Erasing an Invention

Seed is disseminating questions to its bloggers (I guess a la so this week the question is:

If you could cause one invention from the last hundred years never to have been made at all, which would it be, and why?

The invention I would choose to uninvent? I spent the weekend asking some friends. Some answers were machine guns, the atomic bomb, spam, cars ...

Cars did strike something deep in me. Along the lines of Heathcote Williams' Autogeddon:

If an Alien Visitor were to hover a few hundred yards above the planet
It could be forgiven for thinking
That cars were the dominant life form,
And that human beings were a kind of ambulatory fuel cell:
Injected when the car wished to move off,
And ejected when they were spent.

The oil driven economy is a major force driving all our current global problems, be it war or global warming. Over the past hundred years, no other invention has so profoundly changed the way society was structured and how it operates. But even the most ardent anti-automobilists would admit, cars have also provided many benefits. Transportation is now cheep, efficient and democratic. Cars provide freedom to travel like no other form of transportation. No if I were to choose an "invention" to eradicate it would be Le Corbusier's concept of a city.

What is Le Corbusier's city?

Well to find out we need to find out about Le Corbusier. He grew up in a small but dense urban center in Switzerland where little Charles and his friends owned the streets. But the introduction of the car changed what the street was used for. Cars were fast and dangerous and forced kids and pedestrians off the streets. Roads now belonged to the car, not the neighborhood. Instead of fighting the car, Le Corbusier preached that we must accept it and all its tyranny. Urban centers were no longer fit for families and little kids and hence residential communities must be exported beyond the urban centers.

The result was the creation of suburbia, the abandonment of the urban centers and the destruction of cities. Urban centers were for work, suburbs (and ex-brubs) are for living. To better facilitate transport, huge swaths of the city were leveled to make way for highways, freeways and expressways. So not only were urban centers deserteted by the middle and upper classes, but were destroyed by Le Corbusier's followers. One example is the destruction of the South Bronx by Robert Moses to make room fro the Cross Bronx Expressway.

Newer cities like Houston or Los Angeles were built with these ideas in mind. In ither words they were built around cars and not people. These cities inspired Jean Baudrillard's philosophical treatise Simulacra and Simulation, which in turn inspired the Wachowski brothers to write The Matrix. Fake cities where no one communicates, where people live in isolated non-communities, where individuals are out of touch with the reality of others ... where self interest rules, and the community vanished. Affluent (and mostly white) citizens are exported (or "escape") to the suburbs, and minority communities in urban centers are neglected and starved of resources.

Unlike Marxist politics that have been reversed in the past couple of decades, Le Corbusier's cities are here to stay. Urban centers and the funding of public institutions that benefit huge swaths of urban citizens such as public transportation, schools, and community events, all suffered. Attempts to reverse these policies, such as Boston's Big Dig, are expensive and not feasible for most American cities. Although cities such as New York have somewhat rebounded, certain aspects such as repairing the educational system is almost impossible as urban dwellers with money are usually childless and less willing to fund public education, or are supper rich and thus send their kids to private school. Neighborhoods such as Bedsty and Roxbury are trapped in several vicious cycles (the first being poor uneducated citizens => broken homes => bad environment for kids =>poor uneducated citizens; the second being crime => flight of local business => zero job opportunities for kids => crime) that cannot be rejuvenated by the quick-fix schemes that many politicians prescribe to them.

A very bad situation, and it's of our own doing.

The funny aspect of this situation, is that despite the fact that Americans are ardent "free market" supporters, the modern American city is based less on the free market, than on central planning philosophies that come from Le Corbusier's ideologies. Robert Mosses destroyed the South Bronx, not through market forces, but more on the belief that highways are good and urban centers are relics of the past. But the cities (or the sections of cities) that escaped Le Corbusier's theories are where all the new ideas and inventions come from. These cities are dynamic and they produce all our cultural icons and intellectuals. In addition they are the centers that drive American capitalism and are the most efficient in terms of energy consumption. But as most American cities belong to Le Corbusier, America have to live with his ideas for a long time to come.


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This may have been one of the most intriguing answers to that question that I've read ...

By Scott Simmons (not verified) on 07 May 2006 #permalink

The funny aspect of this situation, is that despite the fact that Americans are ardent "free market" supporters, the modern American city is based less on the free market, than on central planning philosophies that come from Le Corbusier's ideologies.

Try to take a look at the US sports leagues, and you'll see another good example of central planning and regulation.

By Kristjan Wager (not verified) on 07 May 2006 #permalink

I hope that you pointed out to your friends that neither the machine gun nor the car were invented in the last 100 years... :)

I agree highways in the center of town destroy city life. Damn those cars, even if they're over a hundred years old.

By Acme Scientist (not verified) on 07 May 2006 #permalink

In some places, it could have been even worse: I-95 was going to cut straight through Boston (along what is now Melnea Cass Boulevard) and I-695 through Cambridge (can you even imagine what that would have done?) and there were plans to build a far more massive freeway network in DC instead of Metro.

I forgot to add. The city portrayed in the Matrix is pretty active. Lots of people walking around etc,.

By Acme Scientist (not verified) on 07 May 2006 #permalink


It's a good thing I didn't list those items (I was suspecting that both were older than 100 yrs).


Yeah it's a good thing that the Big Dig had to only swallow one highway (I-93). I wish they bury over I-90 - it leaves a big hole through the Backbay. There are plans to build over it ... however who knows when it'll get done.

In New York Robert Moses was planning to build 3 highways across Manhattan. One that would cut through Soho, another at 42nd and a third at 125th. After the cross-Bronx expressway people protested and eventually won. That was the beginning of the end for Moses.


Le Corbusier cities are too boring to set stories in. That's why many urban films are set in NYC and San Fran. The only Le Corbusier city in many films is L.A. and it's usually portrayed as a nightmare. We never saw the homes of Matrix dwellers or their neighborhoods - just drones walking around downtown ... i guess that's was Le Corbusier's idea.

First... MOST of le Corbusier's work is alien crap built for some species of hominid I'd rather not know.

But placing the blame on le Corbusier ignores the inevitable tyranny of the car. Simply put... the car's impact was inevitable; le Corbusier just happened to predict what was coming. With the invention of the car, human nature demanded the American suburb.

Perhaps the harshest result of le Corbusier's thinking, however, doesn't implicate the car at all. Rather, it is the banlieus of Paris, where adolescents rot in modular housing then squeeze like rats onto trains bound for pitiful jobs... if there lucky.

the car's impact was inevitable

I disagree. Yes, the car had a profound impact on the shape of society, however programs such as and the philosophy of building "car cities" had nothing to do with reality or market forces, but rather a philosophy of urban planning a la Le Corbusier. Then came highways, housing projects and other urban miseries. But trends have changed. In New York, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs advocated that what made urban centers livable was pedestrian traffic. Today most urban planners are reversing urban plans from the 50s-70s and they would agree more with Jacobs' philosophy than Le Corbusier. Hence the Big Dig. Some modern non-Le Corbusier type cities exist as well such as Portland Oregon. So the highway plagued city is not inevitable.

I'm not sure if Paris is a car city. Although it's interesting that some of the recent problems have come from arabs ghettoized in suburbs.

But cities like NYC have had their share of riots.

(On second though LA riots are worse.)

By acme scientist (not verified) on 11 May 2006 #permalink

I think you're wrong about LA developing as a "Le Corbusier city." Los Angeles grew into a metropolis around what was at the time one of the most extensive and efficient public transit systems in the world. The original reason for the sprawling layout was real estate speculators like Huntington using his Red Cars to pump up the prices in the hinterlands. Cars ended up fitting into this layout a little too well.

Of course the Corbusier ideology did eventually come to disastrous roost in LA, most notably with the final demolition of on Bunker Hill in the 1960's, with all the residential "blight" getting replaced with glass and steel arcologies.

Also worth noting that the city of Los Angeles has a higher overall population density than the city of New York as a whole (everyone always forgets those outlying suburbs. Er, I mean, "burroughs")