Le Corbusier: Towards a new architecture (1923)

Towards a new architecture: title

16/09/09 – Excerpts from Le Corbusier’s Vers Une Architecture (1923), first English translation (Towards a New Architecture) 1927.

Argument

Primary forms are beautiful forms because they can be clearly appreciated. (8)

Forced to work in accordance with the strict needs of exactly determined conditions, engineers make use of generating and accusing lines in relation to forms. They create limpid and moving plastic facts. (ibid.)

Machinery contains in itself the factor of economy, which makes for selection. (10)

The house is a machine for living in. (ibid.)

Standards are a matter of logic, analysis and minute study; they are based on a problem which has been well “stated.” (ibid.)

The Plan proceeds from within to without; the exterior is the result of an interior. (11)

Contour and profile are a pure creation of the mind; they call for the plastic artist. (12)

We must create the mass-production spirit. The spirit of constructing mass-production houses. The spririt of living in mass-production houses. The spirit of conceiving mass-production houses. (ibid.)

If we eliminate from our hearts and minds all dead concepts in regard to the house and look at the question from a critical and objective point of view, we shall arrive at the “House-Machine,“ the mass-production house, healthy (and morally so too) and beautiful in the same way that the working tools and instruments which accompany our existence are beautiful. (12-13.)

The Engineer’s Aesthetic and Architecture

The Engineer’s Aesthetic and Architecture – two things that march together and follow one from the other – the one at its full height, the other in an unhappy state of retrogression. (17)

We are to be pitied for living in unworthy houses, since they ruin our health and our morale. (18)

[…] there does exist this thing called architecture, and admirable thing, the loveliest of all. A product of happy peoples and a thing which in itself produces happy peoples. (19)

Our diagnosis is that, to begin at the beginning, the engineer who proceeds by knowledge shows the way and holds the truth. It is that architecture, which is a matter of plastic emotion, should in its own domain begin at the beginning also, and should use those elements which are capable of affecting our senses, and of rewarding the desire or our eyes, and should dispose them in such a way that the sight of them affects us immediately by their delicacy or their brutality, their riot or their serenity, their indifference or their interest; these elements are plastic elements, forms which our eyes see clearly and which our mind can measure. (20)

For the architect we have written our “THREE REMINDERS.”

MASS which is the element by which our senses perceive and measure and are most fully affected.

SURFACE which is the envelope of the mass and which can diminish or enlarge the sensation the latter gives us.

PLAN which is the generator both of mass and surface and is that by which the whole is irrevocably fixed. (21)

Architecture is a thing of art, a phenomenon of the emotions, lying outside questions of construction and beyond them. The purpose of construction is TO MAKE THINGS HOLD TOGETHER; of architecture TO MOVE US. Architectural emotion exists when the work rings within us in tune with a universe whose laws we obey, recognize and respect. (23)

Three Reminders to Architects

Three reminders to architects

Mass and surface are the elements by which architecture manifests itself. Mass and surface are determined by the plan. The plan is the generator. So much the worse for those who lack imagination! (28)

1. Mass
Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light. Our eyes are made to see forms in light; light and shade reveal these forms; cubes, cones, spheres, cylinders or pyramids are the great primary forms which light reveals to advantage; the image of these is distance and tangible within us and without ambiguity. It is for that reason that these are beautiful forms, the most beautiful forms. […] It is of the very nature of the plastic arts. (31)

The cathedral is not a plastic work; it is a drama; a fight against the force of gravity, which is a sensation of a sentimental nature. (32)

Not in pursuit of an architectural idea, but simply guided by the results of calculation (derived from the principles which govern our universe) and the conception of A LIVING ORGANISM, the ENGINEERS of today make use of the primary elements and, by coordinating them in accordance with the rules, provoke in us architectural emotions and thus make the work of man in unison with universal order. (33)

2. Surface
[…] an architectural structure is a house, a temple or a factory. The surface of the temple or the factory is in most cases a wall with holes for doors and windows; these holes are often the destruction of form; they must be made an accentuation of form. (39)

Not in pursuit of an architectural idea, but guided simply by the necessities of an imperative demand, the tendency of the engineers of today is towards the generating and accusing lines of masses; they show us the way and create plastic facts, clear and limpid, giving rest to our eyes and to the mind pleasure of geometric forms. (41)

3. Plan
A plan is not a pretty thing to be drawn, like a Madonna face; it is an austere abstraction; it is nothing more than a n algebrization and dry-looking thing. (46-7)

The plan carries in itself the very essence of sensation. (49)

We are living in a period of reconstruction and of adaptation to new social and economic conditions. In rounding this Cape Horn the new horizons before us will only recover the grand line of tradition by a complete revision of the methods in vogue and by the fixing of a new basis of construction established in logic.

In architecture the old bases of construction are dead. We shall not rediscover the truths of architecture until new bases have established a logical ground for every architectural manifestation. A period of 20 years is beginning which will be occupied in creating these bases. A period of great problems, a period of analysis, of experiment, a period also of great aesthetic confusion, a period in which a new aesthetic will be elaborated.We must study the plan, the key to this evolution. (61-2)

Regulating Lines

Regulating lines

There is no such thing as primitive man; there are primitive resources. The idea is constant, in full sway from the beginning. (66)

In order to construct well and distribute your efforts to advantage, in order to obtain solidity and utility in work, units of measure are the first condition of all. (ibid.)

He [the builder/primitive man] has imposed order by means of measurement. In order to get his measurement he has taken his pace, his boot, his elbow or his finger. By imposing the order of his foot or his arm, he has created a unit which regulates the whole work; and this work is on his own scale, to his own proportion, comfortable for him, to his measure. It is on the human scale. It is in harmony with him; that is the main point. (67-8)

A unit gives measure and unity; a regulating line is a basis of construction and satisfaction. (68)

A supreme determinism illuminates for us the creations of nature and gives us the security of something poised and reasonably made, of something infinitely modulated, evolved, varied and unified. (70)

A regulating line is an assurance against capriciousness. (71)

The regulating line is a satisfaction of a spiritual order which leads to the pursuit of ingenious and harmonious relations. It confers on the work the quality of rhythm. (ibid.)

The choice of regulating line is on e of the decisive moments of inspiration, it is one of the vital operations of architecture. (ibid.)

Eyes Which Do Not See

1. Liners

Eyes which do not see: liners

We have acquired a taste for fresh air and clear daylight. (85)

Architecture is stifled by custom. (86)

A house is a machine for living in. (89)

Our epoch is fixing its own style day by day. (ibid.)

The art of our period is performing its proper functions when it addresses itself to the chosen few. Art is not a popular thing, still less and expensive toy for rich people. Art is not an essential pabulum except for the chosen few who have need of meditation in order that they may lead. Art is in its essence arrogant. (96)

A seriously-minded architect, looking at it as an architect (i.e., a creator of organisms), will find in a steamship his freedom from an age-long but contemptible enslavement to the past. (97)

2. Airplanes

Eyes which do not see: airplanes

The War was an insatiable “client,” never satisfied, always demanding better. The orders were to succeed at all costs and death followed a mistake remorselessly. We may then affirm that the airplane mobilized invention, intelligence and daring: imagination and cold reason. The same spirit that built he Parthenon. (101)

The lesson of the airplane lies in the logic which governed the enunciation of the problem and which led to the successful realization. When a problem is properly stated, in our epoch, it inevitably finds its solution. (102)

Architecture is the art above all others which achieves a state of platonic grandeur, mathematical order, speculation, the perception of the harmony which lies in emotional relationships. This is the AIM of architecture. (102-3)

STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM (106ff)

Let us shut our eyes to what exists. (106)

THE MANUAL OF THE DWELLING (114ff)

Every modern man has the mechanical sense. The feeling for mechanics exists and is justified by our daily activities. This feeling in regard to machinery is one of respect, gratitude and esteem. Machinery includes economy as an essential factor leading to minute selection. There is a moral sentiment in the feeling for mechanics. The man who is intelligent, cold and calm has grown wings to himself.Men – intelligent, cold and clam – are needed to build the house and to lay out the town. (117-19)

3. Automobiles

Eyes which do not see: automobiles

It is necessary to press on towards the establishment of standards in order to face the problem of perfection. (123)

A standard is necessary for order in human effort. (125)

The establishment of a standard involves exhausting every practical and reasonable possibility, and extracting from them a recognized type conformable to its functions, with a maximum output and a minimum use of means, workmanship and material, words, forms, colours, sounds. (127)

Here we have the birth of style, that is to say the attainment universally recognized, of a state of perfection universally felt. (128)

Culture is the flowering of the effort to select. Selection means rejection, pruning, cleansing; the clear and naked emergence of the Essential. (ibid.)

Poetry lies not only in the spoken or written word. The poetry of facts is stronger still. Objects which signify something and which are arranged with talent and with tact create a poetic fact. (132)

Architecture is governed by standards. Standards are a matter of logic, analysis and precise study. Standards are based on a problem which has been well stated. Architecture means plastic invention, intellectual speculation, higher mathematics. Architecture is a very noble art.Standardization is imposed by the law of selection ansd is an economic and social necessity. Harmony is a state of agreement with the norms or our universe. Beauty governs all; she is a purely human creation; she is the overplus necessary only to men of the highest type. (135-8)

Architecture

1. The Lesson of Rome

The lesson of Rome

(i) Ancient Rome
[…] they [the Romans] constructed a superb chassis, but they designed deplorable coachwork […] (145)

It [Hadrian’s Villa] is the first example of Western planning on the grand scale. (ibid.)

Absence of virtuosity, good arrangement, a single idea, daring and unity in construction, the use of elementary shapes. A sane morality. (146-7)

(ii) Byzantine Rome
This quite tiny church of S. Maria, a church for poor people, set in the midst of noisy and luxurious Rome, proclaims the noble pomp of mathematics, the unassailable power of proportion, the sovereign eloquence of relationship. (149)

There exists one thing which can ravish us, and this is measure or scale. (151)

(iii) Michaelangelo
Intelligence and passion; there is no art without emotion, no emotion without passion. Stones are dead things sleeping in the quarries but the apses of St. Peter’s are a drama. Drama lies all round the key achievements of humanity. (152)

(iv) Rome and ourselves

2. The Illusion of Plans

The illusion of plans

Placing myself entirely at this one angle of vision I commence by drawing attention to this vital fact: a plan proceeds from within to without, for a house or a palace is an organism comparable to a living being. I shall speak of the architectural elements of the interior. I shall pass on to arrangement. In considering the effect of building s in relation to a site, I shall show that here too the exterior is always an interior. By means of various fundamental elements which will be clearly shown in diagrams, I can demonstrate the illusion of plans, this illusion which kills architecture, ensnares the mind and creates architectural trickery; this is the fruit of violating undeniable truths, the result of false conceptions or the fruit of vanity. (166-7)

THE PLAN PROCEEDS FROM WITHIN TO WITHOUT

ARCHITECTURAL ELEMENTS OF THE INTERIOR
Our elements are vertical walls, the spread of the soil, holes to serve as passages for man of for light, doors or windows. The holes give much or little light, make gay or sad. The walls are in full brilliant light, or in half shade or in full shade, giving an effect of gaiety, serenity or sadness. Your symphony is made ready. The aim of architecture is to make you gay or serene. (171)

ARRANGEMENT
To establish order is to begin to work. Architecture is based on axes. (173)

Architectural buildings should not all be placed upon axes, for this would be like so many people all talking at once. (175)

Arrangement is the grading of axes, and so it is the grading of aims, the classification of intentions. (176)

THE EXTERIOR IS ALWAYS AN INTERIOR
To sum up, in architectural ensembles, the elements of the site itself cone into play by virtue of their cubic volume, their density and the quality of the material of which they are composed, bringing sensations which are very definite and very varied (wood, marble, a tree, grass, blue horizons, near or distant sea, sky). The elements of the site rise up like walls panoplied in the power of their cubic coefficient, stratification, material, etc., like the walls of a room. Walls in relation to light, light and shade, sadness, gaiety or serenity, etc. Our compositions must be formed of these elements. (177-9)

TRANSGRESSION
But a man has only two eyes at a level of about 5 feet 6 inches above the ground, and can only look at one point at a time. (182-3)

It must not be forgotten, in drawing out a plan, that it is the human eye that judges the result. (184)

3. Pure Creation of the Mind

Architecture, pure creation of the mind

From what is emotion born? From a certain relationship between definite elements: cylinders, an even floor, even walls. From a certain harmony with the things that make up the site. From a plastic system that spreads its effects over every part of the composition. From a unity of idea that reaches from the unity of the materials used in the unity of the general contour. (189, caption: The Propylea)

Emotion is born of unity of aim; of that unperturbed resolution that wrought its marble with the firm intention of achieving all that is most pure, most clarified, most economical. Every sacrifice, every cleansing had already been performed. The moment was reached when nothing more might be taken away, when nothing would be left but these closely-knit and violent elements, sounding clear and tragic like brazen trumpets. (190, caption: The Propylea)

From this we get a possible definition of harmony, that is to say a moment of accord with the axis which lies in man, and so with the laws of the universe, -a return of universal law. (196)

The objects in nature and the results of calculation are clearly and cleanly formed; they are organized without ambiguity. It is because we see clearly that we can read, learn and feel their harmony. I repeat: clear statement is essential in a work of art. (ibid.)Clear statement, the giving of a living unity to the work, the giving it a fundamental attitude and a character: all is a pure creation of the mind. (198)

Architecture only exists when there is a poetic emotion. Architecture is a plastic thing. (190)

Architecture is the skilful, accurate and magnificent play of masses seen in light; and contours are also and exclusively the skilful, accurate and magnificent play of volumes seen in light. Contours go beyond the scope of the practical man, the daring man, the ingenious man; they call for the plastic artist. (202)

Mass-Production Houses

Mass production houses

Mass-production doors, windows, cupboards […]. All these units, which big industry can supply, are based on a common unit of measurement: they can be adapted to one another exactly. […] A further gain, of the greatest importance, is architectural unity, and by means of the module, or unit of measurement, good proportion is assured automatically. (219, caption: Le Corbusier, 1915: Interior of a reinforced concrete house)

A house will no longer be this solidly-built thing which sets out to defy time and decay, and which is an expensive luxury by which wealth can be shown; it will be a tool as the motor-car is becoming a tool. The house will no longer be an archaic entity, heavily rooted in the soil by deep foundations, built “firm and strong,” the object of the devotion on which the cult of the family and the race has so long been concentrated.

Eradicate from your mind any hard and fast conception in regard to the dwelling-house and look at the question from an objective and critical angle, and you will inevitably arrive at the “House-Tool,” the mass-production house, available for everyone, incomparably healthier thatn the old kind (and morally so too) and beautiful in the same sense that the working tools, familiar to us in our present existence, are beautiful. (219-45)

State the problem clearly t yourself; determine the type of house according to the needs required; resolve the problem as those of railway carriages, tools, etc. are resolved (220, caption: Le Corbusier, 1922: Artist’s house)

As to beauty, this is always present when you have proportion; and proportion costs the landlord nothing, it is at the charge of the architect! (223, caption: Le Corbusier, 1921: Mass-production house)

And one can be proud of having a house as serviceable as a typewriter. (ibid.)

Unity in detail and in large general lines. (247)

Architecture or Revolution

Architecture or revolution

Specialization ties man to his machine; an absolute precision is demanded of every worker, for the article passed on to the next man cannot be snatched back in order to be corrected and fitted; it must be exact in order that it may play, by that very reason, its part as a detailed unit which will be required to fit automatically into the assembling of the whole. (254-5)

The spirit of the worker’s booth no longer exists, but certainly there does exist a more collective spirit. (255)

There is no real link between our daily activities at the factory, the office or the bank, which are healthy and useful and productive, and our activities in the bosom of the family which are handicapped at every turn. The family is everywhere being killed and men’s minds demoralized in servitude to anachronisms. (257)

The advent of a new period only occurs after long and quiet preparatory work. (261)

There reigns a great disagreement between the modern state of mind, which is an admonition to us, and the stifling accumulation of age-long detritus. (268)

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2 Responses to “Le Corbusier: Towards a new architecture (1923)”

  1. [...] raven” in French) rose to prominence with the publication of his magnum opus “Towards a New Architecture” in 1923. His book laid out his Five Points on Architecture and Three Reminders to Architects [...]

  2. [...] the architect faces a similar challenge.  The modern architect Le Corbusier claimed that “Architecture is the skillful, accurate and magnificent play of masses seen in light.“  The masses of which Corbusier spoke - the column, pediment, arch and countless others [...]

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Oliver Tomas

  • Design historian and archivist based in Vancouver, Canada.
  • info[at]olivertomas[dot]com