ArchiBooks: Towards A New Architecture By Le Corbusier
9th July 2016Le Corbusier is perhaps the most famous architect of all time. Working throughout the 20th century, he is known as a pioneer as the Modern movement. His work was wide ranging, from custom villas to mass housing to city plans such as Chandigarh. He has always split opinion, and since studying his work for a university essay I have engaged more with his ideals and begun to pick apart his architecture from a deeper understanding. In 1923 he released Towards A New Architecture, often seen as one of the most important architectural books in history. In this blog post I am going to focus solely on the book itself instead of Le Corbusier as a whole, although I would encourage you to further explore his work and personality. To me at least, he came across as an obsessive that was definitely progressive and forward thinking. The world needs people like Le Corbusier to inspire and bring about change by challenging convention. However, in my opinion his work is often a little cold and heartless, especially some of his city plans. Architecture needs a human aspect to make it personal, and sometimes Le Corbusier forgot that there were clients and users behind his great pursuits.
Towards A New Architecture by Le Corbusier. Photo by Barney SheppardLe Corbusier is perhaps the most famous architect of all time. Working throughout the 20th century, he is known as a pioneer as the Modern movement. His work was wide ranging, from custom villas to mass housing to city plans such as Chandigarh. He has always split opinion, and since studying his work for a university essay I have engaged more with his ideals and begun to pick apart his architecture from a deeper understanding. In 1923 he released Towards A New Architecture, often seen as one of the most important architectural books in history. In this blog post I am going to focus solely on the book itself instead of Le Corbusier as a whole, although I would encourage you to further explore his work and personality. To me at least, he came across as an obsessive that was definitely progressive and forward thinking. The world needs people like Le Corbusier to inspire and bring about change by challenging convention. However, in my opinion his work is often a little cold and heartless, especially some of his city plans. Architecture needs a human aspect to make it personal, and sometimes Le Corbusier forgot that there were clients and users behind his great pursuits.
So, onto the book, or maybe I should call it a manifesto due to its persuasive and enthusiastic language. The book is split into distinct sections with the first named “Three Reminders to Architects”. The first reminder regards mass, with the author calling for the use of pure geometric forms such as cubes, cylinders, spheres and pyramids which accentuate plays of light. He praises how engineers use these shapes (some rare praise for engineers in the architectural world) in grain silos in America. The second reminder is about surface. At the time, Modernism was emerging whilst Neo-Classical and Neo-Gothic were fading. The latter employed extensive decoration which Le Corbusier thought was parasitical, “eating up the masses and absorbing it to their own advantage”. The former contrasted heavy decoration with smooth, plain walls only punctuated by openings that were proportioned and placed to accentuate the simple geometric masses. The essay I wrote for university about Le Corbusier discussed his feud with Edwin Lutyens, a prominent English Arts and Crafts architect who seemed to personally despise Le Corbusier. You can read it here. It is very entertaining to research and read into the digs that they made at each other and their respective overlapping styles. The third reminder starts with a bold sentence which Le Corbusier is remembered by: “The plan is the generator”. He believed that all architecture should emerge from inside to out, with the interior plan being reflected by the exterior 3D form. He says without using the plan as a basis there can be no “grandeur of aim and expression, nor rhythm, nor mass, nor coherence”. In his buildings and city plans, it is easy to see that the great architect has worked first from the plan to create an order to and route through his designs.
In the next section Le Corbusier explains his fondness for regulating lines. It is clear how important they are to him since he dedicates a whole section of the book to praising them. He lost hope in modern crafts such as masonry, carpentry and joinery due to their disconnect with cosmology, mathematics and proportion. This was another criticism of Edwin Lutyens and his favoured style, which he took personally. Le Corbusier lists a number of projects that make use of regulating lines, stating “here are regulating lines which have served to make very beautiful things and which are the very reason why these things are so beautiful”. Up to a point I agree with Le Corbusier’s admiration for pattern lines, however they should not always define architecture in place of more important aspects such as function and client demands. Certainly desire lines, sight lines, and proportion play an important part in fantastic architecture, however they’re not the be all and end all.
“Eyes Which Do No See” is the next chapter, which basically defines Le Corbusier’s Machine Architecture ideas. Very early on, he recognised the quickening of technological advancement in his lifetime. He wrote “A great epoch has begun. There exists a new spirit… The ‘styles’ are a lie… Our own epoch is determining, day by day, its own style. Our eyes, unhappily, are unable yet to discern it.”. This displays the architect’s excitement about the future, his writing is rushed and enthusiastic. The chapter contains images of liners, planes and automobiles, with Corbusier again praising the “unknown” engineers behind their conception. He then compares these machines to great and enduring Ancient Greek buildings such as The Parthenon, which I think is a little absurd and far fetched. I don’t think they should be compared since they are completely different things for different times. The Parthenon is incredible in its own right due to its proportional perfection, build quality and simplicity, whereas modern transport is also incredible despite being unreliable at times and very complex, the complete opposite of The Parthenon.
Next up in Le Corbusier’s sights is the city of Ancient Rome, which he dismisses as too tight and crowded in Towards a New Architecture. Quite unfairly, Corbusier criticises the lack of order and regulation in Rome’s original plan when compared to the other cities in the Empire. However, obviously since Rome was the original city, its growth was organic as the empire grew alongside it. Corbusier is fond of the regularity of Pompeii’s street plan and Hadrian’s Villa on the other hand. It seems he much preferred Ancient Greece as it was more open and vast with less ornamentation. He was enamoured by The Parthenon in particular, which he comes back to time and again in the book.
Probably due to a combination of my lack of brain power and questionable translation, towards the end of the book when Le Corbusier discusses some more philosophical ideas about architecture I become lost. The section is called “Pure Creation of the Mind” and it speaks about the harmony of man with nature and the universe. It delves into primal conditions, again referencing Ancient Greece and the Parthenon as a divine and perfect creation. It was a noble aim of Corbusier to pursue this level of satisfaction within architecture, and maybe all architects should aspire to it. However, on a day to day basis with real life clients these pursuits may seem frivolous, silly and essentially impossible.
The penultimate chapter of Corbusier’s manifesto is about mass production housing. The section contains a lot of his own projects and drawings, promoting his services to potential clients that were radical enough to trust him and his wild ideas. It is not very well known that Le Corbusier cared a lot about the social implications of architecture. He was involved in fast, mass production building following World War I, and designed many unbuilt housing projects. He felt that he had a duty to humanity to solve international issues through architecture, whether these issues regarded poverty, unrest or beauty.
The final chapter is the most important, named “Architecture or Revolution”. The writing is confusing, however it essentially describes that architecture is undergoing a revolution. Looking back in hindsight, we understand his claim to be true. Le Corbusier argues that buildings of the recent past were no longer adapted to the users’ needs, and that they did not reflect the emerging machine age. The great architect called on the profession to forget all of history, since everything had changed and the past had nothing useful to add. Le Corbusier was a visionary and he was passionate, excited and driven to make his version of the future unfold.
I definitely recommend this book, to both architects and non-architects. The translation from French is a little confusing and intimidating at times, however it is quite easy to get the gist of Corbusier’s writing since he reinforces his primary points over and over. The book is a lot shorter than it appears with large text, a lot of images and repetition of introductory passages etc. Since I started university I had always wanted to read Towards a New Architecture because of its historical importance. I also share some of Le Corbusier’s ideals so was interested to learn about his views in more depth. This book really makes you think, especially when considered in its 1920s context after World War I. Corbusier was a pioneer of modern architecture, and it is clear he was progressive and ambitious with his bold claims and dismissal of widely accepted opinions. Towards a New Architecture only scratches the surface of his extensive legacy, however its concepts can be applied to architecture following its publishing all the way up to the present day. Whether you agree with his views or not Le Corbusier was a hugely interesting character, and Towards a New Architecture demonstrates his passion and ambition fantastically.