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Edwin Lutyens Hated Le Corbusier
I recently wrote a coursework essay officially titled “How valid are Lutyens’s criticisms surrounding the work of Le Corbusier in The Robotism of Architecture?”. It was a critical analysis of a review that Edwin Lutyens wrote of the seminal book Towards A New Architecture by Le Corbusier (read my personal review of that book here). Due to the official nature of the essay, I had to write impartially and academically, which was difficult when Edwin Lutyens had written with the tone of a child. At times I laughed out loud at how petty he was being, for example stating “the logic of a French mind may make a Corbusier House, or even a Versailles, but never a Hampton court”. There are many more sly digs which I’ll let you work out for yourself in the upcoming excerpt. The essay is heavy reading and relatively long, but as always I’d appreciate any feedback and hope you find it interesting…
Excerpt from The Robotism Of Architecture by Edwin Lutyens
M Le Corbusier’s theme is that architecture of our time should have the qualities of the machine. Efficiency and mass production are the watch-words. Houses are to be like the products of Mr Woolworth’s shops – stamped out or cast in moulds and sold, I suppose, in ratios of 3d and 6d. For such houses, Nature will provide a new humanity. Robots without eyes – for eyes that have no vision cannot be educated to see. Man may be small, but he has two eyes and can focus distance, thereby measure things. He can raise or depress his vision by the movement of his head, up, down, right or left, and with little exertion can reverse all these aspects. Mass production would destroy in man the sense of three-dimensional limitations. He would lose the pleasure of thick soft walls, dumb to noise, when compelled to live in stark noisy little boxes, where skilled plumbers take the place of house-proud maids.

Architecture, certainly, must have geometric constituents, but lines and diagrams, in two dimensions, are not enough. Architecture is a three-dimensioned art. To be a home, the house cannot be a machine. It must be passive, not active, bringing peace to the fluctuation of the human mind from generation to generation. For what charm can a house possess that can never bear a worn threshold, the charred hearth and the rubbed corner?

Humanity remains and will remain, I trust, humane. It is more likely that we shall return to the gorilla than become Robots, compelled to live in small enamelled cages. Emotion will never be controlled by sparking plugs. The logic of a French mind may make a Corbusier house, or even a Versailles, but never a Hampton Court.

M Le Corbusier makes great play with airplanes, automobiles, and Atlantic liners, finding in them affinity to the Parthenon. They are excellent, thrilling things in themselves, and may well serve as tonics, for it is to be regretted that ugliness in a building does not kill as quickly as does a fault in their design. Physical efficiency, however, is not the sole test of a building. Phrases such as that cannot master design, or teach it; and, generally, the more discursive the literature in which they are used, the less the achievement. It is amazing to-day to see the works in brick and stone which the greater writer on beauty, John Ruskin, was able to perpetrate.

M Le Corbusier tries to drive home his argument from the machine by delightful photographs of grain elevators, which thrill the imagination. In the spaciousness of the prairie they may stand out as magnificent objects; but take one and place it in an English valley, larded with traditional building and no formula about efficiency, and the machine would allay the horror of its aspect.

Again, ‘Architecture has nothing to with styles.’ Styles, however, are no lie if looked at fairly, as the recorded and oft-ill recorded experience of men’s endeavours. Among the most beautiful inhabitants of the world in which we live, you might place trees, and among trees, the beech. How comes the beech to be? Created out of itself by the blind energy of its sap – no two trees are alike, yet all are akin and true to style. One may not appreciate style, but the experience of 3000 years of man’s work, creative work, cannot be disregarded unless we are prepared for disaster. Again the plan regarded as a generator sounds very plausible – easily said and easily accepted, but it contains only one of these three essential dimensions. All are equally important and without any one of them the other two are moribund. In all successful architectural design you can draw no hard line. Each part is mother to the others, and the whole one a family of sweet intercourse and gentle behaviour.

In discussing the Parthenon – a pure creation of mind, of fair and fine minds in great intellectual honesty – M Le Corbusier is profoundly emotional. Greek work is really beyond all modern conception. It is as deep in its use of light as are Einstein’s problems. The ellipse to the Greeks was as the circle is to us. Every stone of the Parthenon was individual and essential to the whole. No more than four stones were identical, and no joint was horizontal. Such was their standard of reverence for a building that had to be created – a perfect unity, an entity, stable and endurable for an eternity. The Parthenon cost three times, and the gold and ivory statue of Athene seven times, the National Revenue. How is it possible to compare such a building with an aeroplane, which one faulty stay or bolt may crash to the ground?

The appreciation of Rome comes as a relief. The assertion, however, that the Romans knew nothing of the use of marble, sweeps away one’s breath. Give them credit, at least, for using it as a most precious pigment. A City of Towers is suggested, and it is a terrifying suggestion. How soothing later on is the view of Versailles – a work of real genius. For though you criticise it with stiff immovable neck, still, luckily, the human head can walk round and look up the avenues as well as down them. Pleasant, too, is the thought of Le Roi Soleil, on whose pillow, when in bed alone, all the axes of the avenues terminate. The men who laboured, and, I hope, enjoyed the creation could say, ‘It is not we who have to bear that load.’ In the City of Towers, on the other hand, with its bus-ridden elevator-tired Robots, what similar pleasure can they have?

As one reads this book one is always amused, sometimes excited, sometimes angry, at the boil of M Le Corbusier’s emotions, but one never doubts his sincerity. His final prophecy is Architecture or Revolution; and we might not welcome it, if by Architecture he did not mean mass-made cages suitable for machine-made men. To avoid Revolution, great patience and long-suffering must be endured. To produce Architecture, it is the same. Sacrifice is essential and the worship of the absolute directed towards an inconceivable and ever-growing perfection.
How valid are Lutyens’s criticisms surrounding the work of Le Corbusier in The Robotism of Architecture?
Towards A New Architecture, 1923, was written during the overlap of two contrasting architectural movements. Sir Edwin Lutyens advocated adaptation of traditional styles, whereas Le Corbusier supported the now revered Modernism. Popularity of the latter was growing amongst artistic European circles whilst the former was fading. From 1922 – 1928, Corbusier designed nine “Purist” Parisian villas for painters, sculptors and art collectors, with the third being Villa La Roche, completed 1925. The villa housed an art gallery and private residence for collector Raoul La Roche. Meanwhile, Lutyens was at the peak of his career having worked on the city of New Delhi and cemeteries for the Imperial War Graves Commission. He was awarded the Gold Medal of both RIBA and the AIA in 1921 and 1924, respectively.

In 1927 Towards A New Architecture was translated into English, expanding Corbusier’s bold proposals to Lutyens and Britain. The tone of Lutyens’s review is condescending towards Corbusier, and he disagrees vehemently with many proposals. Often he sounds petty, for example stating “The logic of a French mind may make a Corbusier house, or even a Versailles, but never a Hampton Court”. The sincerity of his disdain is ambiguous, since he may have been using his trusted position amongst the English aristocracy to discredit Corbusier, ensuring prominence of his own style. However genuine, I will explore three overarching criticisms that reference the beauty, function and durability of Corbusier’s work.

Some of Corbusier’s later defined ideals were first seen in La Roche, for example his Five Points Towards a New Architecture, formalised in 1927. He also introduced the ‘architectural promenade’, which reached its pinnacle in the Villa Savoye.
Lutyens’s first main criticism was that Corbusier’s proposed architecture was less beautiful than his own. Grain elevators are the focus of one part of the review, which Corbusier uses as an example of what he calls primary forms (cubes, spheres and cylinders etc.) in Towards A New Architecture. He discusses how these forms are the most advantaged by light and shade, making “the work of a man ring in unison with universal order”.
Although Corbusier only uses grain elevators as a modern example of primary forms, Lutyens fears that he wants to build exact replicas in English towns. He writes “But take one and place it in an English valley, larded with traditional building and no formula about efficiency, and the machine would allay the horror of its aspect”. Whether misguided or trying to encourage rejection of Corbusier’s ideas, Lutyens’s point raises an interesting question regarding Corbusier’s villas and context. In the design of La Roche the cuboid is the ruling form, with the curve of the ramp and cylindrical piloti being the only opposition.
When first built it must have looked completely alien, supporting Lutyens’s claim. However, since its style became so popular in hindsight the building is now viewed as a success. Without the benefit of hindsight, Lutyens’s wariness of Corbusier’s untraditional architectural aesthetic was justified.

In Towards A New Architecture, Corbusier outlines the importance of regulating lines. With a selection of buildings with their regulating lines overlaid, Corbusier claims the origin of their beauty as the chosen lines themselves. Lutyens counters this, stating “In all successful architectural design you can draw no hard line. Each part is mother to the others, and the whole one a family of sweet intercourse and gentle behaviour”. Although not symmetrical, the relatively small La Roche contains some subtle regulating lines. The art gallery ramp swoops down to the left of the entrance with the curve defining the exterior wall. This supports Corbusier’s theory that the exterior form should proceed from the interior plan.
Also, the plan outline is constant over three floors, as is the separation between the private and public sections. Despite his criticism, Lutyens himself utilised regulating lines often. His city plan for New Delhi in 1912 has a strong central axis with clear secondary axes to link geometrically arranged monuments, whilst his British Embassy design for Washingston DC in 1927 has strong regulating lines and a symmetrical façade. The contradiction renders his criticism invalid, and again it was likely made to discredit Corbusier in Britain.
Lutyens’s second principal criticism was that Corbusian buildings were poorly designed, hence causing them to be dysfunctional and an architectural failure. In the review, he writes “Houses are to be like the products of Mr Woolworth’s shops – stamped out and cast in moulds”. Comparing Corbusier’s buildings to Woolworth’s products was a sly insult, since the shop produced cheap, low quality, mass-market items. The Swiss architect obviously saw mass production differently when applied to architecture, exclaiming in Towards A New Architecture “we must create the mass-production spirit. The spirit of constructing mass-production houses. The spirit of living in mass-production houses. The spirit of conceiving mass-production houses”. Despite a whole chapter on this aim none of Corbusier’s Purist villas were prefabricated, most likely because each client wanted and was willing to fund a bespoke home, much like Lutyens’s clients. In general, Corbusier’s mass produced, prefabricated proposals were social housing schemes to match demand after World War I, and many were unbuilt due to lack of support. Lutyens’s apprehension regarding prefabrication mirrored a societal opinion, with the system’s use all but ending by 1928 according to the Building Research Establishment. However, his criticism of the quality of prefabricated architectural components is invalid, since the process was relatively new and untested.

Lutyens describes Corbusian houses as “stark noisy little boxes”. Despite his snide tone, taking the adjectives in isolation uncovers some interesting criticisms. For Lutyens’s clients whose houses were filled with ornament, Corbusier’s pared back interiors such as La Roche’s would have felt stark.
In Towards A New Architecture Corbusier writes “The peasant loves ornament and decorates his walls”, directly opposing Lutyens’s style. By criticising Corbusier, the British architect is defending his work, which is acceptable considering decoration is a personal preference. Next, Lutyens claims that Corbusian buildings would be noisy. This criticism is valid, as noise complaints were common in early modernist buildings. Hard surfaces of glass and plaster with little acoustic damping contributed to uncomfortable reverberation. In 1928, alterations to La Roche’s gallery were required to resolve an acoustic problem. Defining Corbusier’s designs as little boxes was accurate when considered alongside Lutyens’s famous large country houses, as during his Purist villa phase Corbusier was working at a relatively modest residential scale. In Towards A New Architecture he instructs readers to “take a flat which is one size smaller than what your parents accustomed you to”. La Roche is small considering it contains an art gallery and private residence, however this does not harm its functional effectiveness. There is an obvious conflict of interests between the two architects in this case, and both opinions are valid due to their differing aims and clients.

Lutyens finds fault with Corbusier’s statement that “The plan is the generator”, writing “it contains only one of these three essential dimensions. All are equally important and without any one of them the other two are moribund”. It is reasonable to assume Corbusier used the plan as a generator for La Roche due to his beliefs coupled with the villa’s layout, circulation and plan regularity. Despite this, the three dimensional experience of the villa is not a failure. Its architectural promenade links each floor with deliberately positioned wall openings, floor voids and level changes.
In fact, Corbusier is now revered for his spacial aptitude demonstrated in the Villa Savoye and Chandigarh Palace of Assembly, among others. Lutyens’s criticism of the plan as a generator is not valid in the case of such a skilled architect as Corbusier. However, it could be seen as valid in order to discourage other less skilled architects from attempting Corbusier’s method.

Lutyens’s final overarching criticism was that Corbusier’s proposals were neither respectful of the past, nor enduring enough to last long into the future. In the review he writes “To be a home, the house cannot be a machine… For what charm can a house possess that can never bear a worn threshold, the charred hearth, and the rubbed corner?”. Corbusier’s ideal society was centred around renewal, with quick and efficient fixes possible due to standardised, mass produced elements. Concrete was vital in permitting his Five Points, while plaster allowed creation of uniform surfaces to accent subtle plays of light and primary forms. La Roche exploits these two materials to grand effect.
Lutyens was concerned with the materials due to their lack of durability; he favoured more traditional and accepted as enduringly beautiful materials such as stone, brick and wood.
Corbusier writes regarding the Parthenon, “for two thousand years, those who have seen the Parthenon have felt here was a decisive moment in architecture. We are at a decisive moment”. He believed his new era of architecture inspired by liners, airplanes and automobiles would be revered in two millennia. Despite mirroring Corbusier’s admiration for the Parthenon, Lutyens criticises his comparison of it with modern engineering feats. He states “How is it possible to compare such a building with an aeroplane, which with one faulty stay or bolt may crash to the ground?”. He seems to be insulted by Corbusier’s comparison, and strongly questions the endurance of machine architecture. Taking into account the lack of durability of many Corbusier houses, Lutyens’s criticism is valid. Two of La Roche’s radiators broke down in 1928, and in 1936 hardboard panels were required for thermal insulation. Villa Savoye also deteriorated quickly, with the family abandoning it eight years after moving in due to discomfort caused by extensive leaks and inadequate heating.
It is clear from Lutyens’s book review of Towards A New Architecture that he fundamentally disagreed with many of Corbusier’s proposals. Both architects favoured opposing values, which inevitably led to discrediting of each other’s theories through negative representation and bias towards their own ideas. The sincerity of Lutyens’s criticisms is therefore difficult to judge, since his position meant he had much to lose by representing Corbusier positively. Overall, the validity of his criticisms is evenly split. Sometimes he unfairly dismissed Corbusier’s ideas, such as prefabrication, and contradicted himself, for example when rejecting regulating lines. However, his points regarding the suitability of the Corbusian aesthetic in Britain and durability of the Swiss architect’s buildings were valid. In my opinion, the most salient disagreement in the current architectural climate was that of respect for tradition. Although, like Corbusier, it is often easy to disregard historical references in today’s pace of development, sensitivity to vernacular culture and history is vital for creating personal architecture that ensures international diversity. Whilst I agree with Corbusier’s aims of progressing materials and construction methods, his proposals were too extreme and lacked a human aspect. Lutyens’s respect for the past was admirable and important, however outright rejection of new ideas does not foster progression. Le Corbusier is arguably the world’s most famous architect, suggesting that his buildings such as La Roche are a success. However, the validity of Lutyens’s criticisms would differ depending on who was asked. A member of the British aristocracy would probably have agreed with every point, whereas Corbusier’s clients would have disagreed vehemently. This ambiguous answer only proves the complexity and intrigue of architectural opinion.