Cathy and I usually watch NHK, the Japanese channel, while we’re getting ready for work.
Recently, I saw a post-modern Osaka-based architect talking about his vision for the future.
He spoke about the way technology would revolutionise how we live – everything will be automated.
For instance, there will be no need for fridges or shopping, food will be kept fresh in giant freezers in the building’s basement – simply order up what you want before you go to work and it will be waiting for you in your apartment that evening.
And he talked about robots and automation and modernisation and efficiency.
And I thought: “Here we go again.”
And I wondered how come, as an architect, he hadn’t learned anything from Le Corbusier.
Le Corbusier was one of the world’s most influential architects, he invented modernism.
Everything was dedicated to simplification and efficiency, his most famous dictum was: “A house is a machine for living in.”
In 1927, he published his “Five Points of Modern Architecture”, which became the gospel for generations of architects and urban planners.
It was led by the new technology – start with innovation and fit people around it.
The goal was standardisation – all streets should be identically straight, all buildings identically tall, straight blocks, clean and efficient, then you fit people in.
All over the world, cities began bulldozing streets to make way for concrete blocks.
It was easier to handle people when they were stacked neatly in filing cabinets.
Streets that people used to walk down disappeared, streets with shops where people could meet and talk disappeared.
People had to adjust to the technology of the vision, not the other way round.
Of course, it’s been a disaster, as tech historian Lewis Mumford wrote: “Corbusier’s architecture had no reason to exist apart from the fact it was a technological possibility.”
In 1999, Witold Rybczynski wrote in Time magazine: “Wherever it was tried it failed. Standardisation proved inhuman and disorienting. Today, these megaprojects are being dismantled, as superblocks give way to rows of houses fronting streets and sidewalks. It has been an expensive lesson, and not one that Le Corbusier intended, but it too is part of his legacy.”
The blocks of flats, built by architects inspired by Le Corbusier, themselves inspired something unintended: crime, isolation, pollution, vandalism and depression.
Those concrete blocks are being knocked down to be replaced by houses, on streets where people can go back to living like social beings.
Which brings us to advertising and the way it’s currently delivered.
We have technology that can deliver advertising so targeted there’s zero wastage.
So the same person sees the same advertising over and over and over and over and over and over and over until they are absolutely sick to death of it.
Someone recently told me they don’t watch the first 10 minutes of any programme, they make a cup of tea then rewind to the start, so they can fast-forward through the ads.
That’s something to be proud of, isn’t it?
We’re polluting people’s environments with junk they find ways to avoid.
All because the technology exists, so the technology must dictate to people.
As the critic wrote about Le Corbusier’s architecture: “It had no reason to exist apart from the fact it became technologically possible.”
Architects had to learn the hard way that “can” does not imply “ought”.
Architects had to learn people come before technology.
Advertising will have to learn that same painful lesson sooner or later.
Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three