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Proportional Systems in the Architecture of Le Corbusier

  [feb2005]

‘The regulating line is a satisfaction of a spiritual order which leads to the pursuit of ingenious and harmonious relations.’1

 

 

 

 

 

Sketch of the Modular man

Although Le Corbusier’s fascination with architectural proportion would most immediately be associated with his own concept of the Modular,1 he was also deeply interested in existing, historical proportional systems. Indeed, the Modular is itself partly an evolution of such systems, including the Golden Section. Many of his buildings and paintings are underlain by hidden grids and geometric patterns, betraying the fact that so much of Le Corbusier’s work is rooted in his understanding and appreciation of ancient practices. Because of the emphasis that has been placed on Le Corbusier’s radicalism, it is sometimes overlooked that his work was as much rooted in the classical traditions of European thought and architecture as it was influenced by modern philosophy or a desire to break new ground. Despite the commonly held perception that Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture is in fact a work of revolutionary intent, one of its central themes is the need to rediscover lost truths and to return architecture to its historical roots, by which Le Corbusier was in part referring to the attainment of compositional and proportional harmonies.

The fact that Le Corbusier was interested in proportional systems was not unusual during the time at which he was developing as a young architect in the early Twentieth Century. An understanding of the theory and application of the Golden Section and other geometric systems would have formed part of an architect’s apprenticeship at least as far back as the Renaissance and existed as an element of Masonic practice for centuries prior to this. Le Corbusier’s own interest in the subject can be traced back to an explosion of speculation on geometrical theories in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (the origins of the debate lay in the confusing and often nonsensical writings of Vitruvius).3 In Towards a New Architecture, Le Corbusier uses photographs and sketches from his European tours to underline the fact that many of his ideas are founded in the classical traditions of ancient Greece and the Renaissance. As Colin Rowe observed in ‘The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa’, Le Corbusier’s work bears direct comparison with the architecture of the Renaissance.4 Like Michelangelo and Palladio, centuries before his time, Le Corbusier believed that it was the challenge of the age to rediscover the lost knowledge and harmonies of a previous period. For him, this meant a rejection of the false aesthetic of decoration and a return to the fundamental principles of architecture, including proportion and composition. Using an illustration of the Capitol in Rome, he demonstrates how the rational application of ‘regulating lines’ gives the building its essential harmony and order.

A photograph of the Capitol from Towards a New Architecture, showing ‘regulating lines’
Fig. 2 A photograph of the Capitol from Towards a New Architecture, showing ‘regulating lines’

Le Corbusier comments on the intention and its outcome with appreciation:

‘The placing of the right angle has come into play to determine the intentions of Michelangelo, causing the same principle, which fixes the chief divisions of the wings and of the main building, to govern the detail of the wings, the slope of the staircases, the placing of the windows, the height of the basement, etc.’ 5

However, what set Le Corbusier apart was his persistence in pursuing these ideas into the Modernist era and indeed apparently seeing them as integral to the creation of a modern architecture.6 At a time when many architects sought to eradicate all reference to the past, Le Corbusier pursued his own idiosyncratic and personal path, in which his interpretation of the past was to have a profound influence.

To appreciate the reasons that Le Corbusier attached such importance to proportion in his work, it is necessary to understand something of his own philosophy. Like many other intellectuals, artists and politicians of the Modernist era, Le Corbusier was instinctively suspicious and deeply sceptical of religion.7 Although two of his most celebrated buildings, Ronchamp and La Tourette, were commissions gained through his connections with the Dominican order, he himself remained firmly atheist throughout his life. This did not however prevent Le Corbusier from exploring the spiritual dimensions of his own inner life and that of his work. For him this meant a constant and on-going engagement with his own family history, the natural world and also the diverse cultural heritage of the numerous countries and peoples that he visited on his travels. The effect of these varied influences was to instill in Le Corbusier a deep appreciation of what he perceived as profound natural laws and harmonies, evident in nature and the human body and the mathematical rules that appeared to govern them.

For Le Corbusier, the use of proportional systems was not simply an abstract technique for ensuring aesthetic or compositional correctness, but the manifestation in art and architecture of hidden truths. What exactly these hidden truths were and to what extent they somehow represented an alternative to religion within Le Corbusier’s world view is not entirely clear, but it is apparent from his life-long pursuit of a universal modular proportion that he regarded their revelation as a primary objective of both his life and career. Indeed, in The Modular, Le Corbusier talks of his search in the almost absurdly overblown terms of a quasi-spiritual quest:

‘…assuming that the ‘Modular’ is the key to the door of the miracle of numbers’, if only in a very limited sphere, is that door merely one of a hundred or a thousand miraculous doors which may or do exist in that sphere, or have we, by sheer hazard, opened the one and only door that was waiting to be discovered?’8

Clearly, Le Corbusier believed, as have many others, that incredibly important and profound knowledge lay locked within the patterns embodied by the Golden Section and Fibonacci Series.9 Later in his career, by applying his theories about the Modular to his buildings, Le Corbusier was therefore imbuing his work with the imprint of his own very personal spiritual and philosophical beliefs. However, Le Corbusier’s use of the ‘regulating lines’ is evident as early as the Villa Schwob in 1916. In Towards a New Architecture, he explicitly illustrates the way in which the Golden Section contributed to the building’s rather severe and formal composition.10 It was at Villa Schwob that Le Corbusier applied these principles for the first time. The building borrows heavily from Palladio, with an ABABA rhythm and distinctive Palladian blank panel on the front elevation.11

Villa Schwob as illustrated in Towards a New Architecture, showing compositional use of the Golden Section
Fig. 3 Villa Schwob as illustrated in Towards a New Architecture, showing compositional use of the Golden Section

However, Richard Padovan argues that it was the Villa Stein “that most clearly embodies ‘the place of the right angle,’ and which led ‘most directly to his final solution, the modular…”12 Villa Stein was a relatively high budget commission from the American millionaire, Michael Stein and his friend, Gabrielle de Monzie.13 From the earliest sketches, the design incorporated compositional grids and proportional systems. According to Benton, these were dropped midway through the design process, but then reinstated for the final scheme.14 Although not immediately apparent in photographs of the building, the underlying structure is therefore underwritten by the hidden rules to which Le Corbusier attached so much significance. Like Villa Schwob, the Villa Stein has an imposing formality, but this is subverted internally by the use of a more relaxed plan. These changes in compositional approach were at least in part due to Le Corbusier’s experiments in painting during this period. 

Villa Stein, ‘the one that most clearly embodies what he calls the ‘place of the right angle,’ and which also leads on most directly to his final solution, the modular’
Fig. 4 Villa Stein, ‘the one that most clearly embodies what he calls the ‘place of the right angle,’ and which also leads on most directly to his final solution, the modular’
15

The Modular was an idea that Le Corbusier developed over many years of research. It has already been observed that the origins of this work lay in a long tradition of architectural fascination with the Golden Section and other well established proportional systems. A further influence upon its development however, was Le Corbusier’s involvement in the Purist movement, during the early Twentieth Century. The Purists were devoted to the pursuit of a modern aesthetic in all areas of creative endeavor and it was partly through his involvement with the group that Le Corbusier’s approach to proportion in composition was able to evolve in the way that it did. His paintings of this period give the impression of being abstract, almost haphazard arrangements of everyday objects, but like so many of his buildings, they are in actual fact underlain by the use of ‘regulating lines’. In The Modular, Le Corbusier claims that it was his search through painting in the Twenties for the “the so-called ‘solution of the place of the right angle’, which was to serve, spontaneously, as the starting point for the work on the ‘Modular’ in 1942”.16
 

Illustration from The Modular, showing underlying use of compositional systems, including the Golden Section, in Le Corbusier’s paintings
Fig. 5 Illustration from The Modular, showing underlying use of compositional systems, including the Golden Section, in Le Corbusier’s paintings  

While the Purist paintings show how Le Corbusier utilised proportional and compositional systems to give his work harmony and order, they also demonstrate how they helped him develop a freer and more expressive aesthetic in his later life. The shift in Le Corbusier’s career to a seemingly looser and less ‘rationalist’ approach to composition is clearly rooted in the experiments he conducted on canvas in the pre-war period. This gradual process of ‘loosening up’ is apparent in the plans of Villa Stein, the roofscape of Unite d’Habitation (which most obviously resembles the compositions on canvas) and ultimately at Ronchamp. However, one of the elements which remained consistent throughout these works and clearly allowed Le Corbusier to confidently explore the full compositional potential within his buildings, was his use of tried and tested proportional systems. ‘The game’, as Le Corbusier seems to have referred to the play of mathematical harmonies within so much of his work, was imbued with both profound seriousness, but also a more lighthearted enjoyment of hidden meaning and pattern.

‘Truth is naked and inexorable. It brings stunning freedom to the midst of the pressure of contingent forces. The pure solution, compressed by constraints, appears like an essence, like a crystal. The rules of the game emerge; the game is won.’ 17   

The sense of struggle and revelation that pervades such passages, indicates some of the spiritual significance that Le Corbusier attached to ‘the game’. It also illustrates how working within the constraints of these ancient systems and the Modular, gave Le Corbusier the feeling that he was attaining some kind of higher truth. The belief that it was possible to reach an almost preordained solution, or inescapable truth, is implicit in much of his writing. Although never prone to understating his own genius, Le Corbusier often seems to suggest that his work is also the manifestation of a greater, almost mystical force.

The Modular, which Le Corbusier intended as a replacement for both the metric and imperial systems of measurement was also intended as a synthesis of the two. While Le Corbusier acknowledged the rational coherence of the metric system, he bemoaned the loss of a connection with the proportions of the human body that had been the basis of inches and feet. It was also designed to combine reason and a relation to human proportions with the profundities of the Golden Section and Golden Mean.18 It was in the Unite D’Habitation, that Le Corbusier most fully applied the Modular. From the explicit imprint of the ‘modular man’ in the concrete structure, to the consistent application of its proportions in the layout and composition of the apartments and elevations, the building embodies the system more than any other. It is appropriate that a system that was developed to connect the proportional harmonies of the human body to the abstract and mystical geometrical patterns of the Golden Section found its fullest expression in a building designed simply for living in.

Unite d’Habitation: ‘the major example of Le Corbusier’s use of the modular’
Fix. 6 Unite d’Habitation: ‘the major example of Le Corbusier’s use of the modular’
19

At La Tourette, the Modular was again rigidly applied throughout the building, but there is also a more complex application of musical harmony and rhythm. This may have been partly due to the involvement of the Greek engineer and composer in Le Corbusier’s office, Iannis Xenaxis, who also essentially designed the 1958 Philips Pavilion for the Brussels World Exhibition.20

Le Corbusier’s fascination with proportion in architecture was lifelong and deep-rooted. It grew from a combination of factors, including his own training, travels and particular philosophy. Like most architects of his generation, Le Corbusier would have been very aware of the history of proportional systems in architecture and therefore as a young man traveling the world, it was unsurprising that he should look for hidden patterns in the buildings and sites that he visited. That he should come to attach such huge spiritual significance to these mathematical systems was altogether less predictable, as was his single-minded pursuit of his own new system, the Modular. What is clear is that his preoccupation with proportion and ‘regulating lines’ was to have a far-reaching impact on many of his buildings and much of his painting. Over the course of his life, these preoccupations took on an increasingly mystical dimension, culminating in the highly developed sense of spirituality embodied in Ronchamp and La Tourette. What is particularly interesting about the way in which Le Corbusier applied these concepts in his religious buildings and especially at Ronchamp was the appearance of expressive freedom that they convey, contained within an extremely convincing compositional order. Padovan has noted that ‘The aim of proportion systems can be described as the creation of an ordered complexity.’21 Clearly, for Le Corbusier, the mystical and ancient patterns and numbers of Masonic lore became the deeply personal framework and constraints within which he explored his own inner life and creative urges. Far from abandoning these constraints in the later and more expressive buildings, Le Corbusier seems to have retained them as if they were the very structure of his buildings, ideas and sense of spirituality.

That this approach represented in some way a manifestation of Le Corbusier’s displaced religious sympathies is clear. A cultural Protestant, with a family history traceable back to the Albigensian heretics, it was unsurprising that Le Corbusier rejected the dominant creed of his predominantly Catholic adopted country.22 However, like many avowed atheists and agnostics, the exploration of the inner life offered by the church and specifically its monastic tradition, was deeply appealing to him. His collaboration with and appreciation by the Dominican order was therefore far from surprising and it provided him with two of his greatest commissions, Ronchamp and La Tourette. In these jobs, Le Corbusier was challenged to explore his own spirituality, an aspect of his inner life that he had systematically but privately pursued since his youth. His response to this challenge was to draw upon this inner bank of contemplation and spiritual enquiry, but to structure it within his long-cherished fascination with proportional systems. For Le Corbusier, this was the true synthesis of human reason and irrational human creativity.  

1 Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, Architectural Press, London, 1946, p. 71

2 The Modular itself is also deeply indebted to historical proportional systems, such as the Golden Section.November 1937

3 Mark Wilson Jones, Principles of Roman Architecture, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2000, p.3

4 Tim Benton, ‘Six Houses’, Le Corbusier: Architect of the Century, Hayward Gallery, London, 1987, p.61

5 Le Corbusier, Towards A New Architecture, Architectural Press, 1946, p.74

6 Richard Padovan, Proportion, Science, Philosophy, Architecture, E & FN Spon, London and New York, 1999, p. 28

7 Tim Benton, ‘The Sacred and the Search for Myths’, Le Corbusier: Architect of the Century, Hayward Gallery, London, 1987, p.239

8 Le Corbusier, The Modular, Faber and Faber, London, 1954, p.62

9 Tim Benton, ‘The Sacred and the Search for Myths’, Le Corbusier: Architect of the Century, Hayward Gallery, London, 1987, p.241

10 Le Corbusier, Towards A New Architecture

11 Kenneth, Le Corbusier, Thames and Hudson, London, 2001, p.18

12 Richard Padovan, Proportion, Science, Philosophy, Architecture, E & FN Spon, London and New York, 1999, pp. 319-320

13 Tim Benton, ‘Six Houses’, Le Corbusier: Architect of the Century, Hayward Gallery, London, 1987, p.60

14 Tim Benton, ‘Six Houses’, Le Corbusier: Architect of the Century, Hayward Gallery, London, 1987, p.61

15 Richard Padovan, Proportion, Science, Philosophy, Architecture, E & FN Spon, London and New York, 1999, pp. 319-320

16 Le Corbusier, The Modular, Faber and Faber, London, 1977, p.213

17 Le Corbusier, quoted in Tim Benton, ‘Six Houses’, Le Corbusier: Architect of the Century, Hayward Gallery, London, 1987, p.60

18 Robert Coombs, Mystical themes in Le Corbusier’s architecture in the Chapel Notre-Dame-Du Haut at Ronchamp, The Edwin Meller Press, New York, 2000, pp. 139-140

19 Richard Padovan, Proportion, Science, Philosophy, Architecture, E & FN Spon, London and New York, 1999, pp. 332

20 Kenneth Frampton, Le Corbusier, Thames and Hudson, London, 2001, p.181

21 Richard Padovan, Proportion, Science, Philosophy, Architecture, E & FN Spon, London and New York, 1999, pp. 42

22 Tim Benton, ‘The Sacred and the Search for Myths’, Le Corbusier: Architect of the Century, Hayward Gallery, London, 1987, p.247




Ben Flatman

benflatman@hotmail.com