When Le Corbusier shook architects out of their comfort zone

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Rajnish Wattas

Ex-Principal, Chandigarh College of Architecture

Le Corbusier famously said, “A house is a machine to live in.” In the early 1920s, a young Le Corbusier was struggling to set up his architectural practice in Paris. But he had plenty of opportunities to channel his irrepressible creative energies in the world of art and design and he joined the avant garde movement against decadent institutions that were resisting change.

Soon, he started his own polemical but refreshingly fresh journal L’Esprit Nouveau. He wrote a series of articles calling for a revolution in architecture, which was still imitating neo-classical styles in spite of new technologies and varied spatial demands of the ‘machine age’ . In 1923, he brought out a compilation of these essays as a book, Vers une Architecture, translated into English as Towards a New Architecture.

The world over, architectural institutions are organising events to mark the centenary of this visionary nugget. Mark Wigley of Columbia University hails it as ‘the single-most influential architectural manifesto of that century’. Similarly, Rowan Moore, an eminent architectural author-critic, calls it the ‘most influential book on the design of buildings since Vitruvius wrote his De Architectura in the reign of Roman emperor Augustus’.

The book had an automobile on its cover. Inside, there were more pictures of steamships, airplanes, automobiles and grain silos than of buildings. But there was a rationale to that. He wanted to awaken the architects — accusing them of having ‘eyes that do not see’ — to the fact that the engineers had progressed to the next level, where every component of the new age demanded precision of design and optimal use of space. On the other hand, architects were still prisoners to pseudo imitation of historic styles extracted from Greek, Gothic, Baroque and other classical sources.

However, this phenomenon was not unique to Europe; it was happening in the US too, which with its vast resources had already started building high-rise buildings in steel. But the architects still clad them with stone in an ornamental eclectic mix of neo-classical styles. In an architectural competition for the high-rise tower of the Chicago Tribune, the winning entry had a design of a steel skyscraper clad in ornamental Gothic stonework! It still stands proudly.

The early torchbearer of modernism was Louis Sullivan, who coined the term ‘Form follows function’, which encapsulated the ethos of the emerging ‘no-frills’ style. His young disciple Frank Lloyd Wright took it the next level of refinement and started building sleek streamlined ‘Prairie houses’ shorn of unnecessary false elements, creating beauty through proportions and authenticity of materials such as exposed brickwork and concrete with sweeping cantilevered roofs. Ayn Rand’s iconic book The Fountainhead was supposedly inspired by Wright’s struggle for modernity against vested interests of the builder-establishment lobby and its patrons.

In Towards a New Architecture, Le Corbusier employed numerous provocative exhortations, admonishments and commandments that later became catchphrases of the profession. Some of them — ‘Plan is the generator of form’, ‘Architecture is the masterful, correct and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light’ — have become legendary in the world of architecture. They read like slogans on T-shirts worn by rebellious youth today or like the ancient world’s Ashokan rock edicts spreading the message with relentless passion and vigour. The adage ‘Architecture or revolution’ was more a threat to the somnolent architects of the era to wake up and smell the coffee.

His most famous maxim, “A house is a machine to live in”, is also perhaps the most misunderstood. What he meant was that house design should have a definitive programme of needs and optimal usage of space needed, if the problem of mass housing for the world were to be solved.

The book not only meditates on architecture but also on urbanism. In his search for the ideal city, he presented a number of hypothetical schemes such as Ville Contemporaine (1922), a vision of a city of three million inhabitants that proposed high-rise towers on stilts spread out over vast landscapes with elevated roads and movement corridors, thus liberating the ground for gardens and pedestrian movement. In 1925, his Plan Voisin for restructuring parts of Paris met with derision and virulent criticism of being inhuman. The best and most refined of these highly imaginative but debatable schemes was Ville Radieuse or ‘Radiant City’, wherein he conceptualised the city as a human body with organs such as the head, the heart, lungs and arteries interconnected with one another. The Chandigarh plan draws its inspiration from his studies for ‘Radiant City’.

Le Corbusier put his theories into practice with Villa Savoye, a house completed in 1931, a white horizontal rectangle resting on pilotis. His biggest experiment in mass housing, Unité d’Habitation at Marseille (1952), built in exposed concrete, was a masterpiece in its own right but often labelled as ‘brutalist’. His exposed concrete surfaces, unpainted or clad in appealing material, put off some people, while others found them honest, truthful and expressive of a new aesthetic.

His later projects broke away from the rigidity of monolithic cuboid structures and brought in a plasticity of shapes. The chapel of Notre-Dame, Ronchamp, and the Assembly building at Chandigarh’s Capitol Complex are classic examples of his advocacy of pure forms brought to light together. The Secretariat building has overtones of Unité d’Habitation and has been compared to a large steamship.

Admired or derided, Towards a New Architecture did bring about an architectural rebirth at that point of time by ushering in modernism. Just like Picasso, who upturned the world of painting with his cubist vision, Le Corbusier shook architects out of their comfort zone.

Contemporary architectural skylines are becoming lookalike clones of the international style of glass and steel, pervading Gurugram or Bengaluru in India too. Any contextual or cultural connect to the site is missing. Perhaps the world awaits another Vers une Architecture.

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