Top-Down, Bottom-Up Urban Design
By Elizabeth Greenspan — October 19, 2016
The New Yorker
About three years ago, the sociologist Richard Sennett asked his friend and colleague Joan Clos, the executive director of the United Nations Human Settlements Program, if he had ever read the Athens Charter, by the architect Le Corbusier. Published in 1943, the charter shaped the design of European and American cities for decades after the Second World War. It presented a set of ninety-four tenets that cities should follow to become functional and efficient. (No. 29: “High-rise apartments placed at wide distances apart liberate ground for large open spaces.”) Clos had indeed read it. “He said he found it a fiction,” Sennett recalled.
The Athens Charter was rigid—it proposed a strict formula for all cities to follow with no regard for geography or local culture—and aimed to simplify how cities worked, rather than to promote more complex ways of living. Over the years, Le Corbusier’s ideas have been credited with destroying neighborhoods and street life, but they have also continued to influence city design, from the growth of gated communities to car-centric city streets.
The idea of the charter, its influence and failings, stayed with both men. Clos and Sennett, who is a professor at New York University and the London School of Economics, soon met again in London, this time joined by the sociologists Saskia Sassen (who teaches at Columbia University and to whom Sennett is married) and Ricky Burdett (of the L.S.E.), and they decided it was time to write a new Athens Charter, one that would correct Le Corbusier’s errors and outline a more flexible way to design cities, particularly the overpopulated metropolises in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, on which Clos focusses at the United Nations. For the next two years, Sennett, Sassen, and Burdett convened workshops with and commissioned papers from leading urban scholars and architects, many of whom were from developing countries. They returned repeatedly to the Athens Charter to guide their discussions. “We engaged in a conversation with it,” Sassen told me, “and, in having the conversation, we demolished it a bit.” As Sennett put it, “Our critique is just, very simply, that it’s the wrong utopia.”