Remaking Paris: Le Corbusier, Guy Debord, and Planning Theory

The city has a vital role in the history of human civilisation. Cities are physical expressions of trade, commerce, consumption, warfare and migration, produced by political and cultural forces. In turn, cities shape human culture and understanding. The built environment is a concrete manifestation of ideas of how society was, is, and how it should be: a representation of ideas about how humans should live. Planning theories have built upon successive representations of idealised urban life, with some representations becoming codified into planning practice and shaping the way cities are built. This essay will focus on two twentieth century representations, which I use to loosely symbolise aspects of modern and postmodern planning theories: the first, Le Corbusier’s “la Ville Radieuse” of 1933; the second, Guy Debord’s “Guide Psychogeographique de Paris” of 1957. These are two diagrammatic urban models that went on to shape the rational modernist city, and the city of experience and spectacle.

Le Corbusier is perhaps the most divisive of all urban planners. Whilst spectacularly unsuccessful in terms of built output during his lifetime, he is an influential figure in modernist planning theory and practice and a titan of the twentieth century. He was born in Switzerland in 1885 and moved to Paris in 1916, characterised by Hall as a city of “exuberant, chaotic, often sordid everyday life” (2002, p222). Corbusier sympathised with the “strong men” that had attempted to reorder and rationalise Paris, but believed their work to be unfinished – interwar Paris was a place wracked with slums and disease. Paris, and cities like it, could only be saved by a similarly spectacular and authoritarian intervention that could reorder urban life and human society along rational, technological and industrialised lines.

Corbusier believed that modern architecture should reflect the technological progress of the modern era, with the home distilled to its bare components and mass produced using industrial techniques as a “machine for living in”. These ideas were developed and extended for grandiose urban planning, embodied in the influential La Ville Radieuse in 1933. The diagram shows a city sanitised into constituent parts: industry in the south, housing in the centre, and business and government to the north – everything constructed in grids and bisected by radial avenues. The key was to open up city centres to light, air and greenery in order to improve health and transit, which could be done through building superblocks interspersed with greenery – towers in a park. “The city of today is dying because it is not constructed geometrically” (Le Corbusier, 1929 in Hall, 2002 p223); meaning that the city of today could only be remade through wholescale demolition of what had come before.

This representation of the ideal society required the absolute authority and control of the city planner: “The harmonious city must first be planned by experts who understand the science of urbanism. They work out their plans in total freedom from partisan pressures and special interests; once their plans are formulated, they must be implemented without opposition” (Le Corbusier, 1929 in Hall 2002 p225). The primacy of the plan, the importance of the scientific and technological method, and the authority of the planner were central tenets of modernist planning theory, and had major influences upon the systems and rational theories of the 1960s and 70s. Neither systems theory nor rational theory saw planning as completely static, and sought to move away from operating in a “blank canvas”. Both sought a greater understanding of human behaviour than Corbusier had ever attempted. But both theories shared with Corbusier a belief in planning as a top-down, technical and apolitical process, underwritten by universal rules (Allmendinger 2009).

La Ville Radieuse – from Arch Daily

In 1957, French theorist Guy Debord published a very different representation of the city. His “Psychogeographique de Paris” portrayed a broken up map of Paris, fragments of neighbourhoods stuck on paper and linked by hand drawn arrows, representing the drift of an observer through the atmospheres and emotions of the city. This was a wholehearted rejection of Corbusier’s city-as-machine, remaking Paris as a chaotic kaleidoscope of experience and spectacle. Debord described psychogeography as the “study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographic environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals” (1981, in Pinder 2009 p597). Psychogeography emerged as a way of thinking about space in terms of experience, and aimed to challenge dominant representations and practises in fields such as cartography and planning. This suggested that the city is created not just by architects and planners, but by the sum of individual experience and meaning: to encounter the city was to create the city (Grant 2012).

Debord was a founding member of the Situationist International, a group of radical scholars, architects and artists, active in Western Europe in the 1950s and 60s. With roots in Marxism and surrealism, they attacked capitalism and modernism as producing alienation and commoditising everyday life. They encouraged attacks on and revolts against hierarchical power, and cities in particular were understood as key sites of both oppression and potential freedom. Out of this movement grew psychogeography, attempting to counter the soullessness of capitalism through play and experiment. Debord’s map of Paris used these ideas to create a new geography of the city, based on play and experience rather than rationality and straight lines.

This in turn influenced an analytical strain of urban design, spearheaded by Kevin Lynch and his development of cognitive mapping. In his book The Image of the City (1959, p1) Lynch wrote: “At every instant, there is more than the eye can see, more than the ear can hear, a setting or a view waiting to be explored. Nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surroundings, the sequences of events leading up to it, the memory of past experiences. …Every citizen has had long associations with some part of his city, and his image is soaked in memories and meanings.” Lynch sought to understand these meanings and memories and feed them into urban design and city planning, creating places that were more vivid and memorable – places that crafted experiences.

Debord’s map of Paris – from Mapping Weird Stuff

This was part of a movement encouraging the rejection of top-down, authoritarian planning theories, towards more of an advocacy and collaborative approach. Insofar as postmodernism presents a rejection of over-arching narratives and scientific rationality in favour of flexibility and fragmentation, this could be characterised as part of the postmodern movement in planning theory. Postmodernism’s concerns with social justice and community would have been recognised by the radicals of the Situationist movement; Kevin Lynch thought it important to engage in a dialogue with residents on how they saw the city, which could develop into a dialogue on how they wanted it to change. Lynch’s concerns with city imageability and legibility also played a major role in the neoliberal makeovers of many city centres.

The diagrams of Le Corbusier may have had little direct impact during his lifetime, but came to epitomise the modernist approach to planning. This influence can be seen most clearly in post-war housing estates and the highways that came to dominate city downtowns. The importance Corbusier placed on top-down, scientific planning influenced the systems and rational theories of planning. The Situationists rejected any need for urban planning, but Debord’s unusual map of Paris alongside shifts in urban design encouraged planners to move in a postmodern theoretical direction, considering the political nature of planning and calling for a more inclusive and bottom-up approach. On the ground, this can be seen in community projects and social movements, dovetailing into demands for urban spectacles and events – planning that takes into consideration memory and experience, but planning that is arguably more neoliberal in its theoretical approach.

There are certain diagrams and representations of space that have had the power to shape our ideas of how cities should look. These have become theories-in-planning, calling for straight lines or urban experiences, which have in turn informed theories-of-planning: planning as a rational activity or planning as de-centred and bottom-up. Planning theories envision new ways to create the environment, and remake society. These two representations distil and clarify complex ideas of how cities might look; how planning might function; and how society should be.


Allmendinger, P (2009) Planning Theory, Palgrave MacMillan

Grant, B (2012) Grand Reductions: 10 diagrams that changed city planning, The Urbanist, Issue 518, November 9th 2012

Hall, P (2002) The City of Tomorrow, Third Edition, Blackwell

Lynch, K (1960) The Image of the City, MIT Press

Pinder, D (2009) Psychogeography, in Gregory, D, R Johnston, G Pratt, M Watts and S Whatmore Dictionary of Human Geography, 5th Edition, Wiley-Blackwell


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