The Professor Has No Clothes

In 1953 Harvard appointed an architect named Josep Sert to a powerful position. Sert had some amazing ideas. From a review of a new book about him:

With the help of Walter Gropius, [Sert] was appointed dean [of the architecture school] at Harvard in 1953, where he set up the world’s first course on urban design, a perfect platform from which to propagate the modernist Ciam agenda for shaping cities using new science, principles and forms. . . .

As propagandist for a type of urban thinking which would have disastrous consequences, Sert had a programmatic mind-set which could see the beauty of historic cities, but his totalitarian attitude insisted on extrapolating abstract systems out of their features. In 1953, for instance, he proposed that if repeated endlessly, the traditional patio house could make a whole city. . . Sert continued to insist that since the unplanned energy of cities is “chaotic” and “disorderly”, the planner must normalise and “overcome” it. He expressed these convictions in abstract terminologies about neighborhoods, scalar zones, urban functions, categories and so on, and in complacent assertions — “every city is composed of cells, and the role of planning is to put these cells into some kind of system or relationship.”

His 1952 plan for Havana is one shocking example. Commissioned by a group of speculators intent on carving up the city, Sert’s Pilot Plan “addressed the entire metropolitan area of Havana, applying Le Corbusier’s rules on classification of roads”, a totally abstract theory. Having destroyed the city’s historic streets and obliterated all memory of Old Havana, he proposed “clusters” of what he supposed would be “charming streets recalling the city’s origins”, but with dimensions that would use the completely abstract principles of Le Corbusier’s Modulor. This awful scenario was to be dominated by “tall towers for a new financial district” which would have wrecked Havana once and for all.

Thankfully, the 1959 Cuban revolution thwarted this insane plan.

I wonder what real-world events led Hans Christian Andersen to write “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”