Le Corbusier’s “Words” (1925)

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).

• • •

Are our children really destined to spend their lives in this vast geometric barracks, living in mass-produced houses with mass-produced furniture, all propelled at the same hour, by the same trains, to identical offices in identical skyscrapers? Their recreation, their leisure pursuits regimented to the same pattern, everyone will have his small piece of ground; and if they enjoy gardening, there are allotments; notice that private garden sprinklers are banned, being considered out-of-date and not very efficient; even in their smallest amusements, they must never forget what is useful.  Poor wretches! What will become of them in the midst of all this appalling speed, organization and uniformity? So much logic pushed to its ultimate consequences, so much ‘science’ and ‘mechanization’ everywhere, lurking on every page and crowing triumphantly: that is quite enough to put you off ‘standardization’ for ever and to fill you with nostalgia for ‘disorder.’

This appraisal of Urbanisme appeared in L’Architecte the mouthpiece of (amongst others) Messrs.  Plumet, Bonnier, Dervaux.  L’Architecte b to be found on all architects’ desks.  The article in question is elsewhere very agreeable and even flattering.  The part I have extracted here is in some sense the ‘But, nevertheless,’ of a whole generation.  You would think we were on the barricades; struck by a bullet in the heart, the hero, before collapsing, declares his principles with an eloquence which becomes more animated at every turn.  The battles of former days were eloquent and have stereotyped our vocabulary; the words flow, a parliamentary eloquence is kindled; words! The generation of 1870 shares its little drama with us.  What am I saying? You would think that Stevenson had not invented his engine yet.

Let us look closely at the words of this very ‘standardized’ protest:

This vast geometric barracks is proposed in order to bring a completely new variety to the appearance [141] our towns, to replace the ‘corridor street’ which is the only attribute of towns today, by perspectives of great architectural potency: the redents (set-backs) the honeycombed surfaces, the skyscrapers.  If you examine the plan of the ‘Contemporary Town’ and imagine the layout as built, if you attempt a theoretical walk from one part of the town to another, you would appreciate that the scenes alter with every step, that they are never repeated, and that the ‘corridor’ town is dead.  It is replaced by a town where space, and the views close-to and afar, and numerous architectural combinations are brought into play; the generous scale of the plan is complemented by the elevations: an unbroken succession of different views is unfolded against the sky.  Any professional who is not preoccupied with a profession of faith dating from 1870, could easily read this much in the pages of the indicated book.

The houses are mass-produced but of course, as are those houses of every period which correspond to a particular type: the Haussmann style, the Louis XVI style, the Louis X style, etc.

Mass-produced furniture. You forget to mention the manufacture which has for a long time been carried on in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine.  You know very well that for centuries they have been producing standard ranges of furniture there: in one yard, chairs’ feet, in another, wood for making beds, etc.  Could you suggest a percentage, one in a hundred, in a thousand, in ten thousand, of households which for generations has not been using mass-produced furniture? All I ask is that we build modern mass-produced furniture and not affectations of royal styles.

All propelled at the same hour by the same trains to identical skyscrapers. Come now, don’t try to persuade us that before the fatal appearance of my book, trains departed at whim, arrived when they chose, and having arrived, were turned into firewood so that the same trains should not be running the next day.  The next day, at the end, alas, of this imaginary time, these trains would arrive at a different station, so as not always to be doing the same thing and to preserve in the travelers a sense of the unexpected!

Identical offices! They are all so different at present: the large, paneled lounge for the deputy director — with pink marble fireplace and Bernot briquettes; the window less anteroom for the office boy; the bedrooms for the engineers or accountants, with fireplaces in white marble (standard range) and Bernot briquettes; the typists in the kitchen at the back.  These are the identical offices which now house the business world of Paris, from the Boulevard Sébasto to the Étoile.  And very poor offices they are too!

Leisure pursuits regimented to the same pattern: I beg your pardon! I am suggesting that around the houses (and I will make this possible) people can play football, tennis, basketball and all the traditional sports that can only be played if there is enough room.  I make enough room.  You know that these days there is noroom and the only social activity regimented to the same pattern is playing dice [zanzi sur le zinc — a kind of dice game played on bar counters] or holding séances at home, neither of which solve the problem of the lungs, legs, biceps or moral well-being of the population.

Everyone will have his small piece of ground. It seems to me that this is the dream that you have all been pursuing for the past thirty years, in your writings.  Do you seriously hold it against me that I have provided everyone with a small piece of ground? Private sprinklers are forbidden, because I have contrived by architectural grouping, to introduce automatic watering.  A sad loss (if I may say so) for humanity! The sprinkler is an entity: my roof, my sprinkler! A whole life is stretched towards these two symbols of the age of shepherds.  Don’t take away my sprinkler begs Mimi Pinson through the flowery mouth of M.  Saint Granier.

Appalling speed, organization and uniformity as opposed to appalling delays, disorder and uniformity.  If we are talking about the researches or Urbanisme then we must replace appalling uniformity by an ever renewed diversity. And anyone who cares to look (in Vienna, Berlin and London, even more than in Paris) at city suburbs, at town streets, will find uniformity.  everywhere and Urbanisme which draws attention to [142] these unfortunate results of a lack of organization, strives to suggest some solutions.

But then, all this logic pushed to its ultimate consequences, all this science and mechanization everywhere on every page, these are the unpardonable crimes of an architect gone astray.  Yes, of course: an architect should not be logical, should be ignorant, and in the twentieth century should scrupulously avoid the machine.  Let us take note of this definition of an architect in the very influential mouthpiece of Messrs Plumet, Bonnier and Dervaux.

Lurking on every page and crowing triumphantly: They are triumphant? Thank you.  That is the intention.

That’s quite enough to fill you with nostalgia for ‘disorder.’ There! Architecture is requested to lead to disorder.  See, M.  Paul Valery, how your Eupalinos is received in this year of 1925, and as a conclusion to the Exhibition of Decorative Arts I would certainly say that this echoes M.  Léandre Vaillat’s profession of faith, if it were not scandalous to mention the names of M.  Paul Valéry and M.  Léandre Vaillet together in the same sentence.  They discuss the same thing, architecture but it is not at all the same thing, it is two quite different things which have nothing in common.  There are levels which cannot communicate with each other.

If I have analysed the review in L’Architecte word by word, it is because I considered it a good example of the innumerable clichés (standardized and how!) by which people cling to a dead past and try stifle the early signs of a new state of mind in public opinion.  This article in L’Architecte written by professionals in a professional journal, sums up the many indignant feelings aroused during the summer by the Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau, and let me know how cutting the press can be.

My analysis reveals word by word.  Words! Words! Words are so powerful! You can do a lot with words.  The established situation takes refuge behind words.


~ by Ross Wolfe on October 20, 2010.

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