an 1891 church in the shadow of skyscraper in Downtown Houston, Texas Downtown Houston, Texas

Before the 1890s few buildings rose more than 7 stories. Then electric elevators and steel-frame construction changed everything. In the blink of an eye, cities raced skyward while our vision of what the modern city should be raced even faster. A radical new concept of human dwelling had come to full flower by the 1920s.

Fritz Lang's 1926 movie Metropolis captured the new vision then, and contemporary movies are rediscovering it. You’ve seen caricatures of the 1920s city in Blade Runner, Dark City, The Matrix, and Batman. More important, you’ve seen its sinister overtones. The raw power of the vision very quickly sent it off the rails.

New York CityWe imagined huge buildings rising, layer upon layer, multi-tiered highways flowing among them on many levels, airplanes and helicopters moving through the upper levels. And it all went up, up, up. Was there a bottom to the picture? Who knows! The bottom was out of sight. That’s where drones slaved to make it all run; we saw only up. The vision was Gothic — Gargoyles and ornate towers of old cathedrals. Only the flying buttresses were replaced by upper ribbons of highways.

In 1925, Wanamaker's Department Store put on an art exhibit called The Titan City, A Pictorial Prophesy of New York, 1926-2026.

Painting after painting showed the Gothic reach of city into the sky. Of course such a vision was doomed by its own excess. We catch only a flicker of it today — in, say, lower Wall Street, or when the evening sun flares on the steel and glass of downtown Houston.

In the end we didn’t centralize and build upward at all; we built outward. After WW-II, America moved to the suburbs. Our cities have scattered concentrations of tall office buildings, while most of us live in outlying neighborhoods. We flee the sterile technocracy of high concentration. For the things we build must be creatures of our hearts as well as our heads. We build to fit our human nature.

But, now and then, we do grasp at a Faustian vision of technology for technology's sake. We let ourselves be carried away by a Tower-of-Babel impulse. And no one ever did so more fully than King Camp Gillette.

A famous scene from the 1926 film Metropolis
A famous scene from the 1926 film Metropolis

In 1895, Gillette was the salesman for the man who invented cork-lined bottle caps. "Invent something people use and throw away," the man told him. It'd sure worked for him, so Gillette wondered what he might invent. The idea of a safety razor with disposable blade hit him one morning while he was shaving. By 1903, he was on his way to becoming the razor blade king of the world.

But Gillette had another side. The year before he cooked up the safety razor, he’d published a book promoting a Utopian socialistic world based on universal cooperation.King C. Gillette It was terrifyingly idealistic. All production would be done efficiently by one great company with all people as shareholders. "Selfishness would be unknown, and war would be a barbarism of the past," he wrote.

He imagined all 60 million Americans living in one great Metropolis, powered by the Niagara River. It'd have a hundred million rooms and be served by vast common dining halls.

Before WW-I, Gillette tried to set up such a World Corporation, not at Niagara but in the Arizona Territory. He asked Teddy Roosevelt to be its president. When that failed he turned to social reformer and writer Upton Sinclair. Sinclair arranged a disastrous meeting between Gillette and Henry Ford. The two millionaires talked past each other and finally just shouted in anger.

Sinclair also helped Gillette with a book titled, The People's Corporation. One critic called Gillette’s sincerity deep and compelling, but his solution “quite untouched by the realities which guard the road to Utopia." In his last years, Gillette tried to extract oil from shale; he still had his inventive verve. But he never did see that the simple elegance of his safety razor was no match for the complexity of human affairs.

And Gillette was not alone in such thinking. One Charles Edouard Jeanneret might’ve been even more frightening, because he was more realistic. Born Swiss in 1887, Jeanneret changed his name to Le Corbusier and trained in art and architecture. Then he emerged as an artistic revolutionary in Paris just after WW-I.

He started an avant-garde magazine, L'Esprit Nouveau, The New Spirit. He took on architecture, science, technology — even music (with Darius Milhaud’s help). He waged war on every part of the establishment. "The 20th century wasn't built for men," he cried, "it was built for money." The old orders of architecture are hopelessly inhumane. They've forgotten function and human need.

He created a new architecture of rough-hewn concrete, lovely, light and open. But, along with buildings, he also shaped an arcane philosophy. Finally, in 1935, he used an airplane picture book to explain himself. It began with the cry, "L'avion accuse ... !" "The airplane indicts ... the city."

The airplane became his perfect metaphor for how our world had been built ill. Here was a wholly new form deriving its beauty from pure function, not from the traditions of the past. Its design was completely flexible. Tomorrow’s airplane owes no debt at all to yesterday’s. It embodies, he says, “the purest expression of the human scale and a miraculous exploitation of material."

An early flying machine

The pictures are lovely. Such wild machines once filled the skies: graceful gliders, lumbering transports, exotic racing planes, amphibians, airplanes with three engines — or eight. This he said, is how architecture should evolve, driven by function alone. "No door is closed. Everything is relative. ... If a new factor makes its appearance, the relation alters. ... In aviation everything is scrapped in a year." And to get from here to there, an airplane simply flies in a straight line.

For Le Corbusier, machinery and craftsmanship were the one truth in a dishonest world. He says machines are truly humane, but we don't know machines. "The world lacks harmonisers to make palpable the humane beauty of modern times."

There is a terrible beauty in his airplanes -- all different, all transient, as they struggle to conquer the dangerous sky. They’re buoyant and fluid, and their dizzying evolution was indeed indicting the static cities below them.

Yet, when we look at his plans for “humane” cities we’re struck by the barren symmetry of their perfect arrays of streets. As Le Courbusier commands us to serve pure utility, his agenda is less in harmony with human beings than with rising fascist ideology — closer to both Hitler’s and King Camp Gillette’s notions that we must shape ourselves to the master’s vision of the perfect city.

Well, cities are formed in a far more organic way than that. Visionaries like Georges-Eugčne Haussmann or Brigham Young can create the mold for a city. But the city is never finished until an organic process has taken place — until its people have melded with its circumstances to give any one city its unique soul.

In any case, Richard Armstrong has just returned from a visit to Vienna. And there he discovered something very remarkable about Vienna, that really applies to any city. Let us hear what he has to say about that, next.


C. Willis, C., The Titan City. American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Vol. 2, No. 2, Fall 1986, pp. 44-49.

For images of the 1920s modern city, as it was first conceived, and as it appeared, in the movie Metropolis, click here.

For more on the role of Lang's Metropolis, see Episode 1605.

Mansfield, J., The Razor King. American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Spring 1992, pp. 40-46.

K. C. Gillette, The Human Drift. Boston: New Era Publishing Co., 1894. (This was the first of several books in which Gillette set down his ideas. The dedication reads: "The thoughts herein contained are dedicated to all mankind; for to all the hope of escape from an environment of injustice, poverty, and crime, is equally desirable.")

K. C. Gillette, The People's Corporation. (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1924). (This was Gillette's last book, 30 years after the first. Now the dedication says simply: "To MANKIND.")

Le Corbusier, Aircraft. New York: Universe Books, 1988 (reprint of a 1935 English edition.)

F. Choay, Le Corbusier. (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1960).

G. H. Baker, Le Corbusier: An Analysis of Form. (Hong Kong: Van Nostrand Reinhold (U.K.) Co. Ltd., 1984).

For another look at the variety of airplanes in the time when Le Corbusier wrote this book, see Episode 615. See also Episodes 585, 738 and 596.

These ideas are further developed in: J. H. Lienhard, Inventing Modern: Growing up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

Images: Downtown Houston and New York City photos by John H. Lienhard. Airplane image was taken from Karup, M.C., A Chamber of Horrors: Wild Designs in Flying Machines. Early Flight: From Balloons to Biplanes. (Frank Oppel, ed.) Secaucus, NJ: Castle, 1987, Chapter 31. King C. Gillette image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

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