Friday, November 10, 2006

Perfection in Corbusier’s Architecture: A Search for the Essential?

“One could build beautifully designed houses, always provided the tenant was prepared to change his outlook.”

-Le Corbusier

“We all of us always have our own ideas! We want our own house – don’t we! – for ourselves . . . and we want it the way . . . that way we want to have it”

-M.L. (Pessac resident)

“We, we have the obligation to ignore this and to pursue positive and scientific research with serenity . . .”

-Le Corbusier

The question of ‘perfection’ seems to be central to theories of modern architecture in the early twentieth-century and the concept of ‘perfection’ continues to ride just under the surface of many of our contemporary ideas about building. In particular, Le Corbusier’s theories of standardization, serialization and architectural progress from the 1920s and early 1930s seem infused with this idea of ‘perfection’ and its logical consequences.

In Towards a New Architecture, Le Corbusier argues that the project of the modern architect should be the development of new ‘standards,’ or proto-types, of structures, with the express purpose of achieving ‘perfection’ of design as the end result. It is this conception of perfection as something both attainable and desirable that I hope to explore through this essay. I will look primarily at the writing and building from Le Corbusier’s early period with the understanding that both his theories and his practice changed dramatically after the 1930s. Even though he seems to move away from explicit references to perfection after the mid 1930s, I think it is important to unpack his concepts from this early period to understand how many of these ideas have survived to the present day. In particular, I think Le Corbusier’s defense of industrial ‘perfection’ and standardization as the harbinger of “Ultimate Freedom” to the designer is an idea that needs to be understood in detail before we can accept or reject this premise.

If we accept first the very possibility of architectural perfection and second its desirability, this will have significant repercussions on the types of projects we undertake and the solutions we try to develop as architects. If we, however, reject this idea of perfection, either because of its philosophical untenability, its apparent historical failures or for its logical social consequences, we will answer very differently the question: “In what way should we build?”

First, before discussing either the possibilities or merits of perfection in architecture, let us examine what exactly is meant when we speak of perfection. The theorist Jan Michl separates the concept of “perfection” into two distinct categories that are useful when thinking about what we mean by the term. He defines the “weak” use of the term ‘perfection’ to be a superlative, referring to an object which is seen as fulfilling its defined function successfully and without failure. This is contrasted with his definition of the “strong” sense of perfection. In this sense, perfection is seen as “. . . perfection in an absolute sense – an ultimate state of excellence in performance, a state of affairs where the contrivance in question has achieved its final state of development.” (Michl, 67)

If we understand that perfection has this double meaning, in one sense referring to a performance in our human world of time and space and the other referring to a timeless, essential realm beyond human existence, the question becomes: In which sense did Le Corbusier use perfection when writing about its development in Modern Architecture? In addition, if we begin to explore the idea of functionalism through Le Corbusier’s built projects, we can ask: ‘Did Le Corbusier truly think that functional perfection, in its performative sense, was central to the project of architecture?’

Le Corbusier’s writing would at first glance certainly seem to place him squarely in the “Functionalist” camp. After all, we would assume the man who coined the phrase “a house is a machine for living,” to understand building as a strictly utilitarian project. Upon closer examination however we begin to see Le Corbusier opening up spaces for the role of the artist in architecture. As he writes:

“One commonplace among architects (the younger ones): the construction must be shown.

Another commonplace among them: When a thing responds to a need, it is beautiful. But . . . to show the construction is all very well for an Arts and Crafts student who is anxious to prove his ability. The Almighty has clearly shown our wrists and our ankles, but there remains all the rest!

When a thing responds to a need, it is not beautiful; it satisfies all one part of our mind, the primary part, without which there is no possibility or richer satisfaction; let us recover the right order of events . . . 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.”

This seems to suggest that while functional fulfillment is a necessary element of architecture, it is not sufficient for architecture. “In fact, Le Corbusier specifically considered and rejected the two common functionalist claims that architecture must express its structure and that there is a causal relation between function and beauty.” (Benton, 43)

If Le Corbusier cannot be considered a “Functionalist” in the strictest sense, then how are we to understand his work? In Towards a New Architecture he sets out a rigorous program for architecture which seems to be intimately related to function: the development of “Standards.” To Le Corbusier, the standard was the type, the essential; an identification of the Platonic idea which sufficiently fulfills the given function. This standard was only a base however. It was important to take this type and begin to work upon it the process of ‘perfection.’

Using our dual conception of ‘perfection,’ we can attempt to define what type to ‘perfection’ Le Corbusier was speaking of here and I think this will help to show what Le Corbusier’s actual attitude towards function was. While Le Corbusier does not explicitly describe his idea of perfection, I think we can infer his meaning by looking at other facets of his thought.

Le Corbusier’s concept of the ‘Standard’ is inarguably based on a search for the Essential. For him, the establishment of a standard involves exhausting every practical and reasonable possibility, and extracting from them a recognized type conformable to its functions, . . .” (Le Corbusier, 127) This investigation he later describes as “… rejection, pruning, cleansing; the clear and naked emergence of the Essential.” (Le Corbusier, 128) This focus on the Essential as the fundamental area of investigation would seem to suggest that Le Corbusier’s use of perfection belongs in the ‘strong’ category.

If we look to the example of Le Corbusier’s project for the Salvation Army’s Cité de Refuge, built between 1929 and 1933 in Paris, we can again see a privileging of the search for the Essential over the search for the practical. Ass part of the design for the Cité, Le Corbusier created a South-facing curtain wall completely constructed of inoperable windows. This wall of glass was not incidental to the design, but central to Le Corbusier’s argument for how buildings should be conceived. “… One must bear in mind the key ideas which determined its form from the very beginning: first, that it should be an airtight envelope, with a fixed, glazed curtain-wall suspended on the south façade of the main dormitory building, and second, that it should provide for the artificial control of the interior environment, that is, the mechanical supply of heated, purified air.” (Taylor, 25)

This conception of ultimate mechanical control became a serious point of contention as the people inhabiting the Cité complained of the severe heat and lack of ventilation due to this design. Le Corbusier absolutely refused to allow the installation of operable windows while insisting that the heating and cooling problem was not as significant as the inhabitants seemed to suggest. While it is true that if the client had constructed Le Corbusier’s original design (a double layer curtain wall with an air space to provide insulation) the situation would have been much less problematic, it is illustrative that Le Corbusier patently refused to modify his design to acknowledge the practical needs of the people he was designing for, even in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary. In response to the complaints about the lack of practical functionalityTaylor, 107) of his design, he wrote, “We, we have the obligation to ignore [these complaints] and to pursue positive and scientific research with serenity …” (

This accidental quote seems to reveal more about Le Corbusier’s conception of ‘perfection’ than almost any other writing of his. He is asserting that the important element of study is not the physical, technical functioning of an object, but rather its theoretical development and its place in the abstract process of the search for the Essential. If we look at Le Corbusier’s 1921 housing development at Pessac, as another example, we see yet again this focus on the development of Essential (theoretical) perfection over technical (performance) perfection. Speaking about his study of the Pessac development, Phillippe Boudon writes with surprise, “… some of those interviewed actually complained about the lack of rationalism, claiming that certain features of the houses were ‘not logical’, ‘not rational’, ‘inconvenient’, ‘awkward’ or ‘impractical’.” (Boudon, 33)

Boudon’s surprise here is instructive. We assume that Le Corbusier, because of his focus on functional perfection, standardization and efficiency, would design structures which privileged the technical functioning of the building. But what we find is quite the opposite. These designs are quite expressive of Le Corbusier’s aesthetic talent and are centered not on function as a technical reality, but function as a story of what Modern Architecture should be about. As Stanford Anderson argues, “Le Corbusier offered a vision of certain eternal goods: the loaf of bread, the can of milk, the bottle of wine, light and air, access to the earth and the sky, physical health, all made more fully and to greater numbers thanks to new potentials that were both spiritual and technical.” (Anderson, 24)

These examples serve to illustrate that when Le Corbusier writes of perfection, it is fully in the ‘strong’ sense of the term. That is, a perfection in the essential, timeless, placeless, universal sense. If we understand Le Corbusier as interested in the Essential perfection, we can now begin to answer the question of why he saw the development of perfection as such a central challenge of modernism.

In Towards a New Architecture, Le Corbusier states that the creation of a new ‘style’ of architecture is to be understood as “… the attainment universally recognized, of a state of perfection universally felt.” (Le Corbusier, 128) This ‘birth’ of a new style then is the result of this program of perfection. In the end, this development of perfection upon the standards is Le Corbusier’s way of answering the need for a new style of architecture during the early 20th-Century. If we take a broader look at the thinking of Le Corbusier however, we realize that this idea of perfection was in no way limited only to the realm of architecture and we should not think that Le Corbusier felt that ‘perfect’ buildings could merely be dropped down into an imperfect society.

Mary McLeod goes to great lengths in her article Architecture or Revolution to point out the links between Le Corbusier’s theories of architecture and the ideas of the Technocratic Rationalists of the early twentieth-century, specifically the Taylorists and the Fordists. As McLeod writes, “Taylorism … was a method of labor discipline and plant organization based upon ostensibly scientific investigations of labor efficiency and incentive systems.” (Mcleod, 133) The express purpose of Taylorist and Fordist ideologies was the creation of an ‘industrial utopia’ based on principles of order, science and rationality.

Occupying an odd junction point between Right and Left, Corporatism, Bolshevism and Fascism, these Technocratic ideologies sought to solve questions of social justice through organizational and managerial means. The fundamental point to understand about these ideas is that they sought a final solution for the problems of social life and they all believed quite sincerely of the possibility of a perfection of social order and function. In addition, they believed that this perfection of human existence was possible only through strict control and ‘design’ of the human environment and life. McLeod writes, “Concomitant with this elitist orientation was a preoccupation with ends, not means; an emphasis on material results, not parliamentary procedures. For the Taylorists, decisions were based on science and rationality; participation and abstract rights were irrelevant in the face of expertise.” (McLeod, 139) The grandiose aspirations of the Technocrats cannot be overemphasized; they truly believed that “Taylor’s orderly factory would create orderly men and eventually lead to a more orderly world.” (McLeod, 137) Their hopes were not bounded by national or ethnic borders as they believed science to be a universal datum and that “…rationalization would spread in ever wider spheres, resulting eventually in the attainment of universal harmony.” (McLeod, 137)

Understanding Le Corbusier’s work in light of these ideas places his conception of a perfection of structure and design in a much wider context. His theories of perfection were seen as part of humanity’s progress towards a final solution, a state of absolute, harmonious perfection. If we understand the raison d’être of Le Corbusier’s perfection project as the attainment of this crystallized, essential state of perfection across the full spectrum of human life, we can better respond to his proposal that this perfection would lead not only to a state of harmony, but a state of ‘Ultimate Freedom’ for the Architect.

In Five Points Towards a New Architecture, Le Corbusier makes the claim that his perfected ‘kit of parts’ for building will give the architect “… absolute freedom in designing the ground-plan;…” In addition, he claims that this perfection will also grant the architect “Free design of the façade…” since it is no longer required to support the weight of the building and therefore performs no substantial structural role. Further on, he states explicitly, “Thus the architect has at his disposal a box of building units. His architectural talent can operate freely. It alone, through the building program, determines his architecture.” (Le Corbusier, 101) In Towards A New Architecture, he states, “Everything is possible by calculation and invention, provided that there is at our disposal a sufficiently perfected body of tools, and this does exist. … new formulas have been found which only need exploitation to bring about … a genuine liberation from the constraints we have till now been subjected to.” (Le Corbusier, 286)

This talk of ‘liberation,’ ‘absolute freedom,’ and ‘freedom of design,’ seems odd when put in the context of the theories of technocratic social perfection which proposed not freedom as the engine of social justice, but rigid control and social management. Indeed, freedom seemingly cannot be more at odds with the very concept of an essential perfection. Perfection in the sense used by Le Corbusier and the scientific rationalists demands a state of crystallized, static and timeless being. Not one of a dynamic, temporal human state which is the realm in which human agency (freedom) can act. If we look to the history of this form of social engineering we can see this conflict played out time and again. In Le Corbusier’s own work, his building’s claim to (or at least attempt at) perfection was continually refused by the people who came to live in these structures. The development at Pessac is again a good example. Initially conceived as a development of serial boxes, similar in layout to the Maison Citrohen, the homes at Pessac were modified by the inhabitants to an incredible degree as they sought to make for themselves not a house as an essential, perfect object, but a house as their home. “They took what had been offered to them and worked on it, converted it, added to it. What did they add? Their needs. They created distinction. … They introduced personal qualities. They built a differentiated social cluster.” (Boudon, ii) This example shows, in microcosm, the result of so many attempts at social engineering and hints that, contrary to Le Corbusier’s argument, there is not a connection but rather a conflict between Perfection and Freedom.

While the idea of a perfected social utopia of harmony and essential, timelessness order can be defended on many levels, it is curious that Le Corbusier chooses to argue using the one level on which this world view cannot be defended, namely, freedom. Ultimately, this is not a valid argument for the implementation of such a world view and the perfection of architecture or construction would not bring about complete freedom of the designer exactly because of this fundamental conflict between perfection and freedom.

In the end, to answer the question of ‘In what way should we build?’ Le Corbusier argues for the development of an essential, objective platonic perfection as the ideal state, not just of buildings but of society as a whole. This ideology leaves no room for the freedom of the individual and while it is arguable that such an existence would be ideal on many levels, it is ultimately untenable. What this means for the question of architecture, however is more complicated. I think this answer, leading away from dreams of total mechanical control in the service of an eternal beauty towards a more human-scaled, dynamic and responsive architecture is vital to the future development of the built environment. If we conceive buildings not as static, controlled and ossified but as growing, dying and changeable organisms which are intimately connected to both their environment and the people who live within them, we will address the question in a fundamentally different manner. Again, the example of Pessac is illustrative. Here we can see what happens when the perfection of building meets the realities of life. In the introduction to Philippe Boudon’s study of the housing development, Henri Lefèbvre, discussed how people responded to Le Corbusier’s idea that they should install themselves in their house-implements and live their daily lives within this container.

“And what did the occupants do? Instead of installing themselves in their containers, instead of adapting to them and living in them ‘passively’, they decided that as far as possible they were going to live ‘actively’. In doing so they showed what living in a house really is: an activity.”

-Henri Lefèbvre

Works Cited:

Boudon, Philippe. Lived in Architecture: Le Corbussier’s Pessac Revisited. Trans. Gerald Onn. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1972.

Taylor, Brian Brace. Le Corbussier: The City of Refuge Paris 1929/33. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.

McLeod, Mary. “Architecture or Revolution: Taylorism, Technocracy, and Social
Change.” Art Journal Summer. 1983: 132-147.

Michl, Jan. “On the Rumor of Functional Perfection.” Pro Forma 2 (Oslo Norway), 1990-
91: 67-81.

Michl, Jan. “Form Follows What? The Modernist Notion of Function as a Carte

Blanche.” 1:50 – Magazine of the Faculty of Architecture & Town Planning 10 Winter. 1995: 31-20.

Anderson, Stanford. “The Fiction of Function.” Assemblage 2 Feb. 1987: 18-31.

Benton, Tim. “The Myth of Function.” Modernism in Design. Ed. Paul Greenhalgh. London: Reaktion, 1990.

Le Corbusier. Towards a New Architecture. New York: Dover, 1986.

Le Corbusier. “Five Points Towards a New Architecture.” Programs and Manifestos on 20th-Century Architecture. Ed. Ulrich Conrads. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1970.

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