Le Corbusier’s “The New Spirit in Architecture” (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).

• • •

Last year I visited the construction site of a huge dam in the Alps; this dam will certainly be one of the finest achievements of modern technology and one of the most awe-inspiring for anyone who feels enthusiasm for such things: the site is imposing, it is true, but the final effect results chiefly from the combined efforts of reason, inventiveness, ingenuity and boldness.  I was accompanied by a friend of mine, a poet: we were foolish enough to impart our enthusiasm to the engineers who were showing us round the site; but we only succeeded in arousing their laughter and scorn, and even some misgivings.  They did not take us seriously; they thought that we must be slightly mad.  We tried to explain that we admired their dam because we could judge what radical transformations might be brought about by having works of similar breadth in our towns for example.  And suddenly, these men, who are involved in doing positive, logical, practical things, exclaimed: ‘So you want to spoil our cities! You barbarians! You are forgetting the rules of aesthetics! They were quite different from us by the nature of their thinking: being accustomed to conceiving and executing projects based on pure calculation, they revealed that they were incapable of imagining the consequences of their work in any other field; they remained in the past…

If people are already tired of all the talk about mechanization, it is proof of the incredible speed with which ideas are implanted: when we began our search for purification in an area swarming with ideas, in our efforts to construct a coherent system of thought, basing ourselves on the current changes in society, on the social climate, we were being completely original; we were dealing with people who only exclaimed, in pleasure or indignation, at the turmoil created by the machine, at the machine-gun, the power-hammer, at the smoking machine, which devours men; unlike them, we wanted to learn from the machine and then leave it to its simple role as our servant.  It was not our intention to marvel at it, but to assess it; we would classify our findings so that following this victory of reason, we might find elements to touch our emotions.

I think this classification that we under useful for a whole series of researches carried out since then.  Furthermore, we specified the conditions in which mechanization developed, the law of economics which governs the way all work is carried out these days.   We postulated that mechanization is based on geometry and established that our lives depend on geometry that it is our very language, by which I mean that geometry denotes order and that mankind expresses itself only through order.

The first thing a man does is to square up, to arrange, put in order, look plainly at what is before him; he has discovered the way to measure space by using coordinates on three perpendicular axes.  The phenomenon is so innate of order that it is surprising that it should even have to be mentioned.  But do not forget that we are emerging from a period — the end of the nineteenth century — of reaction, terrible reaction against order, and of fear at the powerful incitement to order brought about by the advent of the machine: people did not want order; the idea of a new way of life based on order dates back only a few years.

I repeat, order is the manifestation of mankind men you leave Paris by train, what do you see unfolding before your eyes but an immense work of arrangement.  A struggle against Nature to conquer her, to sort things out, to make life comfortable and.  in brief, to live in a human world which would not be the stronghold of hostile Nature: our world of geometrical order? Our work is based on geometry.  The rails are absolutely parallel, the embankments are the realization of geometric designs; bridges, viaducts, locks and canals and all the urban and suburban creation which extends far into the countryside, show that when man acts and gives expression to his will, he inevitably becomes a geometrician and his creations are based on geometry.  [133] His presence is betrayed by the fact that in a natural landscape, human effort is revealed by straight lines, articles, horizontals, etc.

Thus towns are planned and houses built under the rule of the right angle.

The recognition of the decisive and essential value of this angle is an affirmation of general order which is of great importance and influence in aesthetics and hence in architecture…

• • •

It is customary to study the phenomenon of architecture by looking only at palaces; obviously they do represent a certain achievement.  But I intend quite simply to discuss the house and this is certainly sufficient reason to justify the formulation of laws and rules of architecture.  Today, architecture is concerned with the house, with the ordinary, everyday house for normal, everyday people.  It is no longer preoccupied with palaces.  By studying a house designed for ordinary people, for all and sundry, we rediscover the human bases, the human scale, our typical needs, functions and emotions.  A house has to fulfill two purposes.  First it is a machine for living in, that is, a machine to provide us with efficient help for speed and accuracy in our work, a diligent and helpful machine which should satisfy all our physical needs: comfort.  But it should also be a place conducive to meditation, and, lastly, a beautiful place, bringing much-needed tranquility to the mind.  I am not claiming that everyone finds art sustaining: I am merely saying that for some people — certain mentalities — a house must bring a feeling of beauty.  Everything concerned with the practical purposes of the house is provided by the engineer; everything concerned with meditation, a spirit of beauty, a pervading sense of order (which would be the mainstay of that beauty) depends upon the architecture.  Engineering on the one hand, architecture on the other.

The house is a direct consequence of the phenomenon of anthropocentrism, that is, the notion that everything centers on man.  This is simply because the house is of interest to us alone, inevitably and more than anything else.  Our house is bound up with our movements like the snail’s shell.  So it is important that it fits us well.

It is necessary to reduce everything thus to the human scale.  It is the only solution to adopt, and it is above all the only means of looking clearly at the present problem facing architecture and of allowing a complete revision of values.  Such a revision is indispensable after an era which is in culmination of nearly six centuries of pre-mechanization culture.  This brilliant era which has now been shattered by mechanization was unlike ours in that it concentrated on external display, on palaces for noblemen, on churches for popes.

Now as I have said, we are confronted by a new phenomenon: mechanization.  The methods of building a house on a human scale are so topsy-turvy, so greatly enriched and so different from what we are accustomed to that everything handed down to us from the past is no longer any use, and we are cautiously seeking a new aesthetic.  We are on the brink of a new approach which we shall try to give expression to.

Anthropocentrism or the restoration of the human scale, means quite simply that doors and windows must be studied; a house is a box with doors and windows in it; doors and windows are elements of architecture.

People have contrived to put up buildings with doors twelve meters high or three meters high; they are equally unsuitable.  Permissible measurements have been stretched and little by little a code of arbitrary measurements has been formed, whilst our height of 1 meter 80 has remained unchanged.  We need to revise these measurements, and the elements of architecture.

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~ by Ross Wolfe on October 20, 2010.

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