The influence of the modernist ideal city, on urban design and master planning


This essay will focus on the influence of Modernist Ideal City movement. At first showing that understanding of social, political and economic background is necessary, along with contemporary technological influences. Secondly, the purpose, principles and results of the movement will be illustrated. Then using the case study-Brasilia demonstrates the influence of the modernist ideal city. Finally, a critical view of historic and future of the movement will be provided.


At the age of Early 20th, in most of western countries, the industrial revolution was dropping towards the end. With the development of technology and the increase of the social wealth, the population of

1800 1880 1910
Pars 647,000 2,200,000 3,000,000
London 800,000 3,800,000 7,200,000
Berlin 182,000 1,840,000 3,400,000
New York 60,000 2,800,000 4,500,000

Europe dramatically raised (figure 1). The contemporary cities could not stand the pressure of the population boom. A series of problem appeared, chaos, overcrowding, low efficiency, serious pollution, high density, narrow streets and lack of sunlight all threaten people’s life quality especially for lower class people. (Greed 1996, 70) Social conflict liked a time bomb hanging on the sky of the city. As Le Corbusier saidif we cannot suit to the situation of the new trend, the cities cannot meet the requirements of modern lifestyle (Corbusier 1987, 84).

At this time, after the World War 1 (WW1), the Europe returned to peace. A great rebuilding process began buildings, and whole cities needed to be rebuilt. At this time, technology was vital to speed up this usually slow process. Express train and car speeded up the travel; telephone and radio reduce the commuting time and skyscrapers increased the city density. On the other hand, the modernist principles already were put forward. Both the real situation backed up and influenced by the theory basic gave people the opportunity to rethink the city of tomorrow. Finally,urban utopias emerged as the time requires, and Le Corbusier’s modernist ideal city is one of the most crucial parts (Hall 2011, 11-18, 28).

\\ufs02\user04\HSXZHOU2\Desktop7\Le-Corbusier-Do-mino-diagram_dezeen_2.jpgThe form of the modernist ideal city aimed to improve health of citizens, reduce commuting times, create more open space and get more sunlight, this way le Corbusier wanted to solve the social conflict (Greed 1996, 101-102).

In 1914, Le Corbusier stated the Dom-ino House (figure 2). It is made of reinforce concrete and it reject the traditional load bearing wall. The frame structure frees the internal space which can be divided freely. low-cost, convenient, uniformity and standardisation all those figures show why He believed the Dom-ino system can meet the people’s requirements after WW1 (Frampton 2001, 21-22).

In 1922, Le Corbusier published a blueprint of a contemporary city with 3,000,000 residents. And it was the first time for Le Corbusier to describe a whole ideal city. He searched a pure mechanism order. In his eyes, humanity would lost from chaos but revive from the pure order. In order to express the order, pure forms was used by le Corbusier. All the elements of city such as houses, roads, industries, offices even human were classified by function (Corbusier 1987, 15). The whole city was planned by clear hierarchy of class; people were divided into three parts, citizens, suburban dwellers and the mixed sort people. Roughly 400,000 to 600,000 citizens who were treated as urban elites lived in the 24 60-storey skyscrapers in the city centre. In Corbusier’s opinion these skyscrapers were vertical streets, which contain shops, hotels, etc. Furthermore, they only covered about 15% area of the entire city, which dramatically increase the density. At the same time, considered the environment pollution and human needs, the rest 85% of ground should be free for green lands. The working class (about 2,000,000) was planned to live in the garden city, which was influence by the garden city movement (Corbusier 1987, 163-176). On the other hand, fast traffic played an important role in the city. He (Corbusier 1987, 191) pointed out “that the city which can achieve speed will achieves success-and this is an obvious truth.” The whole city was connected by transportation system. And planner used symmetrical grid of streets to replace traditional “corridor street”. Two great arterial highways ran north and south, and east and west intersecting at the exact centre of the city (Corbusier 1987, 163-176). In general, the whole city worked as a huge machine.

In 1932, Le Corbusier showed a more daring blueprint-The Radiant City that was more authoritarian and more libertarian than the Plan Voisin. The principle of design is existenzminimum (Corbusier 1976, 6-7). Every building would be strictly designed on the human scale. Furthermore, the radiant city has no class divisions. All of the people live in high-rise apartment blocks “Unités”. Each block intended for 2,700 people and included individual service and public facilities such as shops, restaurant, swimming pools and gymnasiums (Corbusier 1967, 162). In order to avoid waste of space, the size of the apartment was decided by the family’s needs not class. Buildings raised on pilotis free the ground land and would be benefit to fast traffic and green land. Symmetrical grid of highway connected the whole anti-street city (Frampton 2001, 51). Same as the Dom-ino house, the radiant city from a single room to an entire city applies low cost and mass production techniques. In addition, these blocks only covered about 12% land. The rest area 100% ground area plus 12% top area of buildings were made up the green city. South facing glass wall, roof terraces and big open space made the city more radiant (Corbusier 1976, 44, 163). At the following years, Four Unité d’Habitations were built in UK including Park Hill, Sheffield, Alton West, Roehampton, Barbican, London, and South Acton Estate, London. In general, the modernist ideal city could be described an order city; a functional city; a machine city; a high-rise city; a green city; a radiant city and a fast-traffic city.

Case study

There is no other cities can completely show Corbusier’s ideas liked Brasilia, although he wasn’t involved in the design (Hall 2002, 230).From 1956 to 1960, in order to narrow the gap between rich and poor and strengthen the development of interior area, a new capital-Brasilia that was designed by Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyerhas been built. (Epstein 1973, 9) Brasilia as a totally new capital, without historical context, embodies a symbol of the modern movement (Hall 2002, 232). It means that costa got the best chance to seek to a pure order liked Corbusier. This order can be shown that the whole plan was axisymmetric and was divided different area by its function and residential area, working area and leisure area was linked by fast traffic (Evenson 1973, 146-153). In details dragonfly, bird, airplane, body and fuselage always are used to describe and plan the Brasilia. Roughly 10 kilometres monumental axis link east and west. From east to west, respectively, were governmental buildings, uniform office blocks and train station. The uniformrectangle residential districtthat included shops, apartments etc. were located at both sides of the wind shape north-south axis. And the connection of the two axes was called rodoviaria that was designed as a centre of commerce, culture and entertainment. In addition, artificial lakes were surrounded north, east and south, zoo and serial small factories were near to train station (Issitt 2014). In general we can say, under the influence of modernist ideal city, Brasilia is an order, functional, green jet very motorised city.

However,same as the theory of modernist ideal city, critics of Brasilia never stop from the first day of it built. With the development of city, a great deal of problems emerges. In fact, people are not willing to live in Brasilia. In 2000, the population of Brasilia was above stunning 2,000,000 citizens which was 4 times more than origin plan. Yet about 75% lived in outside of planning area, which, implement low density of population. Because of Brasilia being so motorised, and extensively large, it is almost impossible to travel the city by foot. In addition due to the rigid functional zone, human behaviour was strongly ruled (Evenson 1973, 118).


In my opinion, the modernist ideal city movement was the product of era. And the design of Brasilia was a great experiment, which successfully proved that the theory of modernist ideal city cannot totally suit to a real world. The fact proved that the modernist ideal city is good-looking but not practical. Personally, Le Corbusier was contradictory, he rationally planned the whole city but perceptually wanted to destroy the original city; he rationally ruled behaviours of human but perceptually thought that everyone has the same requirements; he rationally treated house as a machine but perceptually treated human as a machine too. Furthermore, the most controversial point is that the modernist ideal city is an autocratic city that does not leave any space to other possibilities. It is a unique answer for le Corbusier (Marshall 2009, 38). However, no one can ignore the worldwide influence of the movement especially in post-war time, we can still find the shadow of Le Corbusier in many modern cities such as London, Canberra, shanghai, etc. With time goes by, various movements of urban deign emerged. People, nowadays, reach a consensus that we need to find a balance point between economy, environment and social well-being and build a sustainable city.


Clara H. Greed, Introducing town planning (Harlow: Longman, 1996), 70.

David G. Epstein, Brasilia, Plan and Reality (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 9.

Kenneth Frampton, Le Corbusier (London: Thames & Hudson, 2001), 21-22, 51.

Le Corbusier, The city of to-morrow and its planning (New York: Dover, 1987), 15, 84, 163-176, 191.

Le Corbusier, The radiant city: elements of a doctrine of urbanism to be used as the basis of our machine-age civilization (New York: Orion Press, 1967), 6-7, 44, 162-163.

Micah L. Issitt, “Brasília, Brazil,” Salem Press Encyclopedia, January, 2014.

Norma Evenson, Two Brazilian capitals: architecture and urbanism in Rio de Janeiro and Brasília (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973), 118, 146-153.

Peter Hall, Cities of tomorrow: an intellectual history of urban planning and design in the twentieth century (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), 230, 232.

Peter Hall, Urban and regional planning (London: Routledge, 2011), 11-18, 28.

Stephen Marshall, Cities, Design & Evolution (Routledge, 2009), 38.

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