Modernism at Michigan

I wrote the following for an art history course I’m taking, but I thought visitors of this website may be interested it part of it. I begin after my professor asked me if I agreed with a quote from Le Corbusier’s “Towards a New Architecture,” one of the most influential manifestos of “modern” architecture.

“The modern student is in any case included to protest against an old-world Oxford … What the student wants is a monk’s cell, well lit and heated, with a corner from which he can look at the stars. He wants to find opportunity for games with his fellow students at a stone’s throw. His cell should be self-contained, as far as possible.” (P. 260)

I don’t agree. A primary gripe I have with Le Corbusier is that he presumes to know what people desire in architecture. As an example, I was struck by the variety of reactions I saw among my classmates at the Mies Van de Rohe buildings at Lafayette Park; some expressed obvious disdain (“It looks like an office building”) while others obviously liked the buildings, making comments about how “nice” the area was, and how different it seemed than the neighborhoods just a few blocks away.


To return to the Le Corbusier quote, his bold claims make me want to ask “who does he think he is to presume to know what the “modern student” desires?” While from a theoretical perspective it’s certainly interesting, it takes on a quite disturbing aura when you know he and others will take his ideas seriously and design buildings like Bursley and South Quad, which can be characterized as cement-block honeycombs of the “monk’s cells” that Le Corbusier thought would suit every student’s need. Yes, both of my rooms in these buildings (my freshman and sophomore years) were well lit and heated, and both had a window to the outside, but I found them lacking. For example, it took almost 15 minutes for me to visit a friend on the other side of Bursley (plenty of light and air for all!) including what I thought an unnecessary set of two 40 foot walkway connecting each wing to the central building.

I also found the highly rigid design of South Quad frustrating. The atomized design of the hallways had a very real social impact: the hall I lived was shaped like an “L” and we used to joke that the people who lived near me on one side didn’t know the people who lived on the other side, only 30 feet away! Having lived in a “suite-style” dorms in the past, I know they can at least can provide the space for a slightly richer level of interaction with ones’ neighbors. There is also the phenomenon in South Quad of staircases that only connect a few floors, probably some modernists idea of creating “houses.” (Not unlike the Detroit Planning commission’s desire to carve up the city into “Neighborhoods” in the 1940s) A resident or visitor of the building finding him or herself on the fifth floor and wanting to go to the fourth discovers that, from the main staircase off the elevator lobby, you can’t. They would have to walk down a hall to another staircase, or wait for the unreliable elevators to take you one floor. As a contrast, I found other, older residence halls much more pleasant environments. Did they have as much light and air, or even space? Probably not. This discussion brings to mind some of the many complaints I have heard in four years about the Markley Residence Hall, which contains extremely long hallways and very small, cell-like rooms. The building also features windows so tall and modern Courtney Cantor had no trouble fitting through. Without unfairly simplifying a very tragic event, it’s hard to imagine a similar incident in one of the many older dorms, perhaps with smaller windows and a bit less “light and air.”

That being said I’ll note that I have met people who liked living in both buildings, and probably think my complaints superficial, but that’s part of my point: for some people it is satisfying, but for others, a residence hall like Newberry or Stockwell seems much more appealing than tall windows and cinder block construction.

Author: Rob