Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Nonlinear Nature

In the introduction to A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, Manuel De Landa writes, “human history did not follow a straight line, as if everything pointed toward civilized societies as humanity’s ultimate goal” (16). This statement, which is followed by myriad examples of nonlinear phenomena ranging from the evolution of language to economics to urbanization, stands in stark contrast to Le Corbusier’s assertion that “man, by reason of his very nature, practices order; his actions and his thoughts are dictated by the straight line and the right angle” (23). Though one of his cities was never constructed explicitly, Le Corbusier’s ideas influenced much of contemporary design; his tendency to pit humankind against nature also remains and is a problem with which civilization is still contending.

It should be noted that Le Corbusier is following in the Judeo-Christian tradition: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it,” God said to Adam and Eve (Genesis 1: 28). By the time Le Corbusier wrote his words in 1925, agriculture and industry had further separated man from nature; Marx had extended the concept of the domination of nature to production sixty years prior in Das Kapital. In this vein, Le Corbusier asserts that man has taken to interpreting the laws of the universe and has “made of them a coherent scheme, a rational body of knowledge on which he can act, adapt and produce” (23). This, he says, is human nature and therefore humans are right to seek order in what they create.

Le Corbusier follows this argument by noting that humans surround themselves with a “zone of protection” consisting of objects they have created. Then, in a maneuver that seems to counter his own argument, he writes that the objects that come in close contact with the body are the least ordered, while those at a greater distance are more geometrical. In a geographical sense, this could be read as saying that the objects with which we have the greatest connection are those of a more organic shape, and that we tend to keep them closer. Unsurprisingly, the entire field of ergonomic design springs from this relationship and is cited by designers like Victor Papanek as a step toward imbuing products with the spiritual. It follows that the rigid geometry of more distant constructions is likely rooted in a specific culture rather than universally present in human nature. The discipline inherent in geometrical forms coupled with the desire to dominate a chaotic nature points to what Baudrillard calls “the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever known”: Christianity.

However, Le Corbusier does consider parts of nature valuable additions to his city, notably open green space and trees. He sees open space as having a salutary effect on the citizenry by serving as a setting for sports and games; trees are to be included in the setback areas of the residential buildings because they are aesthetically pleasing when viewed in conjunction with the concrete buildings. While some may consider nature to have an inherent value, Le Corbusier sees its utility.

The Situationists, on the other hand, envision a city that is less rationalized, though machines will free the citizens of work. They argue for a “city constituted of grand situations, between which the inhabitants would drift, endlessly” (117). The very selection of the word “drift” opposes the calls for speed and efficiency that Le Corbusier unapologetically repeats for three hundred pages, and hints at a more organic and natural experience. However, the very structure of the Situationist city is itself still separate from nature. The only mention of nature in the reading is when the new city is described as occupying the space above nature and agriculture (the control of nature). Constant’s New Babylon is envisioned not as space within the natural environment, but rather as a “creative game with an imaginary environment” (123). Sadler further distances New Babylon from nature when he writes that it “would be an exquisitely fabricated environment where everything would truly sing of humanity” (132), as well as when he compares the city to a windowless casino, in which the passing of days and seasons can go unnoticed, unless they are artificially reproduced to entertain occupants.

It is in Tony Garnier’s conception of the Cite Industrielle where nature is addressed more completely. Garnier sets two rules for his residential buildings link them to the natural environment and evoke contemporary ecological design. The first states that all bedrooms are required to have at least one south-facing window and the building must provide maximum sunlight throughout the structure. The second rule requires that all spaces are illuminated and ventilated from the outside. His sketches also show expansive green spaces and vegetation that appears to be manicured, thus continuing the domination of nature theme that connects the three readings. Furthermore, the factory that serves as the heart of the city is inherently devoted to transforming nature into material goods, and the schools concentrate on subjects such as metallurgy, which will lead to improved production. It is noted in Mariani’s introduction that Garnier does not include churches but it is clear that the religious legacy of controlling the nonhuman world remains.

Garnier manages to further connect his city to nature through the inclusion of the slaughterhouse and the hospital complex. The former embodies a connection to nature that sets Garnier apart from Le Corbusier and the Situationists, in that it explicitly addresses the role of nonhuman animals in the city. Similarly, the attention paid to hospitals and health in general serves as a reminder that the occupants of the Cite Industrielle are indeed mortal, which is a characteristic that might be lost while examining Le Corbusier’s and the Situationist’s work. Moreover, Garnier’s city is at the human scale, which seems to tilt the design back toward the natural. While none of these cities were ever built, and they each dominate nature, it is clear that Garnier’s conception pays it the most respect.

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