Le Corbusier And The Machine House

Le Corbusier proclaimed in Vers une architecture that "the plan is the generator." That is, the plan is the idea of the building, from which all the rest is to be developed, including the elevations and the overall mass of the building. The plan, he averred, has the capacity to reshape a lifestyle, which was exactly the social and political result Le Cor-busier had hoped for in the formation of a modern architecture. As he put it, formulation of the plan must proceed from within to without, taking shape in the way an organism grows, but functioning in the manner of a machine. Its evolution from initial thought to construction-ready plan is a task in logical problem solving.

Viewing its planning process as one not unlike that for engineering, Le Corbusier characterized a house as a "machine for living in" (figs. 9-10, 9-11, 9-12, 9-13). For him the modern house needed to function like a machine, efficiently and without extraneous parts. That is not to say it should look like a machine, although he was often interpreted as having said so. Rather, he was advocating the suppression of decorative clutter and unnecessary furnishings and possessions. Emulating the efficiency of a machine, the house needs everything necessary for healthful personal maintenance and private cultivation, but nothing materially extraneous. Like Wright, he made bedrooms small, discouraging unproductive indolence. He tried to minimize furniture, encouraging built-ins where possible, especially for storage purposes. At the same time he tried to provide a tall (i.e., two-story) space in part of the living area, a free-flowing scheme for the public spaces, and a private outdoor area, typically on the roof.

Because the plan of a house is so intimately involved with the quality of life, its development is more than a

Figure 9-10

"Machine style" plan: ground floor, Villa Savoye, by Le Corbusier (Oeuvre complete) (© 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/FLC).

Figure 9-10

"Machine style" plan: ground floor, Villa Savoye, by Le Corbusier (Oeuvre complete) (© 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/FLC).

Corbusier Color Theory Architecture

Figure 9-11

"Machine style" plan: first floor, Villa Savoye, by Le Corbusier (Oeuvre complete) (© 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/FLC).

Figure 9-11

"Machine style" plan: first floor, Villa Savoye, by Le Corbusier (Oeuvre complete) (© 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/FLC).

Figure 9-12

"Machine style" plan: roof garden, Villa Savoye, by Le Corbusier (Oeuvre complete) (© 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris FLC).

Figure 9-12

"Machine style" plan: roof garden, Villa Savoye, by Le Corbusier (Oeuvre complete) (© 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris FLC).

Figure 9-13

"Machine style" exterior: Villa Savoye, by Le Corbusier (Oeuvre complète) (© Anthony Scibilia/Art Resource, NY; with permission of © 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/FLC).

Figure 9-13

"Machine style" exterior: Villa Savoye, by Le Corbusier (Oeuvre complète) (© Anthony Scibilia/Art Resource, NY; with permission of © 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/FLC).

material matter; it also raises the moral issues of honesty, authenticity, and integrity. Le Corbusier was aiming at an austere, rational lifestyle that rejected luxuriant excesses imputed to the bourgeoisie of the preceding era. His conception implied a world view that was more socialist than democratic, for the implementation of which he always imagined an unspecified but controlling central authority.

If Le Corbusier conceived of the house in terms of its various functions, the generation of its design required the imposition of formal discipline in the application of proportion. His concern for proportion was manifested in two different theoretical settings. The first was Vers une architecture, where it appeared under the rubric of "regulating lines." To demonstrate its application, he imposed various geometric figures, the lines of which cross the center or intersect the corners of prominent features, upon drawings and photographs of famous facades (fig. 9-14). The point was to demonstrate that in an excellent architectural design

Corbusier Color Theory Architecture

Figure 9-14

Le Corbusier's "regulating lines" superimposed on a photograph of the Palazzo Senatorio on the Capitol, Rome (Vers une architecture) (© 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris/FLC).

Figure 9-14

Le Corbusier's "regulating lines" superimposed on a photograph of the Palazzo Senatorio on the Capitol, Rome (Vers une architecture) (© 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris/FLC).

the important incidents follow the discipline of an inherent geometry. Ostensibly the geometric correspondences are meant to indicate that a subtle proportional system was embodied in each of the designs. But he never explained how an architect would or could have arrived at a new design using this method. Nor did he explain the rationale for placing the geometric figures where they happen to fall on the designs: because he imposed them after the fact, he was free to manipulate the figures until he got the desired result. Whether or not such a method could be employed to create designs has, to my knowledge, never been demonstrated either in his work or in that of a follower.

Le Corbusier's second method of employing proportions was gradually developed between the 1920s and the 1940s. It appeared in the guise of a human-figure referent, 1.75 meters tall. This figure, dubbed the Modulor, had one hand raised high above the head to indicate a normal ceiling height. Le Corbusier demonstrated its application in an eponymous treatise (Paris, 1948) and issued another volume of the same name, recording responses by architects who had used it, in 1955. His abstract Modulor figure was subdivided by an obscure set of ratios, based on a mathematical series of increasing quantities (fig. 9-15). These ratios were meant to be transferable to all parts of a building design in order to endow it with a harmony akin to that of classical temples. Whether he employed the ratios while working out a design or applied them only after the fact to refine or justify it, they represented a tool of composition that was somewhat arbitrary in nature. The Modulor was difficult for others to incorporate into their own designs because its ratios did not correspond to standard whole-number measures in either feet or meters. Moreover, it also did not conform to ready-made materials, although Le Cor-busier had hoped manufacturers would adopt it as their new standard. Its chief value, then, was less for general applicability than as a reassertion in architectural theory in the modern era of the age-old concern for proportions, particularly for a standard based on the human body. On the part of Le Corbusier it was primarily a gesture of concern for achieving in modern architecture the kind of rationally determined harmony that had distinguished the great architecture of the past.

However well intentioned this effort, the cause of proportions was impeded by the adoption in the late 1940s of standard measurements for mass-produced materials in the United States. In consequence, except for the most privileged of commissions, for which the components could be

Figure 9-15

Le Corbusier's Modulor figure, representing his system of proportions (Oeuvre complète) (© 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/FLC).

Figure 9-15

Le Corbusier's Modulor figure, representing his system of proportions (Oeuvre complète) (© 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/FLC).

custom-made, the use of proportions was reduced to rote application of standard modules. Hence the imposition of subtler ratios on the part of the architect became impractical and the calculation of proportions, for all intents and purposes, passed out of the range of theoretical aspirations, especially for the purposes of generating a plan.

Inherent in all modernist theories of planning is the assumption that a building readily communicates its plan to the user. Even from the exterior the layout of the building should be evident, indicating to a certain extent the nature and variety of activities contained inside. The place of entry outside and the route of circulation inside should be amply manifest. The location of certain kinds of generalaccess facilities, such as the main auditorium or meeting room of a public building, the reception or information area, and the restrooms, should be apparent without the necessity of inquiry. The distinction between restricted and unrestricted areas should also be clear. And appropriate signage should guide users in locating more specialized facilities. Predictability and clarity are presupposed as qualities of the layout. Simplicity is a virtue. Durand would recognize them all and have been gratified at the durability of his design method.

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