were models that their creators hoped would be reproduced and would become normal (and better) parts of the city. In contrast, their successors design walls that cant and lean, roofs that bubble and heave, buildings that look as if they are instantly ready to take off into space or collapse in a heap of tin. They are not models for a city: only models for what the architect hopes will be truly astonishing, something to hit a nerve of contemporary excitement that he can exploit.6 The consensus regarding modernism’s failure has freed urbanists and architects from the responsibility which they once had to shoulder, and which made their professions ones of public trust. Of course, there is some justice to this change. One of the causes of modernism’s failure was “architectural determinism,” or the belief that social relations can be altered only with significant input from architecture and engineering. This conviction resulted in throwing out the baby with the bath water. Modernism’s rightful humanistic postulates (essentially of a political nature) were condemned because of a failed engineering experiment. In the end, modernism’s form defeated its content. In reading the Athens Charter today, one is struck by the number of correct diagnoses, and can draw two important conclusions. First, architecture and urban planning are part of society’s political sphere. Developing cities is not a neutral project for detached experts, and the ultimate fate of buildings and cities is dependent on the systems within which they are created. The Charter’s authors correctly claimed that three factors are necessary for architecture to move from theory to practice: 1. A political power such as one might wish — clearsighted, with earnest conviction, and determined to achieve those improved living conditions that have been worked out and set down on paper; 2. an enlightened population that will understand, desire, and demand what the specialists have envisaged for it; 3. an economic situation that will make it possible to embark upon and pursue building projects which, in certain instances, will be considerable.

Conclusion: the role of the architect/urban planner and the future of a past utopia
Urbanism has been content to open up avenues or lay out streets, thus forming blocks of buildings whose purpose has been left to the haphazard ventures of private initiatives. This is a narrow and inadequate view of its mission, proclaimed the Charter’s authors. This bitter commentary can also be extended to architects’ role in the contemporary world. At the time of the modernist “utopia” architects aimed to improve city dwellers’ living conditions. Today, buildings designed by “starchitects” often appear to simply be emanations of their artistic egos (or the egos of their clients), and their aim seems to startle the passerby, rather than improve his or her life. A telling characteristic of the neoliberal capitalist era is the fact that very few of modern architecture’s iconic buildings are designed as housing for the rank and file, instead they are showpieces for cities, states or corporations. If a starchitect designs a residential building, as is the case with Daniel Libeskind in Warsaw, these are only luxury apartments, inaccessible to most city dwellers. As Nathan Glazer observes:
26 Varsovie Radieuse. Return of Le Corbusier to Za Żelazną Bramą estate

6. Nathan Glazer, From a Cause to a Style. Modernist Architecture’s Encounter with the American City, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2007, pp. 277-278.

It is this fragment of the Charter that appears most utopian today, while, at the same time, sketching out the causes of the dystopia. These days, the conditions listed above give rise to a pessimistic conclusion. If there is one true lesson to be drawn from the past, this is the following: that actually existing politicians, society and circumstances in existence are the only ones available to us. A change of each of these factors is entirely conceivable, but it must remain a point of arrival: it is unsafe to design a city with only ideal conditions in mind. If cities are to be created in less than ideal times, it is more realistic to assume an evolutionary approach. That’s why the American Marxist David Harvey no longer talks of revolution, but rather, of a co-evolution from capitalism – a gradual systemic change simultaneously taking place across the world. Secondly, by comparing the Athens Charter with today’s reality, we can learn much about the essence of utopias. If we agree that modernism represented a social dystopia, we must also state that we are currently living in another dystopia. The current one, however, is far more crafty than its predecessor. Since its chaotic and ever-shifting set of principles has never been published, it does not have to explain away their failures. The illusion that humanity’s existence will improve if the current profit-driven neoliberal approach to urban management is maintained is a very dangerous one. Modern day cities provide plentiful dystopian images to match the impact of Pruitt-Igoe’s demolition. In this sense, the historical utopia appears safer, as its dangers are no longer disguised in any way. Modernism was a paternalistic system which tried to predict and steer the course of life – much like a pathologically overprotective parent whose prohibitions and orders literally push a child toward rebellion. This, however, does not mean that the modernists’ original propositions did not contain a great deal of care for people’s and society’s fate. Also, it does not appear that the modern “orphaned” approach to these matters is an appropriate alternative. Thus, reading the Athens Charter today, we may suddenly feel like an adult child who discovers that it actually makes sense to wear a cap in the winter – even if we used to hate the mother’s kvetch getting cold.


Le Corbusier’s “Vers une Architecture” will be published in Polish in 2012 by Centrum Architektury. Centrum Architektury is a registered charity and depends on both public and private sponsorship. Any donation is kindly accepted. It will help us develop our versatile and far-reaching programme of events and publications. Our account number: PL29105010251000009030078282 (SWIFT code: INGBPLPW) If you wish to get involved in a specific project, contact us at info@centrumarchitektury.org www.centrumarchitektury.org

28 Varsovie Radieuse. Return of Le Corbusier to Za Żelazną Bramą estate

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