Sigfried Giedion’s Building in France, Building in Ferro-concrete (1928)

Translated from the German by J. Duncan Berry.

In Sigfried Giedion, Building in France, Building in Ferro-concrete.

(The Getty Center for the History of Art.  Los Angeles, CA: 1995).

• • •


This book is written and designed so that

it is possible for the hurried reader to understand

the developmental path from the captioned illustrations;

the text furnishes closer explication;

the footnotes provide more extensive references.

Jacket and cover: L[ászló] MOHOLY-NAGY, who also oversaw typography and layout.



Even the historian stands within, not above, time.  He has lost the pedestal of eternity.  It is the same with poets, musicians, and architects in relation to the general public; with parents and teachers in relation to children; and in the relation between man and woman: we struggle on equal levels.

Vital, forward-looking periods seem to have hardly a place for pedestals.  We do not fear the past.  Past, present, and future are for us an indivisible process.  But we do not live looking backward; we live looking ahead.  The past strengthens us, for it provides us with the certainty that our will is not individually confined.  But the future, whatever it may hold, is more important to us.  The first concern is with those things that are becoming: children are more defenseless than the old.

The task of the historian is first to recognize the seeds and to indicate — across all layers of debris — the continuity of development.  The historian, unfortunately, has used the perspective of his occupation to give eternal legitimation to the past and thereby to kill the future, or at least to obstruct its development.

Today the historian’s task appears to be the opposite: to extract from the vast complexity of the past those elements that will be the point of departure for the future.

In every field the nineteenth century cloaked each new invention with historicizing masks.  In the realm of architecture as well as in the realm of industry or society.  New constructional possibilities were created, but at the same time they were feared; each was senselessly buried beneath stone stage sets.  The vast collective apparatus of industry was created, but every attempt was made to distort its significance in that only a few were allowed to benefit from the advantages of the production process.

This historicizing mask is inseparably linked to the image of the nineteenth century.  It cannot be denied.  But by the same token we must not forget the forward momentum that permeates the nineteenth century.


If we extract from that century those elements that live within us and are alive we see with surprise that we have forgotten our own particular development — if you will, our TRADITION.

Brushing away the decades of accumulated dust atop the journals, we notice that the questions that concern us today have persisted in unsettled discussion for more than a century.

We see at the same time, indeed with greater assurance, that the architecture we now describe as “new” is a legitimate part of an entire century of development.

Since it belongs to a great stream of development, we must even refuse to see its origins in a small number of architectural precursors around 1900 — for instance [Hendrik Petrus] Berlage, [Henry] van de Velde, [Frank] Lloyd Wright, [Peter] Behrens, [Auguste and Gustave] Perret, [Tony] Gamier.  The “new” architecture had its origins at the moment of industrial formation around 1830, at the moment of the transformation from hand work to industrial production.  We scarcely have the right to compare our century with the nineteenth as far as the boldness of its advance and its works are concerned.

The task of this generation is: to translate into a HOUSING FORM [Wohnform] what the nineteenth century could say only in abstract and, for us, internally homogenous constructions.  Everyone knows that we are therefore still at the very beginning of a long-neglected transformation from handicraft to industrial building production.

The division by generations that was necessary and that we ourselves have yet to complete may perhaps become more acceptable as we confront the past without prejudice.  For we have no fear that it may yet crush or confuse us.


February 1928





We are being driven into an indivisible life process.  We see life more and more as a moving yet indivisible whole.  The boundaries of individual fields blur.  Where does science end, where does art begin, what is applied technology what belongs to pure knowledge? Fields permeate and fertilize each other as they overlap.  It is hardly of interest to us today where the conceptual boundary between art and science is drawn.

We value these fields not hierarchically but as equally justified emanations of the highest impulse: LIFE! To grasp life as a totality, to allow no divisions is among the most important concerns of the age.

Physiologists have shown that a person’s body build and nature are inseparably connected.  Science traces specific characters back to certain bodily types.  The connection between respiration and mental balance has been discovered.  The body takes its form internally through breathing, gymnastics, sport.  To overdevelop an arm muscle or to douse the face with cosmetics like an isolated body (as the arteries harden) is no longer acceptable.

Construction is also not mere ratio.  The attitude that drove the previous century to expand our knowledge of matter, so much that it resulted in a previously inconceivable command of it, is as much the expression of an instinctive drive as is any artistic symbol.

We say that art anticipates, but when we are convinced of the indivisibility of the life process, we must add: industry, technology, and construction also anticipate.

Let us go further: architecture, which has certainly abused the name of art in many ways, has for a century led us in a circle from one failure to another.

Aside from a certain haut-goût charm the artistic drapery of the past century has become musty.  What remains unfaded of the architecture is those rare instances when construction breaks through.  Construction based entirely on provisional purposes, service, and change is the only part of building that shows an unerringly consistent development.  Construction in the nineteenth century plays the role of the subconscious.  Outwardly, construction still boasts the old pathos; underneath, concealed behind façades, the basis of our present existence is taking shape.



Industry completes the transition from handicraft to machine production.

Industry is only part of the problem connected with the transition from individual to collective design.

Machine work means serial design, precision.  Handicraft has its own special charm that can never be replaced: the uniqueness of the product.

But without machine work there is no higher technology.  By hand one can neither mill sprocket wheels that fit frictionlessly together, nor draw out uniform wire, nor profile iron precisely.  The transition from individual to collective design is taking place in all fields, practical as well as spiritual ones.

Now, it is the case that INDUSTRY, which is intensively involved with the life process, displayed this change before other fields — private life or art — took note of it.

Industry, big industry, is a result of the French Revolution.

The Assemblée Nationale initiated its development with the Proclamation of the Liberty of Labor of 2 March 1791.

With this proclamation of free competition the guild system (les corporations) was at once abolished.

Before the French Revolution articles for everyday use were produced by the guilds.  Guild membership was just as limited as the number of workers or helpers each member could take on and the kinds of product each could produce.  That meant privilege in favor of a few and an extraordinary burden (gene onéreuse) on the consumer.  The complex instrument of industry was created through the possibility of a free division of labor.

Like construction, industry is an inner expression of the life process.

Though we are objectively able to create anticipatory designs, old mental “residues” prevent us for a long time from drawing the human consequences:

INDUSTRY anticipates society’s inner upheaval just as construction anticipates the future expression of building.

Even before industry existed in its present sense — around 1820 — Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) understood that it was the central concept of the century and that it was destined to turn life inside out:

“The whole of society rests upon industry.”

It seems that the force of Saint-Simon’s influence on the schools and tendencies of the century lay, above all, in his ability to grasp the emerging reality and to transform it into a utopia.  It is the opposite method to the cultural idealism that dominated Germany at the time, which neglected reality in order to pursue emanations of pure spirit.


Saint-Simon foresaw the great concentrations of labor, the urban centers, and the factories with thousands of workers that transferred the results of research directly into action.  As a consequence of an industrial economy he foresaw the dawn of a classless society, the end of war, and the end of national borders: a single army of workers spanning the globe.  The end of man’s exploitation of man (l’exploitation de l’homme par l’homme) will have been achieved.  The eye of the visionary no doubt simplifies and leaps over intermediary stages: Saint-Simon never reckoned with the century’s divided soul, which in architecture as in society imposed the old formal apparatus on the new system.

The anonymous process of production and the interconnected procedures that industry offers only now fully take hold of and reshape our nature.



The concept of architecture is linked to the material of stone.  Heaviness and monumentality belong to the nature of this material, just as the clear division between supporting and supported parts does.

The great dimensions that stone requires are for us still habitually connected with each building.  It is entirely understandable that, with their unusually modest dimensions, the first buildings executed in tensile materials time and again evoked among contemporaries the concern that the building might collapse.

Architecture is linked to the concept of “monumentality.”  When the new building materials — iron and ferroconcrete — assume the forms of gravity and “monumentality,” they are essentially misused.

It seems doubtful whether the limited concept of “architecture” will indeed endure.

We can hardly answer the question: What belongs to architecture? Where does it begin, where does it end?

Fields overlap: walls no longer rigidly define streets.  The street has been transformed into a stream of movement.  Rail lines and trains, together with the railroad station, form a single whole.  Suspended elevators in glazed shafts belong to it just as much as the insulating filling between the supports.  The antenna has coalesced with the structure, just as the limbs of a towering steel frame enter into a relationship with city and [91] harbor.  Tall buildings are bisected by rail lines.  The fluctuating element becomes a part of building.

Architecture has been drawn into the current from the isolated position it had shared with painting and sculpture.

We are beginning to transform the surface of the earth.  We thrust beneath, above, and over the surface.  Architecture is only a part of this process, even if a special one.  Hence there is no “style,” no proper building style.  Collective design.

A fluid transition of things.

By their design, all buildings today are as open as possible.  They blur their arbitrary boundaries.  Seek connection and interpenetration.

In the air-flooded stairs of the Eiffel Tower, better yet, in the steel limbs of a pont transbordeur, we confront the basic aesthetic experience of today’s building: through the delicate iron net suspended in midair stream things, ships, sea, houses, masts, landscape, and harbor.  They lose their delimited form: as one descends, they circle into each other and intermingle simultaneously.

One would not wish to carry over into housing this absolute experience that no previous age has known.  Yet it remains embryonic in each design of the new architecture: [92-93] there is only a great, indivisible space in which relations and interpenetrations, rather than boundaries, reign.

The concept of architecture has become too narrow.  One can no longer contain, like radium in a bottle, the need to create that which is called art and explain what remains of life devoid of it.

The ponderous movement of human affairs has as its consequence that the new attitude toward life manifests itself much sooner in the objective fields — such as construction, industry — than in those fields that lie close to us.

Only now is the housing form being seized by those hidden forces that a century ago drove man to the constructional and industrial attitude.

Our inner attitude today demands of the house:

Greatest possible overcoming of gravity.  Light proportions.  Openness, free flow of air: things that were first indicated in an abstract way by the constructional designs of the past century.

Thus, the point is reached where building falls in line with the general life process.



The immense influence of the Ecole Polytechnique (established 1794/95) during the first three decades of the nineteenth century can be attributed to the tact that for the first time the task was consciously posed to establish a connection between science and life, to bring about a connection between higher mathematics, physics, and applied technology.

Subsequently this extended to penetrating life constructional1y instead of with the craft experience.  In all fields.

Jean-Antoine Chaptal, the great chemist, industrialist (and minister under Napoleon) already clarified this goal at the beginning of the nineteenth century, for he thought science should climb down from its pedestal in order to lend a hand in the work of easing the difficult path through reality.

Since [Jean] Bondelet, the theorist and preserver of the Panthéon in Paris, insisted in his “Address on Starting a Course on Construction at the Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture” (1816) that construction must be considered in a completely different way than previously, the engineer has increasingly encroached upon the field of the architect.  At the same time the encroachment of the engineer-constructor signifies the encroachment of more rapid, industrial means of design, which first offered the possibility; to create the foundation” of contemporary life.

Unconsciously, the constructor assumes the role of a guardian in the nineteenth century, by continuously pressing new menu” upon the architect, he keep” the latter from altogether losing himself in the vacuum.

The constructor presses for a design that is both anonymous and collective.  He renounces the architect’s artistic bombast.  Upsets his special position.  That is his function.

Since the advance of industry around midcentury, we sense how the “artist-architect” feels his privileged position menaced, out of which grows the increasingly spasmodic emphasis on his “artistry.”

This concern reached its apex with the development of industry.  After 1890, when industrial development bad lost the wonder from its time of origin and bad become self-evident, the threatening influence of the constructor abated.  Underground it continued.

Instead of derivations, some voices from various moments of the period:


We will create a characteristic architecture of our own at the moment we make use of the new means offered by the new industries.  The application of cast iron permits and enforces many new forms, as we can observe in railroad stations, suspension bridges, and in the vaults of conservatories.

The Romantic Théophile GAUTIER 1850.  Journal La Presse.



Can one claim that the public is pleased when one hears complaints daily and sees how often it prefers engineers to architects? Why this partiality? It is simply because engineers do not take inflexible positions but satisfy themselves with the strict fulfillment of the given program (remplir rigoureusement le programme) whereas architects, all too often advancing what they call “beauty,” violate the legitimate requirements and needs of the patron.

Anatole de BAUDOT, Réorganisation de l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, de son influence sur l’étude de l’architecture (Paris: chez A. Morel & Co., 1864), p. 5.


“Is it the fate of architecture to give way to the art of engineering (genie civil)? Will the engineer one day absorb the architect?” One speaks of the organic art of the future, and at the same time it is clear what the present predicament is: “Where does eclecticism lead? An eclectic atmosphere completely envelops the modern world; all organs of respiration absorb it and, mixed with our blood, it acts on heart and brain.”

(César DALY, Revue générale de l’architecture, 1867, p. 6.)


The institute arranged a competition on the theme: “The union or the separation of engineers and architects.”  [Gabriel-Jean-Antoine] DAVIOUD, the architect of the Trocadero, received the prize with the response: the union of architect and engineer must be indissoluble.  “The solution will be real, complete fruitful only when architect and engineer, artist and scientist, are fused together in the same person.  We have for a long time lived under the foolish persuasion that art is a kind of activity distinct from all other forms of human intelligence, having its sole source and origin in the personality of the artist himself and his capricious fancy…”

(Encyclopedie d’architecture, 1878, p. 67.)


For a long time the influence of the architect has declined, and the engineer, l’homme moderne par excellence, is beginning to replace him.  Were the engineer able to replace the architect altogether, the latter could undoubtedly disappear without at the same time eradicating art.

Forms will not compose the basis of the new architecture.  In the general disposition of plans and in the design of constructional systems arising from these new situations is to be found the new expression as a whole; the details will then follow.


But you will say what you propose is indeed the method of the engineer.  I do not deny it, for it is correct.

Anatole de BAUDOT, to the International Congress of Architects, 1889.


It is not in the studios of the painters and sculptors that the revolution so long awaited is preparing — it is in the factories!

The novelist Octave MIRBEAU in Le Figaro, 1889.

(Cf. Encycl. d’arch., 1889/90, p. 92.)


The century of the machine has awakened the CONSTRUCTOR; new tasks, new possibilities, and new means gave birth to him.  He is at work now everywhere.

LE CORBUSIER, in the journal L’ESPRIT NOUVEAU, no. 25.



The names of the constructors who gave shape to the nineteenth century are for the most part unknown.  Just as in the Middle Ages, the actual development occurred anonymously.  A few names that are related to our remarks are presented below.

It is noteworthy that the first wave — the pioneers — was born around 1800, and the second wave — those who completed the task — was born around 1830.

Many fit the picture of industrialists sketched by Saint-Simon.  They were by no means narrow specialists.  They embraced the new possibilities in all fields.  Often they were also entrepreneurs.

The first wave — comprising those born around 1800 — shares a prophetic and fanatic conviction in the realization of a worldview that existed nowhere but in the mind, in the vision.

Antoine POLONCEAU (1778-1847).  A precursor.  1797 Ecole Polytechnique.  Built roads through Alpine passes (Simplon 1801-06, Mont-Cenis 1812-14) and experimented with the use of concrete in foundations.  Erected one of Paris’s most beautiful cast-iron bridges (pont du Carrousel, 1839).  At the same time he was concerned with the rationalization of agriculture, improvements in drainage, harvesting, and the soil.

Eugène FLACHAT (1802-1873).  Railroad builder.  Constructor.  With Emile Péreire he overcame the enormous resistance of both the government and the populace and in 1837 built the first railroad in France (Saint-Germain).  One should not forget that in 1834 a French minister, upon his return from England, declared in the Chamber of Peers: railroads would be an unrealizable dream, useful at most for the immediate environs of Paris, for Sunday excursions.  Flachat made designs for docks, canals (Paris-Le Havre), warehouses, harbor facilities, transatlantic steam shipping, and an Alpine tunnel (1860).  From this universal circle of ideas arose, along with blast furnaces, the designs for Les Halles of Paris.  Flachat participated in all of the great industrial issues, but at the same time he was concerned with such details as the wear of train rails and the organization of large technical societies.

The industrial movement appears to have been so much in the blood of this generation that, for instance, Flachat built his house on a parcel of land between two tracks and the ceaseless whistles of trains.

Hector HOREAU (1801-72).  Designer who did not achieve the goal but who formulated the decisive building tasks before it was possible to realize them on such a scale.  He wants buildings that correspond to the needs of the age.  He designs enormous exhibition halls (1837), libraries, market halls.

Like Flachat he demonstrates how one could design Les Halles of Paris (1845) in the new materials, but [Victor] Baltard builds them.  In 1850 Horeau receives the first prize for the design of the London Industrial Exhibition; one month later John [98] Paxton wins the commission.  Misfortune follows him to the end.  The existence of such prophets is certainly not without significance.  It encourages the subsequent realization of the vision.

Henri LABROUSTE (1801-75).  Attempts for the first time to combine engineer and architect in one person: architect-constructor.

Grand Prix de Rome at twenty-three.  Unstifled after five years at the Villa Medici

Sees antiquity organically instead of sentimentally and views his Italian sojourn (considered the highest reward) as a systematic alienation from life, “for after his return the pensionnaire de l’état is faced with an entirely different reality.”  Labrouste designs no romantic-classicist royal palaces.

Labrouste wins prizes for prisons (Alexandria), hospitals (Lausanne), and, after waking twelve years for the commission: the library of Sainte-Geneviève! The methods he uses are the methods of direct observation, those “positive” methods upon which Auguste Comte simultaneously “wanted to establish the lawfulness of social life.”

Labrouste designs a plan “according to climate, material, and the necessities of the program.”  He recognizes the function of iron before railroads course through France; he sees construction as the innermost face of architecture — the exterior only as an encasement (enveloppe), or epidermis — at a time when the methods to control it were still remote.

Among those in the second wave who are able to lead construction to completed designs — besides Camille POLONCEAU (1813-47) or HENRI DE DION13 (1823-78) — is Gustave Eiffel, the only one whose name is not forgotten.  Gustave EIFFEL (1832-1923), engineer-constructor, entrepreneur.  In 1858 he works on the large iron bridge near Bordeaux and attempts to sink pylons with the then-new method of compressed air.  His life is occupied above all with one great problem: the arched girder the arched truss (ferme en arc). He attempts to solve this problem with all the graphic, mathematical, and experimental expertise available.  The arched truss which springs lightly in a parabolic curve from one bridge support to the next signifies release from the rigid relationship of unilaterally supporting and supported members: for the first time in 1869 with the viaduct over the Sioule, in 1875 with the bold bridge over the Douro, and in 1879 with the viaduct over the Garabit.  (Span of the parabolic support 165 meters.)  His tour de 300 m (1889) displays in its foundations four such bridge supports translated into architectonic form.  In addition there are also warehouses, railroad stations, and the locks of the Panama Canal.  The fields overlap.



Like every age, the nineteenth century is a complex whole.  Perhaps more confused than other ages.  We are still too close for conclusive judgments.

We should first of all establish two currents that — often inseparable — interpenetrate: first inheritance: to it belong all fields that somehow stand apart.  Art, celebration representation, private affairs.

Second: life itself compels its own laws.  The surface of the earth is transformed as never before.  (Harbors, railroads, tunnels, great thoroughfares.)  Production established on a totally different basis (industry).  The regrouping of society begins (socialization tendencies).

Inheritance is a part of us.  It should not be neglected.  Yet it ends bitterly if it assumes priority over emerging life, if it violates it.  This is the case in the nineteenth century.  Indeed, in the long run, such usurpation is only mock rule; subliminally, life compels form, but there emerges an oppressive atmosphere that time and again demands upheaval.

This is especially obvious in the field of architecture: if we employ the usual stylistic notions to understand it, we are left with nothing but empty shells.  We might say that throughout the last century one built with a bad conscience or with uncertainty.  Especially the best feel that one lives in a contaminating air of eclecticism.  The nineteenth century’s general attitude, torn by its urge toward integrated constructional design and its urge toward individual isolation, is necessarily pessimistic.

Again and again one tries to find a “style” without realizing that these formalistic experiments were condemned to failure from the start.  Surface frills.  The age of delimited styles based on handicraft ended decisively at the moment when the notion of an isolated architecture became untenable.

The nineteenth century: strange interpenetration of individualistic and collectivistic tendencies.

Like hardly any age before, all actions were labeled “individualistic” (the ego, Nation, Art), but underground, within disdained everyday fields, it had to create the elements of collective design, as in a frenzy.

Today everything rests on these elements.

We must concern ourselves with this raw material: with gray buildings, market halls, warehouses, exhibitions.  However unimportant they may appear to be for the aesthetic titillation:

In them lies the kernel!



The role of France is well established in the painting and literature of the nineteenth

century This is not at all as clear with architecture.  The academic incrustations bear the blame.  They dazzled all formally educated souls.  When the new architecture will have advanced far enough to allow a broader survey, it may become evident: all the academic incrustations were unable to smother the constructional soul of French architecture!

France played the leading role in the history of nineteenth-century constructivism.

From the beginning of the century, two poles opposed one another in France: L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts — L’Ecole Polytechnique.

Napoleon founded the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in an unfortunate moment and thereby revived an institution of the ancien régime.  By that, official architecture became a branch of the fine arts.  That became its ruin.  In the Baroque, this unity had been complete and self-evident.  But in the course of the nineteenth century it had become conflicting and false.  Even today the academy des Beaux-Arts proves itself to be a most distressing drag on active development.

Around the Ecole Polytechnique gathered the great mathematicians ([Gaspard] Monge, [Joseph-Louis] Lagrange), physicists, constructors, economists, and Saint-Simonists.  Time and again, up to 1830, we see the blue uniform of the polytechniciens in the pictures of the Revolution.  The crucial contact between theoretical and applied science emanated from this school.

Paging through the architectural journals of the century, one sees that the two questions that most preoccupied contemporaries grew out of the dissension between these two schools:

1.  Along what lines should the training of an architect proceed?

2.  What is the relationship between engineer and architect? How are their rights distributed? Are they one and the same?

All other questions are of a secondary nature, formal disputes.

Hence the struggle of the academy against the Gothicists or the struggle of the Gothicists against the new “bastard style”: the Neorenaissance.”  Similarly, the current striving for so-called national styles basically has a different meaning.  National differences develop through the influences of climate, material, and formative will, utterly independently and unconsciously.  The struggle toward a “national” style, with its desire to retain formal-handicraft details, is fought like the struggle of the Gothicists or Renaissancists, on formal rather than on functional grounds.  Screened from the real events.


Instead of the rigid balance of support and load iron demands a more complex, more fluid balance of forces .  Through the condensation of the material to a few points, there appears an unknown transparency, a suspended relation to other objects, a creation of the airspace, des combinaisons aériennes that Octave Mirbeau recognized already in 1889.  This sensation of being enveloped by a floating airspace while walking through tall structures (Eiffel Tower) advanced the concept of flight before it had been realized and stimulated the formation of the new architecture.  Not through superficial formal derivation but rather by an inner law.

Of all the new building materials, iron has the longest tradition of construction.  It is fascinating to see with how much fanaticism the fight for its introduction persisted for half a century, and with what regularity its design slowly revealed itself.  We can follow this gradual realization and discern its slow growth.

Demand for its introduction existed before the machine made possible the manufacture of iron profiles.  Even before the means were found to calculate dimensions theoretically, vision and ratio recognized it as the material of the future.

This went so far that at an early point in time — 1849 — the HOUSING FORM on which we are today working was already anticipated:

“Glass is destined to play an important role in METAL ARCHITECTURE.  Instead of thick walls, whose strength and solidity are diminished by a great number of openings, our houses will be so permeated with openings that they will appear translucent.  These wide openings of thick, single- or double-glazed glass panes, either frosted or transparent, will allow a magical splendor to stream in during the daytime, stream out at night.”

It seems that in the human organism certain attitudes develop that only later crystallize in reality.  Just as industry was recognized as the fulcrum of the century before the development of mechanical engineering, so, too — on a reduced scale — is a housing form today emerging before the social structure is ready for it.



It started with the introduction of iron in roof framing.  The wooden beams of theaters and warehouses burned like tinder.  One tried to replace them with iron.  Soon one saw that iron construction required little space, allowed much light to stream in, and, when used in combination with glass, was especially suited for the roofing of courtyards.  Glass and iron galleries appeared, the true point of departure for railroad stations, market halls, exhibition buildings.  Before the introduction of rolled-iron beams, complicated experiments with composite iron-and-wood systems were conducted to make roofs fireproof, to render them incombustibles.

In addition to purely technical application (bridges, railroads) there were building details: such as cast-iron stairs and iron canopies in theaters (apparently introduced by [Jacques-Ignace] Hittorff and Lecomte in the Theatre de l’Ambigu-Comique after 1824).

Glass houses, with their — compared to walls — virtually invisible exterior shell, provide the impetus for the introduction of cast-iron supports and skeleton constructions.

England, industrially far ahead of France, enjoys the lead until about midcentury.

Visible exponent: the Crystal Palace in London, the Industrial Exhibition of 1851.

From the beginning, France showed itself to be superior in construction.

The books by Ch[arles-] L[ouis-Gustave] Eck document more fully how varied the efforts were regarding the introduction of iron already in the century’s first three decades. The architect L[ouis-] A[uguste] Boileau’s books give a good insight into the next three decades.

The first building that anticipates subsequent developments is the library of Sainte-Genevieve (1843-50) by Henri LABROUSTE.  Henri Labrouste is without doubt the most prominent figure in the field of architecture at the beginning of industrial development.  As a pensionnaire de l’Académie in Rome he did not approach antiquity in an aesthetically ceremonious way but scrutinized the temples of Paestum for “the organism of each construction.’’


He demonstrated that although students of the academy produced beautiful drawings of antique details, they completely missed the inner organism of the building.  He learned to recognize “that the best buildings from an artistic standpoint were precisely those constructed by the simplest, most truthful, and most rational methods.”  For the first time, he expressed an expanded MEANING of CONSTRUCTION, yielded by the new possibilities: The essence of construction is found not in the isolated study of the mason’s or locksmith’s handcrafted details but in the interpenetration of every part of a building.

Labrouste belongs to the generation of 1830 that, as noted in a completely different connection, was guided by a single grand current, by the demand for renewal of social, moral, and intellectual life.

By the time he was assigned the library, Labrouste was regarded by everyone as the purest incarnation of the esprit nouveau. For twelve years he had roamed Paris without being entrusted with even a single building.  Labrouste was past forty when he received the library commission.


Science and industry gave him very little assistance.  Nevertheless, with the library of Sainte-Genevieve he attempted for the first time to insert an iron skeleton into a building, from the foundation to the roof.  Sainte-Genevieve is at the same time the first pure library building in France.  Labrouste was more sensitive to the possibilities of iron than his architectural contemporaries.  The material corresponded with his intention: to condense the meaning of all things!

Labrouste inserts the iron frame into the building like the works into a clock:

The massive masonry core encasing the building still remains unaffected, but within this masonry core, from the ground floor to the ridge of the roof, is placed an iron system: columns, ceilings, vaults, girders, roof construction.

In individual rooms of the ground floor (la réserve), cast-iron columns without visible beams are connected to the upper story.  These slender cast-iron tubes run down the middle of the room, attached to the ceiling only by a narrow flange.  Sleek function, no beam with the hint of support and load, no ornament, no capital.  These are things that today are dared only by a Corbusier or a Mart Stam.

The upper story, a double-aisle reading room (84 meters long, 21 meters wide), forms a single structural skeleton with the roof.  The semicircular trusses are supported by cast-iron columns and — along the walls — consoles.  If the plans are correct, Labrouste already split these semicircular ceiling trusses into three segments so as not to make them totally rigid, in order to allow for expansion.  As we know, it was more [108-109] than four decades later (Galerie des Machines, Exhibition 1889) that such a line of reasoning led to a real form: three-hinged arches.

The roof framing rests stop these semicircular trusses and the columns.  Upon entering the attic space, one is astonished by the bold dimensions and by the slender, ingeniously stiffened wrought-iron struts carrying the heavy zine roof.  Labrouste achieved an astonishing thinness in the barrel vault by spanning the trusses with an iron webbing bound in plaster.  One cannot help thinking of the delicate reinforcement of Perret’s eggshell-thin concrete vaults in Casablanca and Le Rainey.

Naturally, Labrouste could not use the Polonceau truss, the recently invented visible tie system, for a library.  He prepares his own system with primitive means, going straight to the point that subsequently leads to completely new structural form: iron construction has to be balanced in itself!

Labrouste’s contemporary, the theoretician Léonce Reynaud, succinctly summarizes this: “The iron skeleton, which results in the suppression of the vault’s lateral thrust, is here realized in a perfect system.”

In his BIBLIOTHÉQUE NATIONALE (commissioned 1857, reading room and stacks opened 1867), Labrouste perfects this system.  Again a tall aqueduct-shaped system of arches encloses the space.  The iron framework of cast-iron columns stands free of the walls.  The free suspension and self-supporting frame are thus clearly emphasized.



In order for iron to conform in its building parts and shapes to its actual molecular properties three conditions were necessary:

1.  Wrought iron and steel should be manufactured in such a way as to avoid the accidental flaws endemic in the handicraft method of production.  The Englishman Henry BESSEMER brought about the decisive revolution.  He prepared steel in a purely chemical way (through mineral decomposition and regulation of the air supply in a Bessemer converter), precisely mandated by decarbonization.  1855.

2.  The most important step toward industrialization: mechanical production of certain FORMS (profiles) from wrought iron or steel .  The fields overlap: one did not start with building members but with train rails.  In an English rolling mill in South Wales the American [Robert Livingston] Stevens turned out the first broad-base rail mechanically produced (through rolling), that is, rails with a wide foot and a narrow head — the kind still in use today.  1832.  Here is the starting point for sectional iron, that is, the basis for structural frameworks.  Iron skeleton.

3.  Taking into account the molecular properties of iron, science had to study the material’s specific laws, and constructors had to find a formative process that differed from the treatment of wood.  The engineer Camille [111] POLONCEAU made the first steps in this direction.  The Polonceau truss, which is still in use today, employs the material’s preeminent property: its tensile strength.  English cast-iron roof structures worked like Gothic vaults with enormous lateral thrust on the load-bearing walls.  The significance of the Polonceau truss is that a light system of spanning members is self-contained, resting only with its own weight on the support, thus eliminating lateral thrust.

The elementary guidelines are seen in buildings without prototypes in the past.  Buildings shaped the new demands: metropolis, traffic, industry.

The common characteristic of these buildings is that they serve transient purposes: market halls, railroad stations, exhibitions.

Add to this — after 1870 — the factory and the large warehouse as iron-skeleton construction.


Metropolis problem of the nineteenth century entirely of a transient character.  Function: in a few hours goods must daily be brought to and removed from a population of millions: Let grandes Halles of Paris.


What should a market hall accomplish? “It must protect from the worst inclemencies of weather, besides it must consist of open halls with freely circulating air.  This prevents stagnating odors and facilitates the delivery of goods.”

What is required? “Freedom of movement, fresh air (le grand air), light, broadest prospect.”  This demand for a CLEAR LAYOUT [Übersichtlichkeit] and the possibility of quick MOBILITY, which only the new materials could provide, are common to all the new building problems.  To ascertain at what point we now stand in this development, consider the fact that the same requirements architects then used for the design of the individual new building tasks are today applied, with the same words, to the design of the entire city.  Herein lies the leap from the then-acute management of passenger traffic to [113-114] the now-acute management of the means of transportation (automobiles).

Victor Baltard (1805-74), whose name is still associated with Les Halles of Paris, was neither a great architect nor a greater constructor.

He first built a massive stone pavilion in 1851-52 and, after a trip to England, came to the conclusion that this country, too, had nothing new to offer.  He had the support of the city administration of Paris, which, as L.A. Boileau says, envisioned a monumental style only in stone.

But there were others in France who understood completely how to handle such a situation.  First among them were Horeau, the architect, and Flachat, the railroad builder.  Their plans and those of others had long been available when Baltard erected his stone pavilion.

Horeau never executed a building, but he foresaw and anticipated the development.  His plan for Les Halles shows a boldly sweeping parabola with a span of 86 meters.  Although girded with masonry, it would have needed massive masonry piers to counter lateral thrust.

Flachat’s project was actually the basis for Baltard’s later building.  Yet its matter-of-fact solution is infinitely freer than Baltard’s execution.  It is altogether consistent with the development that a prophet of railroad construction would find the most elegant and practical solution: he was accustomed to designing necessities without inhibitions.  These broad, spanning halls with Polonceau trusses were based on the idea: “Eliminate the solid to the utmost in favor of the void…increase the one at the expense of the other.”  Condensing the supporting structure to a few points; avoiding columns as much as possible, hence vast spans.

Baltard’s stone pavilion was already completed when the interested parties criticized the fort de la halle in which “the vegetables and they themselves were enclosed in a citadel.”  The prefect [Georges-Eugène] Haussmann ordered the pavilion pulled down.  Baltard laboriously patched together his work with the ideas of others.  [Felix] Narjoux handed down an anecdote indicative of Baltard’s position.  As Napoleon III visited Baltard’s new project under the direction of the prefect Haussmann, he asked, “Is it possible that two such contradictory projects stem from the same architect?” Haussmann countered that “the architect is indeed the same but the prefect is different.”  Despite Baltard’s lack of originality, the construction of Les Halles nevertheless contributed to the erection of hygienic and airy buildings of the same type even in the remotest provinces.


Their function, disposition, as well as transient nature compel the interrelation of architect and engineer.


Begun in 1862, the Gare du Nord (Paris) is the great work of this period.  Better than its successors does it satisfy its function: the swift dispatch of traffic.

The architect Hittorff’s façade in the style of Roman public baths is soon forgotten.  In the tightly measured ticket halls one can already see the combination of visible iron skeleton and stone.  Immediately beyond, the expansive arrival halls open up.  (Constructors: Couche and Boucher.) Engineers arc responsible for the extraordinarily clear layout of the arrangement, the maximum of freely disposable space with a minimum of material, the airiness of the halls, whose grand arrangement still satisfies today’s needs.  The luxuriant abundance of space in the waiting rooms, entrances, restaurants, as seen around 1880, which led to the formulation of the railroad station problem as exaggerated Baroque palaces, is still completely avoided here.


The DEPARTMENT STORE is the emporium of industrial production.  Like the covered market hall, the railroad station, the exhibition hall, it had no models available from the past.  Like them, the department store is based on rapid service, on largescale operation, on movement.

The idea for the docks a bon marché arose from the exhibition of 1867.  The direct [116-117] impetus was the great disparity that everyone could see there between wholesale and retail prices.  This price margin had to be reduced in order to meet the purchasing power of the poorer population.

The design of the department store demands:

Greatest possible freedom for circulation, clear layout,

Greatest possible influx of light.

Glass and iron thus become the constituent materials.  Glass for the generous skylights as well as for the broad plate-glass windows for displays and the upper stories (side lighting).

The iron skeleton allows thin pillars within: freedom of circulation, clear layout, and it permits the best utilization of light at the front.

The first consistent realization of a department store in glass and iron is the MAGASINS AU BON MARCHÉ (Paris).  1876.  Eiffel as engineer-constructor, L[ouis-] C[harles] Boileau, the son of the indefatigable advocate for the introduction of iron, as architect.

Broad windows at the front.  Only the corner pavilions, a reminiscence of French châteaux, could not be abandoned, as was even the case later (Paul Sédille’s Printemps).  But already Boileau remarks that these stone pillars are no more than the [118] hors-d’oeuvre de la construction, pure veneer (placage). The problem of the department store’s interior is already understood, so that in principle the solution is retained in later cases: t h e different stories form a single space.  One grasps them, “so to speak, all in one glance.”

“Under no circumstances does such a building tolerate thick supporting walls, even massive piers are amiss here.  Only pillars of small diameter are permissible; safety requirements have to be satisfied with these extremely limited elements.”  (Boileau).




Almost every age, according to its own inner attitude, seems to develop a specific building problem: the Gothic the cathedral, the Baroque the palace, and the early nineteenth century with its nostalgic inclination to imbibe the past, the museum.  In no building of German Romantic-Classicism is the will of the age more clearly manifested in form and idea than in [Karl Friedrich] Schinkel’s Altes Museum in Berlin (1819).  The Frenchman Henri de Saint-Simon simultaneously perceives industry as the central concept.  Later in the century, between 1850 and 1890, as industry achieved its full development, exhibitions become the creative exponents of building production.  Only when industrial development’s initial wonder had lapsed into a self-evident fact did the attraction and meaning of these arrangements abate.

Exhibitions are light buildings, quickly assembled and quickly disassembled: laboratories for industrial building.

One wanted to build in iron because stone, as a material, was far too heavy and expensive: “With iron, the various parts of the construction could be fabricated in the many separate workshops.”  Beyond this, iron had the advantage “of giving the building a special character, highly appropriate to its purpose.”  (See Monographie, Palais et constructions diverses de l’exposition universelle de 1878, exécutées par l’administration, p. 7.)

The history of exhibitions becomes the history of iron construction.  Following the first tentative efforts of 1851 (London) and 1855 (Paris), it happened almost regularly that previously untried solutions on which a group of constructors was working were realized for the first time.  Immediately thereafter, they left their stamp on life to the broadest extent.  Often it was a matter of a daring and even dubious way of building (Eiffel Tower) into the unknown.

Exhibitions not only summarized the results of the development but they also anticipated it.

In the history of exhibitions one can trace directly the transformation of the old static feeling of load and support into a new system of suspended equilibrium.  Let us advance step by step to make this evolution clear.


In an age of bounding transformation from handicraft to machine production exhibitions served to place all new discoveries next to one another immediately.  Work proceeded feverishly and simultaneously in many places.  Exhibitions now lined up the products of every country next to each other for comparison so that a mutual adjustment and intensification of the total production process happened as quickly as possible.

The exhibitions since 1850 were the first confirmations of a thoroughly global commerce.

Yet their very existence indicated that no breaks are possible in the field of human activity.

Temporary and transitory m their very essence these arrangements were closely connected with life, and at the same time they were the birthplace of today’s advertising.  These exhibitions, mounted in a short time and at great expense, produced an as-yet-unknown intensification in the medium of publicity.

The whole range of human labor was to be embraced: all disciplines and, often even retrospectively, all periods.  From agriculture, mining, from industry, from machines shown at work, to raw materials, to processed materials, to fine and applied arts.

This is due to a remarkable need for a premature synthesis that was also typical of other fields in the nineteenth century — the synthesis of the arts [Gesamtkunstwerk]. Apart from unquestionably utilitarian reasons, there was also the intention to give rise to a vision of the human cosmos in a new state of movement.

The exhibitions were born with industry.  Like it, they were a result of the French Revolution.  In the first half of the century they were limited events.  Toward midcentury, as industrialization marched forth, the world exhibitions begin.

The first exhibition, which called itself Première exposition des produits de l’industrie française, took place in 1798 (year VI) on the Champ de Mars.  It no longer dealt with luxury items — as did some presentations of the eighteenth century — but with articles for everyday use, such as clocks, safety locks, wallpapers, textiles, cotton yarns “carded and spun by machines’’ (page 51 of the exhibition catalog).

In the catalog of the second exhibition (year IX), the actual purpose was already more precisely formulated: only perfectly executed objects should be displayed.  Especially new inventions (découvertes nouvelles).  As Bonaparte, who as consul opened the exhibition, clearly emphasized: “This solemn and memorable exhibition must calm all anxiety as to the future of our commerce.”  (Cf. Seconde exposition publique des produits de l’industrie française [Paris: Imprimerie de la republique, year IX (1801)]). Iron, transportation, industry interlock.  Between 1840 and 1850 development by fits and starts is evident.  England — in contrast to the continent — is hardly disturbed by political turbulence.  Apart from this, England is in the forefront of industrial production in the first half century.  Hence, the first Industrial Exhibition of All Nations took place in London in 1851.



PARIS 1855

The first French event of this kind was called Exposition universelle des produits de l’industrie. Compared with later exhibitions, both the public and the press still adopted a certain waiting attitude toward the exhibition of 1855.  This is also sensed in the overall disposition: new participants were constantly coming forward, so the [123] specified surface area proved to be too small, and the exhibition showed numerous additions.  Plan: a rectangular structure with a high nave surrounded by a double row of galleries.  The low, encircling aisles were supported by countless cast-iron columns.  A circular panorama connected with the main structure and with a 1,200-meter-long gallery — containing mostly machines — that was oriented along the Seine.

CONSTRUCTION: the soaring round arches of the nave seem much advanced, their span approaches a bold 50 meters.  No tie-rods encroach upon the free space, yet one feels that the construction lacks a certain tautness that we are accustomed to today.

In fact, the hand of the constructor is here guided, both internally and externally, by historical concerns:


These neat self-contained barrel vaults recall numerous palatial halls of the Empire period And in order to resist the lateral thrusts of the large vaults, there was still no alternative but to imitate Gothic structural principles, that is, to buttress the iron which was both expensive and wasteful of space.

Compared to London’s Crystal Palace of 1851, the span of whose central nave did not exceed 22 meters and thus remained below what had already been dared in the Gothic period — the 27-meter span of the wooden vaults in Padua’s Il Salone — great progress is shown here.  The architect L.A. Boileau, who incidentally in the same year erected the first church in Paris with cast-iron columns, drew attention to the fact that the Crystal Palace in London was only a large-scale reproduction of the glass houses in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris (erected 1833), which were consistently built of iron, and that in the first version of the Crystal Palace, which was dismantled shortly after the exhibition, the most difficult part of the construction, the dome, was even executed in wood.

The English, in fact, are less talented as constructors, but one must admit that they left the structure free, they did not encase it with a triumphal archway and stone walls as was done in Paris in 1855.

Cast iron was the construction material employed in London.  In Paris in 1855 wrought iron was used for the first time for the vaults, although most pieces were still executed by hand.

Even without the appropriate structural solutions having been found, in this exhibition attempts had already been made: large spans, unusual luminosity, lightness of execution.

PARIS 1867

PLAN: two semicircles of identical diameters joined by two straight lines form the outer contour.  Small axis 380 meters, large axis 490 meters.  (The site of the Champ de Mars, between the Seine and the Ecole Militaire, was selected for the first time.  The oblong form of the site defined the outer contour for this and subsequent exhibitions.)  The question arose of how one should dispose the individual sections so as to give the spectator an ordered and undisturbed insight into the whole development.  The elliptical ground plan was filled with seven concentrically arranged galleries; the garden was laid out inside the innermost ellipse of this colisée du travail.

Proceeding outward, the galleries grew progressively wider and larger.  The outermost gallery, the Galerie des Machines, with twice the width and height of the others, towered over them all.  Behind this belt followed encircling rings: clothing, furniture, raw materials, until the two innermost  —  smallest  —  galleries, in which a retrospective exhibition, l’histoire du travail, and the fine arts were displayed.  A palm garden with sculptures formed the open, innermost oval.  The oval building was [125] divided into individual segments by transverse avenues, so that the spectator could follow effortlessly the development of a single country by itself and in relation to others.  Attempt at a set of “living” statistics.  In reality the system did not work due to the unequal development of the various countries.

“To go round this palace, circular, like the Equator, is literally to go around the world.  All peoples are here: enemies live in peace side by side.  As with the beginning of things on the watery globe, the divine spirit now floats on this globe of iron.” (Cf. L’exposition universelle de 1867 illustrée: Publication Internationale autorisée par la commission imperiale, vol. 2, p. 322).

CONSTRUCTION: the iron skeleton of the Galerie des Machines (span of 35 meters, height of 25 meters) consisted of pillars reaching 25 meters high.  They received the basket arches of the vault girders at the height of 19 meters.  These pillars were allowed to continue past the spring of the vault straight up into the air.  The chief constructor, J[ean-] B[aptiste-] Séb[astien] Krantz, did not want to expose tie-rods within, and the lateral thrust could only be borne by free girders that punched through to the sky from the pillars to the basket arches.  These projecting pillars were considered hideous, and one attempted to disguise them with trophies and flagpoles.  Hydraulic lifts, with all the clumsiness of newborn monsters, afforded access to the peak of the roof, around which ran a platform allowing an unusual view into this gallery city of corrugated sheet metal and glass.

Behind Krantz, the chief, stood the actual inspirator, the young Eiffel , who [126-127] had recently established his firm in Levallois-Perret.  Eiffel calculated and later experimentally verified the large supports of the Galerie des Machines, which were the core of the entire arrangement.  Thus for the first time the coefficient of elasticity for a large-span building was verified.  Eiffel later published his findings in a memoir.

These tall, kilometer-long galleries were undoubtedly grand.  They were filled with the roar of machines.  It should not be forgotten that people still arrived at the particularly famous festivities of this exhibition in eight-horse carriages.  As with contemporary rooms, one attempted to reduce the scale of these 25-meter-tall galleries with furniture-like installations and to soften the severity of the construction.  One was afraid of one’s own greatness.

PARIS 1878

The success of 1867 was so great that the scale of the next exhibition was significantly enlarged.  It was divided into two sections.  A monumental structure and a temporary exhibition building.  Across the Seine in 1876, Davioud and [Jules-Desire] Bourdais built the Trocadéro as a masonry palace.

The actual exhibition structure was again defined by the elongated form of the Champ de Mars.  A rectangle: 350 × 700 meters.  The earlier elliptical form was [128-132] replaced by a quadrangle, for one had learned that the curved girders of the inner supports were more difficult to reuse than straight ones (Encycl. d’arch., 1878, p. 36).

A series of galleries in parallel formation extended over the length of the site; all were flanked and dominated by the two Galeries des Machines.  Vestibules were placed on the two short sides of the site in front of the galleries.  Eiffel constructed the monumental vestibule facing the Seine.  The corners and middle of the vestibule were accentuated by great dômes métalliques, whose inflated volumes and dubious architecture were described already by contemporaries as “highly questionable” (Encycl. d’arch., 1878, p. 62).  In these domes, iron was violently forced to assume monumental forms alien to the material.  The result is obviously an inflated sheet-metal architecture.

Nevertheless: it should not be forgotten that along the length of the entire vestibule ran a glazed canopy, a marquise vitrée. Unpretentious and perfectly light.  In these details one detects the hand of Eiffel, who at the same time (together with L.C. Boileau) placed a similar marquise vitrée on the first iron-skeleton department store (Bon Marché).

If we were to scrape the decorative sludge off these buildings and make it a habit impartially and urgently to inquire into [133-134] their true nature, we would see that their bodies already contain all the essential building elements that we today describe as new.  We could compare the glass wall of 1878 with the glass wall of the Bauhaus just as easily as with the Glass Building department store in San Francisco, 1878, or we could compare the running glazed canopy of 1878 with the canopy of the shopping street in Amsterdam of 1926, where it becomes a truly articulating element.

CONSTRUCTION.  The essential point: the two flanking Galeries des Machines.  35-meter span, 25 meters high.

The barrel vault has disappeared.  The form resembles a capsized ship’s hull.  The truss girders meeting at the ridge of the roof are distinct and separate elements and already show that this is not a rigidly continuous construction.

Pier height 16 meters.  They are box-shaped with a quadrangular cross-section.  The truss girders begin halfway up.

SUPPORTS: de Dion type.  The engineer Henri de Dion was the real creator and pioneer of girders for very large spans.  After the most careful studies of material tensile strength he arrived at the form truss girders should have in order to be able to withstand, without the aid of tie-rods, the various stresses placed on them.  De Dion died shortly before the exhibition opened, while still working on his calculations.  The profile of the truss girders already shows a certain inner elasticity, the result of studying the actual laws of the materials.

Stepped purlins running through and connecting the lattice girders gave the girders in their continuity an expression of precise repose such as had not previously been realized.

On both sides, from the halfway point up, the walls were filled in with glass.  Such a union of glass and iron, by its nature, demands an extensive dematerialization of the building, as can already be seen here.  Boileau precisely describes the expression produced by this union: “The spectator is not aware of the weight of transparent surfaces.  The surfaces are to him air and light, that is to say, imponderable fluidity.”

Because of the Dion truss it has become possible to transmit all apparent forces directly into the foundation without outside help.  Nevertheless, the foundation remains rigidly connected with pillars and framework: the pillar is riveted into U-shaped iron sockets that are sunk into the foundation.  But an iron skeleton is subject to changes, it cannot be rigidly bound together like a stone palace.  It lives with the temperature fluctuations.

One begins to take this into account: each 60 meters along the ridge of the roof, where the two girders meet, a complicated system of bolts and oval holes permits independent expansion and contraction of the entire skeleton.

Perhaps there is still in the rigid connection with the ground, in the box-shaped girders of the lower part, a memory of the old relationship between column and base.  But

after the — if you will — capital-like enlargement these girders, at the mounting of [135] the framework, there is a new tensile elasticity.  One begins to recognize that the expression of iron skeleton also represents something new, demanding a hovering balance of forces.

PARIS 1889

The exhibition of 1889 is both the climax and — interpreted from the standpoint of knowledge — the conclusion of this development.  Its influence was enormous.

Plan: dispersed layout.  The Tour Eiffel by the Seine was the focal point, behind which the court-shaped exhibition buildings receded.  The two wings contained the beaux-arts and the arts liberaux; a section devoted to general exhibitions connected them.  The Galerie des Machines with its immense metallic nave rose in the background to tower over the complex.

CONSTRUCTION: GALERIE DES MACHINES.  (Actually called the Palais des Machines.)  Constructor: Cottancin.  Architect: [Charles-Louis-Ferdinand] Dutert.  The dimensions exceeded anything previously known.  The largest previous internal span of 73 meters wide and 25 meters high had been tried in England in 1868.


The Palais des Machines spanned 115 meters with a height of 45 meters, that is, it exceeded the height of the nave of the cathedral of Amiens, whose span was about one-eighth (15 meters) of this hall.  The skeleton is formed of twenty trusses.  Total length 420 meters.  Huge glass walls enclosed the sides.

The freely spanned spatial volume signified an unprecedented conquest of matter.

Nothing from an earlier time can compare with it.

The glass walls at the end did not close up the structure.  This is not a building that rests within itself.  There could be more trusses, there could be fewer trusses lined up, which would not decisively alter the building, for the aesthetic meaning of this hall lies in the perceptible union and in the penetration of the [138-139] exterior space, resulting in an utterly new limitlessness and movement, in keeping with the rotation of the machines that filled it.  Each arch was made up of two segments.  They were joined-hinged-with a bolt at the apex of the hall.

Below, the girder gradually tapers so as barely to touch the ground.

Above, it expands, achieving enormous impact.  The usual proportions seem to be exactly reversed, the traditional static feelings disturbed and disrupted: TRIPLE-HINGED ARCHES.

Further proportional distensions: the trusses are approximately five, times as high as they are wide (3.5 meters high by 75 centimeters wide).

With these truss proportions in an enclosed space we had to become aware that — in contrast to stone or wood construction — the filling material was missing.  These trusses were unusually light because this was the first time that a steel framework was used to such an extent.  The eye of the contemporary onlookers felt insecure and disturbed as the light pouring in from above swallowed up the thin latticework.  The vault optically attained an unusual hovering state.

The last hint of columns has disappeared, it is impossible to discern where support and load flow into one another.

The arching begins quite low, bent as though in the act of leaping in order to receive the load.  If you will: this is the symbol of our caryatids: they bear their load with n either the dignity of antiquity nor the buckling of the Baroque.  They spring toward the load in order to unite with it.

The ends of the downward-tapering girders are no longer rigidly connected with the ground but are left free to move.  They transmit their weight, as well as a horizontal thrust of 120,000 kilograms, directly into the foundation by a hinged joint.  With this supporting structure even foundation movements can take place without creating internal stresses.  This was the only means of controlling the play of forces at all points.

The division of support and load, which was still suggested in de Dion’s halls of 1878, is here obliterated.


The iron skeleton has found its true form.

A play of enormous forces is held in equilibrium.  But not rigidly, like support and load, rather, almost floating.

It is the equilibrium of a balance beam daringly poised against continually varying forces.

A new oscillating harmony is created.

An elastic counterpoise is achieved with respect to changes within, without, and in the foundation:

Equilibrium with respect to change in its own molecular structure.

Equilibrium with respect to external pressure (wind, snow).

Eoualization with respect to the surface fluctuations (foundation).





The significance of the Eiffel Tower lies in its structure.  By its silhouette undoubtedly a product of its age: monument, sculpture.  But all flesh has been left off, everything is reduced to connective parts, and t h e air drawn into the interior of the piers now becomes, in an unprecedented way, a formative material.  Eiffel and his engineers erected the tower in seventeen months.  Each rivet hole had been factory drilled in advance to a tolerance of one-tenth of a millimeter, whereas the English did this work on-site for the bridge over the Firth of Forth (1883-89).


One might also view the Eiffel Tower as a manifesto: the successful realization of a 300-meter-high structure provided the decisive impetus for tall steel-skeleton buildings.

This development continued underground: America.  The question of who built the first skyscraper is still being disputed.  We know only that in Chicago — apparently at the same time as the Eiffel Tower — quite a number of architects started building the first eleven- or twelve-story steel framed houses.

In Paris itself — quite apart from department stores — a series of modest skeleton structures with iron facades was erected in the following decade.

An entire square was even placed on an iron foundation.  It was the place de l’Europe, the generous structure over the wide network of rail lines from the Saint-Lazare Station.  (Engineer: Julien).  With a half-dozen intersecting streets.

The tradition of the nineteenth century is today being renewed.  Many efforts in [145-149] England, France (through Henri SAUVAGE), and Germany are being made to use the SKELETON building even for HOUSING SETTLEMENTS.  Research and experience in this area are still very much in the initial stages.  It is not yet possible to determine beyond doubt their economic feasibility.

The historian must therefore establish that by midcentury the problem of mountable and transportable iron housing with cavity walls was already posed.  Such houses were built for tropics (colonies) from the perspective: thermal insulation and resistance to insect attacks (termites).



It is pointless to discuss the new architecture in France without touching upon its foundation: ferroconcrete.  It is not extracted from nature as a compact material.  Its meaning is: artificial composition.  Its origin: the laboratory.  From slender iron rods, cement, sand, and gravel, from an “aggregate body,” vast building complexes can suddenly crystallize into a single stone monolith that like no previously known natural material is able to resist fire and a maximum load.  This is accomplished because the laboratory intelligently exploits the properties of these almost worthless materials and through their combination increases their separate capacities many times over.  We know: a load-bearing beam — be it a bridge girder or ceiling joist — is chiefly subjected to compression in its upper part and to tension in its lower part.  Therefore, iron, which possesses excellent tensile strength, is placed more on the underside, whereas concrete, with its great compressive strength and compact mass, predominates in the upper part.

[Joseph] Monier did not know this — in 1867.  In his reinforced-concrete containers iron gave the form and concrete was the filling.  Being more persistent than his predecessors and contemporaries  —  [Joseph-Louis] Lambot (1854), Coignet (1861), [Thaddeus] Hyatt (1877) — Monier elaborated his system step-by-step and successively took out patents for pipes, flat slabs, bridges, and staircases (1875).  Despite an instinctively correct arrangement he failed even at the end to recognize the function of iron and concrete.  This insight fell to German engineers in 1880.  But the decisive step that would enable a new means of architectural design to arise from an ancillary material, from a construction detail, was taken by Fr[ançois] Hennebique.

Even this, like almost all enduring knowledge of our age, was not the result of fantastic visions — they were later consequences — but of microscopic examination.  Or, expressed in the more modest language of the our time — of patents.

In 1892 Hennebique took out a patent on “composite beams.”

Until then the weak point in ferroconcrete construction had been the joints: those places where the ceiling merged with the beam and the beam with the supports.  It didn’t work there.  With an appropriate placement and bending of the reinforcing iron, Hennebique succeeded in bonding the ceiling, beams, and columns into one [151] continuous unit (ribbed beam).  The building as monolith became possible.  Isolated cast-iron columns were replaced by ferroconcrete pillars.  The unified frame-structure emerged.  The architectural imagination could move in tow of the patents.  We know how cumbersome this process was.

It is clear where this path would lead.  Formerly little-noticed uprights were now busily examined.  In 1899 Armand Considère discovered special methods to make them rigid (corded concrete).  Most recently one has even succeeded in making the beams — these last vestiges of timber construction — disappear: girderless ceilings! The efficacy of iron radiates almost like a magnetic field over its corporeal expanse within the concrete (developed by the Swiss [Robert] Maillart), and to be sure in a more empirical than mathematically acceptable way.  We are faced with a very complicated interplay of forces that even our theory can scarcely calculate.

Meaning of ferroconcrete: this laboratory product, this product that emerged only by focusing on the material, through — if you will — a material vision, is very significant for the present and the future.  With its prevalence, the architect, as a romantically sketching hero, became an embarrassment.  No material avenged its violation through its obstinate behavior as much as did ferroconcrete! On its framework one could, it is true, attach the most outrageous façades, but its actual control, despite possible exterior mutilation, belonged to the engineer.  And behind the engineer: industrialized building production.

The concrete firm is not the conventional building entrepreneur who passes the work on to about fifty manual laborers and actually does nothing more than continue the medieval building production in a coarser way.  Scientific, industrialized building production stands behind the concrete entrepreneur.  Ferroconcrete requires this, from its laboratory beginnings to the treatment demanded by the material on-site.  There is no other way.  Here we point out its characteristics; this is not the place to expand on the many shortcomings ferroconcrete still possesses today that impede its applicability.  It will hopefully not remain the only new material.  To say nothing of the fact that wood and iron also are about to be rediscovered.

What is important: to show that we find ourselves in a lawful evolution and that our real tradition has gradually been formed during the last half century.  In its strength and depth it is comparable to any other age.  Only we must place the accents correctly.  The discovery of Monier-Hennebique-Considère was initially passed to French architects.  In 1903 the brilliant constructor Ferret already drew the practical conclusions in his house on the rue Franklin.  The banks declined him a mortgage because the experts predicted that the slender frame would collapse.



We want an international architecture.  An architecture for the age.  All living nations are moving toward it.  Nevertheless, each country has its own predetermined role in the movement.  This is already clear today.  Precisely the new avant-garde architecture of France, which has rapidly freed itself from traditional formal games, is a sign that the native primeval voices speak again.  Naturally, not in imitation of the royal styles.  Even in France the new architecture is being reproached: it is international! Hopefully it is that! Likewise we cannot overlook that in its entire method, in how the tradition of iron and ferroconcrete was founded and amazingly developed, the threads lead backward: Gothic.  The same soil produced the cross-ribbed vault.  The same urge to lighten matter, to demand of stone what apparently goes beyond the strength of stone, has returned.  The strands lead from the almost fragile, slender arches in the choir of Beauvais to the enormous concrete parabolas of the Orly hangars built south of Paris (1916) by the engineer [Eugène] Freyssinet, commissioned by the firm of Limousin & Co.

Once again we should add that the battlefront between national and international no longer exists in reality, just as today an actual battlefront is basically no longer drawn between states, but in the ongoing struggle about SOCIOLOGICAL STRUCTURE!

The state of this problem differs from one country to the next, but the problem itself is everywhere the same.  Architecture is as closely bound to the sociological structure of a country as to its climate, materials, customs.  A fruitful variety of types naturally evolves from a common ground.

When we describe lines arching back in time, we are doing so in order to emphasize the French constructional temperament [153] The constructional temperament of FRANCE is as indispensable for the new architecture as America’s organizational aptitude or — in its place — Holland’s handicraft aptitude.  Each country must in its own way contribute to collective advancement.


In the nineteenth century the struggle between the functional architecture of rationalism and academicism always ended with the academy winning.  The particular time was simply not yet ripe, either in its means or in its knowledge, to prevail.  It cannot be denied: the past proved itself to be stronger.  Only today can the past be finally put aside, for a new way of living [Lebengform] demands a breakthrough.  This new way of living is to a large degree equivalent to the expression anticipated by, and latent within, the constructions of the nineteenth century.

The last struggle between functional architecture and academicism is seen in the generation whose pathbreaking works occurred shortly after 1900.  Auguste and Gustave Perret (Paris)  — born 1874 and 1876 — and Tony Garnier (Lyons) — born 1869  — generation-mates of the pioneering wave: Lloyd Wright (born 1869), Adolf Loos (born 1870), van de Velde (1863), Berlage (1856).  Both Perret and Garnier are students of the academy.  Gamier even a prizewinner and pensionnaire of the Villa Medici.  Both carry the academy within.  This is their limitation.  It has been claimed that the school did not harm them, but in reality they are directly bound in their design to the classical French ideal.  It surfaces at every opportunity and roams through their buildings.  Disguised and undisguised.



Perret is a constructor. Engineer-architect.  From the beginning.  He comes from a Burgundian family near Cluny.  One might draw a connecting line, if one were so inclined, between the severe art of engineering construction of the Cluniac monks and the architect who, for the first time, understood how to translate ferroconcrete into architectural expression.

In his apartment house in Paris, 25 bis rue Franklin, 1903, ferroconcrete is used for the first time for a RESIDENTIAL BUILDING, and the facade openly shows the skeleton frame as a constituent element.

In this narrow apartment building reside, almost like a vision, the germs of later development that Le Corbusier and others elaborated: the planar façade is shattered.  It is hollowed out, recedes in depth, springs forward again: allowing six cantilevered stories to jut out, freely suspended, with the sixth story exposing naked, rectangular piers.  The whole facade is in movement.  The roof already carries the rudiments of a garden.  Above, the building is almost suspended, and on the ground floor — where one notices the thin concrete ceiling slabs of the shops — there are only slender concrete piers, otherwise no mass remains.  The building also grows lighter at the base, it approaches the iron constructions that touch the ground only at points.

No light well.  In the narrowest space a staircase brightly lit by daylight, as glass bricks were used for the walls, a material [155] that as is well known, only much later found acceptance in residential construction.  The next step is the garage on the rue Ponthieu (Paris) 1905.  The masonry fill is dropped.  A thin structural framework and glass surfaces predominate; in a [156-157] word: the opening! These were also taken up in recent French architecture and independently developed further.  Perret himself judged his building: “The (world’s) first attempt in the aesthetics of reinforced concrete.” At the same time, this building of modest proportions begins a series of large garages that in today’s building activity in Paris are almost the only places where positive design can be discerned.

The new constructional interpenetration of a building is also found in Perret’s Théâtre des Champs-Elysées of 1911-1913.  The significance of this building is seen less in its traditionally attired space than in its innards, its dissolution into a concrete skeleton.  In this very complex building-two theaters, one of which is suspended above the vestibule — the whole interrelated play of forces is transferred to the static calculations of load and support.  Certainly the façade, like the auditorium, is designed in a conventional manner, and, just as in many American skyscrapers, the logical relation between skeleton and flesh is not achieved.  But here as there the integrity of the frame still possesses unlimited possibilities for development.  These possibilities are more valuable than any — for the moment — aesthetically satisfactory design.

The Casablanca docks (1916) and the church at Le Raincy (1922/23) are assembled with the same design elements: the Casablanca docks are of extreme lightness.  The shallow vaults of the roofs are — for the first time, as is emphasized — executed with a membranelike thinness (3 centimeters).  A few perforated layers of open bricks provide ventilation and animation.

The church of Le Raincy (1922/23) employs the same system: flat vaults only a few centimeters thick form the three aisles.  Expression and animation arise mainly from the construction.  The nave has a longitudinal barrel vault, the side aisles spring with small transverse vaults against it.  The lateral thrust is thereby effectively eliminated, and the room appears elastically modulated instead of rigid.

The exterior skin is only slipped on.  Accordingly, it is perforated all over.  The Casablanca ventilation system is — somewhat ornamentally, ceremoniously — utilized here.  The form of these concrete stretchers in the windows may be questionable, but not their function: they serve as effective light filters.  They block senseless streams of light and overdimensioned stained-glass windows that contradict the clarity of the concrete design.

The system of support consists of only four columnar rows.  It acquires an expressive quality because the outer rows are slightly set off from the wall.

The space breathes a lightness that is achieved only by an inner transcendence of matter.

The most recent generation carries on directly from Perret’s achievement because — besides the academy — in him survives the legacy of the French constructors of the nineteenth century.  He has the power to integrate a material — ferroconcrete — into the organism of architecture on a constructional basis.


Perret, architecte-constructeur, is inspired by the material .  He perhaps accomplished for ferroconcrete what Henri Labrouste accomplished for iron.  In his language of forms Perret stands on a pathetical pedestal from which none of his European contemporaries can rid themselves.  Moreover, the classical canon survives in the works of the French architect, just as [Jean] Racine, Molière, and [René] Descartes live on in the French people.

Lloyd Wright is not inspired by the material like Perret.  He is no pathbreaking constructor.

But he lives on American soil and, despite all romanticism, is better able architecturally to design an unpathetical, self-evident way of living.


Perret adopts the French tradition of penetrating a building constructionally, Tony Garnier (born 1869), above all, that of urban organization.  The roots of his life’s work, too, lie shortly after 1900.

He begins as a pensionnaire de l’Académie francaise in Rome with a study: Cité industrielle. That is not an acceptable project for a prizewinner of the academy, and to mollify his masters in Paris, Garnier chooses to reconstruct “Tusculum.”

La Cité industrielle:

In the configuration of the site (terrace landscape, large river valley), the large-scale project for an industrial city of 35,000 residents resembled the architect’s hometown: Lyons.

According to Garnier’s statement, the whole project (l’ensemble) was exhibited in 1901, its details in 1904. For all of its formal restraint, the project instinctively anticipates tasks that the new architecture would realize over the course of the next two decades.  The picture that Garnier sketches is subsequently confirmed by life, for it is not slapdash visions that, like the highs of cocaine, dissipate already the next day, but it shows the engineer-minded penetration of the detail.  The results were thus the product of a precise presentation of the problem and attention to the smallest cellular detail.  Garnier proceeds: (1) from the building material, (2) from the urban organization.  A social conviction leads to the idealistic superstructure.

From the start, the building materials are concrete and ferroconcrete, still [162] unusual in housing at that time.  “The foundations and the walls consist of concrete; the ceilings, the roofs, and all important buildings almost exclusively of ferroconcrete.”  Even if in some cases the houses in their details cannot cast off their cubic unity: in accordance with the idea, the consequence of ferroconcrete construction is already drawn:

These houses have no cornices, the roofs are accessible, and one already works with differences in levels.  For Garnier, the flat roofs are a completely self-evident result of the construction.80 Freely suspended concrete stairs lead up to the roofs of multistory apartment houses — in part already covered like a railroad platform.  The city — seen from above — receives its uniform flow from the horizontal fabric of roofs and the steplike ascent of the iron constructions of the factories and warehouses.

Garnier is already working with differences in levels.  His schools have open and “covered” lawns (préaux couverts et decouverts) that run freely beneath the terraces like the lawns beneath the chambers and the secretariat of Corbusier’s design for the League of Nations.  From these differences in levels emerge new tensions and interrelations of surfaces, solutions that Gamier himself was never allowed to translate into reality.

The house, which always proved to be least accessible to new formulations, here, too, remains restrained in its classicist form.  The full consideration of each house, however, is based on principles that only today are taking effect: bedrooms oriented toward the south, “large and small courtyards, which means spaces that are enclosed by walls and are meant to provide light and air are precluded.  Every room, however small, must be illuminated and ventilated from without.”

The simpler the design, “the lighter will be the construction and consequently the lower the cost.  The simplicity of the means leads logically to a great simplicity of expression (une grande simplicité d’expression).” Public buildings in the Cité [163] industrielle display a greater informality.  Already in the first half of the nineteenth century, hospital and prison complexes in France were broken up into pavilions in order to avoid light wells.

The assembly halls, the SUBURBAN RAILROAD STATION with underground tracks running through it and a renunciation of monumentality as later designed by Mart Stam and the young Swiss, display the same informal character as the gardenlike treatment of city streets around schools and the connection of single houses whose plots flow into one another.

Under Edouard Herriot, Gamier found the opportunity in Lyons to realize some of his projects.  His large concrete complexes: stadium, slaughterhouse, hospital, define Lyons’s townscape.  What he had begun in his utopian Cité industrielle, he continues in his second published work, of 1919.  The Grands Travaux de la ville de Lyon presents a curious mixture of works executed, to be built, or in progress.

Garnier’s buildings dragged on due to the war.  The slaughterhouse, begun already in 1909 and largely finished in 1913, is now almost completed.

The Grange-Blanche Hospital (project and drawings from 1911, begun in 1915), is probably not so far along.  The stadium, from 1916, was realized most rapidly.  The most difficult buildings to execute — as always in France — are residential buildings; Only five houses now stand in a forgotten suburb of a large district (Quartier des Etats-Unis, designed in 1920), through which should have flowed an avenue with open gardens 50 meters wide by 5 kilometers long.  Even these houses suggest solutions: the greatest possible suppression of vestibules, small kitchens, one large living room, small bedrooms.

Gamier is undoubtedly impeded by classicism, particularly in the stadium, but aside from these Hellenistic aspirations, he possesses what Edouard Herriot praises in his preface to the Grands Travaux: “Une méthode rigoureuse.” The clearest indication of the crossing of classicist, monumental elements with the future-oriented attitude is found in the twenty-two pavilions of the Grange — Blanche Hospital.  It is regrettable that in the final design Gamier did not relax the original, somewhat rigid axial arrangement of 1910.  The individual pavilions are built of heavy concrete masonry with high-ceilinged infirmaries.  Given the skill with which concrete is handled in France, Gamier can venture to form the amphitheatric lecture halls of the individual pavilions in concrete, including desks and bleachers.

Elevators carry the convalescent in his bed to the generous terraces to which the roofs have been converted.  Despite the heaviness of particular details of the design, the eye, through the interplay of the various horizontal surfaces, has an impression of the air always separating and hovering, just as our future cities will be shaped.

A survey of Gander’s work indicates that the Utopia of his Cité industrielle remains perhaps his most important contribution.  A fantastic expansiveness grows out of a cellular interpenetration.  One senses the combination of ratio and vision that will perhaps most clearly silhouette the coming age.


Yet Garnier’s buildings still carry the mass and weight of a pathetical attitude toward life.  The influence of the academy is not the only thing to blame.  The conflicting nature of his work is a characteristic of his entire generation.  As is typical of the legacy of the nineteenth century, superficially representational and future elements are often placed immediately beside each other.

In drawings of recent years, Gamier dreams nostalgically of distant times in southern laurel groves.  Just as from another perspective Lloyd Wright lately designs fantastically shaped “residential yachts,” or houses that burrow back into the folds of the earth.  These are constantly recurring features of a generation of architects in whom the divided soul of the last century survives: historical burden and constructional penetration;


Destiny of a generation: the past generation recognized and consciously formulated the importance of the place of work.  The value of utility buildings (factory, warehouse, office building, the beginning of the problem of the tall building).

To the present generation falls the task of lifting the HOUSING PROBLEM out of individual dilettantism and pseudohandicrafts and onto the level of industrial standardization through the most precise and thorough consideration of housing functions.  The future generation — which is already emerging from the mist — will once again prefer large construction projects.  But this time variable buildings, open to all possibilities and closely connected with the means of transportation.  With elevated and underground trains, airplanes, waterways.  Comprehensive relational coordination of all means.

LE CORBUSIER, the French-Swiss from La Chaux-de-Fonds (born 1887), gets credit for having placed the housing problem, the notably most underdeveloped aspect of French architecture, unequivocally in the center of his theoretical and practical activity.  Corbusier, in any case, appears certainly to have loosened the tongues of many a young Frenchman.  If we were today to attempt to describe his function, we would immediately be faced with the two-part question: where does he stand within the French movement, and by what means has Corbusier advanced the housing problem beyond the inherited norm? Only then can we discuss the formal structure of his buildings.

Corbusier depends entirely on the tradition of ferroconcrete.  Only in France is it possible for an architect to trust this material unconditionally.  The corrosive “ifs” and “buts” with which this material, often legitimately, is being opposed in other countries especially by leaders of the avant-garde, and which cause insecurity in production, do not apply in France.  One need only think of Holland where, despite the best intentions, residential construction cannot be freed from the use of brick.  The city of Amsterdam has allowed concrete villages to be erected according to the most varied methods without achieving any real satisfaction.  Robert van ’t Hoff’s concrete-masonry house in Huis ter Heide (1915), which, by the way, is not a true “skeleton house,” remains a process of construction virtually without followers, although in a formal sense it became a point of departure for the whole Dutch movement, Corbusier [168] has principally mastered two things; the ability to simplify things to an often almost dangerous terseness, and an unswerving consistency in development.  Since his first house in the Swiss Jura (1916), which is externally of conventional form, but already contains the germ of later developments, Corbusier has composed his buildings with a ferroconcrete skeleton.

Perret’s work contains prophetic germs and constructionally ingenious individual solutions: that of a precursor.  No stylistic comparison, just this: when one visits Perret, he likes to hold up the flawless, self-contained oval of an ostrich egg which he considers to be the most perfect earthly form.  The only “nature” in Corbusier’s Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau (1925) is that of an eternally open, self-transcending mother-of-pearl spiral of a large turbinate shell.  Like no one before him, Corbusier had the ability to make resonate the ferroconcrete skeleton that had been presented by science.  We do not mean his designs.  We mean the skill with which he knows how to translate construction, the frame, into the new housing function.  Out of the possibility of hanging the whole weight of a building on a few ferroconcrete pillars, of omitting the enclosing wall wherever one so desires, Corbusier created the eternally open house.

All of his architectural solutions lead back to it: his city on concrete piers (1915) the suspended houses that toward the base appear to become ever lighter, the cubes of air that spill over into his apartment houses (the first of these buildings, which are essentially villas set on top of one another, is to be built in Frankfurt), the gardens on the roofs and sides.  Cubes of air within, cubes of air without.  Cubes of air down to the very smallest units at Pessac and the individual cells of a cité universitaire. Maximum of air, minimum of walls!

This flow of air through the house: inside, outside, below, above (the flat roof is but [169] a partial problem in a larger unity): this is what we demand from the new house!

The reinterpretation of lean ferroconcrete construction in the redesign of the house demanded by the age and its will is what we call the true productive aspect of Corbusier’s achievement.

Why should the house be suspended and made as light as possible? Only thus can we put an end to that fatal legacy of monumentality.  As long as the play of load and support, in reality or symbolically intensified (Baroque), received its meaning through load-bearing walls, weight was justified.  Today — with nonsupporting exterior walls — the ornamentally accentuated play of load and support is an embarrassing farce (American skyscrapers).

We will eagerly pursue the extent to which the house can be suspended without falling into lyricism.  Corbusier has been reproached because his houses, especially those in Pessac, appear as thin as paper.  In fact, they avoid supports projecting from the wall cornices.  The solid volume is opened up wherever possible by cubes of air, strip windows, immediate transition to the sky.  The new architecture shatters the original conceptual polarity: space or plasticity.  The new situation can no longer be understood with these old terms!

Corbusier’s houses are neither spatial nor plastic: air flows through them! Air becomes a constituent factor! Neither space nor plastic form counts, only RELATION and INTERPENETRATION! There is only a single, indivisible space.  The shells fell away between interior and exterior.

Yes, Corbusier’s houses seem thin as paper.  They remind us, if you will, of the fragile wall paintings of Pompeii.  What they express in reality, however, coincides completely with the will expressed in all of abstract painting.  We should not compare them to paper and to Pompeii but point to Cubist paintings, in which things are seen in a floating transparency, and to the Purist [Charles-Edouard] Jeanneret himself, who as architect has assumed the name Le Corbusier.  In his Peinture moderne ([Amédée] Ozenfant and Jeanneret, Peinture moderne, Editions Crès & Co.) he likes to assure us that he has deliberately chosen only the most ordinary bottles and glasses, that is, the most uninteresting objects, for his pictures so as not to detract attention from the painting.  But the historian does not see this choice as accidental.  For him the significance of this choice lies in the preference for floating, transparent objects whose contours flow weightlessly into each other.  He points from the pictures to the architecture.  Not only in photos but also in reality do the edges of houses blur.  There arises — as with certain lighting conditions in snowy landscapes — that dematerialization of solid demarcation that distinguishes neither rise nor fall and that gradually produces the feeling of walking in clouds.


Individual houses do not satisfactorily demonstrate this: housing settlements.  The relation of several houses to each other.  Corbusier has his first housing settlement behind him: PESSAC near Bordeaux.  (Completed 1925).

ORGANIZATION: Pessac is the first housing settlement in which no restraints were placed on the architect.  So far, some fifty houses have been erected, but fifty more are planned.

In these relatively few buildings the advantages of standardization already became obvious.  Room dimensions were normalized.  Module: 5 meters.  Rooms: 5 × 5 meters, or the subdivision 5 × 2.5 meters.  Each building, according to its size, contains six, eight, or more cells.  Window sizes derive from individual room sizes: 5, 2.5, 1.25 meters: ¼, ½, 1 windows.  This standardization permits the greatest variety of applications while at the same rime requiring but one order from the factory.  Roof and floors have the same module: 5-meter concrete beams.  In addition, there are also uniform doors, hearths, fireplaces, stairs.

Machines fabricate the insulating cinder blocks and the concrete beams on-site.  I have personally seen the Ingersoll-Rand Company’s “cement gun” (the concrete cannon) spray forth a 100-meter wall in just a few days.  This aroused the resistance of the workers to the point of sabotage.

For the time being, six different house types are being used.  Of these, the gratte-ciel type (duplex) and the smallest type are repeated most frequently and thus determine the overall look of the housing settlement.  “Type 14” appears to us to be the most elegant: it most decidedly leads to that lightening of the dwelling.  It is suspended on its concrete columns.  The staircase is organically pushed to the outside in order to leave all space free for living.  From that it follows naturally that staircases resemble railroad overpasses.


It must still be noted that the basic elements of the Pessac housing settlement — including its 5-meter module — date back to 1921.  One will find them in: Vers une architecture.

The flat contours of Pessac merge with the sky: the suspended canopies over the roof gardens form the transition.  The color scheme is taken from Jeanneret’s paintings: ethereal sky blue and light green, a more intense brown.

The interplay of the units can be judged neither spatially nor plastically.  Only relations count.  Relation of mass to void.  Relation of smooth surfaces to perforated ones, relation of horizontal layers to vertical bodies.  COLORS serve to lighten the volumes, to advance and recess surfaces.

How could one judge the space and plasticity of, for instance, the brown row houses of the smallest type without taking into account the oscillating relations between things? These houses that so rigorously respect the planar surface are themselves being penetrated with expansive, onrushing cubes of air, which among themselves receive new stimulation and modulation — as by the swelling, visually hard-to discern vaults (pantries).  The row houses as a whole again reach into the space next to and behind them.  Still photography does not capture them clearly.  One would have to accompany the eye as it moves: only film can make the new architecture  intelligible! But even then only in a limited excerpt: does one really think that the wall on the right, as taut as a movie screen and altogether deprived of its corporeality, stands there only accidentally, unrelated to the opening and surface of the brown elements next to it? Certainly this effect in its particular features is not calculated.  But the result evolves by itself from the elements of an architecture that — freed from the play of load and support — has cast off the anthropomorphic shackles.  We owe it to the Dutch, to [Piet] Mondrian and [Theo van] Doesburg, that they first opened our eyes to the oscillating relations that may arise from surfaces, lines, air.


What is it like INSIDE these buildings?

From the beginning, the will requires a strong interpenetration and interrelationship of all parts and connection to the outside.

In 1921 the basic ideas were already formulated in the sketches for the book Vers une architecture: avoidance as far as possible of partitions.  The spiral staircase as an open and interconnecting member.

In the well-known studio Corbusier designed for Ozenfant in 1923, the idea acquired form.  Garage within the body of the house.  A spiral staircase winds upward, connects to a hall and, in a further rotation, opens unexpectedly into the dining room.  A suggestive notch allows one to make out further spaces.  After a turn, one stands in the most beautiful studio, in which the work cell is suspended like a crow’s nest.  A place of isolation.  All other rooms breathe together.

The La Roche house in Auteuil of 1924.  The spheres of the stories interpenetate one another.  Just as Lloyd Wright — twenty years earlier — fused the rooms of the house horizontally, so Corbusier primarily does it vertically.  It is good to peel the skin off the house and expose in the naked skeleton itself how the structural parts flow seamlessly into one another.  In an unexpected spot in the ceiling (above the wall-less library of the second story) is cut a square skylight, through whose clear glass one sees the sky.  Even the ceilings are light.  No burdensome closure.  (Rietveld, for example, was able to give his house in Utrecht skylights at a stroke.)

1926/27.  In the La Roche house Corbusier only dared to put a lateral and parabolically advancing part of the house on posts so that the garden could continue underneath.  For the Cook house in Boulogne-sur-Seine he draws the conclusion of setting a house on posts and lets only a small portion (staircase-vestibule) be walled in.  Only on the upper story do the freely supported walls begin, and there the continuous strip windows are displayed with full consistency.  The roof garden of the La Roche house is, to be sure, already thoroughly modeled, but only here is the integration of house and roof complete.  The large room of the house extends above the roof plane up to the height of the covering baldachin, which protects against rain.  A staircase leads from this large room to a smaller study which, at a roof level, forms the middle link of an indivisible interlocking of interior and exterior.

1927/28.  De Monzie house (Garches, near Saint-Cloud).  Just as Corbusier in the Cook house fully disengaged the building from its socle, so in the de Monzie house he attacked the façade of the building with enormous boldness an left it so penetrated with air that one can almost speak of a crushing of the actual house volume.

Corbusier’s utter mastery in accentuating certain lines in a fascinating way is also evident in his ability to conjure up spaces whose appearance far exceeds their real cubic dimensions.  There is in these terraces and bridges an almost balanced manipulation of spaces and particles of space that continuously interpenetrate.  There seems to be a limit here.  One senses that the architect has not fully escaped the [181-183] danger that today is always posed by unlimited financial means.

One wonders if it is possible for those of us who are accustomed to a quick pace to cross such a terrace — so flooded with air as if by floodlights — without having the feeling: I am on a stage.  At such points the next generation of architects begins to smell danger.  We have no doubt that we must accept slow and gradual development, continually controlled by social and financial obligations, if architecture and our culture are to receive that perhaps still — unrealized unity and constancy that have already been proclaimed in many other fields.


Nevertheless it is important that isolated experiments, such as the de Monzie house, are made, for they help to loosen up the still-too-rigid means of expression in architecture.  If it is at all possible to design luxury today — the actual problems lie elsewhere — it would be only the kind of luxury shown in the de Monzie house: luxury

of air volumes whose interpenetration and harmony let the new way of SEEING become form.

We know that human housing must be shaped more sensitively than garages.  But a perhaps justifiable fear of aesthetic emphasis persists, driven by the experience of a century.  No one thinks in terms of a schematic machine-for-living (machine à habiter). But more important for us than aesthetics and poetry is it that the architect concern himself with the biological function of the house and thus help to combat the coarseness with which these things in many cases are still being treated today.

We do not doubt that at the very moment when these things furnish a solution, an equally obvious beauty will emerge from houses as from ships and airplanes.

This beauty becomes still more intensive, for it appears connected to our human functions.

Then this point will also be reached without emphasizing an isolated aesthetics, which Corbusier illustrated as the difference between the Parthenon and an automobile: inner movement!


What is Corbusier’s achievement? He has grasped the house with the sensitivity of a seismograph and released it from traditional weight.

He is not as precise a constructor as Auguste Perret, nor do his houses display, down to the last detail, the deliberate functionality of a J[ohannes] J[acobus] P[ieter] Oud.  But Corbusier has ventured pioneering work like no one else in our time.  He attempts to translate into the housing form that suspended equilibrium, that lightness and openness that iron constructions of the nineteenth century express abstractly.  He has shown us how one must mold the house throughout  — below, above, on the sides — in order to relieve its weight.

Corbusier’s means are not unique to him but originate earlier in industry.  The posts that support his houses can be seen in many French warehouses; the strip windows — fenêtres en longueur — are commonly found in factories and wooden barracks as the result of construction, and the concrete column running freely through the stories is of the same origin.

Garnier has already realized the flat roof and Lloyd Wright the free plan, but Corbusier is the first to conceive a house so thoroughly that the weight has actually been taken away from it, and it has not remained a block whose roof has simply been shaved off.  Not the least of his roles seems to be the fact that he, in overriding all inhibitions, has helped people go their own independent way.

Corbusier’s houses can be attacked on several points.  He has been reproached for his romanticism, as when he — for instance, when he started out — takes over a whole series of formal motifs from shipbuilding (figs. 103, 104).  There is also a certain danger of a strong, aesthetic emphasis, which today’s architects understandably fear.  Architecture today-like nineteenth-century construction-proceeds gradually, for it must lay down foundations for a long time to come.

Others may appear who will purify Corbusier’s work.  What is laid down nevertheless stays, for it is controlled by an architectural vision , and its roots are torn from the flesh of the age!

The THEORETICIAN: Corbusier has exercised as much influence on our time as a theoretician (his impact in Latin America is similar to here) as he has by his buildings.  For an age in which even the artist is allowed to make use of ratio, it is understandable that one can be at once both a popularizer- and a creative individual, [187] just as in politics — for instance, Lenin — one can be a journalist, theoretician, and state leader all at the same time.

In the pages of the journal ESPRIT NOUVEAU, which Jeanneret coedited with Ozenfant (1921/24), one can find almost everyone who in every field was active in the formation of the epoch.

Corbusier’s effectiveness is explained by his ability to simplify things to a point of lapidary succinctness.  His presentations are not made unpalatable by any half-thought-out philosophical claptrap.  He reduces the problems to the clarity of film titles.  Of course, the French language helps give unequivocal wording.  Subtly differentiated complexes are often dealt with summarily, but people retain the basic ideas.  The three introductory chapters of Vers une architecture on “eyes that see not…automobiles, airplanes, steamships” cannot be expunged from our age, and at the same time they form a bridge to the forgotten predecessors in the nineteenth century.

Corbusier’s design for the LEAGUE OF NATIONS BUILDING (first prize ex aequo) contains the elements that constitute Corbusier’s work and whose gradual development we here tried to suggest.

The synthesis of constructional and standardized elements, which are welded together through artistic vision into a totality, might explain the privileged position it has achieved among the 377 submitted entries.

We need to consider here the competition for the League of Nations only insofar as it touches upon the large issues that run through the entire century.

We thus encounter, perhaps for the last time in history, the name of the ACADÉMIE DES BEAUX-ARTS.

The academy was — as we mentioned — renewed by Napoleon at the moment (1806) when he was preoccupied with giving a feudal veneer to the new empire.  The tradition the academy maintains is in no way a generally national one: it is the mentality of feudalism! Because feudalism as a social system is dead, the academy, too, is dead.  That is the reason why for the last hundred years the academy’s name has appeared only when it has been a question of impeding development.

Nothing has changed since Labrouste, already in 1840, proved that the academy’s training produced students with an incapacity to deal with life (see page 98).

Already fifty years ago the secretary of the academy, the vicomte Henri Delaborde, publicly declared that the doors to the academy opened only “when genius was gradually in accord with everyone,” that is to say, the academy inconsiderately reserves for itself the traditional right to sabotage young talents, to suppress their development as much as possible, only to assimilate them in their old age.

When the Eiffel Tower was being erected, the academy was its most zealous opponent, only it could do nothing against the government then in power.  For thirty years [188] the academy sabotaged Henri Labrouste, up to the final works of his students, and it later even suppressed a [Eugène-Emmanuel] Viollet-le-Duc; and just as it yesterday ostracized Auguste Perret, so it today ostracizes Le Corbusier.

No one outside France has yet concerned himself with the academy.  But through the inertia of events or the mentality of political leaders it is a reality.  This is why we must concern ourselves with it, however little it can be doubted that this feudalistic holdover will soon be swept away.

The task of designing a building in which all nations would assemble to maintain the equilibrium of the world is completely new and belongs to the time.  To want to solve it any way other than with TODAY’S MEANS is dilettantism, for, as we will show, one is already compelled by the task subsequently to patch the new building technologies (contained in the projects of architects working out the problems directly) onto the most ridiculous stage-set buildings.

The League of Nations building consists of two parts: the administrative apparatus (General Secretariat).  This is a continuously functioning office concern, an office building that will have to use all knowledge currently available to achieve a smooth functioning of the business within.  The second part: the chambers for the world parliament.  Because of its vast dimensions the Assembly Hall is by definition a task that cannot be resolved with “monumental” means.  If one did not take the acoustic problem into account, the requisite dimensions would make it impossible to hear a single word.

In addition, there are integral elements of the overall composition: the regulation of automobile traffic — five hundred cars must be able to arrive within a few minutes — and the accommodation to the site.

Corbusier has oriented his building complex slightly toward the south, toward Mont Blanc.  The Assembly Hall advances, the General Secretariat recedes.  The entire complex blends easily into the landscape, it is integrated with the surroundings, and through its architectural treatment — the General Secretariat on supports, extensive use of glass — it avoids any awkward heaviness.  As in all truly new projects, automobile traffic is not a concern that disturbs the architecture but instead becomes a stimulus for design.

The means supplied by the age are evident everywhere, often unseen and unused, as [189] it needs a visionary outlook to recognize them.  To build a living architecture means to have at one’ s disposal the ability to recognize these means and to transform them into architectural design.

Hence, acoustics provides the foundation of the design of the large Assembly Hqll.  The architect translates into form the knowledge discovered by the specialist (in this case G[ustave] Lyon, Paris).  The result: even new formal possibilities arise thereby.  Competition for the new League of Nations building means: conflict between a living and a rigid, feudal architecture.

SUMMARY: When they were submitted, the “MONUMENTAL PROJECTS” utterly failed on every point: for the monumental gesture completely drowned out all functions.  This is thoroughly understandable.  The armoring with colonnades and column orders binds much too tightly, like a corset, and is too coarse to be able even remotely to fulfill the demands put forth by life today.

Even the diplomatic committee that selected the architects of the four worst designs has understood that.  The committee demanded fundamental changes that were taken almost point for point from Corbusier’s project.


This competition recalls Les Halles in Paris, where Baltard likewise laboriously had to patch his building together from the ideas of others As we already mentioned, the Paris city councilors of 1850 saw — according to the judgment of their contemporaries (cf. p. 114) — monumentality only in the accumulation of stone masses.  Unfortunately, in the eighty years since then, those in power in the League of Nations have not advanced one step further in their judgment.

Who works alongside Perret, Gamier, and Corbusier?

First, the in-between generation — age-wise between Perret and Corbusier — that did not fully develop.  Two names: Rob[ert] Mallet-Stevens, Henri Sauvage.  One must first say about both: they, too, have the tradition of ferroconcrete in their blood.  But they did not achieve consistent formulations.

Rob.  MALLET-STEVENS (born 1886) is the movement’s élégant. He remains a formalist who drapes the new means over the old frame.  His youthful impressions revolve around the Stoclet house of 1905 in Brussels (by Jos[ef] Hoffmann), which, by the way, represents the best realization of the Wiener Werkstätte Movement. Mallet-Stevens has a special relationship with this house.  In his youthful work Une cité moderne (Paris: chez Massin, n.d. — around 1914 — introduction by Frantz Jourdain) that house and the dreams of the Wiener Werkstätte keep recurring.  No overall vision as in Tony Gander’s Cité industrielle already around 1900.  Details.  Arts and crafts.  Yet the French tradition of ferroconcrete lives on in him.  The hall of his transportation pavilion at the Paris Exhibition of 1925 is actually suspended on only two supports, and all five stories of his Alfa-Romeo Garage (1925) are hung from two parabolic girders so that no supports obstruct interior traffic.  The façade and shop of this frequently reproduced building exhibit a mixture of Dutch and Viennese crafts influence (cf. by contrast J.J.P. Oud’s Café de Unie in Rotterdam).

For the well-to-do in Auteuil the architect built an entire cul-de-sac named after him: RUE MALLET-STEVENS.  The most interesting aspect of these four-story, single-family houses (ferroconcrete) with a half-dozen bathrooms is the imperative with which our age, even if only faintly heard, strikes down all ostentation.  There is still — in the largest house — that multitude of rooms that formerly seemed indispensable to wealthy households.  But the stridency of capitalism is nonetheless slipping away.  The ground floor is devalued.  Where formerly the suite of rooms unfolded, now reside the chauffeur, garage, and domestic facilities.  Everything has been pushed upward.  On the first story: only remnants of the old ostentation but — compared to the total cost of the house — negligibly little.  No millionaire would previously have tolerated that.  It is clear that the house has no garret.  In the basement there are special rooms for furs, paintings, baggage, and supplies.

A dumbwaiter runs all the way to the roof; to the most comfortably arranged roof that we have ever seen.  A flat concrete baldachin cleverly suspended from broad chimneys protects the table linen from every last particle of soot! Then an adjoining tiled pantry.  Rooftop pantry.  Le Corbusier’s astringency reinterpreted for the gourmand-élégant.

If evidence were needed that contemporary architecture and a “rich” style are incompatible: the houses on the rue Mallet-Stevens would supply it.  The historian must establish the strange phenomenon: for the first time in history, not the upper class, but the lower class is a factor in the creation of a [191 missing]


Henri SAUVAGE’S merit lies in having realized, in Paris, the maison à gradins, the recessed, terraced apartment house.  These houses that recede story by story — and that are furthermore white-tiled — provide a source of light in the street.  Even more than for the house built already in 1913 on the rue Vavin off the boulevard Raspail is this true for the block of apartment houses on the rue des Amiraux much farther north.  Built by the city of Paris.  Inexpensive residences.

Since the block sits on three streets, the empty space beneath the receding stories could be used for an indoor swimming pool instead of a black light well.  This method of suspending the construction of an entire block is possible only with the tradition of ferroconcrete.


In his garage for a thousand cars off the boulevard Raspail (1925), Sauvage is probably more involved in the facade than in the actual engineering, and the same can be said about the other façades, which were kept completely in the Beaux-Arts style.

More important is the question of the real SUCCESSORS, of André Lurçat, [Gabriel] Guévrékian, R. Boyer-Gérente, J[ean-Charles] Moreux, L[ouis] Thomas (of Lyon).  J. Beaugé.” One may say of all of them: they have no impact.  One cannot as yet definitively separate the wheat from the chaff.  France was a country of pensioners.  As in other complacent countries the prevailing sentiment is: “La peur du risque!” The fear of the new.  Even the backwardness with respect to obvious hygienic demands (bath, shower, boiler) is not simply the product of economic weakness but equally the power of a tyrannical tradition that has become a specter that does not in any way want t change living habits.


Gabriel GUÉVRÉKIAN, a Persian living in Paris, had a very interesting start.  The ferroconcrete villa of 1923 is probably one of the earliest attempts to loosen the rigid cube of the house and interpenetrate it with air, to lay out three roof terraces, to lighten the ground floor, and to use an interior skeleton to suspend the building elements without the trickery of decoratively cantilevered concrete slabs.

Guévrékian has yet to have any real impact.  There are a few shops by him in Paris (such as the boutique Simultane, 1924, with its textile window displays moving at various speeds, or the Alban Photographic Studio, 1926).  Guévrékian’s executed gardens (at the Exhibition of Decorative Arts, 1925, and for the comte de Noailles in Hyères, 1925) do not bring us any closer to this difficult problem.  With their virtually complete elimination of living plants they resemble a flirtation with abstract design more than a design itself.  They are on a developmental sidetrack just as much as Mallet-Stevens’ frequently cited concrete trees at the Paris exhibition, which were actually an unnecessary attempt to shock the Philistines.  A large house in Neuilly is under construction.

The small, cubic studio of André LURÇAT (born 1894) is also known in Germany.  His most significant achievements are the groups of houses of the Cite Seurat (1925/26), two houses in Versailles, and the Guggenbuhl house (Paris, Montsouris).  His work is distinguished by a certain austerity, coolness.  Whether by predisposition or by lack of understanding by the patrons, the imagination often seems restrained.  Among the younger architects in France he is perhaps the one most concerned with sociological problems: hence the importance of his designs for apartment houses and his development plans related to them.

R. BOYER-GÉRENTE has followed in Corbusier’s path with his design for the Ville de Curepipe by opening up the single house and striving for standardization.  (Published by van Doesburg in Bouwbedriff, 1927, p . 88.) His villa presently under construction in Hyeres underscores this impression.


The young J. BEAUGÉ, from Corbusier’s studio, displays a sympathetic grasp of the layout of the terrain and interpenetration in his design for a cité jardin for intellectual workers (exhibited in the Autumn Salon of 1926).  Despite the essentially still undigested influence of his master, one sees in him a hope and the possibility of further development.

Unlike Holland, the contemporary meaning of the new French architecture does not lie in the transformation of the whole country through a housing form for our age.  Whereas in Holland the results rest mostly on the refinement of craftsmanship and less on industrialization, the way of looking at the problem in France is far more interesting because it is constantly directed toward employing ferroconcrete.

Ferroconcrete buildings of the most elegant and bold construction are spreading all over France.  Utility buildings.  Upturn is enormous.  And general.  But only with regard to utility buildings and — with a certain reservation — “public works.”

“Public works” —  travaux publics  — are an old Saint-Simonist issue, which both Napoleon III and the republic took over.

It is different with residential buildings.  According to a discussion in the French parliament of 13 November 1927, France lacks approximately


Any traveler who comes to the outskirts of the city — banlieue — can vouch for this housing distress.  One is astounded that in Lyons, for instance, abutting Gamier’s vast slaughterhouse complex, there axe inhabited wooden barracks whose damaged parts [199] are patched together from tin-can lids and crate slats.  In contrast to Holland, the housing problem in France is making almost no progress.  In the long run this will force the avant-garde into an utterly untenable position: into an aestheticism.

The public hand provides no commissions.  A few painters and wealthy people — who can be counted on the fingers of one hand — are the only patrons.  It is certainly good for experimental buildings not to be bound by financial considerations but only to the extent that it is possible to apply the collected experiences a hundred times over in the future.  Without slow, industrially bound construction there can linger be a lasting solution; without a collective will there can be no architecture.

Now the problem in France is this: if the people are sufficiently driven to feel the need also to give their inner life an appropriate form, our age will instantly get a foothold there.  As long as the masses are satisfied with the present bad living conditions then the new architectural knowledge gained in France will only be beneficial elsewhere.  The avant-garde, which in France encounters the most formidable resistance whenever a new housing form is attempted, is small but confident.  One of its representatives wrote me: “Our hopes are vast, for we expect to win the game some day and win it decisively.  There are very few of us committed architects.  But we have such a will to succeed that our ideas will slowly but surely make their way.  It is only a matter of time.”

The backbone of the young people is still artificially broken in the schools, and the ideal of the Academie des Beaux-Arts survives in the minds of the bourgeoisie.  Blinded by grotesque ignorance, this institution still pretends to be the “guardian of a grand tradition.”  Its shameful influence on all official milieus is undeniable.  With the competition for the League of Nations building we have observed with amazement how much apparent power such an institution can still have, even though for a century it has been without significance for the history of art.

But, after all, our age is a barren soil for such specters.  Sooner or later they must decide to expire, even in France.



In the three decades of its most widespread application, ferroconcrete has reached such a high level of design that fewer fundamentally new results are to be expected — but rather an extension and refinement of practical methods.

It is curious that ferroconcrete has needed about the same length of time as iron for its development.  Iron between 1850 and 1890, ferroconcrete from the beginning of the 1890s.

Likewise, ferroconcrete attempts to break up the rigid relationship of support and load.  This is especially visible in so-called mushroom slabs, where supports are allowed to flow directly into the ceiling plane.

With ferroconcrete there is today also the possibility of anchoring buildings high above the ground and letting their weight be suspended from a supporting arch.  Be it the arch of a bridge, a garage, or a hangar.

Just as Eiffel pursued the problem of the parabolic support his whole life, so the engineer Freyssinet has — since 1916 — made attempts in ferroconcrete to suspend loads [201] from above and has in this way arrived at an until-now unknown lightness, grace, and span (pont de Saint-Pierre-du-Vauvray, 132 meters).  One always sees that s a Je balance of an arithmetic and aesthetic solution.

Limousin & Co. explain in the catalog of their constructions: “Ferroconcrete is no longer a mystical dish for which everyone unfailingly has a better recipe than his neighbor.  Constructions are based on a number of well-tested methods.  What counts today is the perfection of production.”

Next to the creator of forms (créateur des formes) a second corrective authority emerges from handling of such a complicated material as ferroconcrete: the entrepreneur, the organizer!


He sees to it that manual labor is reduced to the absolute minimum and is concerned to design the form in such a way that the frameworks may be repeated and used as often as possible; at the same time, for reasons of thrift, he requires their quick and easy assembly and disassembly.  This leads to a new inner lawfulness, to a new as-yet-unknown expression.


How is ferroconcrete related to HOUSING CONSTRUCTION?

It is France’s special role that, with her pleasure in overcoming constructional difficulties she has devised almost all buildings in ferroconcrete, taking into account the new housing functions.

But this does not resolve the questions: there is a certain inherent rigidity in ferroconcrete.  We know how difficult it is to demolish or even just alter buildings in this material.  Our dwellings should not be rigid, they must be allowed a certain amount of free play for change, for they do not always serve the same function.  Because of the rigid nature of today’s house, we have been all too accepting of the immutability of the floor plan and have let it tyrannize us.

Iron skeletons are after all more open to reassembling or addition, yet they display other disadvantages.  Gradually, experience accumulates that allows us to determine with confidence which material can best be applied in a specific area of a house.

The beginning of industrialization and transportation in the nineteenth century led to the formation of iron.  Later, as the world economy recognized its importance, it demanded containers for large-scale storage: warehouses and silos.  This demand produced the suitable building material: FERROCONCRETE.

In the field of building, oar age has one primary demand: the creation of a humane and unconfined human dwelling that meets minimum standard” [Existenzminimum].


Everyone now knows that a substantial price reduction is possible only through the industrial organization of the fragmented building process.  No city in the future can do without experimental laboratories for practical building, for one must determine for each stretch of land which building method, or better, which combination of building materials is optimally suitable for it.

In addition, it is to be hoped that our age will form a new BUILDING MATERIAL that comes closer to its demands — a house that meets minimum standards.

Just as the nineteenth century — at a given moment — developed iron and ferroconcrete for its needs, so we can assume that our age, too, will find the material that responds to its demands.

[Originally published as Bauen in Frankreich, bauen in Eisen, bauen in Eisenbeton, 1928]


~ by Ross Wolfe on November 2, 2010.

3 Responses to “Sigfried Giedion’s Building in France, Building in Ferro-concrete (1928)”

  1. […] were unable to smother the constructional soul of French architecture!”  Giedion, Sigfried.  Building in France, Building in Ferroconcrete.  Translated from by J. Duncan Berry.  (The Getty Center for the History of Art.  Los Angeles, […]

  2. […] were unable to smother the constructional soul of French architecture!”  Giedion, Sigfried.  Building in France, Building in Ferroconcrete.  Translated from by J. Duncan Berry.  (The Getty Center for the History of Art.  Los Angeles, […]

  3. Excellent set of inspirational material, thanks for sharing.

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