Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A 20-year-old's manifesto for the anti-modernist city was written years before the actual New Urbanist movement. Radicalism aside, there are surprising overlaps.
Before the buildings of Leon Krier or Robert Venturi, even before the iconic writings of Jane Jacobs, came a 20-year-old's manifesto that rejected the modernist city, but in a particularly absurdist fashion.
While much of his manifesto is not relatable to the works of what we identify as actual New Urbanists, there are surprising overlaps.
Born in Paris to a Ukrainian father and a French mother, Ivan Chtcheglov wrote his Formulary For a New Urbanism in 1953 at the age of 20. In it, he attacks the faults of modernism while enumerating his own proposed solutions for what amount to an anarchistic vision for cities. The essay was published four years later by the Marxist group known as the Situationists.
Six years after writing Formulary, Chtcheglov was arrested as part of an alleged plot to blow up the Eiffel Tower, apparently because its reflection kept him awake at night. Soon after, his wife committed him to a mental hospital. Chtcheglov's manifesto reached a niche audience; the essay was mostly passed around among French Marxist groups, particularly the Situationists and the Letterists. It later gained a more superficial significance in 1980s Manchester, England.
His mental health aside, it's curious to see the early grumblings of anti-modernism expressed in extremist form. Early in his manifesto, Chtcheglov lays out a strong hatred for Le Corbusier, writing:
We will leave Monsieur Le Corbusier’s style to him, a style suitable for factories and hospitals, and no doubt eventually for prisons. (Doesn’t he already build churches?) Some sort of psychological repression dominates this individual — whose face is as ugly as his conceptions of the world — such that he wants to squash people under ignoble masses of reinforced concrete, a noble material that should rather be used to enable an aerial articulation of space that could surpass the flamboyant Gothic style. His cretinizing influence is immense. A Le Corbusier model is the only image that arouses in me the idea of immediate suicide. He is destroying the last remnants of joy. And of love, passion, freedom.
Le Corbusier is still seen as the epitome of modernism at its most soulless and cruel, universally disliked by New Urbanists to this day. Chtcheglov's words for him are only slightly harsher than those of a typical postmodernist.
Chtcheglov's vision for new architectural forms bare striking resemblances to the expressive edifices that emerged after modernism, buildings that creatively play off of historical references like Peter Eisenman's Wexner Center (1989).
...in addition to the facilities necessary for basic comfort and security — buildings charged with evocative power, symbolic edifices representing desires, forces and events, past, present and to come. A rational extension of the old religious systems, of old tales, and above all of psychoanalysis, into architectural expression becomes more and more urgent as all the reasons for becoming impassioned disappear.
But more important to him than new forms of architecture was the creation of better cities:
We know that the more a place is set apart for free play, the more it influences people’s behavior and the greater is its force of attraction. This is demonstrated by the immense prestige of Monaco and Las Vegas — and of Reno, that caricature of free love — though they are mere gambling places. Our first experimental city would live largely off tolerated and controlled tourism. Future avant-garde activities and productions would naturally tend to gravitate there. In a few years it would become the intellectual capital of the world and would be universally recognized as such.
Chtcheglov's interest in cities centered on "free play" are only the beginning of a wave of postmodernists who became fascinated in such urban forms, particularly Las Vegas. Robert Venturi famously explored it with Denise Scott Brown in his 1977 book, Learning From Las Vegas: the Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. Venturi and Brown's findings helped influence the coming wave of '70s and '80s architecture that explored the virtues of playful, local vernaculars.
Chtcheglov cared about uniqueness of place, with a preference for urban spaces that lacked uniformity to the point of chaos. In reference to his ideal new urban form he writes, "the districts of this city could correspond to the whole spectrum of diverse feelings that one encounters by chance in everyday life ... the main activity of the inhabitants will be continuous drifting. The changing landscapes from one hour to the next will result in total disorientation."
New Urbanism's critics often argue (and rightly so) that the movement sometimes leads to the over-planning of spaces. Chtcheglov falls victim to this idea as well (even in his admiration of chaos), envisioning themed districts for specific types of experiences (emphasis mine):
Bizarre Quarter — Happy Quarter (specially reserved for habitation) — Noble and Tragic Quarter (for good children) — Historical Quarter (museums, schools) — Useful Quarter (hospital, tool shops) — Sinister Quarter, etc. And an Astrolarium which would group plant species in accordance with the relations they manifest with the stellar rhythm, a Planetary Garden along the lines the astronomer Thomas wants to establish at Laaer Berg in Vienna. Indispensable for giving the inhabitants a consciousness of the cosmic. Perhaps also a Death Quarter, not for dying in but so as to have somewhere to live in peace— I’m thinking here of Mexico and of a principle of cruelty in innocence that appeals more to me every day.
The Sinister Quarter, for example, would be a good replacement for those ill-reputed neighborhoods full of sordid dives and unsavory characters that many peoples once possessed in their capitals: they symbolized all the evil forces of life. The Sinister Quarter would have no need to harbor real dangers, such as traps, dungeons or mines. It would be difficult to get into, with a hideous decor (piercing whistles, alarm bells, sirens wailing intermittently, grotesque sculptures, power-driven mobiles, called Auto-Mobiles), and as poorly lit at night as it was blindingly lit during the day by an intensive use of reflection. At the center, the “Square of the Appalling Mobile.” Saturation of the market with a product causes the product’s market value to fall: thus, as they explored the Sinister Quarter, children would learn not to fear the anguishing occasions of life, but to be amused by them.
Ivan Chtcheglov never became an intellectual heavyweight in urban or sociological affairs, thanks largely to mental illness but also certainly to the decline in popularity of Marxist idealism. Below is a video (date unknown) that gives us a glimpse of his complex and tortured mind:
Extremism aside, Chtcheglov's manifesto touches the periphery of an intellectual movement which would not surface for at least another decade. Formulary speaks to the overwhelming sense of control and oppression in modernism, something actual New Urbanists would end up pushing back against in a far more constructive fashion.