Like many utopian visions that someone is crazy enough to attempt to realize, modernist architecture has always contained an element of fascism. It wasn’t just that a cuckoo notion like Le Corbusier’s “radiant city,” those celery stalks of lone skyscrapers surrounded by a verdant wasteland, was meant to simplify life, but that it was in some basic sense meant to replace it.
The light and space essential to early modernist design were a response to the darkness and claustrophobia of Victorian architecture in which so many poor were imprisoned. But the modernists’ own language suggested that the masses would simply be serving a new master. You can’t describe a dwelling as a “machine for living,” as Le Corbusier did, without having abandoned what most of us associate with the word “home”: comfort, refuge, freedom from regulation, a respite from routine. If a house or a high-rise apartment building is a machine, those living in it must be the cogs. The ultimate fulfillment of Le Corbusier’s vision might be like a Prozac version of the workers trudging off to the mines in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, drudgery tidied up and narcotized.
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