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  and The Radiant City ). 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.