The spatiotemporal dialectic of capitalism


To understand the history of architectural modernism and eclecticism as they emerged out of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, one must take into account the broader development of architecture over the course of the latter half of the nineteenth century. This development, in turn, must be seen as emerging out of the dynamic of late nineteenth-century capitalism, which had by that point extended to encompass the whole of Europe. For it was the unique spatiotemporal dialectic of the capitalist mode of production — along with the massive social and technological forces it unleashed — that formed the basis for the major architectural ideologies that arose during this period. Before the story of the academicians or the avant-garde can be told, then, some background is necessary to explain both their origin and the eventual trajectory they would take into the early twentieth century.

So while my aim is to eventually account for how a single social formation, capitalism, can give birth to these two opposite tendencies within architectural thought, the space required to give an adequate exposition of the spatiotemporal dialectic of capitalism is such that it deserves to function as a standalone essay. Certainly other trends, both cultural and social, could be understood as reflections of this underlying socioeconomic dynamic. It is thus my intention to post this as its own piece, before then proceeding to detail the way in which architectural modernism and eclecticism mirrored these dynamics. Continue reading

Le Corbusier Ville Radieuse (1930)

“Exact Air,” from Le Corbusier’s Radiant City (1930)

Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse (1930)

Exact air? Queens and Brooklyn could probably use it, seeing the tornado that just passed through here. Perhaps it’s too fantastic, pure technological messianism. Still, it’s interesting. Le Corbusier on “exact air”:

But then where is Utopia, where the temperature is 64.4º?…
And why the devil do men insist on living in difficult or dangerous climates? I’ve no idea! But I can observe a worsening situation:
The variety of climates had forged races, cultures, customs, dress, and work methods suited to the obtaining conditions.
Alas, the machine age has, as it were, shuffled the cards — the age-old cards of the world. Since the machine age, the product of progress, has disturbed everything, couldn’t it also give us the means to salvation?
Multiplicity of climates, play of seasons, a break with secular traditions — confusion, disorder, and the martyrdom of man.
I seek the remedy, I seek the constant; I find the human lung. With adaptability and intelligence, let’s give the lung the constant which is the prerequisite of its functioning: exact air.
Let’s manufacture exact air: filters, driers, humidifiers, disinfectors. Machines of childish simplicity.
Send exact air into men’s lungs, at home, at the factory, at the office, at the club and the auditorium: ventilators, machines so often used, but so often used badly!
Let’s give man the solar rays which will penetrate the all-glass facades. But will be too hot in the summer and terribly cold in the winter! Let’s create ‘neutralizing walls.’ (And ‘sun control’).

— Le Corbusier, The Radiant City: Elements of a Doctrine of Urbanism to be Used as the Basis of Our Magine-Age Civilization (1933), pg. 42.

Continue reading