Le Corbusier’s “The Atmosphere of Moscow,” along with His Letter to Ginzburg on Deurbanization

Barsch and Ginzburg, Proposal for the Green City (1930)

From Le Corbusier’s Precisions on the Present

State of Architecture and City Planning (1930)

*****

I am not trying to learn Russian, that would be a wager.  But I hear people saying krasni and krassivo.  I question.  Krasni means red, krassivo means beautiful.  Before [the Revolution], they say, the terms meant the same: red and beautiful.  Red was beautiful.

If I base myself on my own perceptions, I affirm: red is what is a living being, life, intensity, activeness; there is no doubt.

So naturally I feel I have the right to admit that life is beautiful, or that the beautiful is life.

That little linguistic mathematics is not so ridiculous when one is preoccupied with architecture and planning.

*****

The USSR has decided to carry on a general program of equipment for the country: the five-year plan.  It is being carried out.  It was even decided to concentrate the greater part of the product of present work on carrying out this program: that is why there is no longer any butter on the spinach here,nor any more caviar in Moscow; the savings are used to make foreign exchange.

The equipment of the country, factories, dams, canals, mills, etc.  So much work.  For the population — their dwellings — 360 new towns will be built.  They have already been started.

[260]

At the foot of the Ural Mountains, a tractor factory is being equipped, the biggest in the world: 40,000 tractors a year — one tractor every six minutes.

For the workers of the factory, a city of 50,000 inhabitants is being built. Cost: 120 million rubles for housing, roads. and landscaping; the first advance of 60 million rubles has been paid.

The architect was given the commission in January. The plans were made in one and a half months. The beginning of construction has been set for the end of April.

The data for the establishment of the plans are the following:

the factory will have 20,000 workers, men and women;

in addition, 30% for the technicians and the administration.

In addition, 25% represent persons not yet employed at the factory.

Then 37% children.

Finally, 7% invalids (old people).

Daily life in the new industrial cities of the USSR is determined by the organization of public services:

Till the age of seven, children are raised in pavilions connected to the big housing blocks, parents go to see them there at will.

From 7 to 16 children are in schools attached to the housing blocks.

For the present period (following the war and the Revolution), the following proportions are applied: for 5,000 adults, 800 children of 7 to 16 and 2,100 under 7.

The city is thus made up of groups each containing: five housing blocks for 1,000 persons each, with a pavilion for babies and a school for 800 children. Each housing block includes: four dwelling units for adults, an administrative and community services unit, a sports service, a home for children (210 children); a garage (the cars belong to the community, everyone can use one on his day off: see further on: the fifth day of rest).

There are no kitchens in the dwellings: food is prepared for the community in a central kitchen serving a number of restaurants.

There are no shops, but a big depot of consumer products delivers 10 a retailer in the entrance hall of each building.

Density is fixed at 300 persons to a hectare, other new industrial cities have lowered it to 150.

*****

Moscow is a factory for making plans, the Promised Land of technicians (without a Klondike).  The country is being equipped!

A striking flood of plans: plans of factories, of dams, of mills, of dwellings, of entire cities.  All of them under one sign: whatever brings progress.  Architecture swells, moves, bestirs itself, and gives birth, breathed on and fertilized by those who knows something, and those who make believe they do.

An architect gets a commission: 3, 4, 5, 7 are paid to compete against each other.  In addition, for the big Ford automobile factory, an American architect specializing in industrial towns was called in; what he designed looks like a prison; it is nevertheless the model American company town.  But the spirit of the times is not there; it seems anachronistic.  Moscow laughs at it; it doesn’t suit the new environment.  This little incident is a touchstone; it gives the measure of the quality of Moscow planning.

[261]

Moscow is full of ideas in birth pangs, of ideas being elaborated, of juries, who examine. The five-year plan is a battery firing modern technology.

*****

The entries rendered, the plans are exhibited in one place today, in another tomorrow. An attentive crowd bends over the graphics — young people, men and women (there are a lot of women architects in Moscow). They look. they discuss silently, avid, concentrated. intensely curious.

An architecture is being prepared here to which new objectives are assigned.

*****

Youthfulness everywhere, in these plans. That astonishes us a little, we Parisians crushed by an omnipotent academism. Let’s not get excited: the academicians are around the Kremlin as they are around the Quirinal or the Quay d’Orsay. but they are camouflaged.

Among the young, a competition in invention. Blame them? What a misunderstanding! Sometimes one sees the axes in the form of stars of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts of Paris, like Mephistopheles, wearing a deceitful costume. Beware in Moscow (oh, exactly as everywhere else) of the apparition of an academism of the new times!

*****

The Green Town.

Here is what it means.

In the USSR Sunday has been suppressed, the rest period of the fifth day has been introduced.

This rest period comes by turns; every day of the year, one fifth of the population of the USSR is at rest; tomorrow, it is another fifth, and so on.  Work never stops.

Committees of doctors have drawn the curve of the intensity of productivity in work.  The curve goes down sharply at the end of the fourth day.  The economists said: it is useless to be satisfied by a mediocre output during two days.  Conclusion: the rhythm of machine age production is five days; four of work, one of rest.

But the doctors recognize that modern man overworks, is worn out nervously.  Restore him during annual vacations? It is not enough and it is too late because he is used up.  To keep him in shape, to maintain, to check the machine, yes.  Besides, isn’t modern medicine oriented toward this new postulate:

the sick are not healed,

healthy men are made.

Vacations, once a year (fifteen days, a month), it is too late; defects have weakened the machine for good, incurably: wear, the modern world wears out.

[262]

It was therefore decided to create Green Towns devoted to the rest period of the fifth day.

To determine the data bases. committees of doctors, committees of worn committees of athletes went to work.

Great enthusiasm followed the decision to create Green Towns.

The Green Town of Moscow, 30 kilometers away, was begun at once: its territory defined, its program established. The first competition of architecture and urbanism has brought the bases for the discussion of the plans of green towns.

Here is the program of the Green Town of Moscow:

The site measures 15 kilometers by 12, its altitude varies from 160 to 240 meters. It is covered by big forests of pines with fields and pastures between them, there are little rivers, which a dam will turn into a lake in the part used for sports.

The ‘Green Town’ of Moscow will be developed like an enormous hotel where the inhabitants of Moscow will come to rest every fifth day in turn, in accordance with precise schedules. The architectural problem is thus to create a rest unit for a man or a household, to group these units in a building, and to distribute these buildings ingeniously on the site. Here we shall have the country, nature, and nothing of the urban character of a big city. Nevertheless, as public services must function normally, the problem is to create from scratch a completely new architectural and urban organism.

The first year, they will build lodgings for 20,000 to 25,000 visitors per day, which represents 25,000 X 5 = 125,000 persons coming to rest, if one counts a rotation of once every fifth day; or 25,000 X 5 X 2 = 250,000 if the rate is only every ten days; finally 375,000 if it is every fifteen days.

In three and a half years, at the end of the five-year plan of the USSR (this gigantic program that now galvanizes the country), 100,000 will be lodged, or 500,000 in a period of five days; one million in ten days; one million and a half in a period of fifteen. Enough to ‘relax’ all of the population of Moscow.

In addition to the rest period of the fifth day, the Green Towns will be inhabited two weeks or a month at a time by officials or workers who will take their annual vacations there.

Finally the ill, not those with diseases requiring hospital care but those needing rest, will find sanatoria in the Green Towns.

Transportation must be developed; the existing railway station, Bratova-China, will become the main station (the line is already electrified). Still to be created: an expressway, radial roads, and a ring road; in addition, a farm and service network (for the food factory).

This spring the first two big hotels of 500 dwellings and four small ones of 100 will be built. Spread out on the site, ten tourist centers (hostels).

More than 3,000 peasants at present are dispersed in isbas in villages on the site of the Green Town. The isbas will be torn down and the villages destroyed; the 3,000 peasants will he regrouped in one place called an ‘agro-city’ (a term honoring the current campaign for the industrial organization of agriculture all over the USSR).

One part of the Green Town will be organized in a big collective farm where 3,000 peasants will be housed around model installations equipped with machines [263] made in the new industrial cities.  The model farm will provide the food for the Green Town.

The rest of site will be developed in vacation hotels whose form is still to be determined. The food center With a kitchen factory is connected by automobile service to the hotel restaurants. A sports city with an artificial lake, different playing fields and a central stadium for big matches. A question to be solved is whether to develop sports facilities all over the site, also at the very feet of the hotel, physical culture being one of the decisive motives for the Green Town.

The hotel program, extends from camping to caravansarais whose form is still to be designed and whose purpose is to give everyone a feeling of the greatest liberty at the same time as the benefit of common rooms and an organized hotel service.

Facilities are planned for the hospitalization of children, of adolescents, and of adults.

Very small children (preschool) will be with their parents; the others, up to 14 or 15, can come to take their rest period of the fifth day with their parents, but preferably will come in groups with their classmates, to draw all of the invigoration possible from their stay in the midst of fields and forests under the control of competent instructors.

The young will camp or be free in their lodgings: it is considered that at a certain age independence is needed.

Finally, adults, men and women, will dispose together or separately of these dwelling unit, whose shape and size are yet to be found and which raise a highly immediate architectural problem.

Such is, roughly, the texture of the Green Town on which preliminary work has begun in Moscow.

*****

A wave of urbanism is raising the country [the USSR], which has remained till now without any other plans than those, with a few exceptions, that we may qualify as Asiatic and that undoubtedly have no relationship to the economic and social realities now facing the USSR.  It is intended to bring to those problems the most ‘contemporary’ solutions.

Perhaps in the general call to arms precipitating this country of peasants into a gigantic enterprise of mechanization, it is not completely clear as to what may constitute an urban phenomenon and in particular what characterizes the city of the machine age.  The hideousness and confusion of cities all over the world are arbitrarily considered the result and the expression of the capitalist system.  I cry ‘attention!’ The cities that we are inheriting from our fathers are simply the cities of the pre-machine age.  And I quite agree that we have not yet even dreamed of preparing the program of the cities of the machine age.  There is a gigantic sociological program there.  We haven’t done anything.  In the USSR they are facing the problem and proposing systems.  I believe that in planning, these phenomena are and should remain human phenomena.  It is men who are involved, the needs of men who are grouped to work together, to produce and to consume, men who come together, as men always have, for [264] cooperation, material and spiritual.  I attach a value, a meaning to the spiritual fruit of this instinctive grouping that plainly is related to human happiness.  I think therefore that in placing mankind ahead of doctrines, city planmng will be better and more surely accomplished.

But the wave of urban development in the USSR has led from the first (in certain limited circles of course but intelligent and avid for new things) to a concept expressed strangely and typically by a word that flatters, tickles, and sounds good: deurbanization.  (It is pronounced this way in Russian).  There are words that carry their death in themselves; this one is really too contradictory, too paradoxical, it annihilates what it indicates.  I had to examine some projects of deurbanization.  I answered firmly: let’s not play with words, not play with false sentimental feelings.  Let us not avoid facts to escape to new Trianon sheepfolds.  I affirmed: the daily life cycle of the sun conditions human life.  It is in its 24-hour cycle that our activities must find their framework.  Facing this cosmic event, which we cannot change, where we can change nothing, I wrote that other inevitable rule of the world, of nature, of physical and spiritual human work, the law of economy.  Thus constrained by the law of economy and within the framework of the twenty-four hours of the sun’s day, I think we must urbanize and not deurbanize.

Here is the letter I wrote to one of the most talented of the Moscow architects who, with three colleagues, drew up the preliminary plans of the Green Town:

Moscow, March 17, 1930

My dear [Moisei] Ginzburg,

I am leaving Moscow this evening. I have been asked to write a report on the recent competition for the Green Town of Moscow. I haven’t done so, not wanting to present a judgment on the work of colleagues. On the other hand, I answered the request that was made to me indirectly, by giving the Committee for a Green Town ‘some commentaries on the development of Moscow and the Green Town.’ My conclusions cannot agree with the enthusiasm that the simple word ‘deurbanization’ seems to raise at the moment.

There is a contradiction in the term itself; this word is a fundamental misunderstanding that has deceived many Western theoreticians and wasted a lot of the time of governing boards of industries — a fundamental misunderstanding that everything opposes and refutes. Society is complex; it is not simple. Whoever tries to bring hurried and tendentious solutions to its problems will [265] meet opposition: it revenges itself, it falls into a state of crisis, and despite changes and regulations, it doesn’t let itself be manipulated: it is life that decides!

Last evening, in the Kremlin, in the office of Mr. Lejawa, the vice-president of the USSR, Mr. Miliutin, one of the commissars of the people, had a thought of Lenin translated for me that, far from supporting the thesis of deurbanization, on the contrary confirms the necessity of urban reform.  Lenin said this: ‘If one wants to save the peasant, one must take industry to the country.  Lenin did not say ‘If one wants to save the town-dweller’; one mustn’t confound, there is all the difference! To take industry to the country, that is to say industrialize the country, that is to create places of human concentration with machines at their disposal.  The machine will make the muzhik think.  Nature is good for the city-dweller whose mind has been galvanized by the city, who puts to work, in the city, the diligent mechanism of his mind.  It is in the group, in shock and cooperation, struggle and mutual help, in activity, that the mind ripens and brings forth fruits.  One should like to think so, but reality is there; it is not the peasant who looks at the trees in bloom and listens to the song of the lark.  It is the town-dweller who does that.  You understand what I mean, if, frankly, we are not fooling ourselves with words.

Men feel the need to get together — always, in all countries and climates.  The group brings them security and defense, the pleasure of company.  But as soon as climates become difficult, grouping encourages industrial activity, production by means of which men live (are dressed, make themselves comfortable).  And intellectual production is the daughter of united men.  Intelligence develops, is sharpened, multiplies its play, acquires its subtlety and innumerable aspects, in the mass of groups.  It is the very fruit of concentration.  Dispersion frightens, makes poorer, and loosens all the ties of physical and spiritual discipline, lacking which men return to their primitive state.

International statistics show us that death rates are lowest in the densest agglomerations; they diminish as populations concentrate.  These are statistical facts; they must be accepted.

History shows the great movements of human thought at the mathematical points of greatest concentration.  Under Pericles, Athens was closely peopled like one of our modern cities, and that is why Socrates and Plato were able to discuss pure ideas there.

Consider more exactly that ten centuries of premachine civilization have made these cities for us which at the moment of mechanical expansion are a frightful and dangerous grimace.  Admit then that the evil is there, in that heritage, and that its salvation is here: to adapt the cities, which will continue to concentrate themselves more and more (statistics and concomitant elements [266] of modern progress: transports: intellectual attractions, industrial organization); to adapt our cities to contemporary. needs, that is to say to rebuild them (as, besides, from their birth they have continually rebuilt themselves).

My dear Ginzburg, modern architecture has precisely the magnificent mission of organizing the life of collectivities. I was the first to proclaim that the modern cay should be an immense park, a green city. But to allow this seeming luxury, I increased the density by four and — instead of extending them — shortened distances.

I can nevertheless imagine very well, as a satellite to any urban agglomeration for working and living, a Green Town for resting, eventually organized as with you by turns every fifth day.

I even pointed out in my comments that the compulsory attendance for rest, at least once in three periods, every fifteen days, could be applied like time-clocking for work: and would include the practice of an adequate sport by individual prescription of the doctors of the Green Town. The Green Town becomes the garage where the car is checked (oil, lubrication, verification of organs, revision, maintenance of the car). Besides, the intimacy with nature (radiant springs, winter tempests) incites to meditation, to introspection.

Please then do not see a hostile attitude in my serene and firm affirmation: ‘Mankind tends to urbanize.’

Appreciate this characteristic detail yourself — one of the projects of deurbanization proposes, among other things, to build straw huts in the forest of the Green Town. Bravo, magnificent! as long as they are only for weekends! But do not say that having built huts in straw, you can then tear down Moscow.

Very cordially yours,

L.C.

En route from Moscow to Paris, March 20, 1930

One thought on “Le Corbusier’s “The Atmosphere of Moscow,” along with His Letter to Ginzburg on Deurbanization

  1. Pingback: Le Corbusier in the USSR (1928-1931) | The Charnel-House

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