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THE PACK-DONKEY'S WAY AND MAN'S WAY
Man walks in a straight line because he has a goal and knows where he is going; he has made up his mind to reach some particular place and he goes straight to it.
The pack-donkey meanders along, meditates a little in his scatter-brained and distracted fashion, he zigzags in order to avoid the larger stones, or to ease the climb, or to gain a little shade; he takes the line of least resistance.
But man governs his feelings by his reason; he keeps his feelings and his instincts in check, subordinating them to the aim he has in view. He rules the brute creation by his intelligence. His intelligence formulates laws which are the product of experience. His experience is born of work; man works in order that he may not perish. In order that production may be possible, a line of conduct is essential, the laws of experience must be obeyed. Man must consider the result in advance.
But the pack-donkey thinks of nothing at all, except what will save himself trouble.
* * *
The Pack-Donkey's Way is responsible for the plan of every continental city; including Paris, unfortunately.
In the areas into which little by little invading populations filtered, the covered wagon lumbered along at the mercy of bumps and hollows, of rocks or mire; a stream was an intimidating obstacle. In this way were born roads and tracks. At cross roads or along river banks the first huts were erected, the first houses and the first villages; the houses were planted along the tracks, along the Pack-Donkey's Way. The inhabitants built a fortified wall round and a town hall inside it. They legislated, they toiled, they lived, and always they respected the Pack-Donkey's Way. Five centuries later another and larger enclosure was built, and five centuries later still a third yet greater. The places where the Pack-Donkey's Way entered the town became the City Gates and the Customs officers were installed there. The village has become a great capital; Paris, Rome, and Stamboul are based upon the Pack-Donkey's Way.
The great capitals have no arteries; they have only capillaries: further growth, therefore, implies sickness or death. In order to survive, their existence has for a long time been in the hands of surgeons who operate constantly.
The Romans were great legislators, great colonizers, great administrators. When they arrived at a place, at a cross roads or at a river bank, they took a square and set out the plan of a rectilinear town, so that it should be clear and well- arranged, easy to police and to clean, a place in which you could find your way about and stroll with comfort—the working town or the pleasure town (Pompeii). The square plan was in conformity with the dignity of the Roman citizen.
But at home, in Rome itself, with their eyes turned towards the Empire, they allowed themselves to be stifled by the Pack-Donkey's Way. What an ironical situation! The wealthy, however, went far from the chaos of the town and built their great and well-planned villas, such as Hadrian's villa.
They were, with Louis XIV, the only great town-planners of the West.
In the Middle Ages, overcome by the year 1000, men accepted the leading of the pack-donkey, and long generations endured it after. Louis XIV, after trying to tidy up the Louvre (i.e. the Colonnade), became disgusted and took bold measures: he built Versailles, where both town and chateau were created in every detail in a rectilinear and well-planned fashion; the Observatoire, the Invalides and the Esplanade, the Tuileries and the Champs Élysées, rose far from the chaos, outside the town;—all these were ordered and rectilinear.
The overcrowding had been exorcised. Everything else followed, in a masterly way: the Champ de Mars, I'Etoile, the avenues de Neuilly, de Vincennes, de Fontainebleau, etc., for succeeding generations to exploit.
But imperceptibly, as a result of carelessness, weakness and anarchy, and by the system of "democratic" responsibilities, the old business of overcrowding began again.
And as if that were not enough, people began to desire it; they have even created it in invoking the laws of beauty! The Pack-Donkey's Way has been made into a religion.
* * *
The movement arose in Germany as a result of a book by Camille Sitte on town-planning, a most wilful piece of work; a glorification of the curved line and a specious demonstration of its unrivalled beauties. Proof of this was advanced by the example of all the beautiful towns of the Middle Ages; the author confounded the picturesque with the conditions vital to the existence of a city. Quite recently whole quarters have been constructed in Germany based on this æsthetic. (For it was purely a question of æsthetics.)
This was an appalling and paradoxical misconception in an age of motor-cars. "So much the better," said a great authority to me, one of those who direct and elaborate the plans for the extension of Paris; "motors will be completely held up!"
But a modern city lives by the straight line, inevitably; for the construction of buildings, sewers and tunnels, highways, pavements. The circulation of traffic demands the straight line; it is the proper thing for the heart of a city. The curve is ruinous, difficult and dangerous; it is a paralyzing thing.
The straight line enters into all human history, into all human aim, into every human act.
We must have the courage to view the rectilinear cities of America with admiration. If the aesthete has not so far done so, the moralist, on the contrary, may well find more food for reflection than at first appears.
* * *
The winding road is the Pack-Donkey's Way, the straight road is man's way.
The winding road is the result of happy-go-lucky heedlessness, of looseness, lack of concentration and animality.
The straight road is a reaction, an action, a positive deed, the result of self- mastery. It is sane and noble.
A city is a centre of intense life and effort.
A heedless people, or society, or town, in which effort is relaxed and is not concentrated, quickly becomes dissipated, overcome and absorbed by a nation or a society that goes to work in a positive way and controls itself.
It is in this way that cities sink to nothing and that ruling classes are overthrown.
* * *CHAPTER 2
The house, the street, the town, are points to which human energy is directed: they should be ordered, otherwise they counteract the fundamental principles round which we revolve; if they are not ordered, they oppose themselves to us, they thwart us, as the nature all around us thwarts us, though we have striven with it, and with it begin each day a new struggle.
* * *
If I appear to be trying to force an already open door (some people said this of my earlier book Towards a New Architecture), it is because in this case also (I am speaking of town planning) certain highly placed persons who occupy strategic points on the battle-field of ideas and progress have shut these very doors, inspired by a spirit of reaction and a misplaced sentimentalism which is both dangerous and criminal. By means of every kind of quibble they try to hide from themselves and from others the lessons taught us by past ages, and to escape from the fatality and inevitability of human affairs and events. Our march towards order they would like us to believe to be only a child's attempt to walk or the folly of narrow minds.
I repeat that man, by reason of his very nature, practises order; that his actions and his thoughts are dictated by the straight line and the right angle, that the straight line is instinctive in him and that his mind apprehends it as a lofty objective.
Man, created by the universe, is the sum of that universe, as far as he himself is concerned; he proceeds according to its laws and believes he can read them; he has formulated them and made of them a coherent scheme, a rational body of knowledge on which he can act, adapt and produce. This knowledge does not put him in opposition to the universe; it puts him in harmony with it; he is therefore right to behave as he does, he could not act otherwise. What would happen if he were to invent a perfectly rational system in contradiction to the laws of nature, and tried to put his theoretic conceptions into practice in the world around him? He would come to a full stop at the first step.
Nature presents itself to us as a chaos; the vault of the heavens, the shapes of lakes and seas, the outlines of hills. The actual scene which lies before our eyes, with its kaleidoscopic fragments and its vague distances, is a confusion. There is nothing there that resembles the objects with which we surround ourselves, and which we have created. Seen by us without reference to any other thing, the aspects of Nature seem purely accidental.
But the spirit which animates Nature is a spirit of order; we come to know it. We differentiate between what we see and what we learn or know. Human toil is regulated by what we know. We therefore reject appearance and attach ourselves to the substance.
For instance, I look at a man and he suggests to me a fragmentary and arbitrary shape; my idea of the man is not, therefore, what I see at that moment, but what I know of him. If he turns his face to me I do not see his back; if he stretches his hand out to me I do not see his fingers, nor his arm; but I know what his back is like and that he has five fingers and two arms of a certain shape fitted for definite functions.
The laws of gravity seem to resolve for us the conflict of forces and to maintain the universe in equilibrium; as a result of this we have the vertical. The horizon gives us the horizontal, the line of the transcendental plane of immobility. The vertical in conjunction with the horizontal gives us two right angles. There is only one vertical, one horizontal; they are two constants. The right angle is as it were the sum of the forces which keep the world in equilibrium. There is only one right angle; but there is an infinitude of other angles. The right angle, therefore, has superior rights over other angles; it is unique and it is constant. In order to work, man has need of constants. Without them he could not put one foot before the other. The right angle is, it may be said, the essential and sufficient instrument of action because it enables us to determine space with an absolute exactness. The right angle is lawful, it is a part of our determinism, it is obligatory.
There, my friend the critic, is something to upset you. I will go further, I will ask you this question: Look about you—look beyond the seas and across the centuries—and tell me if man has ever acted on anything but the right angle, and does there exist anything round you but right angles ? This is a very necessary inquiry; pursue it and at least one fundamental point of the discussion will be settled.
Placed in the midst of a chaotic nature, man for his own security creates and surrounds himself with a zone of protection in harmony with what he is and what he thinks; he needs a retreat, a citadel in which he can feel secure; he needs things whose existence he has himself determined. The things he makes for himself are a creation which contrasts all the more with his natural surroundings because its aim is closer to his mind, and further away and more detached from his body. We can say that the further human creations are removed from our immediate grasp, the more they tend to pure geometry; a violin or a chair, things which come into close contact with the body, are of a less pure geometry; but a town is pure geometry. When man is free, his tendency is towards pure geometry. It is then that he achieves what we call order.
Order is indispensable to him, otherwise his actions would be without coherence and could lead nowhere. And to it he brings the aid of his idea of perfection. The more this order is an exact one, the more happy he is, the more secure he feels. In his mind he sets up the framework of constructions based on the order which is imposed upon him by his body, and so he creates. All the works that man has achieved are an "ordering." Seen from the sky, they appear on the earth below as geometric objects. And if, on the most precipitous mountain, we construct a road climbing to a pass, that also has a clear geometric function and its windings are an exact and precise thing amid the surrounding chaos.
As we move higher in the scale of creation, so we move towards a more perfect order; the result is the work of art. What an immense distance in degree and understanding between the hut of the savage and the Parthenon! If the creation is ordered, it lasts throughout time and remains an object of admiration in every mind. This is the work of art, the human creation which, while no longer bearing any of the evident aspects of Nature, yet submits to the same laws.
Here is another thing, my friend the critic, which will horrify you very much indeed. Your amiable liking for twisted and mis-shapen objects is hurt by this crystal which I am trying to make shine. You are not the only person who would like us to remain contented with essays in rustic bric-a-brac. In dealing with those who think as you do we must come back to town planning, for your and their negations would lead to the ruin of cities and districts and of entire countries; for you would like to deprive us of our proper environment and annihilate us. Man undermines and hacks at Nature. He opposes himself to her, he fights with her, he digs himself in. A childish but magnificent effort!
Man has always done this, and he has built his houses and his towns. Human order, a geometrical thing, reigns in them, and has always done so; it is the mark of great civilizations, and has left dazzling landmarks to be our pride and for our perpetual admonition.
Your passion for twisted streets and twisted roofs shows your weakness and your limitation. You have no right to use the newspapers in order to impose your own stupidity and pretence on the more or less ignorant average reader.
* * *
The prehistoric lake village; the savage's hut; the Egyptian house and temple; Babylon, the legend of which is a synonym for magnificence; Pekin, that highly cultivated Chinese town; all these demonstrate, on the one hand, the right angle and the straight line which inevitably enter into every human act (for man, who has created his implements and has brought them to great perfection, sets out in practice from the right angle and finishes ideally with the right angle): on the other hand, they are evidence of a spirit working right up to the limits of its own force and grandeur, and expressing itself in the right angle, which is obviously, geometrically, a perfect thing and at the same time its own proof of this; a marvellously perfect figure, unique, constant and pure; capable of being applied to ideas of glory and victory or to the idea of complete purity, the germ of every religion.
Excerpted from The City of To-morrow AND ITS PLANNING by LE CORBUSIER. Copyright © 1987 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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