Monday, September 28, 2009

LIght Machines: Le Corbusier

Top: Brussells Pavilion by Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis ( A fascinating electronic musician)
Bottom: Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier.

“Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.” Le Corbusier

“The house is a machine for living in.” Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier’s famous definition of Architecture being the masterly and correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light seems to be more aligned with Boullee and the Vitruvian idea of Delight. Le Corbusier, in the end was a form-maker or more aptly a volume-enveloper. He framed views, made abstract sculptural forms removed from the practical and wholly indebted to the purely aesthetic. Like Boullee, Le Corbusier believed in the perfection of pure geometries in creating the most aesthetically perfect manifestation of form. Unlike Boullee, his buildings actually got built!

The irony of Le Corbusier lies in the fact that he derived his new conception of modern architecture simultaneously from ancient aesthetics of pure geometric form as well as through the example of the rationalist engineer whose grain silos and factories were emerging with the industrial technology of the time, and were unfettered by the decorum and traditions of architectural expectations. The modern machines of automobile and airplane also inspired his notions of standardized architectural perfection. The modern and the ancient collided in Corbusier’s conception of a new Modern Architecture. However, as can be seen in his works, the Vitruvian doctrine of Delight always takes precedence. He made a point to differentiate the architect from the engineer, something Durand would potentially deem unnecessary. Le Corbusier expounds on how the engineered forms of bridges and automobile and ships allude to new ways of building, but in his Modernist period he uses these lessons solely as aesthetic devices. It is well known that the Villa Savoye was a ridiculously heavy construction made by old methods and fronted to look like a brand new way of building: it was certainly a machine only in spirit. He praised the Engineer in his ability to be honest about the problems of construction in his time, but he did not fully take those lessons to his constructions. His buildings lied to tell the truth: they were an expression of the new honest way to build, but were in and of themselves not honestly constructed. His desire for the correct and magnificent play of light on forms negated the buildings from being strictly about honesty of construction. His expressions were conflicted, and this conflict could be interpreted as an interesting tension or a convolution of ideals. I vote for the former. Le Corbusier was an architect with enough genius to embrace the paradox of his profession. Timeless/Progressive, Industrial/Sensual, Functional/Spiritual, Rational/Arbitrary. He was not without fault, however. Hindsight teaches his ideas of urban planning, and even earlier, of mass production houses, were ultimately not unifying towards society as intended, but alienating. They had negative and long lasting repercussions.

Le Corbusier was most like Boullee, but practical enough to get his buildings actually built, and in a moment in time where his theories were accepted by the clients of the time.

Mies Van Der Rohe placed his ideologies squarely in the shadow of Durand, using rationality as a religion for the derivation of his buildings. But were his buildings devoid of Delight? Find out in the next post....


  1. man, I am really delighted. You should really consider teaching history
    take care and keep up the good work!

    you should check this out, it's a 10+yrs work in compiling work done by history students at my local school


  2. What does it mean when Le Corbusier states that his design is a "machine for living"?