Urban planner and founding member of the faculty for city planning at Yale University
Over the course of his international career, French city planner Maurice Rotival had a significant effect on the discipline of urban planning on both sides of the Atlantic. He was instrumental in the creation of the city planning program at Yale University and in the development of plans to renovate New Haven, Connecticut in the 1940s and 1950s.
Rotival was educated in Paris, studying engineering at the Ecole Centrale, an institution at the forefront of French industrial and architectural design. After interrupting his studies to serve in the French army during World War I, he graduated from the Ecole Centrale in 1920 and went on to study economics and mathematics at the Sorbonne. He was a student of modern French urbanists Eugène Hénard, Henri Prost, and other members of the influential Société Française des Urbanistes (SFU) and was acquainted with Le Corbusier, a prominent modernist and founding member of the Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM).
Though he spent much of his subsequent career abroad, Rotival remained in contact with his contemporaries in Paris and frequently contributed to French publications, including L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui. In 1939, after spending the late 1930s working in Caracas, Venezuela, Rotival left for the United States. He had been invited to take a position at Yale University as a professor of planning—an invitation he owed at least in part to American architect Wallace Harrison, whose influential patron, Nelson Rockefeller, would also become a close acquaintance of Rotival.
As a professor, he helped shape the newly created city planning faculty at the Yale University School of Fine Arts and led a number of studies. One such study, ‘The Case for Regional Planning,’ sought to prove the necessity of planning on the local and regional level and to suggest ways to administer such projects without overly involving the federal government. He was also active professionally during this time and was asked by city officials to draft a proposal for the revitalization of New Haven. His plans were adopted in 1942, but the project was delayed as the United States became more involved in World War II and Rotival returned to Europe to serve as an officer in the Free French Forces. At the end of the war, Rotival served as general secretary of the French delegation of the four-part commission in Berlin and head of a section on European studies. He used the opportunity to advocate for cross-border planning and cooperation in areas like the coal and steel region of the Rhine.
In the 1950s, Rotival returned to New Haven to resume the revitalization project, adapting his earlier plans to address changes in urban conditions. Having always stressed the importance of creating organic plans, Rotival became one of the first planners to use computers—a piece of technology he had become familiar with during the war—to calculate the equilibrium for a city in view of different policy options and future development paths. As a result of his experience in the United States, he was considered by many European contemporaries to be a specialist in North American city planning and, despite anti-American sentiment in Gaullist France, he was consulted for plans to renovate the northern city of Reims and sections of Paris.
Though many of his notions about planning and urban renewal were rejected by later generations of planners, Rotival's influence can still be seen in cities around the world. Aside from his work in the Americas and France, he also wrote extensively and developed renewal plans for cities in Yugoslavia, Lebanon, South Africa, Madagascar, and Algeria. Throughout of his career, Rotival drew on his French and European training, tempered with a pragmatic, functional approach that allowed him to meet the needs of American and other international clients.