Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, best known by his professional name of Le Corbusier, was one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century. However, not every one of his ambitious plans came to fruition. One of his most notable unrealised projects was his dream of “la ville radieuse” (the radiant city), his idea for a new kind of urban development designed to meet the needs of modern life. The Glasgow School of Art Library’s Special Collections has a first edition copy of the book in which he mapped out this vision, La Ville radieuse: elements d’une doctrine d’urbanisme pour l’equipement de la civilisation machiniste – Paris, Geneve, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo, Montevideo, Buenos-Aires, Alger, Moscou, Anvers, Barcelone, Stockholm, Nemours, Piace.
The “radiance” of the title refers to the radiant joy Le Corbusier imagined would be experienced by residents in a city constructed to fulfil the manifesto of his book. The pursuit of utopia in the modern world was a subject he had long been concerned with: he wanted to change lives through urban design. But Le Corbusier had a drastic method in mind to achieve his goal: the radiant city was intended to be built upon the remains of older cities which would be demolished in order to create this new space. This was not the first time he had suggested such a sweeping change: in an earlier work, he had proposed drastically redeveloping Paris by clearing away as much as half of the city’s historic buildings. The project was also focused on increasing population capacity in cities by building upwards, and skyscrapers were an integral feature of Le Corbusier’s plan for the “ville radieuse” structure.
The visual plan for the city imagined in La Ville radieuse is inspired by the outline of the human body, including shapes designed to represent the head and the limbs. Le Corbusier illustrates his ideas using a wide range of visual material throughout the book, sometimes contrasting his own drawings and designs with the inclusion of photographs of existing cities and structures which he dislikes. One cityscape image is disapprovingly captioned: “Everything here is paradox and disorder.” The content of the book is also notable for the tone of its marginalia, in which Le Corbusier rages against what he views as the corrupt elements of contemporary society. The radiant city was not just about physical design, it was viewed as a way of reorganising society into what he believed to be a more moral structure.
As a book, La Ville radieuse also reflects Le Corbusier’s interest in photography, both in relation to architecture, and also in relation to page design. In addition to his own architectural drawings, the text includes a wide range of photographic material, including shots by the photographer Brassai, as well as a number of photomontages. Le Corbusier’s interest in photography would continue throughout his career: after the Second World War, he would employ Lucien Hervé as his official photographer, who would take shots of his work as he developed projects.
The concluding page of La Ville radieuse states “May this book find its way to men’s hearts!” and includes a map of the world, in an optimistic view that this model might be adopted by cities across the globe. This did not happen in the way Le Corbusier originally imagined: the concepts of the city expressed in La Ville radieuse never attained the influence of the ideas of his earlier successes such as Towards a New Architecture, despite a lecture tour in America during which he presented the “ville radieuse” as a potential solution to the problems he saw in American cities during the early 1930s. However, this did not mean the ideas of the book came to nothing. La Ville radieuse would become one of the works upon which Le Corbusier based the Athens Charter, a later theory of urban planning which would eventually prove to be the most influential documents on urban design following the Second World War. So while La Ville radieuse was never realised in its original intended form, it nonetheless became the foundations for a change in approach to urban planning in later decades.