polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

A Scopitone, New York and Two Frenchmen

by Min Li Chan

In the foreword to his 1929 book, "The City of To-Morrow and its Planning," architect Le Corbusier recalls a conversation with the editor of New York Magazine, in which the latter declared: "In two hundred years Americans will be coming over to Europe to admire the logical productions of modern France, while the French will be standing in astonishment before the romantic sky-scrapers of New York."

Thirty-five years later, singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg appears to reinforce this notion in a 16mm jukebox film, or Scopitone (a fascinating, now-obsolete format predating the contemporary music video). In the song "New York USA," Gainsbourg is perhaps not as much standing in astonishment at the towers before him than hanging nonchalantly on ledges, musing oratorically at dizzying heights.

Le Corbusier was a prolific theorist and champion of the vertical ascension of cities, believing that it would liberate residents from congestion and squalor on the ground. As Gainsbourg invokes the names of then-iconic skyscrapers, one can't help but imagine the architect's delight at this vision of a radiant modern city lifting its inhabitants skyward, even if he purportedly called New York a beautiful catastrophe.

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