haiku for the book “Towards a New Architecture” by Le Corbusier

heavy carpets heave
keep your floors clear of debris
demand a vacuum

This book, first published in 1923, was an unexpected delight. Unexpected in the sense that it was readable (unlike most of Frank Lloyd Wright’s scribblings) and still (mostly) relevant almost 100 years later. Like Wright, Le Corbusier (pronounced core-boo-see-eh and referred to as “Corbu” by the cool kids) was a freakin genius, essentially perfecting Modernism. His houses are timeless; his designs still crisp and contemporary (contemporary in the sense they could easily be designed today and fit into the Modern meme seamlessly). Every time I see a photo of one of his houses with an automobile-o-the-day parked in front, I giggle like a drunken sorority girl. Oh to have lived back in those years and seen one of his creations for the first time!

The actual title of his book, properly translated, is “Towards an Architecture” not “Towards a New Architecture”. Probably because his architecture was so radical, translators (editors?) changed the title, and thus subtly changed Corbu’s main point: Architecture as architecture needs to change.

The book is a collection of essays he wrote for the magazine L’Esprit Nouveau. The main thrust of the essays is that architecture needs to change its dusty and crusty ways and be optimized to the people who use it. Corbu refers to and includes photos of automobiles, steamships, and airplanes (and grain silos!) noting that the clean designs of these machines and practical solutions were functional yet beautiful.

Corbu spills his famous quote here: “A house is a machine for living in.” Many, including Wright, have misinterpreted this quote to mean that a house should literally be a machine. What Corbu was really trying to say is that just as an automobile is carefully designed to meet its purpose (for driving in), so should a house (for living in). (He also writes that “An armchair is a machine for sitting in”. Hee hee!). Corbu questions the dogma and assumptions of architecture and design back in the day where living was required to bend to that dogma and those assumptions. He simply notes that architecture should bend to the people that plan to use it.

He includes a “Manual of the Dwelling” enumerating his thoughts on a house:

Demand a bathroom looking south, one of the largest rooms in the house or flat, the old drawing-room for instance. One wall to be entirely glazed, opening if possible on to a balcony for sun baths; the most up-to-date fittings with a shower-bath and gymnastic appliances.

An adjoining room to be a dressing-room in which you can dress and undress. Never undress in your bedroom. It is not a clean thing to do and makes the room horribly untidy. In this room demand fitments for your linen and clothing, not more than 5 feet in height, with drawers, hangers, etc.

Demand one really large living room instead of a number of small ones.

Demand bare walls in your bedroom, your living room and your dining-room. Built-in fittings to take the place of much of the furniture, which is expensive to buy, takes up too much room and needs looking after.

If you can, put the kitchen at the top of the house to avoid smells.

Demand concealed or diffused lighting.

Demand a vacuum cleaner.

Buy only practical furniture and never buy decorative “pieces.” If you want to see bad taste, go into the houses of the rich. Put only a few pictures on your walls, and none but good ones.

Keep your odds and ends in drawers or cabinets.

The gramaphone or the pianola or wireless will give you exact interpretations of first rate music, and you will avoid catching cold in the concert hall, and the frenzy of the virtuoso.

Demand ventilating panes to the windows in every room.

Teach your children that a house is only habitable when it is full of light and air, and when the walls and floors are clear. To keep your floors in order eliminate heavy furniture and thick carpets.

Demand a separate garage to your dwelling.

Demand that your maid’s room should not be in the attic. Do not park your servants under your roof.

Take a flat which is one size smaller than what your parents accustomed you to. Bear in mind economy in your actions, your household management and in your thoughts.

(Note to self: Demand a vacuum cleaner from the architect [We have requested a central vacuum, but we haven’t demanded one yet!].)

Although Corbu’s flavor of Modern is described as cold, he was truly a humanist, bending his theories at the knees to bow before humanity.

Corbu goes on, somewhat poetically:

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 deep 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 [blogger’s note: This is stated on a page with photos of airplanes.]

Men--intelligent, cold and calm--are needed to build the house and lay out the town.

In essense, what The Corbu is saying is that the machine ethic, that ethic of the cold-hearted engineer to design in a practical and cost-effective manner, needs to be brought into the design of our homes and cities.

However, Corbu recognizes that architecture is not simply practical design:

You employ stone, wood and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces; that is construction. Ingenuity is at work.

But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say: “This is beautiful.” That is Architecture. Art enters in.

My house is practical. I thank you, as I might thank Railway engineers or the telephone service. You have not touched my heart.

But suppose that walls rise towards heaven in such a way that I am moved. [...] That is Architecture.

Although practical design can accidentally lead to beauty (see grain silos), it’s best not to leave beauty to accident:

Architecture is the skilful, accurate and magnificent play of masses seen in light...

Corbu goes on to note that the Modern age, the transfer of people from rural to urban areas, from working in a field with family to working in a factory with the faceless, threatens family fabric which in turn threatens civilization. He notes that architecture at a home or city scale can be used to offset these threats, maximizing family interaction and interaction with nature, basic needs of our species. And he further notes that if these basics needs are not met we risk social unrest and the ruin of civilization. With this, Le Corbusier ends with these words and this photo:

Architecture or Revolution.
Revolution can be avoided.

The influence of this book on architecture cannot be avoided. If you are interested in architecture, you shouldn’t avoid this book, either.

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