Planners and their Cities

Twentieth Century Urbanism on a Grand Scale

Town plan of Nippur

We do not know who it was that incised the city plan of Nippur into a clay tablet, but we do know that it was some particular individual who wielded the stylus, because generalities and abstractions do not draw plans (or inscribe them into clay). City planning is an art for the urban masses, but it is also highly individual, if not idiosyncratic. Particular planners and architects have left their personal imprint upon the public works that they have overseen.

Among the most visionary products of the twentieth century were the cities that were built from scratch on the basis of grand plans drawn for the purpose. This exemplifies what Edmund Bacon called, “The City as an Act of Will,” and serves as an antithetical counterpoint to the organic cities that had their origins in classical antiquity or the middle ages. (In The Rational Reconstruction of Cities I cited Nordlingen as an example of an organic city, while in The Exaptation of the City I cited medieval Split, which grew in and around Diocletian’s palace, as an example of organicism sprouting up like weeds amid a planned structure.)

Split on the Croatian coast grew up inside Diocletian’s Palace.

In his Manifesto of Futurist Architecture, Antonio Sant’Elia proclaimed, “Every generation must build its own city.” In this spirit the architects and urban planners of the twentieth century sought to build their own cities. Twentieth century urban planning has a certain quality about it that might be called (and I don’t recall where I first encountered the term) “Stalinist gigantism.”

Stalinist gigantism

As implied in the Edmund Bacon quote pictured above, the city as an act of will has about it a Nietzschean dimension (or perhaps you would prefer that I call this Promethean) — a kind of self-assertion that risks being grandiose and impractical if it goes wrong, but which can also be visionary and transformative if it concretely realizes what it seeks to achieve. This Nietzschean dimension of urban design was particularly evident in the twentieth century.

Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan for Washington D.C.

Washington D.C. is a wonderful example of urban design, but Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s 1791plan is a perfect 18th century, Enlightenment-era plan, as Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s reworking of Paris is the perfect 19th century embodiment of city planning. The Haussmannization of Paris is not only a fascinating design, but was also singularly influential in the reconstruction of Europe’s medieval cities on the model of a plan more consistent with the emerging modern reality of industrialized urbanism. However, I am going to here focus exclusively on twentieth century urban design and its intellectual context.

A lot of urban planning is painfully pedestrian. Redevelopment, urban renewal, and even dreaded “gentrification” can all be pursued with little imagination, and with results that I find to be uniformly dreary, but which others apparently find to be quite congenial. (I have several times cited the example of Orenco Station, which is close to my office where I am now writing this, and which is admired by many, but which I find to be rather hideous in its artificiality.) My selection of twentieth century planned cities is intended to constitute the antithesis of the pedestrian. You can find a (fairly extensive) list of planned cities on Wikipedia, so there are plenty of examples from which to choose. I chose what I considered to be the most spectacular examples.


The dates given below are somewhat (though not entirely) arbitrary. I have tried to select the beginning date as the date upon which a design was selected or approved, and the ending date as the date upon which the city began to meaningfully function as intended, but these are of course open to debate. So the dates should be taken with a proverbial grain of salt; ultimately they are only important to establish sequence, hence precedent.


Howard and the Garden City, 1898

Ebenezer Howard

The century began with with a new vision for cities conceived by Sir Ebenezer Howard. Howard was not only interested in urban planning, but also social reform, especially Georgism. Like many visionary planners of the twentieth century, Howard sought to create a new social reality through a new reality on the ground, as it were. Howard’s vision was not only comprehensive, but also highly influential, inspiring the construction of Letchworth Garden City (1903), Welwyn Garden City (1920) and Forest Hills Gardens (1909), inter alia. Howard’s Garden City is one pole of urban planning that throughout the twentieth century found itself in a dialectical struggle with its polar opposite, which was Le Corbusier’s stark, modernist vision of the city and its later manifestations such as brutalism. Twentieth century urbanism never managed to overcome this dialectic and to converge upon a synthesis of gardens and brutalism, though the idea of such a synthesis would be interesting to explore.

Garden City plan by Ebenezer Howard, 1902.

Howard’s vision was a reaction against the dirty, crowded, insalubrious conditions of the city that emerged from the industrial revolution — the cities familiar to us from Dickens’ novels, the conditions of which were decried by Marx and Engels, and illustrated by Gustav Dore. The Garden City was to be an ideal city, not the rambling, ramshackle medieval metropolis of the past, and not the grimy result of the industrial revolution with its proliferating smokestacks, but “slumless” and “smokeless” — the Edenic possibility of a human community within nature, instead of the exile from the garden that seemed to have been confirmed by the “dark Satanic Mills” that horrified William Blake. (Blake would have, no doubt, approved of the Garden City Movement.) In a kind of historical irony, at the end of the twentieth we are seeing “garden cities” come about in the eviscerated industrial cities of the rustbelt, not as a result of a grand plan designing garden cities to order, but from the demolition of abandoned structures and the clearing of city lots, subsequently transformed into garden plots for urban agriculture.


The Griffins and Canberra, 1913–1927

The Giffins

Chicago architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin won a 1911 contest for the design of Canberra, being one among 137 entries. Their design was selected in 1912, and in 1913 Walter Griffin traveled to Australia to survey the site and initiate construction. The work of the Griffins, however, was repeatedly stalled and frustrated. Eventually the Australians themselves admitted that the Griffins had been supplied with false data and that those involved in some of these shenanigans had been appointed to oversee the further construction of Canberra. Understandably, Griffin resigned his position as Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction and refused further participation. Thus whether we can say that the Griffin plan was realized in the building of Canberra is open to question. Certainly the Griffin plan left a decisive imprint on Canberra, but whether or not it conforms to the Griffins’ vision of, “…an ideal city — a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future,” is problematic.

The Griffin plan for Canberra, with its sequence of adjacent circles, shows the influence of Howard’s Garden City.

The Griffin plan for Canberra was ahead of its time in its respect for the natural features of the land upon which the city was to be sited — it might even be considered the spiritual ancestor of landscape urbanism (though this title ought probably to be reserved for Sir Ebenezer Howard, originator of the Garden City concept). In this sense, the Griffin plan, while visionary in the best grandiose twentieth century style, also constitutes the antithesis to the grandiose tabula rasa city plans that were essentially conceived as universally applicable to any site with bare ground, as with the case of Le Corbusier’s Voisin Plan for Paris.


Le Corbusier and the Voisin Plan for Paris, 1922

Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier never got to build his Voisin Plan for Paris, but he worked on it on and off throughout his life, and it has been said that the Voisin Plan has exercised a kind of subterranean influence over city planners since it was first proposed. In fact, many of Le Corbusier’s ideas have exercised a continuing influence, and some of them have been influential because of the reaction against them. Perhaps Le Corbusier’s most notorious pronouncement was, “A house is a machine for living in.” Here Le Corbusier shows himself to be a prophet of the Machine Age, and when the Machine Age has been presented in this way, it has provoked a reaction. But the reaction against Le Corbusier’s conception does not call its validity into question, only its popularity. And if a house is a machine for living in, then a city is a vast collection of such machines — in other words, a city is a factory for living in.

The Voisin Plan for Paris

Le Corbusier was prepared to turn Paris into a factory for living in. This would be an apt description of his Voisin Plan. Anyone who has walked through the area of the Rive Droite that was the intended site of the Voisin Plan will find Le Corbusier’s vision rather shocking, but there are those who think it would have been beautiful. After all, was Paris not already substantially rebuilt in the nineteenth century by Haussmann? Why not rebuild Paris once again, but now on the model of the most advanced ideas of the twentieth century, just as Paris had been rebuilt according to the most advanced ideas of the nineteenth century?


May’s Brigade and Magnitogorsk, 1930–1933

Ernst May

Ernst May and several Frankfurt associates that collectively came to be called the “May Brigade” arrived in the young Soviet Union and rolled up their shirt sleeves to begin the work of constructing the built environment of the worker’s paradise — hopes were high and anything seemed possible. May’s team had made its reputation in Frankfurt during the Wiemar period, where they were instrumental in addressing the housing shortage in the midst of political instability. This was exactly what the Soviet Union needed. But while May’s work in Frankfurt has been described as, “one of the most remarkable city planning experiments in the twentieth century” (and for this reason I might have included this effort in this present list), it was most notable not for its visionary quality but for its egalitarianism. Many were housed at a reasonable price. This is an admirable accomplishment, but it lacks the elements of hubris and gigantism that Magnitogorsk and other Soviet-era cities possessed.

City plan for Magnitogorsk

Magnitogorsk was to be a Soviet show piece, exhibiting the triumph of socialist industrialization under Stalin. Ironically, the socialist showpiece was modeled on the successful strongholds of American capitalist industrialism. It might seem odd to us today, in an age of post-industrial rust belt urban depopulation, that the planners of Magnitogorsk should look to American industrial cities like Pittsburgh as their model, but it was industrial production that Soviet planners fetishized, rather than any modern fetish like livability or sustainability, and the American industrial cities of the first half of the twentieth century were symbolic of industrial and commercial productivity. Relevant documents for this period of Soviet architecture can be found in the book Russia: An Architecture for World Revolution, by El Lissitzky; an extract from this book can be read at The Charnel-House blog, Ernst May, “City Building in the USSR” (1931).


Speer and Welthauptstadt Germania, 1937–1945

Albert Speer in the dock

I hesitated to include Albert Speer in this list of twentieth century city planners, as I would not want to associate any of the other planners and architects mentioned here with Speer, but there is no question that the plans to rebuild Berlin as the “World Capital Germania” (“Welthauptstadt Germania”), presumably after the victory of the Third Reich, falls unambiguously into the category of grandiose, visionary, and gargantuan urbanism. I urge the reader to see the film Undergångens arkitektur (“The Architecture of Doom: the Nazi Philosophy of Beauty Through Violence”) as well as Jonathan Meades’ excellent documentary Jerry Building, both of which explore the Nazi fascination with architecture (and enormity).

How Speer would have re-built Berlin as the capitol city of the world.

Because of the Nazi fascination both with architecture and bombastic public display, the plans to rebuild Berlin as the world capital Germania were suitably megalomaniacal, and a great deal of documentation remains regarding these plans for Berlin. Welthauptstadt Germania would have been not merely the city as an act of will, but the city as triumph of the will. Hitler was quite explicit that the rebuilt Berlin should be so grandiose that London and Paris would pale by comparison, and Hitler and Speer not only were thinking big in structural terms, but also in temporal terms: the buildings of Germania were to be constructed according to the “theory of ruin value” (“Ruinenwerttheorie” or “Ruinengesetz”): buildings were to be constructed with the purpose of retaining their imposing and monumental character even after they are abandoned and fall into ruin.


Wright and Broadacre City, 1932–1959

Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright dominates architecture in the United States in a way that few architects ever dominate the life of a nation, though perhaps Oscar Niemeyer’s role in Brazil is comparable. Even if one does not much care for Wright’s designs, in the US one is forced to reckon with Wright’s legacy. Wright’s long, productive, and controversial career, believed to be the inspiration for the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, ranged from single family homes to a mile high skyscraper that was never built, so of course Wright also tried his hand at town planning.

A sketch of Broadacre City; a complete model was also built.

Wright worked on his designs for Broadacre City from the introduction of the idea in his 1932 book, The Disappearing City, until his death in 1959. It develops the theme of the Garden City movement that ran throughout the twentieth century, albeit with Wright’s characteristic American take on the concept, with each residence a single-family home on one acre. Strangely, Wright’s vision was at once both embodied in and falsified by suburbia. The post-war “Levittown” suburbs of US cities spread out around metropolitan areas, giving us a de facto Broadacre City of suburban sprawl, where the lots shrank over the decades, until suburbs became cities in their own right — called an “Edge city” by Joel Garreau — and single-family homes are now increasingly replaced by row houses and apartments, defeating the original idea of spaciousness.


Costa and Brasília, 1956–1960

Lúcio Costa

Best known for his collaboration with Oscar Niemeyer, Lúcio Costa also worked with Le Corbusier, and the latter’s influence is clearly visible in some of the most famous works of international modernism in Brazil. Despite the obvious influence of Le Corbusier, Brazilian international modernism has a uniquely organic character that employs sinuous lines that immediately remind one of the famous pavements of Rio de Janeiro along Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. I’ve written several times about Brasília, which is certainly one of the most interesting examples of macroscopic urban planning in the twentieth century, and the grandiose, visionary plan for which Costa is remembered.

Brasilia, laid out like a great bird

Brasilia could be called a tabula rasa town plan (in a way like Le Corbusier’s Voisin Plan, mentioned above), and it represents the antithesis of the Griffin’s plan for Canberra, which made a prescient effort to be sensitive to the lay of the land where the city was to be constructed. Le Corbusier literally would have flattened an historic district of Paris in order to construct his Voisin Plan on its intended site. This is one kind of tabula rasa plan for a city. But a city’s history is not no easily banished (or replaced). Wittgenstein wrote, “The earlier culture will become a heap of rubble and finally a heap of ashes, but spirits will hover over the ashes.” We could say as much of a city, or a district of a city, cleared for rebuilding. But Brasília was built de novo, on vacant land, and there were no ashes and no hovering spirits. Even the “natural” features of the city, like Lake Paranoá, are artificial. This artificiality gave freedom to the planners, but came at a cost. Critic Robert Hughes called it a “ceremonial slum,” and one person has called it, “the folly of man on a metropolitan scale.” Such quotes could be multiplied at will.


Doxiadis and Islamabad, 1958–1965

Constantine Doxiadis

Constantine Doxiadis (Κωνσταντίνου Α. Δοξιάδη) was a man with a theory. Like Costa, Doxiadis had a reputation for wide humanistic scholarship of which architecture and urban planning were but one expression. Doxiadis’ theories of urbanism (which he called Ekistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements) grew out of his wider reflections on the nature of human society. For a time, Doxiadis was one of the most famous urban planners in the world, an architectural celebrity (sort of like Rem Koolhaas today), his office was involved in projects across the world. Today, his books are (mostly) out of print and there are new theories of planning and other celebrity architects to advocate these newer theories (though there is an online archive of his life and work available). Doxiadis’ work is so comprehensive and systematic that I am sure it will experience a revival at some point in time (I have made limited use of his concept of Ecumenopolis, or the world-city, which has a limited currency), but at the present moment his reputation is at a low ebb.

Plan for Islamabad

Islamabad not only sought to do justice to Doxiadis’ theory of Ekistics, it also sought to conform itself to the site — the already existing city of Rawalpindi (in all its unplanned, organic squalor), Rawal Lake, and the Margalla Hills — as well as to provide the benefits of a modern, orderly, planned city. To combine these diverse and sometimes seemingly incompatible planning imperatives in one unified urban area is no small accomplishment. To Doxiadis’ credit, and making a concession to the economic reality of Pakistan, the design of the city included low income housing, which, however humble, included the necessities of life:

“In Islamabad no house has less than two rooms and a kitchen, W. C., and a shower room. Sufficient space is left for outdoor living. Each house has closed, semi-covered or open living spaces, necessary for comfortable living in a country with cold winters and very hot summers, is supplied with running water and electricity, and connected with the sewage system.”

While I doubt that this plan has been rigorously adhered to as Islamabad has grown and filled itself in by way of the ordinary business of life in a humid sub-tropical climate, it is a realistic and admirable ideal in a part of the world in which many of these conveniences are lacking.


Nicoletti and Fontvieille, 1968–1981

Manfredi Nicoletti

Manfredi Nicoletti either studied under, or worked with, a succession of brilliant architects including Buckminster Fuller, Pietro Belluschi, Eero Saarinen, Louis Kahn, the studio of Walter Gropius, Sigfried Giedion and Minoru Yamasaki. You can go a long way with a resume like that, and this resume took Nicoletti to Monaco, where he worked with former Prince of Monaco, Prince Rainier III, sometimes called the “Builder Prince,” to create a new suburb of the tiny principality of Monaco.

Fontvieille in Monaco, no longer visionary, but practical, despite the wealth available for the project.

While this is still urban planning on a grand scale, Fontvieille represents the sober pragmatism of the later twentieth century — international modernism disciplined by pragmatism, possessed of sufficient resources, but not yet informed by post-modernism or the spectacular non-naturalism of the Frank Gehry revolution. Despite the size of the project, built almost entirely on reclaimed land, it does not give one the sense of Stalinist giganticism that some of the other planned cities discussed above exhibit so effectively. In this sense, Fontvieille represents the end of the era, coming at the end of the twentieth century.


Petaling Jaya, Naypyidaw, Dubai, Astana, New Songdo City

Gary Cooper as Howard Roark in the film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead.

The age of the heroic individual architect after the fashion of Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, is over. Urban planning is now thoroughly bureaucratic (a more sympathetic way to describe this would be to call the process democratic) and is accomplished by way of committees and meetings. Entire cities have been built in the twentieth century without their architects being know. Petaling Jaya, for example, began as a post-war adjunct (“satellite township”) to Kuala Lumpur, but has grown and now has a distinct identity of its own. Naypyidaw, the new capital city of Burma, was purpose-built for the military junta ruling Burma, and is now the capital of a newly democratic Burma — or, at least, Burma making a transition from military rule to democratic rule. I made some inquiries among individuals who are knowledgeable about Burma, but I have not been able to discover the designer or designers of this metropolis built in the jungle, as much a city built from scratch as Brasília.

Astana, Kazakhstan, the return of visionary and grandiose town planning.

But the results of bureaucratic planning are not always as dreary and anonymous as one might expect. Dubai, which embodies many of the crucial features of visionary urban design, is still very much a work in progress, and many of its distinctive structures (like the Burj Khalifa) were completed in the twenty-first century. The ongoing rebuilding of Astana (where Nicoletti, above, has an enormous and remarkable concert hall built) is another example like Dubai — though clearly a product of twentieth century urban design thought, it is too recent to judge either its success (or failure) or its impact. In South Korea, New Songdo City represents both large-scale urban planning as well as a vision of sustainability in urban architecture emphasizing green spaces, bicycle paths, and recycling. The urban planning ideas embodied in Dubai, Astana, and New Songdo City are not the resolution of the dialectic of twentieth century urbanism, but rather represent a response to changed conditions, political, social, economic, and environmental.