Aircraft – Le Corbusier

Aircraft - Le Corbusier
Industrialisation defined the nineteenth century. Country after country first emulated and then surpassed the success of the British in developing sophisticated capitalist economies in which technological progress was hailed for transforming the world. But the carnage of the First World War destroyed the fundamental concepts that underlined this system; it completely shattered the idea that this form of social organisation was inevitably going to bring about a stable world. People suddenly realised that the same machines that had promised unstoppable progress could be used to kill on a scale unimaginable before then. So, industrial societies in the aftermath of this war faced two possible choices; one was an escapist return to an earlier pre-industrial epoch, epitomised by the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century(in which the bespoke and handmade was privileged). The other option was to somehow separate the grim realities and the negative consequences of industrialisation (war, pollution, urban poverty etc) from a belief in the inherent good of technology to produce a better future. In this view, the Great War could be regarded as an aberration, an unrepeatable period of collective madness when technological developments had been used for evil rather than for more noble purposes. Unsurprisingly, this was the path chosen. This seductively simple idea thoroughly permeated public discourse during the inter-war decades, influencing everything from art and architecture to politics and science, as traumatised societies attempted to escape the stifling structures of the past by constructing a New Age based upon rational principles derived from apparently objective scientific concepts.


The influence of Le Corbusier (the pseudonym adopted by Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) as the leading prophet of high-modernist urban planning and design cannot be underestimated. Nearly every country with pretentions to modernisation during the twentieth century dabbled, to differing degrees, with the alluring idea that it would be possible to reorder society through planned intervention in the built environment. While Le Corbusier was not alone in advancing these ideas, his charisma, drive and ego made him the best known and most influential of those who put forward such utopian schemes. At the core of the high-modernist architectural philosophy was the idea that through the use of rational, planned design it would be possible to influence human behaviour and so create a perfectly ordered and balanced world of peace and plenty (as outlined in Le Corbusier’s publications Toward an Architecture [1923] and The Radiant City [1935]). In the high-modernist view, the dark, squalid slums and overcrowded tenements of previous centuries, breeding grounds of disease, poverty and crime, were to be eliminated. A new era of progress and civilised order would be ushered in through the construction of new, rational cities based on universally applicable rules that would determine the precise requirements needed by each inhabitant. And just how were these cities to be built? The urban planners and politicians who had permitted the growth of unchecked urban squalor in the cities of old had been corrupted by vested interests and the grubby compromises of representative democracy. They obviously couldn’t be entrusted with such a task. No, this job required somebody new. This needed someone who was far above such tawdry concerns; it required a visionary genius who would act in the best interests of all. (The final sentences of the book state that: “Sometimes in the course of the centuries a man has sprung up here and there instinct with the power of genius, establishing the unity of his time. A man! The flock needs a shepherd.”)


High-modernist ideas were based on the idea that you needed to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. As can be imagined, this particular view of how humanity should be improved tied in rather neatly with the various political movements, of both right and left, that sprang up in the 1930s. The difference between countries that wholeheartedly embraced high-modernist schemes and those that merely toyed with modernism on a smaller scale has less to do with ambition and a lot more to do with politics – an authoritarian regime is much more likely to indulge in grandiose re/construction projects than a system which has a greater degree of political accountability. It is certainly no surprise that Le Corbusier flirted with both the USSR and Nazi-backed Vichy France in his pursuit of an despotic patron who would be able to bulldoze all opposition to his centrally planned utopia. Interestingly, for all his enthusiasm, Chandigarh in India was the only city Le Corbusier actually managed to see built (even then he wasn’t the first choice – the sudden death of the primary architect Matthew Nowicki provided a sudden opening). Basically, the fundamental flaw with the high-modernist concept is that it is utterly disdainful of the very real cultural, social and human needs of those who actually have to live in these cities. This contempt lies at the heart of their failure.


This brings us neatly to the book in question. First published in 1935 (my copy is a rather scruffy ex-library book of the 1988 Trefoil reprint), Aircraft was the first in a series published by The Studio under the New Vision banner. In this series, new technologies and ideas were presented to the reader through the combination of short texts and photographs (two other titles in the series looked at Locomotives and Photomicrography). Using images gleaned from a wide range of sources, this book is a celebration of flight, both as a clear demonstration of man’s mastery of the air and for providing a new perspective on the world. From this distance, when we have all become jaded with cheap and nasty airlines making us print out our own boarding cards and trying to flog us overpriced sandwiches, it’s hard to understand just how much of an adventure flight was in those early decades. At the time of publication, the Wright Brothers had made their first flight only 32 years previously. Given impetus by the Great War, powered flight had quickly advanced from the rickety, pioneering days to becoming a mode of travel by the 1930s that was both more reliable and accessible to the public at large (at least in the developed world). Interestingly, Leonardo da Vinci’s designs are featured in Le Corbusier’s narrative of progress – which can be read as an obvious attempt on his part to bask in the reflected glow of Renaissance genius. Thus aviation is presented as the inevitable pinnacle of human achievement and served as an unequivocal demonstration of how progress could be attained through wholeheartedly embracing new technologies and ideas. Here, photographs of aircraft in flight and abstract close-up images are used to celebrate form. The myriad shapes and types of sleek, gleaming aluminium aeroplanes that were at the pinnacle of 1930s design all serve to underline the rupture between the discredited legacy of the past and a New Age of progress.


But it is how the aeroplane has changed our perception of the world that is the real subject of this book. The aeroplane, according to Le Corbusier, has liberated mankind from the stifling, narrow point of view that is an inevitable feature of life at ground level. Now, freed from these shackles, we are able to soar high above the earth and, in so doing, look down upon the hellish urban environments we have created. The bird’s eye perspective has revealed what was once kept hidden from view. What Le Corbusier sees is the moral and physical poverty of a former era which he indicts as being the root cause of injustice and conflict. As he asserts in the introduction to the book, “Such are the great cities of the world, those of the nineteenth century, bustling, cruel, heartless, and money-grubbing.” Furthermore, “The city is ruthless to man. Cities are old, decayed, frightening, diseased. They are finished. Pre-Machine civilisation is finished.” Contrasting these images of cities with nature, Le Corbusier also proclaims that their failure is due to a fundamental lack of harmony in the way they grew up piecemeal over the years. But a plan devised by a genius (guess who?) would overcome these flaws and produce a rational urban environment that would be fully in balance with the natural and objectively scientific concepts discovered by man. But the aeroplane does more than just provide a bird’s eye view from which to contemplate the city below; for Le Corbusier, it creates a wholly new and modern conscience which will no longer tolerate the injustices of the past. Thus, new technology is used to discredit everything that has gone before and pave the way for the slate to be wiped clean. By piggy-backing on the widespread public enthusiasm for the new (in the form of aviation), combined with  photographic “proof”, in this book Le Corbusier is attempting to link his particular ideas about urban design with a broader popular mood for change.


From the trauma of the First World War, which discredited the rigid aspirations of a society based upon nineteenth century values, a new-found optimism in the potential of new technology to create a better world emerged. The 1920s and 30s were defined by ideas and social movements that attempted to use apparently rational and objective principles in an attempt at social engineering, presented as a way of escaping the horrors of the recent past.  The aeroplane was the apex of modern achievement at the time and was held out as a shining example for those who wanted to believe in the future. Up in the air, the aeroplane reveals an old, decrepit urban world that is the root cause of all evils. It is also no coincidence that this perspective mirrors that of the high-modernist planner, who sees all and ceaselessly strives to better mankind as an omnipotent God-like substitute. For an architect salivating at the thought of wiping the urban slate clean and starting afresh (heedless of the direct human consequences) the aeroplane proved to be a very useful tool in pushing this own agenda. Progress is presented as inevitable and natural; an unstoppable force that only needs to be harnessed by someone of vision and genius for the betterment of all. Utopian phrases and comparisons with natural forms are repeatedly used by Le Corbusier in this attempt to impose his very narrow and simplified vision upon the world. As he clearly states in the book, “Cities with their misery, must be torn down. They must be largely destroyed and fresh cities built.”

But as we have discovered to our cost, such cities are the concrete fantasies of a sociopath.


Kampuchea Rising from the Ashes – Yevgeni Kobelev, Nikolai Solntsev and Albert Liberman

Kampuchea Rising from the Ashes

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Cambodia was a casualty of Cold War posturing on the part of the great powers.  In their struggle for global domination the competing blocs of East and West cynically used Cambodia as a pawn to be played in their zero sum game. Put simply, the Chinese and Soviets (even though they were rivals) were united in helping the Vietnamese fight the Americans during the 1960s and early 1970s. Once the Vietnam War ended, the USSR and China set about trying to gain influence and control over the newly communist countries of South East Asia.  Cambodia, already destabilised by the war in neighbouring Vietnam, was finally torn apart when Nixon ordered the bombing and invasion of Cambodia in 1970 as a way to put pressure on the Vietcong.  This led to the collapse of the existing royal government under Prince Sihanouk (who had tried to remain out of the war) and the rise of Lon Nol (a military dictator allied to the Americans). This in turn led to the strengthening of a communist guerrilla group, the Khmer Rouge, who wanted to create a new society in Cambodia. With the American exit and the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, Lon Nol’s regime collapsed and the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot took power. They immediately instituted a radical form of ultra-communism (inspired by Maoist ideology) in which they attempted to produce an agrarian utopia. In pursuit of this they murdered millions during their rule from 1975-79. The Khmer Rouge’s attitude towards killing can be summed up in their motto: “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.” Estimates vary, but the figure given is that they were responsible for the death of approximately 1.7 million people (one fifth of the population) during this period.

This murderous regime was only ousted when Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea (as Cambodia was renamed)  in 1979. The Khmer Rouge regime collapsed and retreated into the jungle to fight a guerrilla war. Many elements of the group only finally surrendered in the late 1990s after doing a deal with the Cambodian government. However, the Khmer Rouge’s fall from power in 1979 exposed the horrific scale of atrocities they had perpetrated in their quest to build a “pure” society. In the meantime, a pro-Vietnamese government was installed in Pnomh Penh and the country was renamed as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. This is the basic historical narrative. But what happened during the 1980s is a lot less well known.


In an attempt to undermine the communist bloc through divide and rule tactics, Nixon opened relations with Maoist China in the early 1970s, deepening a split that had existed between the USSR and China since the 1960s. The tactic worked and China slowly moved towards the West. But the ripple effects of this policy had a profound impact on countries allied to either China or Russia; in South East Asia, Vietnam and Laos were firmly allied to the USSR, while Khmer Rouge controlled Democratic Kampuchea was in the pro-Chinese camp. While tensions between Cambodia and Vietnam had always been a historical factor, the 1979 invasion can in part be regarded as a proxy-conflict fuelled by sparring Chinese and Soviet factions as they sought to establish their dominance over the region.


So into this steps the United States, China’s new best friend. In effect this meant was that  the US ended up supporting the genocidal Khmer Rouge who were still hiding out in the jungle. Throughout much of the 1980s, the US recognised an alliance of the Khmer Rouge (who gave themselves a very cosmetic rebrand) and Prince Sihanouk as the legitimate government of Kampuchea/Cambodia and supported their claim in the United Nations. They even instigated a Cuba-like sanctions regime and economic blockade of the country in support of the Khmer Rouge. This got so bad that Oxfam, the international NGO and aid agency, published Punishing the Poor; the International Isolation of Kampuchea in 1988. This book argued that these sanctions were causing untold damage to a society traumatised by years of terror and murder and called for international assistance to rebuild this fragile society. It also cites a letter from December 1986 from a US senator which details that 85 million dollars were given to the Khmer Rouge between 1980 and 1986 (page 83), a period long after the genocide had been exposed. This was made possible by the fact that public and media interest in that part of the world had waned by the 1980s. Obviously US government support for genocidal mass-murderers would have been impossible without widespread indifference and apathy on the part of the general public to the consequences of political decisions being made in their name.  All this meant that the deeply cynical and immoral stance (to put it mildly) taken by the US government in support of the Khmer Rouge went largely unnoticed and the suffering of those who had survived the genocide was compounded. The lesson is clear; the great powers play their games and small countries are mere pawns to be used for international point scoring. As always, it is the poor and powerless that suffer the most. That lesson is as applicable today as it was in the past.

Published by Planeta of Moscow in 1988, this book is a pictorial account of the reconstruction efforts being made by the Vietnamese-backed government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea under Heng Samrin. A typical 1980s design, this glossy book is a part of Planeta’s Countries of the World series in which they showcased various Soviet allies in a format similar to travel photobooks of exotic destinations the world over. In particular, the book emphasises the aid given by the USSR to rebuilding Cambodia through photographs credited to Albert Liberman which are unremittingly positive. Throughout, the text repeatedly asserts the hideous nature of the Khmer Rouge regime, emphasising how every aspect of Cambodian society was utterly destroyed during this period. Indeed, the Khmer Rouge deliberately targeted educated people for execution and broke up family groups in their pursuit of a new and “pure” society. The book begins with some double page spreads of the Cambodian landscape interspersed with small photos of individual workers and farmers. This then moves on to an extensive section which extols the resilience and perseverance of the Khmer people to overcome their recent nightmare and build a better society (with Soviet help). To prove this, the book contrasts images of traditional Cambodian buildings and temples with progressive new hospitals, factories, soft drink sellers and Soviet ships entering port. All this serves to show that old and new coexist peacefully in Soviet-backed Kampuchea. These themes were carefully chosen because all of them were targets of the Khmer Rouge who emptied the cities and forced the population into camps in the countryside. There they were reduced to abject slaves, living in constant fear of starvation or execution. The captions beneath these images further emphasise the contrast between the current situation and the all too recent terror of Khmer Rouge rule.

As a country in which the rice crop is vital, agriculture takes up the next section. Indeed, all the deaths and forced labour in the countryside under the Khmer Rouge revolved around an insane attempt to increase the rice yield (inspired by similar schemes tried in Maoist China which led to their famine of 1959-61). Now, with Vietnamese and Soviet assistance, sanity has been restored. Traditional agricultural practices along with modern innovations (such as tractors) have succeeded in transforming the countryside back into the picturesque, and happy, state it once was. All the images of those working and living here show a contented and happy peasantry, greatful to be free of the Khmer Rouge and looking to the future.

This leads on to the next section which concerns the future generations. Here again, the horrors of Khmer Rouge life are contrasted with the progress ushered in by the new regime. Any form of education or exposure to the outside world was regarded as a threat by the Khmer Rouge and they actively attempted to kill anybody who possessed it. Even wearing glasses would get you killed. In pursuit of an ethnically pure Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge wanted a docile population, isolated from the outside world, who would obey without question. The photographs show how the education infrastructure is being restored with schools and third level colleges being established (with Soviet assistance) to give the country a modern future. This progressive narrative is combined with the resurrection of traditional Cambodian culture (also banned by the Khmer Rouge) in order to establish the legitimacy of the new regime by linking it to the past. Thus, it is presented as the inevitable and natural outcome of historical progress. Photographs of historical buildings and artefacts along with people engaged in traditional practices, serve to underline the respect the regime has for the past, in stark contrast to the vandalising Khmer Rouge who sought to wipe the slate clean. The final section of the book is devoted to the overt legacy of violence. Here, we are shown images of the Tuol Sleng prison and the remains of the apparatus of torture and murder used by the Khmer Rouge. These are then followed by images of the new Kampuchean military who are presented as being wholly determined to fight off any threat to the newly established state.

Trapped between the competing agendas of East and West, the Soviets were actually the lesser of two evils. While it would be a mistake to assume that they were not selfishly pursuing their own geo-political aims, in contrast to the murderous alternative of Khmer Rouge rule their objectives were benign. The USSR and Vietnam had an interest in establishing a stable and functioning society (under their control) in which mass murder and genocide were not a daily reality in order to discredit the Chinese. This book is designed to assert the legitimacy of the Vietnamese/Soviet backed regime through contrasting the bright future ahead with the horrors of the past. While the text continually refers to the horrific crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge, the images do not (with the exception of the Tuol Sleng photographs). Through the use of predominantly upbeat and positive imagery and a design that is similar to unconfrontational travel photobooks, this publication effectively normalises a deeply divided, fearful and traumatised society coming to terms with a horrific past.