Skip to main content
No. 596:
Le Corbusier's Aircraft

Today, Le Corbusier lets the airplane indict the city. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

"L'avion accuse ... !" shouts Le Corbusier. "The airplane indicts ... the city." It's 1935, and the wild iconoclastic architect Le Corbusier has written a picture book on airplanes.

Le Corbusier wasn't his real name. It was Charles Edouard Jeanneret. He was born a Swiss in 1887. He trained in art, engraving, and architecture. Then he emerged as an artistic revolutionary in Paris just after WW-I.

He started an avant-garde magazine, L'Esprit Nouveau -- The New Spirit. He took on architecture, science, technology -- even music. Darius Milhaud was a collaborator. Le Corbusier waged war on every part of the establishment. Education and cities were favorite targets. "The 20th century wasn't built for men," he cries, "it was built for money." The old orders of architecture are hopelessly inhumane. They've forgotten function and human need.

So Le Corbusier created a new architecture of rough-hewn concrete. It was lovely stuff -- light and open. But as he built dwellings, he also built a complex new dialectic of architectural values. And the world was hard put to understand it.

Now the airplane becomes the perfect metaphor to explain his belief that the world has been built ill. It's a wholly new form. It is pure function. It derives its beauty from function.

"The airplane," he says, "embodies the purest expression of the human scale and a miraculous exploitation of material."

The pictures are beautiful. Such wild machines filled the skies before WW-II. Graceful gliders, lumbering transports, exotic racing planes, amphibians, airplanes with three engines -- or with eight.

"No door is closed." he says. "Everything is relative. . . . If a new factor makes its appearance, the relation alters. . . . In aviation everything is scrapped in a year."

And to get from here to there, an airplane simply flies in a straight line.

For Le Corbusier, machinery and craftsmanship are the one truth in a world full of lies. Machines are truly humane, but we don't know machines. He says, "The world lacks harmonisers to make palpable the humane beauty of modern times."

Those ideas are a little frightening in hindsight. They were all too close to fascist thinking, then laying a hold on Europe. But look at the photos in his book. There's a terrible beauty in his airplanes. Each is different. They're all transient. Each struggles with the rigors of carrying us into an unwelcoming sky.

So we catch a glint of his meaning. The airplanes of 1935 -- buoyant and fluid -- did indeed indict the static cities below them. Le Corbusier shows us what he means by harmonizing their beauty -- and making it palpable to us.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Le Corbusier, Aircraft. New York: Universe Books, 1988 (reprint of a 1935 English edition.)

Choay, F., Le Corbusier. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1960.

Baker, G.H., Le Corbusier: An Analysis of Form. Hong Kong: Van Nostrand Reinhold (U.K.) Co. Ltd., 1984.

For another look at the variety of airplanes in the time when Le Corbusier wrote this book, see Episode 615.

As I thought about Corbusier's indictment of cities, a verse about cities from A.E. Housman's 19th century work, A Shropshire Lad, kept tickling the nape of my neck. It was:

By bridges that Thames runs under,
in London, the town built ill,
'Tis sure small matter for wonder
if sorrow is with one still.