Friday, August 6, 2010

Old in the New: The Innovation/Tradition Duality of Le Corbusier

Vitruvian Man Vs. Modern Man (Da Vinci and Le Corbusier)

The common story about Modern architecture was that it was a complete break from the past. Certain new avant-garde art movements combined with new ways of building created the emergence of a new aesthetic that emphasized a break from tradition. Hardcore Modernists, Futurists, and the De Stilj rejected the past as unnecessary and oppressive, but we see that the master architects of the modern era still retained links and connections to the past in subtle ways. They also looked back further for their inspiration. Some architects became interested in the idea of the primal building; the building that would link us to the essence of ancient mankind. This primitivism was an attempt to find a deeper truth about architecture instead of the shallow and blind reuse of traditional classical symbolism.

Le Corbusier can be thought of as the godfather of modernist vocabulary. He is a perfect example of the way that buildings could be made in an era of new technology and ideology. His five points of architecture were a brand new rulebook for design. But if one takes a closer look at his work and reads a little in his most revolutionary book, Towards a New Architecture, one cans see clear and strong links to the traditions of architecture. Le Corbusier learned many lessons from ancient architecture and he incorporated these into his revolutionary new synthesis.


La Tourette by Le Corbusier. A fount of geometry.

Geometry of the ancients:

Le Corbusier spoke of a lesson to be learned from Rome. The lesson, according to Towards A New Architecture is basically that the vocabulary of Ancient Roman architecture used pure geometric shapes to create bold buildings. The use of geometry that is unfussy and done in an ordered unified way created a rhetoric of power. It also defied and conquered the chaos of nature. Le Corbusier argued that the use of these simple geometries expressed the “pure and simple beauty of architecture.” This lesson is so fundamental that it can easily be translated into the Modernist architectural idiom without specifically evoking Roman precedents. The pure geometries found in the Villa Savoy or La Tourette exude the same bold power of Roman precedents without being derivative of them. One would never mistake the Villa Savoy as Neo-Roman! The duality is that the buildings are taking inspiration from ancient architecture while simultaneously being unprecedented and revolutionary.

Lines of Notre Dame from Towards a New Architecture by Le Corbusier.

Villas La Roche-Jeanneret by Le Corbusier with regulating lines.

Regulating Lines:

Le Corbusier expounded on regulating lines his whole career. He believed that a proportional system placed on the facades of his buildings would create aesthetically beautiful results. By studying major works throughout history including Notre Dame Cathedral, Petite Trianon and the Campidoglio, Corbusier was able to discern proportional regulating factors that sought to create a more wholly unified facade. He subsequently took these systems and applied them to the facades of his ultra Modernist villas. Once again, he takes a fundamental basic lesson from history and translates it onto his revolutionary work. He has found a way to use the past without being imitative.

Dualities right on the page!! The Standard.

Le Corbusier used a standard of proportion and construction to create the Heidi Weber Pavilion.

The Standard:

The chapter in Towards a New Architecture about the goal of creating a standard is the most obvious and intriguing duality found in the book. Here Le Corbusier compares the evolution of the Greek Temple with the evolution of the car. He argues that both of these developing systems were leading towards a perfect standard. This means he believed that through constant improvement and refinement the automobile would reach it’s perfect state in a similar fashion that the Greek Temples reached perfection with the Parthenon. Nothing in the history of architecture is more fascinating than looking at the Greek Temples in chronological order and literally seeing mistakes rectified and proportions refined. He believed the same process was happening with the development of the car and that someday it would reach perfection. When this happened perhaps all cars would look and operate the same. This is largely true, but as we have seen cars are constantly changing due to the needs of the consumer to constantly have something new even though the basic technology of the car changes little. Le Corbusier argued that architecture needed to relearn the concept of refining the standard. He lived in a time of fierce blind tradition and stubborn nostalgia. Architecture needed to break away from this and forge a new way. Ironically ancient precedents inspired the new standard that Corbusier proposed. Once again we see that Le Corbusiers’ revolutionary new way of making architecture was fundamentally grounded on lessons he learned from the past. Great works of art are steeped in precedent. This gives them their subconscious potency.

I feel that the standard is something that most young architects are not interested in any more. They believe that every building should be something new and fresh. The concept of deriving ideas from a project before it seems uninspired or unoriginal. But we should be constantly learning from our past to make each building better. If this is done with diligence, I think eventually all works by a certain architect will begin to look the same, at least on a superficial level. I view this as a positive. Once an architect has reached this plateau they are no longer innovating, but refining. This is where perfection can be reached. This is the creation of the standard. Mies Van Der Rohe got to this point in his late career and Renzo Piano is there right now.

Pure geometries, regulating lines and the goal of the standard all work together to create architecture of rhythm and harmony. The fundamental qualities of architecture are retained but used in new ways. Architecture evolves and adapts. Le Corbusier is teaching us that the wheel should never be reinvented; it should just be reinterpreted through the means and constraints of our time.

For the next post I will explore how other modern architects reconciled the duality between forging a new way of building while utilizing the past.

Mies Van Der Rohe achieved a standard. Chicago Federal Center. (Photo by Argitect)

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