23 December, 2008

Le Corbusier, Mixing the Kool-Aid

I want to share what I believe to be the central theme from Le Corbusier's Towards a New Architecture (1924):

A great epoch has begun.
There exists a new spirit.
Industry, overwhelming us like a flood which rolls on toward its destined ends, has furnished us with new tools adapted to this new epoch, animated by this new spirit.
Economic law inevitably governs our acts and our thoughts.
The problem of the house is a problem of the epoch.
The equilibrium of society today depends upon it.
Architecture has for its first duty, in this period of renewal, that of bringing about a revision of values, a revision of the constituent elements of the house.
Mass production is based on analysis and experiment.
Industry on the grand scale must occupy itself with building and establish the elements of the house on a mass-production basis.
We must create the mass-production spirit,
The spirit of constructing mass-production houses.
The spirit of living in mass-production houses.
The spirit of conceiving mass-production houses.
If we eliminate from our hearts and minds all dead concepts in regard to the house, and look at the question from a critical and objective point of view, we shall arrive at the "House-Machine," the mass-production house, healthy (and morally so too) and beautiful in the same way that the working tools and instruments which accompany our existence are beautiful.
Beautiful also with all the animation that the artist's sensibility can add to severe and pure functioning elements.

Just read it a few times and realize that there is a significant body of architectural education that rests primarily upon this foundation. And yet there are those who would still insist that the state of architectural education in this country is not cultic in its abhorrence of anything daring to remember the past. I'll be working on a few posts based on this manifesto from Le Corbusier and I thought I would throw it out there prior to analyzing it to death.


clarky-pooh said...

In defense of modernism / but not Corbu

The story they don’t tell young disciples of the modern in school is that the Villa Savoy leaked like a colander. So much in fact that the young boy living in the house contracted pneumonia and almost died the family was starting legal action against “The Crow”, but that was put on hold when the Germans invaded France. I don’t care how cool it looks if it leaks it don’t work.

But…as for the mass produced…it is what we live in. from Pella windows, to shingles, to composite silent floor wood trusses…it is all mass production assembled on site slowly by carpenters. The steel industry could never win over the small company contractor (the ones who build single family homes) because steel was fast and required precision work done in a shop and not on site. So for the autonomy of small company contractor we still build wood houses all over the country, well not so much at the moment.

Mass production American style, well post war California at any rate.
Don’t think Corbu, think Charles and Ray.
The Eames say houses not as “machines for living” but rather “a center for productive activity” and a canvas on which to display the things important to your life.
Look at the cold villa Savoy against Case Study House #8. The Eames house resonates with life and art, it is more “modern” than Savoy; but also more full of life.

Remember when Corbu talks about the old house he is talking about manor or villas which include quarters for servants and comfortable rooms for the leisure class. In this country we have no leisure class, CEO’s work 55 hour weeks; the captains of industry don’t sit around reading they are out doing. We work our houses should be instruments to facility that work and supply a place for family life.

Corbu is speaking of the manor born, the Eames are designing for the self-made man of production.

Happy new year

Matt said...

You make good points and I can certainly see the relevant distinctions. My major criticism of the deification of Corbu rests largely on the fact that his buildings flat out didn't function, as you correctly point out. Cram was working in 1924 too, I never heard about him or any others like him in A school. At least his buildings are still useful for something other than a huge upkeep budget to keep them around as a museum piece. When I hear Corbu in this passage talking about forgetting everything we ever knew about the house, I hear a lot of water dripping from crappy new details and windows that aren't recessed into the walls and protected by eaves like common sense says they should be. It is the willful tossing of lessons learned about environment, culture, or form that makes me a little peeved at the state of architectural education in our country.

Like you, I would much rather admire the work of Eames over Corbu. I certainly don't mind learning about either one, but when I heard Corbusier at least twice a day in school without ever hearing Cram, Pugin or Lutyens I wonder just how lopsided my education really was.

clarky pooh said...

What is the idiom “those who can’t, teach”
Well I think for Arch. School it’s “those who can’t get clients, refuse to compromise, budget, or plan, and just can’t plan hack it in the profession escape to the ivory tower.”

These folks stand in studios and proclaim ideas they can’t sell to people in order to make them clients. (Save a few who are the true teachers)
They like the modern because they like the image, they don’t want to figure out the drip edge and the flashing…not because it is not important…but because it is not fun. The profession is not supposed to be fun; it is to be work at the end of which something useful has been produced.

I’ll give you detail, and history, but the cultural stuff is where I tend to agree with Corbu, why should the house of a software engineer look the same as an 18th century Dutch farmer in Pennsylvania, or the leisure classed man of letters of the 16th in the Italian countryside. We don’t wear the heels and the powdered wigs, well some dudes do, but I wouldn’t call them dudes. Why not reinvent and adapt to local and current conditions, I mean all history was someone’s better idea at some point.

So overhang yes, fluted column…no…or why…but probably no

Matt said...

The last bit of that comment is where I think there is a disconnect between reality and the modernist movement. Sure, the house of a software engineer doesn't have to look like anything that's come before, though it should if the software engineer desires it so. I actually still enjoy minimalist design. Ando and Shigeru Ban (hopefully I spelled that correctly) are still masters in my mind (they can also detail well, which is big).

The problem comes when modernists attempt to stipulate that their particular experiment is what people should want, whether they actually do or not. Have you seen the house MVRDV designed for N.O.? It's a horrendous pile of crap. I wouldn't care if some eccentric dude wanted to build that as his private residence, but I do care when Brad Pitt decides that this is the house that X number of families will live in whether or not those poeple actually find it attractive. If some people (i.e. your supposed clients) want to rebuild classic N.O. homes, wrought iron railings and all, then by all means let them do it. It sucks when architects largely involved in education supposedly adopt a client only to ignore their aesthetic tastes and foist whatever experiment they want to on them.

You can of course make the same arguments against a lot of New Urbanist restrictive codes, though the only thing different between the two examples is that a healthy majority of typical citizens actually prefer more traditional design, especially when it comes to residential functions.

It's almost as if the modernists have realized that they're losing the battle of public opinion and therefore will use any avenue open to them to shove their designs into the built world. It sounds like the tactics of the opposition political party, rule by judicial fiat or legislative trickery translated into the realm of architecture.

To make the point much more succinctly, the fluted column is only required if the client desires it and still finds value and comfort in its aesthetics. While I think that designing to the human scale is non-negotiable, I'm pretty flexible on what form that scale takes. Put another way, if someone wants traditional, humanist proportionality I'll gladly give them a product regardless of style. If someone wants me to design to the scale of the machine or ignore everything I've learned about what works for humans, then I'm respectfully telling them to find another architect.

Tim J. said...

I will only say that in reading recently some of the writings of Kandinsky (of The Blue Rider group) and Schoenberg (the composer of the same era who associated with The Blue Rider) I recognize much of the same language regarding a New Spirit and a New Age... one which they were excited to help usher in.

The sad irony is that this was in 1912, a scant two years before the horrendous shock of WWI. They were right about the advent of a new spirit... but they completely misunderstood the nature of that spirit.