18 January 2011

Are we there yet…? Book Review - Towards a New Architecture. Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye
We’ve probably heard of his theories, and some may have even read the book (or pretended to…) but for those who haven’t - a trip into Le Corbusier’s “Towards a New Architecture” is an intriguing view into the mind of one of the icons of the modern movement. 90 years ago, he wrote of the inability of architecture to provide a suitable habitat for the changing way we were beginning to live and work, which left me wondering, are his words just as relevant today?

Whilst his arguments (or translation of) can sometimes come across as arrogant or patronising, the basic point is very well made. Why, compared to engineering and other design industries, had architecture remained so slow to develop to meet the needs of the people? Early Greek architecture was refined to perfection over the centuries, culminating in the Acropolis in Athens, from which point it was slowly masked with unnecessary decoration and extravagance and in turn distracted the designer from creating a successful building.

Le Corbusier's Chaise Lounge - simple regulating lines.

Take automotive and aeronautical design, which have, through necessity, economics or competition, motivated designers to achieve a higher level of innovation and break away from traditional mindsets. He cites as a classic example, the progression of engineering during the industrial revolution, where design was governed by mathematics and economics rather than by tradition, resulting in “regulating lines” that created a simple, clean aesthetic, stripped of decoration.

Le Corbusier clearly believes that decoration only distracts from order and form. His statement “The House is a Machine for Living” reinforces the idea that the house is primarily a place to live and not a monument to the past – it should be devoid of unnecessary decoration and free from the constraints of tradition. After seeing other engineering design industries evolve into something new and revolutionary, we have for too long been too concerned about how a building looks without having the same regard for how a building works.

At the turn of the last century we were in the middle of an industrial revolution, where technology provided the ability to build bigger, faster and more economically. The culture was one of infinite resources. If a house was too dark it could be flooded with electric light. Too cold or hot, it could be heated or air-conditioned. Today we are still developing at an exponential rate but are seeing the consequences of the past with pollution, dwindling resources, and as an effect, escalating material costs.

Corbusier's Weissenhof Siedlung.

If we are provided with the fundamentals for shelter; adequate daylight, fresh air and warmth, we are comfortable. We need to recognise we should allow the natural architecture itself to provide these necessities rather than by artificial means. A dwelling should be located and designed to maximise daylight and warmth or shade, insulated and adequately ventilated.

So we are at a similar point that Le Corbusier found himself looking at 90 years ago. His arguments could be seen as want for a brutal, utilitarian style of architecture but I believe they were meant as a wake-up call to force a fresh way of thinking about architecture and how it was meant to meet the needs of a changing society rather than rely on fashion. The only difference being that this original motivation is now coupled with the needs of a changing environment.

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