Le Corbusier’s “In Defense of Architecture” (1929)

Translated from the French by Nancy Bray, André Lessard, Alan Levitt, and George Baird.

From Oppositions Reader: Selected Essays 1973-1984.

(Princeton Architectural Press.  New York, NY: 1998).

• • •

Dedicated to Aleksandr Vesnin

all things in this world are a product of the formula,

(function times economics)

so none of these things are works of art:

all art is composition and hence unsuited to a

particular end.

all life is function and therefore not artistic.

the idea of the “composition of a dock” is enough to

make a cat laugh!

but how is a town plan designed? or a plan of a

dwelling? composition or function? art or life?????

— Hannes Meyer, quoted by Karel Teige, Stavba.  (1929)

My dear Teige;

I have decided to answer your long architectural dissertation which appeared on the occasion of the publication of my plans for the Mundaneum in Stavba in 1929.  It is the first time that I have replied to criticism; God knows nevertheless that I am the target of it every day! I am taking advantage of the situation and am entitling these notes: “In Defense of Architecture,” a very Grand Siècle title, I admit.  Will you make le Grand Siècle synonymous with academicism too? (You wouldn’t be entirely in error).  I would like to show very clearly what have been my continuing motives and the reasons why I persevere in the researches which are truly the cause of the joy I experience daily in my work.  Today, in the avant-garde of the neue Sachlichkeit, two words have been killed: Baukunst (architecture) and Kunst (art).  We have replaced those by Bauen (construction) and by Leben (life).  Two notions which have been refined by the effect of cultures and now need to be returned to an original mass infinitely vaster and more imprecise as well; there is in this a loss of clarity, but one accepts this, to tell the truth, in the desire to rediscover the pure origin of a line of thought that is considered to be distorted today.  One would like to rectify this distortion.  That having been done, it would then not be possible to talk objectively of the question without using the perfectly comprehensible terms “architecture” and “art.”  In 1921, in L’Esprit Nouveau, we too had gone back to zero in order to try to see things clearly.  But if we did go back to zero, it was with the intent not to stay there, but only in order to reestablish our footing.

Your study, let me tell you, ought to have been directed to M. Nenot, a member of the Institute, and presently the architect of the League of Nations, rather than to me, because I believe I know the meaning of words in architecture and because your arguments, which (objectively speaking) having the same interest as my own as expressed in L’Esprit Nouveau, in my books and works, obviously find in me a convert.  In taking up anti-subjectivity you indulge in a very fashionable game; and to tell the truth, you speak in a way that contradicts your thought and suggests the opposite of what you really are: a poet.


If since 1921, the Czechs have shone so brightly in the emerging sky of the new times, it is largely because of you people, your magazines, your manifestos, your poems, people such as Teige, Nezval, Krećjar, etc.; all of you who know so well how to make a stay in Prague captivating.  And this not through erudite and profound discussions on the sachlich of existence, but by the vivacity of your reactions to the problems which preoccupy us all, and by means of this impulse — I would even say these wings — which lift the well-born above the earthbound, permitting them to distinguish, to predict, to draw the ongoing line of evolution.

Thus, I suppose that you, like many others among the best of the protagonists of the new architectural cycle, insist on playing hide-and-seek with words.  If one deprives words of their meaning, no further dialogue is possible, and confusion results.  In your case, it is dilettantism of a new romanticism, a romanticism of the machine.  With the others (the practitioners), it is a police measure which is perhaps opportune (blinkers to keep people from losing their way, or better, blinkers with which to fix the eyes of the masses, so that they can be pushed like a flock of sheep into a new adventure with which they are not yet comfortable, but one which, according to the practitioners, will be good for them, even indispensable for them).  And as with words, notions with an admittedly sentimental base which link those masses to the past, such as “architecture” and “art”; there will be attempts to get them to admit that the machine age has ineluctably abolished art and architecture.  Now if you adopt the attitude of the leader of the people, perhaps you are right also to acquiesce in measures of martial law.  But as for me, I who claim fiercely to preserve my freedom in its entirety, my artistic or creative spirit, I intend to remain in my anarchy (in respect to your police measures) and to pursue day after day a passionate quest: the quest for harmony.

Let me tell you then, without further delay, that in my opinion, aesthetics are a fundamental human function.

I would add that this function surpasses, in its effect on the governing of our existences, all those benefits which have been brought by progress.  Progress supplies tools.  Tools are only weapons with which to overcome a competitor.  In the economy of a nation, progress is an event which is imposed and obligatory, an event from which one may escape only by starving to death.  Essentially, progress is not an end but a means.  It is in essence changeable, each day replacing the tools of the preceding day.  Every tool of progress is perishable, especially any tool which is considered to be reduced to its specific utilitarian function.  Hannes Meyer’s formula applies here very rigorously: function times economy.

Now, any tool, whatever it is, is conceived by a human brain.  To facilitate the argument, let me adopt this concise classification: a man is a brain and a heart, reason and passion.  Reason knows only the absolute of current science, while passion is the vibrant force which tends to attract whatever is at hand.

I think that any man in conceiving anything at all is moved in the search for a solution.  Why is he moved? By definition, action equals movement equals impulse equals propulsion.  To satisfy his fundamental egotism: to perform better than his neighbor, to create something which is less expensive, more beautiful.  This notion of perfection (in any sense at all) is an aesthetic notion.

Let us talk about tools.  Functions must be resolved, an end must be attained; that is to say, the functions must be realized; the manner in which they are realized will permit the formulation of an order among diverse solutions.  Given equal efficiency, order arises in the realm of “elegance” — the “elegant solution” of the mathematician, the engineer.  An exclusively aesthetic notion.  I have written in Une Maison — Un Palais that all human acts tending toward the solution of a given problem imply the function of architecture; so that today, when mechanization has brought us to an enormous productive capacity, architecture is everywhere: in the battleship (Hannes Meyer), in the conduct of war, and in the form of a pen or of a telephone.  Architecture is a phenomenon of creation which follows an order.  Whoever talks of ordering talks of composing.  A composition is the essence of human genius; it is there that man is architect and there indeed is the precise meaning of the word “architecture.”  Why, since M. Nenot organizes modern functions badly, while insisting on using old tools, does it follow for you that composition is [601] the opposite of architecture? Is it because the obtuse exegetes have exhausted the term “composition” in designing these kinds of academic products? If the product is impure, it is the fault neither of the word nor of the function that it expresses.

Do you think that because of mechanization, born with the locomotive, man, who traces himself back to the pithecanthrope, has changed his basis? Do you think his basis is transformed because one day he suddenly acquired countless tools? Let us say simply that the harmonies to which man was secularly accustomed are now disrupted, and that he is himself disrupted and in confusion; that he doesn’t see clearly any more and that you, yourself are in the process of forging him a catechism which will enable him to cross to his destination; you are constructing him a pontoon bridge.

Right now I am crossing the plains of Poland.  Peasants inhabit wood shanties as old as the world itself.  Men and women, in certain places, are pushing plows similar to those of the time of the shepherds; they walk barefoot.  They couldn’t care less about Sachlichkeit, because, in their simple minds, they don’t understand in what way it would be preferable for their country, defeated in international competition, to sow by machine ten times more crops than they would need for their own individual consumption.  But they don’t care about this; their houses are made as well as possible within their conception of beauty; the women even like to wear a scarf adorned with multi-colored flowers.  You know very well that on Sunday they go to church (which is a form of aesthetics), to dances, and that they sing, which does them good because it serves no purpose other than expressing their passion by pursuits of a purely sentimental nature.

Sachlichkeit (an opportune police measure perhaps), implies in the spirit of its inventors an incompleteness.  If one wanted to be completely sachlich, one would say: this works; but I expect it to please me, to satisfy me, to quench my thirst, to interest me, to titillate me, to overwhelm me, etc.  Because, poet, I ask you: what is the motive that restrains men from throwing themselves into revolution, from pillaging everything and then starving to death in their ruins? It is that one can and one must consider as liberating only those tools which facilitate first, keep one abreast with competition, save time, and finally, endow everyone, through an ordering of all their daily activities, with the capacity to think about things.  And you will grant me that it is this capacity, to eat every day his spiritual food — as meager as it may be — which helps him to tolerate the hard life of Sachlichkeit and which gives him hope of a release, a sense of creation, a motive, which enables him to create, to conceive an idea.  It is there that the reserve resistance of man exists, his human pride…or at least the illusion of it, if you want to be skeptical.

“Machine for living in” was the succinct term with which, in 1921, I challenged the academies.  It is a reproach that I should address to M. Nenot, not one that you should put to me.  Because, setting aside the dispute with the academies and returning to our own, I immediately ask myself the questions “for living in — how? I pose here, simply, the question of quality.  I can find it resolved only in composition, that is to say, in the manner in which the creation of sachtieh objects has been conceived; such objects constituting the whole of my problem however small it may be.

Having thus defined architecture in this purely spiritual event of composition, I can see easily why the followers of the Sachlichkeit are so inaccessible to my arguments.  It is that, in general, they operate at levels where it is thought admissible to be a great architect of music or of poetry but where, for some reason too complex to pursue in depth here, there is felt no imperative necessity of being sachlich in architecture, in respect to the objective conditions implied in plastic art (the whole visual question).  You will grant me that architecture is a plastic thing, if for a moment, I limit myself to designating thus the ensemble of forms that our eyes perceive, because they are forms revealed by light.  You know the statement with which, in 1920, in L’Esprit Nouveau, I opened a series of architectural studies; a statement as “cleansing” or as police-like as Hannes Meyer’s definition.  It is so on another level: “architecture is the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.”

These forms are generated by a plan and a section.  And we come here to the heart of the debate: the masterly, correct, and magnificent play generated by the plan and the section.  [602] I am no longer speaking of the things that exist in a house, but of the way in which those things have been put together, that is to say, the way they have been “architectured.” For we must not confuse an army with a battle.  The army is made up of those things constituting the house.  The battle is the architecture of the house.  I grant that objects necessary and sufficient to make the house have been assembled, as I grant that soldiers, cannons and munitions have been assembled to join battle.  But I don’t confuse my trade as an architect with those whose work it is to install heating, furnish materials, linoleum, or plumbing fixtures.

This is the crucial issue regarding the house.  During these last decades, houses and palaces that are practically unusable have been built (and it is not my fault), but now an awakening has occurred: the “machine for living in” (a rectification of a moral order due to many heroic generations, from Ruskin onwards).  It concerned itself with the revision of the basic functions of a house or palace, with the assembling of useful equipment.  It was posing the problem.  It was already a revolution.  But you will, of course, agree that in our milieu these things are now understood and that this formulation of the problem no longer surprises us.

The current situation is this: what we now look to, what we now criticize or admire, is the resolution of a problem which has been posed.

It is there that the game is being played, that we gain ground, that we applaud or mock ourselves.  It is there that the spirit takes delight.  It is there that the shocking sensations arise, that matters of proportion emerge, that their inevitable influence operates on us, and that emotion bursts forth.  We are gladdened or discouraged, merry or sad, enraptured or depressed.  Are you going to try to convince me that your real sympathies do not lie there? That they are found instead in the objective equipment of your houses? In that case, take your argument to its logical conclusion: a millionaire’s house with all its technical opulence and its admirably functioning heating, lighting and appliances will easily thrill you.

Thus, you will destroy Diogenes’ bowl; Diogenes, who threw away his bowl because the hollow of his hand was sufficient.  This can serve as a summit of Sachlichkeit, but as a summit also, of architecture.

And thus, there lies in this paradoxical example the solution which you and I search for sincerely: there can be no architecture until problems are posed; but there is architecture the instant a human begins to pursue a creative end, that is to say, to order, to compose the elements of a problem to create an organism.  At this point, there opens before us the unlimited field of quality.  You, poet, and I, architect, we are both only interested in the means that lead to the purest quality.  Because — let’s not play hide-and-seek again — we know perfectly well, looking at ten solutions, the one which is elegant, and we will applaud it!

After all, let’s empty the bag of Sachlichkeit completely.  Its equivocal basis rests on the postulate that is as affirmative as it is doubtful: “that which is useful is beautiful” — that same old refrain.  (You will not contradict me if I reveal to any uninformed readers that such is one of the supreme rules of the neue Sachlichkeit.)

Last year, upon completion of the drawings of the Mundaneum project (which I will discuss further on), there was a minor revolt in our studio.  The younger members of the group criticized the pyramid (which is one of the elements of the project).  On other drawing boards, the drawings of the Tsentrosoiuz for Moscow (fig. 4) were just being finished and had received everyone’s approval.  They were reassuring because that scheme was clearly a rational problem of an office building.  Nevertheless, the Mundaneum and the Tsentrosoiuz both emerged from our heads during the same month of June.

All of a sudden the decisive argument popped out of a mouth: “what is useful is beautiful!” At the same moment Alfred Roth (of such impetuous temperament) kicked in the side of a wire mesh wastebasket which couldn’t bold the quantity of old drawings he was trying to stuff in.  Under Roth’s energetic pressure, this wastebasket, which had a technically sachlich curvature (a direct expression of the wire netting),deformed and took on the appearance shown in the sketch above (fig. 3).  Everyone in the office roared.  “It’s awful,” said [603-604] Roth.  “Ah, but this basket now contains much more,” I replied; “it is more useful so we could say it is more beautiful! Be consistent with your principles!”

This example is amusing only because of the circumstances in which it arose so opportunely.  I immediately reestablished equitable balance by adding: “the function beauty is independent of the function utility; they are two different things.  What is displeasing to the spirit is wasteful, because waste is foolish; that is why the useful pleases us.  But the useful is not the beautiful.”  If we leave the realm of the plastic arts to investigate the effects of Sachlichkeit on the benefits of comfort, that is to say, to see to what degree we are satisfied by the progress of mechanization, I would argue as follows: mechanical luxury is not at all a direct function of happiness.  Think of those rich people who possess everything; they automatically adapt, deriving no pleasure at all from their possessions.  Those who lack everything are rendered slaves of their destitution; that is another matter altogether.  The matter of Sachlichkeit, the present theme being proposed to contemporary architects, is obviously this: to equip a country with what is necessary and sufficient.  A timely and urgent theme for which an immediate solution is indispensable; this is the socializing theme of the present age.  But is architecture to be subsumed in this theme entirely? No! Granted that the leaders of some countries invite architects to apply themselves to it.  Thus the question presents itself more clearly: an urgent and temporary measure.  Yet, even then, there is no known way to avoid architecture altogether, since it is the quality brought to a solution containing precisely those potentials of architecture: order, composition, and so on.

As far as I am concerned I am personally deprived of all comfort.  But I do create and I am perfectly happy.  I appreciate this happiness even more, and I am tempted by other things even less, given that, carried along by life for such a long time now, I have suffered such deprivation.

If adaptation to the benefits of mechanization is automatic, and, following that, the joys that it procures, ephemeral, the fulfillment of spiritual joys is permanent, particularly those joys we owe to harmony.

On the way to Paris, returning from Moscow, 1929.

Let’s come now to the “Mundaneum,” which was conceived on all the most rational bases of modern architecture — of reinforced concrete and of steel, and in the strictest spirit of objectivity with respect to the individual development of each of its buildings.

To begin with, let me remind you that if today I declare myself for architectural lyricism, it is because my professional labor has driven me for fifteen years to the discovery of certain architectural laws drawn from the very source of technology, which I formulated in five concise points, in 1927.  In 1914, I invented the Domino houses (standardization, Taylorization, free plan, free façade, roof garden), but only in 1929 (the Loucheur Laws) could I put into practice the principles which I had clearly seen fifteen years previously.

In 1925, it was the Esprit Nouveau Pavilion that put forward (with the proofs of realization) a systematic architectural unity (technical and aesthetic), which could become an object for use in the plan for the Center of Paris.  Note that I had transgressed (and how that cost me!) every rule of the exhibition, in rejecting any decorative art objects in our pavilion.  But I included works by Picasso and Léger, considering them to be undeniable necessities.  In keeping with works of architecture that manifested pure human creation, I also exhibited evidence of natural phenomena there; butterflies, geological and geographical documents, etc., as well as a number of “objective” objects, veritable standards of “reason” and of the “heart,” with which to provoke thought.  It was to this pavilion that Auguste Perret, vice-president of the Jury, refused to award the highest prize “because there,” he said, “there was no architecture!” You see where we are in this battle of words and tendencies: it is with Perret’s weapons that you today assault my Mundaneum.

In 1926-27 it was the Palace of the League of Nations.  Accept this confidence: after three months of strenuous labor with ten draftsmen, three days before the project was to be shipped to Geneva, I designed the two elevations of the Palace, devoting exactly three hours to them — one and a half hours to each — all the plans and sections having already been [605] finished and inked.  The elevations emerged quite naturally, the architecture being totally generated by the plans and sections.

In 1928 it was the Palace of the Tsentrosoiuz in Moscow, an edifice housing the work and recreation of 2,500 people.  But at that time, other desks in the studio had drawings of the Mundaneum on them.  The same architectural germs inhabited the whole atmosphere of our studio.  Yet you want to persuade me that the Tsentrosoiuz, headquarters of the administration and soviet club, is modern architecture, while the Mundaneum, center of intellectual enquiry, is academic.  Both of them were strictly based on the famous five points of modern architecture, that is, pilotis, roof garden, the independent skeleton, the free plan and the free facade.  But of course, from your point of view, one is the essence of contemporary lyricism, the other merely the musty smell of old rulebooks.  The Mundaneum is academic for two reasons: first, the matter of program, second, the matter of form!

Before going any further, let me remind you that in 1925, I published the book L’Art Decoratif d’Aujourd’hui in which I tried to break certain attitudes of that time, in chapters entitled: “The Lesson of the Machine,” “Respect for Works of Art,” “The Time of Architecture,” “The La w of Pure White Paint,” “White Wash,” etc., and I ended with “The Spirit of Truth.”  Today one still encounters such attitudes.  Remember that last year at Prague, seeking to counter your fears, your “mechanist” languors, I proposed a title to you for the conference that was improvised in the theater; “Technique is the Foundation of Lyricism.”  Before your compatriots, I covered a 7-meter long by 1.25-meter wide roll of paper with drawing in red and blue pastels.  First I drew three circles.  In the first one I wrote, “construction techniques, statics, strengths of materials, physics, chemistry”’, in the second, I wrote, “sociology, changing needs, contemporary building programs”; and in the third I wrote, “economy standardization, research on types, and Taylorization?

This fresco is kept, is it not at the Architectural Academy of Prague? Perhaps, I can use several of those elements to clarify the present text for you, and to convince you that the “suspicious” project for the Mundaneum is really formulated in accordance with the same principles.  Do you remember how, at the close of that conference, at three o’clock in the morning, in a nightclub, Nezval, the poet, shouted from a table-top, “Le Corbusier is a great poet!” I was denounced!

You have jumped to the same conclusion regarding the Mundaneum, and you exclaim, “How can there be a Sacrarium in the heart of a city of Modern Science?” The word, in effect, is awful.  Modern science as made up of the knowledge of the past, and this Sacrarium, as conceived by its promoter (Paul Otlet) is designed to show (in what fashion, that m the key) how great geniuses have, in their time, incarnated the general current of ideas and have convulsed the world.  For new things haven’t convulsed the world, new ideas have: the things being merely the manifestation of the ideas.  An idea is the evidence of a fire which, lacking explanation or science, agitates the multitudes.  And as we are now right at the birth of a new agitation, the study of history is a useful activity.

You say “needs pose programs; factories, railway stations, and not churches or palaces; at the present time, nothing can become architecture which is not dictated by social and economic needs.”  I have never believed, nor written anything else; and to show you the subtlety which can animate this belief, let me tell you that last year I refused, very politely, to build a very big church, even though I was authorized to apply the most modem methods to the project.  I felt that reinforced concrete simply couldn’t become a true expression of a Catholic cult, which is formed by the dense stratification of secular usages which derive their vitality as much in the principle as in the form that h a s been conferred upon them, and which our memory has retained.

Let us now take a look at the promoter of my Mundaneum, and the reason, why I could make common cause with him.  He is one of those ardent youths with grey hair.  His intellectual awakening dates from 1870; thus he has traversed the whole range of social and economic phenomena in which we, the young, find ourselves facing already formulated tasks.

These tasks, which we are already forgetting, others formulated before us.  They were the visionaries, the organizers of ideas, the generators of magnetic currents, the receivers a [606-607] emitters of waves.  It was twenty years ago that Paul Otlet founded the Union of International Associations and drew up the statutes of the League of Nations.  Last November, he submitted to Geneva a proposition regarding an international bank for the liquidation of debts.  This spring, the principle of such a bank having been accepted, he submitted a list of projects which this bank could undertake, a program involving interpenetration of the entire world, dissolving obstacles wherever they are presently hidden.  At Brussels, he created the World Museum, a stimulating assembly of witnesses of human history, visualized by methods devised by him, and which, in their moving material poverty, provoked fertile excitement among those who understood things, and above all, among those who wanted to learn, and among those who are destined to make decisions upon which depends the fate of the multitudes.  It was a clear, quick, striking exposition of the facts of history which could elicit in creative minds a direction to follow or, at least, a lesson.  This is philosophy? Indeed it is.  The motivating force? But isn’t this an architectural debate, if I grant that architecture consists in the manner in which the elements of a problem are assembled, if I admit that architecture is a battle, which can be lost or won, that it is a manifestation of order, a quality of thought?

The thesis of Paul Otlet is as follows: in order to heal a world being re-made (whereby mechanism imposes itself upon us whether we like it or not), it is indispensable to know the comparative states of nations, peoples, races, and cities which today participate in that worldwide process: “continents, states, cities, buildings,” that is, urbanism — all that men united in society, in peoples or in communes, have realized under the sign of cooperation, of solidarity.  Following from this, it is necessary that organizational efforts, new theses, coalitions against egoism, and works of human collaboration become known, that their authors become known to each other and have an opportunity to work together, to share a common location as a condenser of ideas, a repository and center of action.  Following from that, a Center of International Associations.  At the moment, certain facts are known; certain desires, propositions, and contemporary tendencies have been demonstrated and brought together.  Now it will be useful to review human history, to learn what man has done, to activate this knowledge, to endow it with courage, to measure how high thought has led us, how low mistakes can drag us down.  Man alone, creator, prestigious source of energy or light! That is what we want to understand; to get to know man well, to grasp his works, manifested across history in images, graphics, etc., and in the settings in which they were created and existed, through iconography.

Then, in anticipation of inevitable conflicts, would arise the study of a new international law profoundly rooted in a consciousness of both the historical and contemporary elements of our present situation — a “University of International Law.”

Finally, brought together in a particular place, unique in the world, could be a bibliographical and reproduction center to assemble books, establish dossiers on diverse subjects (documented and indexed), and by modern techniques (photographs or microfilm) to make available the specific elements of documentation — a World Library.

A connection with the separate League of Nation’s “Palace of Nations” would be acknowledged.  To establish a relay-station, conceived like an international railway station, is simple good sense.  A “hotel-city” would be realized, since the phenomenon already established at Geneva has now filled that city with visitors.  In conclusion, a city in which to accommodate the workers of the Mundaneum, or better still, of the World City, would be built.

Since 1928, the date on which the plans of the Mundaneum were established, we have prepared schemes for the Cité Mondiale, planning for the urbanization of the district of Geneva, the creation of an airport, a vast railway station and finally the construction of a Cite Economique (trusts) and of Cité Financière (the International Bank and its possible adjuncts).

Do you see a little, my dear Teige, to what extent these things are reasonable, sachlich, founded in technical, sociological and economic phenomena, and in no way academic?

But let us pass on to the academicism of forms, for which you reproach me personally.  Let’s go to the heart of the question: [608] the Pyramid of the Mundaneum.  It is your most serious disappointment.  Then lets go to the setting out of the Golden Section, another crime of “lèse-Sachlichkeit.”

In 1928, the concept of the Mundaneum was only a provisional image destined, through its iconography, to work its way into the minds of those who had the means or interest to occupy themselves with it.  In 1929, the Cité Mondiale brought its complementary elements (particularly urban planning, and traffic organization).  Nevertheless, from its beginning, it was concerned with pure building types rigorously appropriate to each specific function, and to their realization in the economics of development and construction.

How were these buildings brought together? By chance? Not at all! To start with, the site was chosen for many reasons, of which one (you can be sure) was the splendor of the views that it commanded.  We thought that we would be able to take considerable advantage of these views in attaining our established goals.  The site was divided on two axes; axes which represented something — they didn’t just come out of nowhere — in that they established the four principal planes of the composition.  The buildings were grouped in logical, reciprocal relationships that seemed normal.  These relations having been established, the organization having been rendered “functional,” coherent, we then overlaid upon it regulating lines based on the Golden Section (fig. 5).  Oh, apostasy of Sachlichkeit! You really are peculiar in your hostility towards regulating lines.  You see in them — and you are not the only one — a satanical power, a universal solvent.  But look, you admit that an architect uses on his drawing board what we call a set-square and a T-square.  These two instruments establish lines that are exactly parallel, and define angles that are rigorously true.  They compensate for the inadequacies of the hand.  They effect the most precise articulation.  That much is admitted.

Well, I don’t consider regulating lines to be any different.  They are purifiers.  They render composition precise and dear; they are tremendously sachlich. Consider the fact that the “sachlichs” accuse me of being a romantic because of my regulating lines, while the bohemians consider me as an engineer because of my regulating lines! Dilemma? Vicious circle? I claim the right to do my work precisely and neatly by means of regulating lines.

It is precisely those aerial views that you call puerile waste which will, on the contrary, be masterful, dazzling, beautiful like a pure crystallization.  You must believe that the experience of architecture from an airplane exists; it is clarity itself, an impeccable reading; we have only just begun to go up in airplanes! I have in fact published notes on the regulating lines of the Mundaneum (and of other projects) in the volume that was devoted to us by L’Architecture Vivanté and I described there my short thesis concerning the possible impact of regulating lines on horizontal space.

Now we come to the academicism of forms — the pyramid.  No one accuses the cube of academicism; we consider it rather as the definitive contemporary expression of architecture.  I share some responsibility for this, having designed roof gardens as early as 1914, having established the theory of flat roofs (with rainwater drainage via the interior), and having advocated the elimination of cornices (the conference of the “New Spirit in Architecture,” Sorbonne, 1923).

The cube is modern because it maximizes the usage of a plan for a place of work or a dwelling.  It is “contemporary” because, in our climate, only the recent advances of reinforced concrete have permitted its realization.  In any case, it is a beautiful pure form.

But if a precise, undisputable function requires that spaces be organized along an axis that unfolds as a spiral, should I deny myself the architectural consequences of this function simply because the cube is contemporary? I have allowed a spiral staircase (very modern, and also timeless), spiral ramps (the same vertical circulation as the Tsentrosoiuz in Moscowvary modern and also very old!); I have allowed the museum of human creation to follow a spiral, not to be “the last word in fashion,” but to assure, through this unique means, the absolute continuity of events in history.  I cannot see any other way of doing it.  If, on this spiral, I raise the standard elements of a tri-partite nave to organize the programmatic elements of object, place and time, I am creating, by means of the spiral, a constant, continuous, and optimal overhead [609-610] lighting condition for all places.  If my windows face north, south, east, or west, it is easy to arrest light which, from time to time is too bright.  At the same time, underneath the whole floor area of the spaces enfolding along this spiral, I have gained warehouses, storage rooms, and areas for temporary sorting which will delight future curators.  Each cell of the museum will have its own adjacent storage space below it; each of these storage spaces, thanks to the spiral, is in continuous contact with an access route on tracks outside, hidden from sight, thus permitting the handling of objects as easily as in a freight yard, without disturbing the visitors.

In the interior of the tri-partite nave, I will not, following established precedents, have walls placed between windows in a way that creates glare, or offers only one surface for display.  Instead, I will have freestanding partitions arranged like screens or windbreaks.  This will create spaces that are very small or extremely large, separated one from another, or directly or subtly linked.  In this way I am free; I can do as I wish; I can create a museum with innumerable perspectives that are all different, and where each area can be sized to suit what it is meant to accommodate.  Each partition or screen will offer two sides for hanging.  Do you find these double surfaces in traditional museums? Given this arrangement, the building has taken the form of a pyramid.  Its spiraling tiers recall Nineveh or Mexico.  The spiral pyramid is academic.  All the gains made by modem architecture so far are wiped out by this reactionary event: pyramidal form has occurred!

I note in passing that the dictionary of architecture has always been limited to the geometry of Euclidian forms, and that the cube, the sphere, the cylinder, the pyramid, and the cone, are our only, uniquely architectural words.

In fact, the rough sketches you know of the Mundaneum could not really have put you in the place of a spectator strolling in the Cité Mondiale.  Imagine a mountain with its peaks, slopes and valleys spread out before you.  The sterile plazas in the drawing are in reality undulating lawns scattered with maegnificent trees.  The palaces are up in the air, raised on pilotis, under which air and cooling breezes circulate, and where immense spaces take command.  The ground is a rolling sea of lush greenery.  There exist here no visions of those grand avenues so dear to the Grande Siècle or to Rome.  It is an intimate mingling of nature and geometry.  There are unexpected views to the far distance, to the incredible horizon.  Nature penetrates the core of this heroic, geometrical gesture.  You know that I enjoy this stance; in the comfort of home, to reign in masterful geometry; then to cast a glance beyond, to the charm of nature in which we have imperishable roots.  In Urbanism, and in the Plan Voisin, I have proposed to make the center of Paris into a garden for our eyes and our lungs.  At the same time I have quadrupled the density in order to facilitate our business affairs.  I wrote that when one builds one must plant trees (the lesson of the Turks): this shows how much I love nature.

If a visitor to the museum wishes to, he will be able to make his way outdoors in fresh air, up the 2,000 meters of spiral tiers following the route laid out on the roof of one of the parallel naves.  What the devil will he do there? He will survey the countryside.  He will appreciate the four aspects of this prestigious site.  When he arrives at the top, he will have felt the force of those four views; on the elevated platform, he will have the whole territory to himself.

Listen, Teige, let’s talk seriously.  I think that this fellow will be prepared, made ready; during his ascent he will gradually have shed the small, expedient, and immediate preoccupations of his existence, he will have stopped worrying about the press of his pants or his digestion.

At the top he will enter the hall of pre-history.  Teige, you are a poet.  The Sachlichkeit of a poem exists in the manner of the placing of the words; not, exactly, of new words, of “the last word in fashion”; on the contrary, of timeless words with precise meanings, of pure words.  A poem is successful (therefore sachlich) when the quality of the arrangement of words is good.

And there I am, where I always end up.  You have led me there.  There I am…

But let us conclude.  You have given me a pretext to participate in the architectural debate that has currently been opened in leftist circles.  You have even given me the opportunity [611] to reply; for I have for a while now been politely called a romantic, and less politely, an academic, by an avant-garde that is ten yean younger than I am.  I have just come back from Moscow; there I witnessed an attack conducted with the same intensity against Alexander Vesnin, the creator of Russian constructivism (a great artist).  Moscow is torn between constructivism and functionalism.  There too, intolerance reigns, sectarianism rages.  If Leonidov, the poet and the hope of Russian architectural constructivism, in hit twenty-five year-old’s enthusiasm, calls for functionalism and rails against constructivism, I will readily explain to him why he does so.  The reason is that the Russian architectural movement has been a moral shock, a manifestation of the soul, a lyrical outburst, an aesthetic creation, a credo of modern life, a pure lyrical phenomenon, a clear and confident gesture in one sense, a decision.

Ten years later, the younger generation, having raised a gracious, charming, yet fragile edifice of their own lyricism on the work, on the production of their elders (Vesnin), they now feel all of a sudden the urgent necessity to do their schoolwork, to learn techniques: calculations, chemical and physical experiments, new materials, new machinery, the approach of Taylorism, etc., etc.  Absorbing themselves in these necessary tasks, they curse those who, having already mastered such things fully, are occupied in making architecture, that is to say, occupied with the manner of bringing such things together.

We are also sachlich! The drawing boards in our studio accept only disciplined construction drawings.  But there reigns in the air there a will towards architecture which is the driving force, giving coherence, creating organisms.  This will is the expression of a sentimental notion.  It is an aesthetic.  Reflect on the comment made by an American working on the Voisin plan for Paris in 1925: “In a hundred years the French will visit New York and see romantic skyscrapers, and the Americans will come to see rational Paris.”

My dear Teige, would you also ponder on your own enthusiasm for the Eiffel Tower — a constructive phenomenon which you deem exclusively sachlich? Remember that in 1889, the Eiffel Tower was used for nothing; it was a temple [612] to calculation (a temple, a palace, a castle of calculation).  It was an aesthetic manifestation of calculation.  It was only the war of 1914 that gave it a use; the T.S.F.

But more than this.  Eiffel, whose recent death has turned attention to his pioneering work, is the subject of research, of biographical studies.  Eiffel, whose skill in calculation was masterful, defended the tower as follows: as an exceptional manifestation of architectural beauty, of the aesthetic of iron.  “The tower is beautiful!” he affirmed.  And the biographers of Eiffel reveal that in all of his work, his superiority arises through the manifestation of his artistic sense, by the clear brilliance of his sense of proportions and by his plastic inventiveness (the Garabit bridge and others).  Eiffel himself, at every point in his life, insisted on this.

I realize that the words I have used in these present notes will be exploited to launch accusations against me, will be put in quotation marks by academics here and by avant-gardists there.  But I assert that we are driven by something other than material events; that we are led — led almost by the nose — by the imponderable.  I assert also that in the end the vehement and gifted apostles of Sachlichkeit think and act the same way we do.  If I am a little overwhelmed by systems of proportions, I find them a little overwhelmed by mechanism.  In fact their attitude is very useful.

I pose a question: Why, all of you, why do you come to Paris, you, practical Americans, you others from the east, passionate devotees of objectivity? You come to breathe in the streets (the women, the shops, the cars), the beauty, the grace, the proportions, the plastic inventiveness.  You come looking for the especially tender caress of the Parisian sky.

Not one of you will go to see the cruel places of hard work, of ruthless Taylorism, out in St. Denis, at St. Ouen.  Modern labor is pleasant to watch only when a happy chain of circumstances has ordered all factors to the benefit of sensibility, only when a chain of circumstances, that is to say, architecture, orders the forces in effect harmoniously.  A dam, an electrical substation, that is what you, yourself, call architecture.

Preoccupied with architectural phenomena, you come to Paris, seeking by instinct your well-being in places of harmony, and not in the places where ugliness reigns.

It is beautiful, is it not, when things are organized in deference to order? Where does organization stop? In exactly what necessity is this deference to order appropriate? Where is the definition, the basis, the axis of this question? In the conveniences of existence or in the emotion of the committed?

Organization is itself the key, virile substance that guides and corrects all that is sachlich, all that is muscle and bone.  But what intention does this organization have? The sachlich I do not even discuss, conceding it to be evident, primary, inevitable, like the bricks with which one builds a wall.  But what wall?

And I promise you sincerely — a fact that reassures me — we are all, at this moment, at the foot of the same wall.

Le Corbusier

[From Stavba 2, Prague 1927]


~ by Ross Wolfe on October 27, 2010.

2 Responses to “Le Corbusier’s “In Defense of Architecture” (1929)”

  1. […] See Teige’s damning indictment of Le Corbusier in his article “Mundaneum,” as well as Le Corbusier’s response, to see just one instance of these turbulent […]

  2. […] See Teige’s damning indictment of Le Corbusier in his article “Mundaneum,” as well as Le Corbusier’s response, to see just one instance of these turbulent […]

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