By the train station at Retiro, in the south of barrio Flores, flowering in the provinces in the partidos of Vincente Lopez, San Martín, and Avellaneda – everywhere, as the Argentines say – are the slums of the villa miseria, the residences stacked up precariously one above the other. The air is a mixture of dust and car exhaust; the music is a variation on the cumbia of Flor de Piedra or Amar Azul; just a few blocks from the chain stores on the main street, it’s not uncommon to see a horsecart or stray dog.
When in October 1929 the Swiss architect Le Corbusier visited Buenos Aires to deliver a series of lectures, his career was already well on its way in Europe. But the city captivated him, as much for its beauty as for the challenges it presented: “Buenos Aires, southern capital of the new world, gigantic aglomeration of insatiable energy, is a city in error, in paradox, a city that has not a new but an old spirit.” Such an old spirit in a relatively young city was, to him, undesirable. It meant Buenos Aires was going the way of historical European cities like Paris – not just in charm but in dirtiness, industrial sprawl, and unromantic poverty.
But Buenos Aires had in place all the natural elements to become a sleek modern city, Le Corbusier thought. Something wonderful could be carved out from its “sea and port, the magnificent vegetation of the park in Palermo, the wide blue Argentine sky”. And so he set about putting his particular architectural vision to work, attempting to design a city to his ideals of “space, light, and order”. He conceived of skyscrapers in the south of the city, a grand new highway cutting through it laterally, and the relocation of an airport, among other large changes.
None of these plans would come to fruition. The government planning commission was suspicious of a foreign architect. Even if he had garnered political support, it’s not clear that Le Corbusier’s solutions – which would entail tearing down existing buildings to erect new streets, and uprooting traditional arrangements wholesale to start afresh – were at all the right answer. They failed to address the large immigrant population, mostly Italians and Spaniards, who had crowded into Buenos Aires in the late 19th century and were now an established, albeit lower class, part of the city. Moreover, if effected, his plans would ghettoize or eliminate the villas as part of the project of revitalization.
For the modern urban Argentine architect, the themes tackled by Le Corbusier (referred to affectionately as “Lecorbu”) are still worth confronting, even if the answers differ. How should a city accommodate a massive, ever-growing populace? Is it possible to plan on a large scale the conditions for an improved quality of life, without excessive cost or stultifying uniformity? Does such a thing as “modern” architecture even exist, and, if so, what does it look like?
A site of possibility
To understand Le Corbusier’s ideas, it’s worth turning to his own theoretical writings, of which there are many. (He was a prolific self-mythologizer.) His essays read as simultaneous manifestos and justifications; in content, too, they swing wildly – veering, often within the same piece, between what are commonly thought of as “left” and “right” wing views.
Le Corbusier writes in a cold, detached tone, doing little to dislodge the negative stereotype of him as the man who loved planning too much. His name can invoke endless rows of identical apartment blocks (his work inspired the Soviet constructivists); cities so precisely designed for “moral hygiene” that they inhibit individual movement and freedom; an obsession with technology and its capacities for mass reproduction. “Machines for living” Le Corbusier termed his houses; “cold and suffocating” wrote locals in one of his project evaluations. He has been accused of being both incompetent and power-hungry.
It’s true that Le Corbusier recognised the importance of high-level support for his plans, and flirted with right-wing syndicalism and central planning. But his attention to power and materials arose from an awareness of the challenges of the profession. For Le Corbusier, architecture was an undeniable art form, but also a very peculiar one. It required constant collaboration and compromise with others – with the team of sub-architects, with the builders who constructed the edifice, with the zoning officials who authorised the site, with the individuals and organisations who financed the projects. The solitary writer or painter could easily start on an avant-garde work and implement experimental ideas in practice. The architect with similar ambitions faced hurdles from the start.
But the forced social character of Le Corbusier’s work also led him in a different direction – one promoting social betterment, not necessarily hand-in-hand with authoritarian views. He embraced the possibilities of architecture as a tool for equality and social change, for architecture, more than any other art, had the power to physically transform man’s relationship with his environment.
Wishing to hear what Le Corbusier himself had to say on these matters, the Asociación Amigos del Arte – a group of Argentine intellectuals including Victoria Ocampo, María Rosa Oliver, González Garaño, Silvina Bullrich, and Susana Rinaldini – invited him to fly down to Argentina and speak.
Tension and pressure
Villa Ocampo (Photo: Beatrice Murch)
When Le Corbusier’s boat docked in Buenos Aires, Ocampo was waiting for him at the port. She had taken an interest in his work; and after the last conference, she invited him and other conference members to her house, where Azucena Maizani and Sofía Bozán sang tangos. The evening did not go well. When Ocampo asked if Le Corbusier liked the music, he replied, inexplicably: “I passionately love Turkish military marches, because from very far off one can hear the bass drum.” Ocampo had already started to see him as Eurocentric and arrogant (he had proposed to her a habitation with a splash pool for a lover, which she rejected); the strained relationship between the two now only soured further.
It wasn’t only with Ocampo – who represented the Argentine elite – that Le Corbusier began to cross swords. He also argued with other conference representatives, who found fault with his plans for the city. Le Corbusier’s goal had always been efficiency: Efficiency was what had marked his controversial ‘Plan Voisin’ for Paris four years before, which would have bulldozed miles of richly varied (though also winding, dirty, and poverty-stricken) neighbourhoods in the city centre and replaced them with linear streets and sleek buildings. And efficiency was what marked his favourite materials – glass, steel, and ferroconcrete not only enabled a more streamlined technological aesthetic than brick, but were also cheaper and easier to produce.
That’s what made a newspaper editorial written by US writer Waldo Frank – another invitee – sting so badly. Le Corbusier’s plans were monstrous and superfluous, he wrote, “not the aesthetic realization of an ideal, but temples erected to the American gods of the age of instinct, of power.” They were, in other words, not efficient at all – were, rather, needlessly grandiose and overly infatuated with technology. The Argentine government at the time, with its significant conservative opposition (Le Corbusier arrived the month of the Wall Street Crash, and a few months before Uriburu’s military coup) stonewalled his ambitious and expensive attempts to redesign Buenos Aires. Le Corbusier left the city unhappy at the polite but distinctly chilly reception of his plans.
The architect’s later, more organic work in a chapel in Ronchamp, France (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
After the conference, Le Corbusier went on to visit La Plata, San Antonio de Areco, and Mar del Plata, as well as Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, and Asunción (the last in a plane piloted by Antoine de St. Exupéry). The Río Paraná and the vast unpeopled Argentine landscapes bordering Paraguay overwhelmed him, and influenced him to think seriously about the relationship between human construction and landscape, and the possibility of a more organic architecture.
Nor did Le Corbusier’s involvement with Argentina end there. In 1938 two Argentine architects, Juan Kurchan and Jorge Ferrari Hardoy, came to his workshop in Paris with the intention of creating a ‘Master Plan’for Buenos Aires. Working closely with Le Corbusier, they completed the plan in twelve months. A decade later, their ideas for collective housing would be implemented by the Perón government.
In the 1940 introduction to the plan, however, Le Corbusier’s mixed feelings toward Buenos Aires are still clear. “In 1929, when I visited, I called it The City Without Hopes,” he wrote. Admittedly, today it is “one of the great capitals of the world. A formidable destiny awaits it.” Still, “Buenos Aires, the destined city in South America, is sicker than ever. Precisely because it has natural health and youth, it has suffered in its lightning growth the accelerated assault of its errors.”
Despite the time he spent in theory and travel, Le Corbusier himself supervised only one architectural work in Latin America – the Casa Curutchet in La Plata, Argentina, one hour from the capital.
Casa Curutchet in La Plata (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
It is a small building, and a relatively minor example of his work. It was, in fact, almost an afterthought, built in 1949 to 1953 under Perón, nearly 20 years after his Buenos Aires lectures. The building faced constant challenges throughout the construction process, due to the relatively constricted space. Still, Le Corbusier was proud of it, and its architectural features – such as a brise soleil to keep out the harsh summer sun, and concrete stilts to raise the building up – are representative examples of his mature style.
Yet the importance of Le Corbusier for Latin America was much greater than a single house. Hardly a shadow figure, he makes up a real part of the Argentine historical memory. Driving through the suburb of Malvinas Argentinas, in Buenos Aires province, you’ll come across a street bearing his name. More significantly, as Carolina Muzi notes in an article for Clarín, many of Le Corbusier’s proposed changes were in fact later implemented:
“The skyscrapers that Le Corbusier proposed for the riverbank finally flourished in Puerto Madero. The Ciudad Universitaria today occupies the space he had planned for it in 1938. The proposed Avenida Norte-Sur was completed between Retiro and Constitución. A crystal tower was added to the Congreso building. A network of highways was constructed just as Le Corbusier had planned. And the relocation of the Aeroparque to the coast of Avellaneda – revived in 1995 by politicians – had already been proposed by Le Corbusier in 1929 and 1938. None of this seems like chance.”
These innovations – it is hard to overstate how radical they are – clearly bear Le Corbusier’s stamp, even if he wasn’t always explicitly invoked.
More than the architecture itself, the “spirit” of Le Corbusier, however interpreted, is still distinctly present. Students at the Facultad de Arquitectura, Diseño y Urbanismo of the Universidad de Buenos Aires, taking a cue from Le Corbusier, are currently engaged in a project to redesign the villas, opening up the space to decrease cramped and crowded conditions, and in doing so improve the quality of life. Le Corbusier continues to feature prominently on the classroom syllabus.
Le Corbusier may not have left many material traces in Argentina, and it remains ambiguous whether his plans were ideal for 1930s Buenos Aires. But in his grand desire to reinvent and improve the city, he remains, here, an important touchstone. As one of his admirers has said of him: “Good architecture cannot force people to live together in harmony. Bad architecture can certainly prevent them from doing so.”