picture: The donkey, the dwelling place and the rock by Laura Adams Armer extracted from Architecture and the Burdens of Linearity by Catherine Ingraham. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
In 1992, Catherine Ingraham wrote a short essay entitled The Burdens of Linearity for the Chicago Institute of Architecture and Urbanism. Six years later she published a book with the same name that brought back this essay under the chapter’s name. The Burdens of Linearity. Donkey Urbanism. The Donkey -and the mule- is in fact the recurrent animal in this book, he is the burden beast to who Le Corbusier attributes the plan of all the pre-modern cities. According to the Swiss-French architect, the donkey by his zigzags’ tracks that “takes the lines of least resistance, drew the lines of the city. Modernity, on the contrary, advocates for the pure and sane orthogonality that celebrates the fact that “Man has made up his mind”. Le Corbusier’s obsessive pathology for sanity, is fully expressed here: Architecture and the City have to constitute thaumaturgic machines in which health is no longer a mean to perpetuate life but rather celebrated as a self-justified end.
To the asserted “ruinous, difficult and dangerous curve of animality” by Le Corbusier, one can think of Deleuze’s Becoming Animal that celebrate the adherence to the counter-standard imposed by Modernity. In this matter, the anti-modern behavior by excellence is the Situationist drift (dérive) and the anti-modern architecture/urbanism is Constant’s immanent labyrinth (see the article about Kafka’s Trial) constituted by the New Babylon, the city of humans who did not make up their minds.
In the following excerpt of this same chapter, Catherine Ingraham recounts Le Corbusier’s “mythopoetical account of the history of the city” and subtly promotes a “bestial urbanism” that will lead her to write her next book Architecture, Animal, Human: The Asymmetrical Condition in 2006.
A certain license granted by poststructural critical theory might permit one to construct genrally homologous worlds where the lines made on the landscape by certain beasts (in this case, mules and donkeys) –the paths they make or follow and the marks or spoor they leave behind as they navigate the terrain- are intimately related to the lines (the mark) that one might draw, write, or otherwise inscribe on paper or to the lines and paths inscribed on a landscape by a building or, more precisely, by architecture. But it takes neither a special critical license nor a revisionist history to trace the layout of cities back to the paths of beasts. It is easy to forget that the track of the car, another kind of beast, is only about one hundred years old, whereas the track of the beast is, well, extremely old. The connection between this bestial urbanism and “modern urbanism” and, in turn, the connection between urbanism and architectural lines are, of course, what directly concern and are thereby authorized by Le Corbusier himself.
Le Corbusier argues that orthogonality, the “orthogonal state of mind,” best expresses the spirit of the modern age. And he opposes the “regulating line” of human beings –orthogonal, geometric, measured (architectural, urbanistic)- to the path of the pack-donkey: “Man walks in a straight line because he has a goal and knows where he is going; he has made up his mind to reach some particular place and he goes straight to it. The pack-donkey meanders along, meditates a little in his scatter-brained and distracted fashion, he zigzags in order to avoid the larger stones, or to ease the climb, or to gain a little shade; he takes the line of least resistance.” Man thinks only of his goal. The pack-donkey thinks only of what will save him trouble. “The Pack-Donkey’s Way,” Le Corbusier goes on, “is responsible for the plan of every continental city.”
According to Le Corbusier’s mythopoetical account of the history of the city, the covered wagons of an invading population “lumbered along at the mercy of bumps and hollows, of rocks or mire [and] in this way were born roads and tracks.” These early tracks are made according to a “donkey’s idea” of how to move from one point to another. Along these tracks, houses are “planted,” and eventually these houses are enclosed by city walls and gates. “Five centuries later another larger enclosure is built, and five centuries later still a third yet greater.” The great cities, built according to this first track heedlessly traced out on an inhospitable landscape, have a multitude of small connective capillaries. For cities clogged by these intersection capillaries, Le Corbusier recommends “surgery”: cutting out central corridors (arteries) so that the “bodily fluids” of the cities can flow. The straight line that cuts through the congestion of the pack-donkey’s way is, according to Le Corbusier, “a positive deed, the result of self-mastery. It is sane and noble.”
The pack –donkey recurs as a motif throughout The City of Tomorrow: in a later section on nature, whose material body is described as chaotic (the beast) but whose spirit is described as orderly (human rationality); in an account of the human body as a “fragmentary and arbitrary shape” but a pure and orderly idea; in an account of nations “overcoming their animal existence”; in an account of the supremacy of orthogonality; and so one. The pack-donkey is the figure –in these (and others) fables- of a disorderly nature, of the chaotic and diseased body, of a barbaric architectural and urban past.
The donkey makes the “ruinous, difficult and dangerous curve of animality” and typifies the “looseness and lack of concentration” of human beings in distraction –that is, the primitive or nonmodern human being. The donkey in all of these guises threatens the triumph of geometry –an urbanism and an architecture of geometry, of positive action, of overcoming and ascending to power(nationhood), of sanity, nobility, and self-mastery.
Ingraham Catherine. Architecture and the Burdens of Linearity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.