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The Uprising against the Modernism!

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

Our cities are a reflection of our ideologies, they represent our value system and our aspirations. Of all the eras that have gone by in Architecture and Urbanism, the one which left the most evident, long lasting and perhaps disastrous impact on our cities was the era of Modernism.

Bird Eye View of Noida City, India.

At the peak of Modernism, CIAM (Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne) under the leadership of Le Corbusier theorised the Modern city planning policies and implemented them across the globe. The Athens Charter was a 1933 document about urban planning published by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. This book became a reference book for planners around the world .

In CIAM’s Modernist planning policies, the city was a conceptualised as a machine where the various functions of the city were divided into sectors and these sectors together was to be functioning as a whole city, just the way machine is a result of smaller parts working together in an absolute sync. The basic unit for planning was not human but was the automobile ! Cities were expanded into suburbs because travelling was easy through automobile, roads were wide. The result of these planning polices are well known now. Cities were no longer designed for people, they were being planned for functions. No wonder Jane Jacobs had to write a book about the death of American cities.

City Design ideas of Le Corbusier

While planners across the globe were busy planning their cities almost on the same principles propagated by CIAM in 1933, there was a small group of Urbanists who were planning an uprising against the modernism.Team 10 was a group of architects and other invited participants who assembled starting in July 1953 at the 9th Congress of the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM) and created a schism within CIAM by challenging its doctrinaire approach to Urbanism.

Meeting of Team X

The most influential manifesto produced by Team X is the Team 10 Primer, published in 1962. It was this document which initiated discourse about the need to make cities for people and not for the function. Team 10 Primer

The aim of urbanism is comprehensibility, i.e. clarity of organisation. The community is by definition a comprehensible thing. And comprehensibility should therefore be a characteristic of the parts.

In general, those town-building techniques that can make the community more comprehensible are:

1. To develop the road and communication systems as the urban infrastructure. (Motorways as a unifying force). And to realise the implication of flow and movement in the architecture itself.

2. To accept the dispersal implied in the concept of mobility and to re-think accepted density patterns and location of functions in relation to the new means of communication.

3. To understand and use the possibilities offered by a ‘throw-away’ technology, to create a new sort of environment with different cycles of change for different functions.

4. To develop an aesthetic appropriate to mechanised building techniques and scales of operation.

5. To overcome the ‘cultural obsolescence’ of most mass housing by finding solutions which project a genuinely twentieth-century technological image of dwelling - comfortable, safe and not feudal.

6. To establish conditions not detrimental to mental health and well-being.

A community should be built up from a hierarchy of associational elements and …express those various levels of association (THE HOUSE, THE DISTRICT, THE CITY).

It is important to realise that the terms used: street, district, etc., are not to be taken as the reality, but as the idea, and that it is our task to find new equivalents for these forms of house-groupings, streets, squares, greens, etc., as the social reality they presented no longer exists.

In the complex of associations that is a community, social cohesion can only be achieved if ease of movement is possible, and this provides us with our second law, that height (density) should increase as the total population increases, and vice versa. In the context of a large city with high buildings, in order to keep ease of movement, we propose a multi-level city with residential ‘streets-in-the-air’. These are linked together in a multi-level continuous complex, connected where necessary to work places and to those ground elements that are necessary at each level of association. Our hierarchy of associations is woven into a modulated continuum representing the true complexity of human associations.

This conception is in direct opposition to the arbitrary isolation of the so-called communities of the ‘Unité’ and the ‘neighbourhood’.

We are of the opinion that such a hierarchy of human associations should replace the functional hierarchy of the ‘Charte d’Athenes’.

What Team X began was nothing less than an intellectual uprising. In the face of post war infrastructure need and the rise in the communist, authoritarian state all over the world, the modernist principles were best suited to make new cities. Especially the communists as well as socialist states admired modernism as well as brutalism and adapted them with open arms. Cities like Chandigarh in India where Le Corbusier ruthlessly implemented a European garden city taking the site as a ‘Tebula Rasa’. Numerous towns were built in the USSR as well as eastern European region which were direct representation of the ‘City as a Machine’ concept of the CIAM. Team X questioned ruthless and insensitive approach of the modernism when it was in its most accepted era. It was well accepted by planners as well as politicians. It was an era when modernism was beyond question and hence the discourse started by Team X was nothing less than an uprising.

The evolution of City Planning approach. Source: Book, '25 Great Ideas of New Urbanism'

The ideas of Team X grew into what we know today as New Urbanism where humans are at the centre of the process. This New urbanism is the in a way a foundation of Urban Design studies where designer focuses on people and the place before intervention rather than the planning process where land is usually divided for the practical purposes. While CIAM focused upon the road and the district, New Urbanism focuses upon the street and the neighbourhood. Today when we are in the midst of sustainability debate we are realising that much of our city’s carbon footprint is a result of the insensitive planning approach roots of which can be found in the Athens charter of CIAM. Team X’s uprising led to a conscious questioning of most of the ideologies promoted by the CIAM and also started a discourse on human centric cities. From walkable neighbourhoods to bicycle friendly cities, roots of these humane approaches can be traced to Team X.

Idea of a walkable neighbourhood. Image source : knoxmpc

We are far away from having a perfect city, Modernist principles do make city planning a fairly easy process. Its logical and it has proven to be working in most cases (With traffic jams, pollution and human hours wasted in travelling). But we can surely implement New Urbanism in our neighbourhoods. In our Urban Insert Projects, We can be mindful when large infrastructure project is in design stage. Recently a massive redevelopment plan was approved in Indian capitol city of New Delhi. The ‘Central Vista’ - the axis between the President’s house to the war memorial India Gate is to have massive construction of office spaces. The place which was once designed by Edwin Lutyens between 1911-1932 under the British rule will go through a massive redevelopment. En entire urban district will go through redevelopment. It is essential that such project are sensitive to the context and also to people and people’s place memory.

An aerial perspective of the entire Central Vista project. Source: HCP Designs

Core members of the group who remained active for the longest period of time were :

  1. Alison and Peter Smithson

  2. Aldo van Eyck

  3. Jaap Bakema

  4. Georges Candilis

  5. Shadrack Woods

  6. John Voelcker

  7. William and Jill Howell

The group's first formal meeting under the name of Team 10 took place in Bagnols-sur-Cèze in 1960. The last, with only four members present, was in Lisbon in 1981.

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1 Comment

Kanchana Sahu
Kanchana Sahu
Jan 22, 2022

Excellent Article

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