Towards a New Architecture: Le Corbusier's Modernist Manifesto
Much of Le Corbusier’s manifesto Vers une architecture (1923) is dedicated to promoting the architectural virtues of the machine. Often misunderstood, his famous declaration, ‘The house is a machine for living in,’ meant that the guiding principle for architects should be to make the house as well suited to its purpose as was a machine. This reiterated the argument that functionalism was more important than appearance. In order to progress, he believed, it was necessary for architects to abandon the notion of traditional styles and decorative effects: ‘Architecture has nothing to do with the various ‘styles’… [they are] sometimes pretty, though not always; and never anything more.’
This implies that he saw the aesthetic, not as just another style, but as the very substance of architecture. Instead, he drew parallels between architecture and the ‘Engineer’s Aesthetic’, arguing that engineers were to be praised for their use of functionalism and mathematical order. As a consequence, architects were encouraged to emulate engineers and adopt these principles in order to attain harmony and logic in their designs.
To reinforce this argument the illustrations of Vers une architecture celebrated the functional and architectural unity of Canadian grain stores, ships, aeroplanes and automobiles. From a present day perspective his principles are better illuminated by his architecture, since these illustrations (e.g. the Caproni Triple hydroplane) seem rather archaic.
The Maison Dom-Ino (1915) was an early example of his Engineer’s Aesthetic: three identical planes are suspended above each other by steel columns, a method of construction that frees the walls of their load-bearing purpose, and allows his concept of the ‘free façade’ to be introduced. An external staircase communicates between each level, and its location permits an unprecedented space and clarity in the plan. The components were all to be standardised and pre-fabricated, which would allow for rapid construction. This house was therefore a product of Le Corbusier’s intention to apply the principles of mechanical mass production to domestic architecture.
However, a substantial body of criticism (e.g. Greenhalgh, Sparke) has argued that this functionalism of Modernist theory was not based in reality. The machine aesthetic remained just that, as few of the designs were capable of being standardised. For example, the Grand Comfort chair by Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand was neither functional nor standardised. It required no less than eighteen welds and three materials, making it expensive and capable of production only by craftsmanship.
L’Esprit Nouveau, 1925
Le Corbusier’s pavilion L’Esprit Nouveau featured door handles supposedly derived from car or aeroplane handles. These were not standardised but had to be made individually. For this reason, virtually no products of Modernism were mass-produced, at least until the style was modified and practised on an international level in what became known as the International Style. For the pioneer phase, mass production remained a metaphor that, like the example of Henry Ford, could not yet be emulated.
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