Le Corbusier’s “Mass-Produced Buildings” (1924)
Translated from the French by Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton, et al.
From Architecture and Design, 1890-1939: An International Anthology
of Original Articles. (Whitney Library of Design. New York, NY: 1975).
• • •
For most people the notion of mass production in art or architecture implies the abandonment of true art, of good workmanship and of dignity. The object made on the production line embodies the growing horror of this machine age. The most strenuous efforts of the various arts are directed against the menace of mass production. Love of beauty and perfection calls for resistance to the conveyor belt product. The love of Louis XIV, Renaissance or Gothic beauty! The perfection of work done by hand. Spherical shapes which are half square, misshapen cylinders, bumpy surfaces!
The growing horror of this century is, in fact, beauty based on purity of form and precise execution. Machines are replacing hand work; the spheres are smooth; the cylinders have the kind of precision only attainable in theory: without fuss, the machine produces surfaces which are faultless.
Yes, but the poet has been assassinated. For the poet is a terrestrial creature, displaying his melancholy at the sorrows and failures of this sick world.
That poet has not been assassinated: he dies because the terrestrial age is passed.
No, the poet is reborn.
For the poet is one who loves perfection and wants to make man into God. His joyful vigor exhorts us; it seeks out and finds reasons and ways of making gods. And the poet holds a ball of shining steel in his hand and thinks: and this is proof of the existence of the God whom I seek.
Mass production demands a search for standards. Standards lead to perfection.
When it is decided to make 100,000 items, that item is examined very closely, that one must meet 100, or l,000 requirements, which are the requirements of 100, 1,000 or 100,000 individuals. If the requirements of 100,000 individuals are satisfied, it can be said that the human constants have been met and that a being has been created which is like a son to Man. The sole underlying principle of art must be the deep satisfaction of human needs. What else is our folklore which has survived over the centuries, if not a focus on the human scale of profoundly unanimous feelings, expressed in forms which have a truly universal effect upon all men? When 100,000 people have formed an opinion about a single issue, then a choice has been made, a positive judgment has been formed and perfection is attained. A standard is the result of a process of selection.
But there is another reason for the enduring quality and beauty of the standard. To create a standard you must satisfy completely economic criteria. You must find the exact, and not the approximate solution. And precision is the essence of beauty. Beauty consists of emotive interactions and only very precise constituents can interact. Economy is the fundamental principle of beauty. Economy is the most elevated sense of the word.
Now, economy in the most brutal sense of the word dictates the methods of mass production. When I make a single object, the wastage of materials, effort and time does not matter. Multiplied by 100,000, such wastage becomes unacceptable. At that moment economy in the brutal, materialistic sense, becomes economy in the most elevated sense.
This century appears full of the richest promise because the law of economics is the key to all our actions. This is because the machine, as inevitable and bewildering as a cataclysm, provides us with the means of carrying out fresh ideas in fresh conditions.
In our hearts, we quibble and cling to memories, we tremble before the uncertainty of the future and only reluctantly follow the impetuous leaps of our minds. We have fears and doubts. Even while we are breaking into vast new fields with our mathematics and with our machines, which direct us and push us powerfully and vigorously along, we nevertheless cast back a regretful glance.
But a new and implacable situation is upon us.
Let there be a new spirit (esprit nouveau) to light up our work with gladness!
Little by little this new spirit is forming. The greatest crisis of the present day stems from the conflict between our new situation and our way of thinking which is retarded by adherence to traditional practices and beliefs.
There are positive signs that, faced with the new facts, we are forming a new spirit and approaching harmony; the signs are clear: the demise of the decorative arts, the arrival of a purified, intense, concentrated art, with a strongly poetic content (modern art; cubism in particular is an early example); slowly, construction sites will adapt to industrialization; the introduction of mechanization in construction work will lead to the general acceptance of standard elements; even the design of houses will alter, under the sway of the new economics; the standard elements will provide unity of detail, and unity of detail is an indispensable requirement of architectural beauty. Then our towns will lose that appearance of chaos which blights them at the moment. Order will reign and new networks of streets, more immense and with a wealth of architectural solutions will present us with magnificent sights.
Thanks to the machine, to the identification of what is typical, to the process of selection, to the establishment of a standard, a style will assert itself. That order which the poet seeks by looking back to past eras, will reign once again; the poet must look forward, holding in his hand a ball of shining steel as a symbol of perfection henceforth attainable; he must be the advocate of order, and must bring to the new order of things, his spirit in its quest for harmony. New patterns will be established; the style of our time…