Standing on Le Corbusier
By HERNÁN MARCHANT, Associate Dean of Undergraduate and Interdisciplinary Studies
The recent renovation of the Allred Gallery includes a new floor in terrazzo, which was donated by the David Allen Company. Anyone who visits will be walking on the traces of Le Corbusier’s principles for color and proportions.
Charles Edouard Jeanneret (1887-1965), commonly known as Le Corbusier, is one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century, and considered to be one of the leading founders of the Modern Movement. Yet his voluminous artistic output of oil paintings, lithographs, murals, tapestries, sculptures, and thousands of collages, gouaches, watercolors and drawings, has failed to get similar recognition. He also produced more than forty books and dozens of articles to explain his thinking on art and architecture in an impressive multidisciplinary production that could be considered to be an achievement of a “synthesis of arts”.
The earliest origins of Le Corbusier’s concepts can be traced back to the training he received beginning at the age of thirteen at the School of Decorative Arts at Chaux de Fonds, his hometown in Switzerland, under the wing of Charles L’Eplattenier, where prevailing ideas for integrating the arts marked him. He later developed an earnest interest in geometry at the age of twenty-three when he was drawing the façade of a house he was going to build. A question plagued his mind: “What is the rule that orders, that connects all things?” He felt he was on the verge of discovering a visual and geometric phenomenon. One day he started drawing right angles on the façade of a picture of Michelangelo’s Capitol in Rome, which brought him to the revelation that the right angle governed the composition.
In 1955 he published “The Poem of the Right Angle.” Le Corbusier took eight years, from mid 1947 to September 1955, to complete this one hundred and fifty-five page book of lithographs, containing nineteen manuscript poems which are integrated into the design of the images. “The Poem of the Right Angle” is the product of “an intellectual who has hands,” as Le Corbusier defines himself. The book develops themes that are central to him, such as art, nature and man, from which he tries to discover the laws that are constant and, as he called them, the “invariant” fundamental concepts of art. This view led him to develop his theory and practice, where geometry is a fundamental tool.
While developing the concepts published in “The Poem of the Right Angle”, in 1950 he published “The Modulor”, which he calls “an essay on the harmonic measure to the human scale”. He defined the “Modulor” as a measuring tool based on the human body and mathematics. A figure of a man with arm upraised provides, at the determining points of his occupation of space – foot, solar plexus, head, and the tip of the fingers of the upraised arm – three intervals which give raise to a series of golden sections, called the Fibonacci series. He defined two Fibonacci series, the red series arising from the relationship of the golden ratio and the navel height (113 cm) and the blue series based on the man with his arm extended (226 cm). At the beginning, Le Corbusier was working with the body of a man 175 centimeters in height, which is rather a “French” height. But he couldn’t get whole values in feet and inches in this way. Then he noticed that in English detective novels, the good-looking men, such as the policemen, are always six feet tall. By applying this new standard, six feet = 182.88 centimeters, he realized that the graduations of this new “Modulor” translated themselves into round figures in feet and inches.
The pattern of the Allred Gallery was designed based on a combination of squares that Le Corbusier called “The Panel Exercise”, in which a square is divided in increasingly smaller increments in accordance with the measures of the “Modulor” for one’s entertainment. The colors were selected from Le Corbusier’s palette published in “Salubra, Clavier de couleur” in 1931 and 1959.
I found designing with these principles so easy that I must agree with what Albert Einstein wrote to Le Corbusier about the “Modulor”: “It is a scale of proportions which makes the bad difficult and the good easy.”