This is part of our weekly series, Lost Masterpieces, about the greatest buildings and works of art that were destroyed or never completed.
Charles-Edouard Jeannet, better known as Le Corbusier, was one of the 20th century’s more formidable architects. The Villa Savoye, High Court of Chandigarh, Unité d’Habitation, Notre Dame du Haut, and others still remain iconic. But his greatest (in terms of influence, be it good or bad) legacy lies in urban planning, in both public housing and imagining a car-filled city.
His urban planning ideas were to quite simply, as William JR Curtis notes in Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms, “save the industrial city from disaster.”
And what did this savior have in mind for Paris in the early 1920s? Total destruction of several square miles on the Right Bank including one of Paris’s most popular neighborhoods—the Marais. And in its place, 18 glass towers.
The then-disease-plagued Marais (which was also historically its Jewish quarter) would be replaced by a gridded phalanx of 18 cruciform office towers over several square miles. The towers would sit in a multi-tiered park. One level was an immense amount of green space. Another level was for transportation. An airport was even included in the designs. Low-rise residential and government buildings appear in the northern corners and along the river.
Where before the streets of Paris were choking on pollution and disease, Corbusier’s design created an ordered urban landscape that separated out the different facets of life and gave them space and order.
The Plan Voisin grew out of Le Corbusier's ideas about the Ville Contemporaine, the modern city, which he had made public in 1922. It represented Corbusier's dream of a new age industrial metropolis. Designed for three million people, his planned city ordered nearly the entirety of human life—work, home, transit, and even how its citizens should be occupied in their down-time. It sought to utilize the high-rise tower to create density but maintained large green spaces for light and nature.
When Le Corbusier unveiled the Plan Voisin pour Paris in 1925, at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs two large dioramas of the Plan Voisin and the Ville Contemporaine faced each other. The theoretical city (Contemporaine) had been realized in an actual one (Plan Voisin).
“I think that the Plan Voisin is one of the most misunderstood projects in history,” Nicholas Fox Weber, author of the seminal biography Le Corbusier: A Life tells me over the phone. “Corbusier gets a bum rap, and people like to describe him as the man who was willing to destroy Paris, or to raze all of Paris, or take down everything that was in the Marais.” Instead [says Weber,] we should keep in mind that this was a hypothetical “and should be treated as such.”
“The visitors to the Expositions des Arts Decoratifs where it was exhibited were impressed,” architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen wrote in an email to me. “Some of them even commissioned buildings from Le Corbusier.” In fact, says Cohen, “there were many articles in the press, underlining the “American” aspect of the plan, admiring its ambition, and seeing in it the ineluctable destiny of Paris.”
As one can see from the images of the plan, it called for complete destruction of what is now the popular neighborhood of the Marais. Its narrow twisting streets, today considered one of its main attractions, were dirty and overcrowded in the early 20th century.
Roughly half a century before, another man with outsized ambition planned to tear down large swathes of Paris—Baron Haussmann—and succeeded.
From 1853 to 1871 he tore down about 2,000 structures and built 85 miles of roads that cut directly across Paris.
Haussmann’s was a career that let no crisis go to waste. And from an urban planning perspective, Paris was in crisis in the 19th century. It was filthy, its layout made quashing the frequent rebellions difficult and was seen as impeding the new industrial era.
It was ill-equipped for its rapid population growth (roughly half a million in 1800 to 1.5 million by 1860). Haussmann sought to cure these ills. In doing so, he also bequeathed chunks of Paris an architectural homogeneity with his masculine Second Empire apartment buildings topped by mansard roofs.
Le Corbusier, too, saw a Paris beset by ills that could be solved by modern urban planning. He believed, writes Curtis, that urban planning was a “pseudoscience that might guide the destiny of society.”
Post-World War I, there was a housing shortage in the metro region of Paris and automobile traffic in the city was becoming a major problem. Like Haussmann, Le Corbusier believed he could not only radically alter the city for residents, but simultaneously make it a city primed to succeed economically in a new era.
“The idea of realizing it in the heart of Paris is no Utopian flight of fancy,” Le Corbusier declared. “There are cold figures to substantiate this thesis. The enormous increase of land-values that must result would yield a profit to the state running into [billions] of francs.”
Whether or not he actually believed his Plan Voisin would ever be built—Cohen told me he didn’t think Corbusier “thought that the powers in place in the 1920s had the courage or the resources to implement his plan”—it was still Corbusier’s vision for what urban life in one of the world’s capitals should and would look like.
In his office towers, workers would toil away “not in the persistent dimness of joyless streets, but in the fullness of daylight and an abundance of fresh air.”
At night “the passage of cars along the autostrada traces luminous tracks that are like the tails of meteors flashing across the summer heavens.”
He asked viewers to imagine themselves in this city.
You are under the shade of trees, vast lawns spread all round you. The air is clear and pure; there is hardly any noise,” he writes. “What, you cannot see where the buildings are? Look through the charmingly diapered arabesques of branches out into the sky towards those widely spaced crystal towers which soar higher than any pinnacle on earth. These translucent prisms that seem to float in the air without anchorage to the ground—flashing in summer sunshine, softly gleaming under grey winter skies, magically glittering at nightfall—are huge blocks of offices.”
Besides the dreamy futurism, it is hard not to get chills for an entirely different reason. There is a whiff of authoritarianism about the plan.
Le Corbusier also declared that “the street as we know it will cease to exist” and the “Paris of tomorrow could be magnificently equal to the march of events that is day by day bringing us ever nearer to the dawn of a new social contract.”
This brings us to perhaps the most controversial issue with Corbusier—his political views. He was a fan of the surgeon Alexis Carrel and had read and underlined his book Man, the Unknown, which has a section on how part of the French people (mentally ill, diseased, and "defective") should be gassed.
“He was naive or even idiotic about politics,” Fox Weber says. “At various times in his life he would have been willing to work with Lenin, Mussolini, Pétain, Roosevelt (although he thought Rockefeller was the president of the United States), de Gaulle. And he ended up working with Nehru. But he would have worked with any world leader who wanted him to build.”
Fox Weber sees Le Corbusier’s authoritarian streak coming “not because he was in love with power but because he believed that his ideas would give a maximum number of people a better quality of life.” He wanted everybody “to be able to look at the sky and at vast expanses. Not to be face to face with brick walls.”
And as for his designs seeming a little too much like a science-fiction dystopian cityscape?
“All major urban projects have been expressions of power, even more careful and respectful ones than Le Corbusier’s,” Cohen explained. “Building an entire new city or reshaping completely the center of a capital would have entailed a determined act of power. In the post-WWII times, democratic governments implemented such ambitious schemes without necessarily being dictatorial.”
The plan would never come to fruition.
In fact, after the praise it earned at the exhibition, it’s not clear it was even considered at all. Urban projects on this scale were not for Paris at this time.
The heart of Paris would by and large remain untouched (with the exception of the Centre Georges Pompidou). The work of modern architects and new age urban planning would find homes in La Défense, the suburbs, or other French cities.
Even Le Corbusier’s submission for the defunct Gare D’Orsay (now the Musée D’Orsay) was, luckily, unwelcome.
But the Plan Voisin, with its sweeping vision for a new kind of city living, is still a masterpiece of urban planning by one of the 20th century’s greatest architectural minds.
In many ways, whether or not Le Corbusier believed his Plan Voisin would ever be implemented is irrelevant. In today’s era of disdain or outright animosity towards brutalism, one glimpse of the Plan Voisin only confirms for many what they already believe—20th century modern architects and their attempts to recraft the urban landscape should be consigned to history.