Silvan Laan, bird observatory, polder IJdoorn, the Netherlands, 2014 (built by Jorrit Vijn, photo Elmer van der Marel).
Japan in the late Middle Ages saw the rise of an urban merchant class, prompting the need for a commoner's architecture. A new type had to be developed since strict feudal regulations meant the new architecture could be neither modeled on the peasant house nor on the formal residences of the upper classes. Under the influence of Zen buddhism, the humble tea hut became the retort for experimentation in which a new architecture could take shape. Antithetical to the opulence of aristocratic architecture, the tea masters adopted elements of the peasant vernacular, cultivating a rustic simplicity which became one of the defining characteristics of the new sukiya (tea house) style. The sukiya style introduced an egalitarian spirit, free planning and a refined austerity in Japanese architecture some four hundred years before modernism made similar achievements in the West.
Since the sukiya style already embodied elements of modernism, Japanese architects, unlike many of their counterparts in the West, could accept the new ideology without any feeling of resistance and without psychological complications. In fact, when we look at certain modern structures in Japan, it is often difficult to tell whether they were constructed according to purely Western concepts or whether they reflect elements of the sukiya style. In any case there is no point in attempting to make such an analysis, and no one in Japan has ever thought of doing so (Itoh & Futagawa p. 107).
For Japanese architects in the aftermath of World War II, the shock of atomic annihilation was paired with the promise of large-scale planning on tabula rasa. Japanese tradition and the legacy of the Western avant-garde were brought to a synthesis by the Metabolist group in the fifties, sixties and seventies. For all its futurism, Metabolist architecture embodies ancient notions of impermanence and regeneration as exemplified by Ise shrine, essentially a prehistoric farm house with a continuous existence of 1200 years, its material constituents being replaced ("metabolized") every 20 years (Koolhaas & Obrist p. 385). Says Kenzo Tange: "In the same way as life, as organic beings composed of changeable elements, as the cell, continually renewing its metabolism and still retaining as a whole a stable form — thus we consider our cities" (Koolhaas & Obrist p. 197).
Kenzo Tange, Plan for Tokyo, 1960 (photo Akio Kawasumi).
Saqqara pyramid complex, reconstruction model (Rykwert).
The social roles and practices of citizens were routinized within the urban layout of monumental constructions, streets and pathways, walls and courtyards. The built environment itself demonstrated the superior access to knowledge and planning held by rulers, ostensibly on behalf of all (Yoffee).
The monumental type first becomes manifest in Mesopotamia in the fifth millennium BC, when temple complexes are built with a strong sense of symmetry. Grand pyramidal structures appear like representations of the hierarchically stratified urban societies that produced them. The use of copper started in Mesopotamia around 6000 BC (the Chalcolithic age), followed by the Early Bronze Age around 3000 BC. The emergence of the cuneiform script out of pictorial writing is attributed to the latter period. The smelting of gold, copper and silver, and the invention of writing may have evolved independently in Egypt, although commerce with Mesopotamia apparently did exist (Rykwert p. 170). The design of the stepped pyramid at Saqqara, 60 meters in height, is attributed to Imhotep, as a tomb for king Djoser around 2500 BC. This structure is succeeded by the great pyramid at Giza, c. 150 meters in height, with its complex section of sloping passages and chambers, designed and built with uncanny precision (Scarre p. 374). Architecture in the strict sense, a deliberate, geometric discipline, has entered the scene.
The advent of vertical architecture, metallurgy and literacy is accompanied by the emergence of the city. Roger Matthews writes: "Although we find large agglomerations of people much earlier, for example at Çatalhöyük in the neolithic period of Anatolia, it is only in Late Chalcolithic Mesopotamia that we can detect a real multiplicity of function within those settlements, which enables us to identify them as true cities" (Scarre p. 439).
Çatalhöyük (Mellaart).The verticality of neolithic "tell" (hill) sites such as Çatalhöyük resulted from the accumulation of successive generations of mud brick construction. Perhaps the tell phenomenon can be said to foreshadow the intentional emphasis on verticality that begins to appear in the Ubaid period (5000 — 4000 BC) in Mesopotamia. Gwendolyn Leick describes a fifth millennium precursor of the ziggurat at the site of Eridu, now southern Iraq: "… all the earlier ruins were filled in with sand and enclosed with a brick wall, to provide the basis for a new building elevated from the surrounding areas by one meter and accessed by a ramp" (Leick p. 6). In the subsequent Uruk period (4000 — 3000 BC), the ziggurat typology would materialize: a stepped platform in solid sun-dried brick, crowned with a shrine.
Raymond Hood (with J. André Fouilhoux), McGraw-Hill Building, New York, 1928-30 (Curtis).
Had people for over a million years lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers, the Neolithic or New Stone Age brought the nearly simultaneous adoption of several important cultural changes: a sedentary lifestyle, the domestication of plants and animals, and new styles of visual expression. The neolithic way of life arose seemingly independently in areas across the globe, and then spread extensively, roughly between 12,000 and 3000 BC (Scarre p. 191). The events of the Neolithic define to a large extent our contemporary cultural habits, not only in terms of architectural form, but also in terms of the binary opposition of man and nature that is implied in the act of domestication.
The Neolithic seems to have had its seminal moment in the Levant (the eastern Mediterranean), with the Natufian culture. Here, stone sickle blades and grinding stones indicate the harvesting of wild cereal. Relatively large villages of around 300 inhabitants appear for the first time. Natufian houses were some 4 meters in diameter, circular or oval in shape. They had a permanent nature, sunken into the ground. The paved floor had a hearth in the center; interior wooden posts presumably supported a thatched roof (Scarre p. 210). In terms of its roof construction, the Natufian house, like similar structures from neolithic Japan (Kazunori p. 129ff), foreshadows the archetypal farmhouse still in use today in large parts of the world. The roof-supporting posts of the Natufian houses have their counterpart in the "bent", the timber frame of contemporary barns.
Timber frame, Schraard, Friesland, 2014.
Three-nave farmhouse, Frisian (Fockema Andreae et al.)
From a European perspective, a line of ancestry can be traced back from the column-and-beam grid of modern architecture and the contemporary barn, through similar forms in Medieval times, Iron and Bronze Ages, to the longhouse of the Linear Pottery Culture. The Linear Pottery Culture spread northward along the forested rivers of Europe in the fifth millennium BC, originating from the Danube river plains. Riverside settlements consisted of a dozen elongated houses up to 60 meters long, boasting a dense grid of precisely spaced columns. The Danubian longhouses were uniformly oriented like compass needles, the entrances usually pointing to the south-east (Hodder p. 170). The elaborate oak timber houses were relocated every few years, perhaps disassembled and re-assembled, causing the village as a whole to slowly migrate in the course of its centuries-long existence (Bloemers p. 36). Some Danubian settlements are protected by circular enclosures consisting of a ditch, palisade and earthen wall. Such enclosures, echoes of the nomadic type, do not always contain houses. In such cases they may have functioned as cattle corrals or possessed " … conceptual and social functions to do with wider group definition" (Hodder p. 125). I see an artistic mind at work in the architecture of the Linear Pottery Culture, which was contemporary with the Ubaid culture of Mesopotamia. Also there, builders were manifesting an intricate, symmetrical architecture.
Linear Pottery Culture settlement (Coudart).
The quest for the origins of rectangular architecture points in a south-easterly direction, like indeed the Danubian longhouse does. Archeologists situate the emergence of rectilinear architecture around 9000 BC, along the Euphrates river in northern Syria, where important sites have been destroyed as a result of dam construction in the nineteen nineties (Stordeur p. 1). The site of Jerf el Ahmar provides a remarkable example of the "invention" of the rectangular floor plan, a metamorphosis that took several centuries to complete. The site consists of some sixty architectural units distributed over several levels. Danielle Stordeur gives the following description: "The first four [levels] have only produced round constructions (VII/E to IV/E). The three following have constructions with rectilinear interior walls and fairly straight exterior walls, articulated by large curving angles (III/E to I/E). In level O/E the first strictly rectangular constructions appear" (Stordeur p. 1).
Jacques Cauvin relates as follows: "One can see that in the Natufian house people used stones or wood merely to consolidate a pre-existing wall formed from the Earth itself where the house was dug into it, and then finally roofed the construction. The emergence of the house into the open air and its transition to a rectangular plan thus realise a technical and at the same time a mental linking [sic]. We must not forget that when rectangular architecture appeared at the end of the Mureybetian period, it had never before in any way existed in the world, but then it very rapidly became the archetype of the human house. In that way sedentary people left the hole of their origins and the circular matrix of their first homes" (Cauvin p. 132). Following the neolithic revolution, the rectangle becomes the standard form for utilitarian buildings. Roundness is reserved for sacred, communal or ceremonial structures rather than dwellings, as in the Linear Pottery enclosures, Stonehenge or indeed the Roman Pantheon, whose perforated dome is a powerful expression of the circular in relation to the sky.
Village I/East, Jerf el Ahmar (Stordeur).
Thus, in the habitation of the primitive peoples of the North American and North Asian Arctics we find a central post that is assimilated to the axis mundi, i.e., to the cosmic pillar or the world tree, which, as we saw, connect earth with heaven. In other words, cosmic symbolism is found in the very structure of the habitation (Eliade).
The rise of Homo sapiens in the Upper Paleolithic is associated with a proliferation of cultural output. Tools made of stone, bone, ivory and wood become extremely detailed in form, and varied in function. Most people are familiar with the "venus" figurines from this period, and famous paintings on cave walls. Domestication of animals, primarily the dog, is likely to have taken place in the Upper Paleolithic (Scarre p. 183). People lived in relatively small groups as food gatherers, hunters, and possibly herders. They (or "we") constructed mobile huts or tents with a circular plan, forerunners of contemporary nomadic dwellings.
Structural frames of nomadic dwellings (Levin & Potapov).
Ger interior, Zeeuws Vlaanderen, the Netherlands, 2017.
The campfire has been in the center of social life since the beginning of the time of man. Primordial man (Homo erectus) was already warming his body by the fire a good million years ago. Fire not only gave warmth and light, dried wet clothing, and cooked meat, but was also sacred and healing. It was the sun spirit or the heavenly fire that had taken up residence among the people. The ring of boulders that were placed around the fire were the original medicine wheel. The stone circle became the focus (in Latin, focus means fireplace) of the sacred. Later, in the Neolithic period, stone circles such as Stonehenge took on gigantic proportions (Müller-Ebeling et al.).
The first people to colonize Eurasia were presumably groups of Homo ergaster some 1.5 million years ago. It seems likely that the control of fire was what enabled them to colonize cooler regions, although unequivocal proof for hearths occurs not earlier than about 150,000 years ago, in the Middle Paleolithic, at cave sites belonging to Homo neandertalensis such as Le Lazaret in southern France (Scarre p. 115f). The fireplace was the magnetic point around which social life was organized. To be able to contain this force of nature, radiating warmth and light, surely impacted the psychology of ancient people in a major way. It was a game–changer in terms of self–confidence and power, relative to the often inhospitable and hostile environment. Intense communion with the radiant plasma of fire may have catalyzed the genesis of consciousness.
The fire is the place where the ideas come from (McKenna).
Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico, 2021.
Ucluelet, British Columbia, 2018.
Morvan, France, 2013.
The return to origins is part and parcel of architectural thought since time immemorial. When we can no longer see the forest for the trees, we quest for what is essential in building. The inescapable treatise on architectural origins, Joseph Rykwert's On Adam's House in Paradise, first published in 1972, is centered on the mythical notion of the "primitive hut" which is traced back to ancient sources: the writings of Vitruvius on the one hand and descriptions in the Old Testament on the other. The French protagonist of modern architecture, Le Corbusier, based his architectural creation myth on Scripture. Corbu's conception of primal architecture mirrors the description of the Tabernacle in the Desert: "Primitive man has halted his chariot: he has decided that here shall be his home ground. He chooses a clearing and cuts down the trees that crowd it in; he levels the ground about it; he makes a path to the stream or to the settlement of his fellow tribesmen which he has just left. … This path is as straight as his tools, his hands and his time will let him make it. The pegs of his tent describe a square, hexagon or octagon: the palisade [of the settlement] forms a rectangle whose four angles are equal. … The door of the hut opens on the axis of the enclosure, and the gate of the enclosure faces the doorway of the hut" (Rykwert p. 14f).
Rykwert concludes as follows: "In the present rethinking of why we build and what we build for, the primitive hut will, I suggest, retain its validity as a reminder of the original and therefore essential meaning of all building for people: that is, of architecture. It remains the underlying statement, the irreducible, intentional core, which I have attempted to show transformed through the tensions between various historical forces" (Rykwert p. 192). It is fascinating to note that Rykwert deliberately settles for the mythical brand of origin stories, emphatically rejecting an evidence–based treatment of the subject: "… since it is a notion which I wish to stalk, and not a thing, there would be no point in appealing to archeological evidence for its prehistory and origins. There cannot have existed a first house whose authenticity archeologists could certify. They could not even indicate where its site might have been located. To do this, as I have already suggested, they would have to find the Garden of Eden" (Rykwert p. 14). The one origin story Rykwert does not touch is that of evolution.
Everyday experience tells us that the rectangle is the default shape for the architectural plan. Efficiency demands it, how could it be otherwise? There was a time, however, when the rectangular plan was not yet conceived or, arguably, conceivable. For the longest stretch of prehistoric time, when small groups of people lived as hunters and gatherers, the round plan was the universal standard for nomadic dwellings (Cauvin p. 132).
Over the years, theorists have attempted to understand the history of architecture in evolutionary terms. The Banister Fletchers, in the early twentieth century, produced a naively eurocentric evolutionary tree of architecture. More recently Charles Jencks has mapped the permutations of twentieth century architecture in flowing diagrams expressive of a non-hierarchic sensibility. Jencks's diagrams omit the greater context of ancient history and the vernacular. In their emphasis on the bewildering proliferation of twentieth century movements, "the continual revolution", they promote a myopia, obscuring the search for universals (Jencks p. 350f).
Charles Jencks, evolutionary tree of twentieth century architecture (Jencks).
To better understand the controversies of cultural evolution it is necessary to enter the domain of archeology and anthropology. In those closely related fields, the popularity of evolutionary thinking has waxed and waned since the nineteenth century. Colin Renfrew gives the following synopsis of evolutionism in archeological thought: "… Lewis Henry Morgan's Ancient Society, published in 1877, offered a broad synthesis. He argued that human societies develop through stages from savagery and barbarism to civilisation, each following a similar pattern. His arguments had an impact upon the thinking of Karl Marx who developed coherent ideas on human development … The Marxist analysis in terms of modes of production could form a coherent basis for analysing technological and social developments within society, rather than depending on diffusionist and migrationist explanations, just as they were to inspire Gordon Childe in his formulation of the neolithic and urban revolutions" (Renfrew p. 28ff).
The currently prevailing postmodern sentiment in the humanities does not favour thinking in terms of universal principles. Evolutionism, and rationalism in general, tend to be viewed as tools of white male oppression. Comparative archeologist Bruce Trigger warns against dogmatism in the debate between rationalism and relativism: "The challenge is to stop simply supporting one or the other of these alternative positions in a partisan manner" (Trigger p. 11). Trigger's directness in stating his position is admirable: "I reject the suggestion that the idea of evolution as an approach to the study of human history is inherently and inescapably colonialist and racist" (Trigger p. 41).
In architecture, the problem with postmodern relativism is that, more often than not, architecture is reduced to a banal contest of originality. We do not see the forest for the trees. Writing in the nineteen sixties, in his work on the Japanese house, Heinrich Engel signals an "overemphasis on individual freedom" in the West (Engel p. 432). Moreover, architects have become increasingly marginalised in the face of pervasive industrial standardization of building components, unable to fulfil their role of integrating art and industry. Engel blames this inertia on the lack of a unifying philosophical substrate: " … the contemporary industrial society requires an integral concept that will coordinate its major formative forces, science and technique, as well as architecture and art, economy and politics" (Engel p. 482). Engel does not provide a full-wrought definition of the sort of philosophy he thinks could benefit contemporary architecture. His suggestions bear some ambiguity. On the one hand, Engel seems to argue for the continued dominance of scientific rationalism when he coins the term "intellectual style" (Engel p. 430). His frequent and uncritical use of the word "progress" suggests he was, at the time of writing, still firmly wedded to the paradigm of modernity. On the other hand, Engel stresses the importance of learning from Japanese culture: "Contemporary architecture is lacking any forceful spiritual idea or philosophical conception, and it is very well possible that in this ideological vacuum of the present the aesthetic-philosophical principles of Zen Buddhism, timeless and inclusive as they are, could provide the basis for a new morality in architecture" (Engel p. 375). Joining Engel in the search for a universal philosophy for contemporary architecture, I can't help but think that aspects of evolutionism can prove valuable even today.
The simple observation, made possible by archeology, that some forms generally emerge early, others late in the developmental sequences of societies is meaningful in and of itself. All societies find their ultimate origin in the hunter-gatherer life and the taming of fire (Trigger p. 41). The peasant village preceded the city/state without exception, even if a regression from statehood to more humble forms is not unheard of. When it comes to explaining the mechanisms behind cultural evolution, I think models of natural selection will not be adequate. It is my intuition that the evolution of architectural form reflects an autonomous inward process, a ripening of the human mind, proceeding with periods of relative stasis and sudden jumps, largely independent of environmental factors. Philosopher Jean Gebser (1905-1973) developed a model of historically successive "structures" or states of consciousness that, paradoxically, can also occur simultaneously insofar as the "integral structure" comes to fruition in the individual. The mental structure, which is active in the rationalistic outlook of modernity, tends to suppress more primal modes of awareness. The integral mind represents a breakthrough in which the qualities of all structures become simultaneously accessible to awareness. Gebser's body of evidence consists of many examples, mainly from art history. Although architecture is not his core subject matter, Gebser does present modern architecture as an important area for the emergence of the integral structure:
The new conception of space based on the new valuation of time has led to what is today called a "free plan". Le Corbusier took the initiative and was the first to apply the diagonal, and in particular the free and non-geometric curve in his buildings … Rigid and spatially fixed ground plans give way to those which are open, free, and moving … In purely physical terms, the new architecture no longer builds rigid, circumscribed spaces but spatio-temporal continua (Gebser p. 466f).
Writing just years after the end of World War II, Gebser was not naive to the catastrophic potential of a zealous belief in technological progress. He includes the following disclaimer:
The apparent succession of our mutations is less a biological evolution than an "unfolding", a notion which admits the participation of a spiritual reality in mutation. … progress is also a progression away, a distancing and withdrawal from something, namely, from origin. … Once more, it should be emphasized that we must remain suspicious of progress and its resultant misuse of technology (to the degree that we are dependent on it and not the reverse) … (Gebser p. 41).
To begin formulating a universal philosophy of architecture, I propose adapting Gebser's system to define five architectural types, each corresponding to an archeological era as well as one of Gebser's structures of consciousness. Each type is characterized by a particular use of form and material. Originally, archetypal shapes arose from the collective unconscious spontaneously, whenever their time had come. Now, this innocence is lost. We act in the knowledge that our use of elementary shapes reflects the deep structure of the mind.
|structure (Gebser)||archeological era||type||expression|
|archaic||lower/middle paleolithic||archaic||Archeological remains of hearths and burials are the earliest proof for place-making activities by early humans. Today, point-like elements such as fountains, fireplaces or single trees provide focal points for contemplation and conviviality while meandering walks facilitate revery.|
|magic||upper paleolithic||nomadic||Round tables, rooms and plazas facilitate celebration and community. Although circular elements are generally fixed parts within today's architecture, they refer to an early phase in cultural evolution when nomadic life was the norm. Appropriate materials are animal hides, textiles, thatch, bamboo, wood, wattle & daub, cob, lime plaster, paint.|
|mythical||neolithic||domestic||The transition from round to rectangular building shapes occurred simultaneously with the invention of agriculture and sedentary living. The default shape for the architectural plan, rectangular spaces are widely applicable. They are especially apt for practical uses: storage, offices, workshops. Typical materials are adobe, wattle & daub, brick, stone, timber, thatch, roof tiles.|
|mental||metal ages||monumental||Born from the accretion of domestic-type units in the earliest urban centers, pyramidal structures symbolise kingship and the hierarchic power structure of statehood. Rationalist planning is concomitant with an emphasis on symmetry and straight lines. Typical materials: brick, stone, concrete, metal roofing, plumbing.|
|integral||contemporary||integral||Although it may present as a distinct type, the integral is more aptly called a metatype. Rather than adding a new phenotypic layer in linear fashion, the integral metatype establishes relationships between elements belonging to the foundational types, archaic, nomadic, domestic and monumental. The asymmetrical plans of early modernists signal the arrival of the integral in architecture. Asymmetry was needed to tear apart the arrogant certainty of rational order, characteristic of the Enlightenment, and create room for an interest in the vernacular, the organic, and the subconscious. Traditional materials such as brick, earth and timber can be combined with industrial elements: glass, structural steel and electrical appliances.|
I dislike a sentimental antiquarian attitude towards the past as much as I dislike a sentimental technocratic one towards the future. Both are founded on a clockwork notion of time … So let's start with the past for a change and discover the unchanging condition of man in the light of change … (van Eyck).
Gebser gave us a balanced postmodernism that does not throw away the baby of rationalism with the relativist bathwater. His philosophy is about curtailing the dominance of rationalism in favour of an integral sensibility, cultivating the free flow of information between subconscious depth and mental surface. This is a challenge to which many artists and architects, under the banners of modernism and postmodernism alike, have already successfully risen. Still, contemporary architecture often seems stuck in a restless pursuit of novelty. According to Heinrich Engel, what is needed is the ability " … to incorporate an existing architectural form through post-interpretation into an existing framework of religion-philosophy and thereby essentially change its aesthetic meaning without necessarily altering its external shape" (Engel p. 482). The notion of post-interpretation is a useful one since it immediately makes clear that our priority lies not with the invention of new forms but rather, the re-valuation of what already exists. Integral design, founded on a Gebserian notion of architecture in evolution, will typically be indistinguishable, outwardly, from (post)modern design. However, the designer, armed with a new awareness of evolutionary context, understands that he is "merely" creating spatial arrangements of elements sampled from four foundational types, archaic, nomadic, domestic and monumental (with the arrangement itself constituting the integral metatype). Freed from the tyranny of novelty, the designer is also at liberty to produce works that are singular expressions of either the archaic (for instance the careful placement of a tree), the nomadic (constructing a temporary dome for a conference in a park), the domestic (renovating a nineteenth century barn) or the monumental type (re-creating an eighteenth century French formal garden). Such manifestations possess a timeless integrity, immune to the need for progressive improvement. In the evolution of biological life, bacteria preceded invertebrate animals, which in turn preceded vertebrates. The newly emerging forms of higher complexity never replace those of lower complexity, they are rather like embellishments placed on primeval foundations. Each level performs a unique and enduring role in the chain of being.
Leaving behind the functional demands of the Great Depression and the allure of Nazism, Philip Johnson in the late nineteen forties worked to reconcile modern architecture with a sense of monumentality. For Johnson, this meant a rehabilitation of the ornate (Frampton p. 240). The Glass House (designed 1945-48, New Canaan, Connecticut) became the embodiment of an eclectic, liberal approach that prefigured postmodernism.
The Glass House stylistically is a mixture of Mies van der Rohe, Malevich, the Parthenon, the English garden, the whole Romantic Movement, the asymmetry of the 19th century. In other words, all these things are mixed up in it but basically it is the last of the modern, in the sense of the historic way we treat modern architecture today, the simple cube (Johnson).
Johnson's emphasis on high-culture references and the splitting off of the Brick House, which came to accommodate the more mundane aspects of domestic life, makes one wonder about his esteem for earthly beginnings. In any case, the rectangular plan of the Glass House proper, as well as the brickwork elements, ultimately refer to the neolithic age and thus, the domestic type. We may choose to distance ourselves from it, but the formative influence of agricultural society is so deeply nested in us, it is impossible to evade. Having established the presence of the monumental ("the Parthenon") as well as the domestic type, recognizing the nomadic type in the roundness of the brick fireplace/bathroom is straightforward. The archaic element of the fireplace is fused with the nomadic in a natural way. Here, Johnson acknowledges the primitive in a deliberate manner, even invoking the instinctive behaviour of a dog, like a latter-day Cynic:
… the closet into the bedroom makes one plane, the kitchen makes another, both of them anchored by the circular bathroom. That gives you an anchor from which the others radiate. … you can sit down on the central area, which is a rug, which is also in front of the fire, which is the aim of any house. When you enter a house, you, metaphorically you sniff like a dog, and sniffing the way a dog finds his place to sit down is to go round and round until he finds the epicenter of comfort and then curls up (Johnson).
I view the Glass House as a landmark example of the integral metatype. The symmetry of the elevation refers to the Greek temple, epitome of the monumental. But the incorporation of the umbilical brick hearth in the asymmetrical composition of the floor plan constitutes a whole that addresses mind as well as organism.
Glass House, plan (The Glass House).
Glass House, view from east (Pedro E. Guerrero/Edward Cella Art & Architecture).
In Le Corbusier's Maison de Week-end (1934, La Celle-Saint-Cloud, France) the fireplace, like in the Glass House, takes up a central position and is rendered in fair-faced brick. In contrast to the cylinder shape employed in the Glass House, however, the hearth in Maison de Week-end is given a rectangular volume, parallel to the rectilinear volume of the house, leaving the centerless extension of the asymmetric plan uninterrupted. Le Corbusier's house embraces a large evergreen tree on its west side. The tree is integrated in an earthen slope which itself forms the connection between the landscape and the green roof. I regard the tree as a point-like, anchoring element representing the archaic type, perhaps compensating for the partial denial of a center inside. The archaic type is also evident in the amoeba-shaped garden path.
During the first two decades of his career, Le Corbusier was still engaged in an oscillation between mind and body, simply put. Take for instance his changing attitudes to straight versus curved roads. In 1910, the young architect praises the erratic movements of a pack-donkey traversing a hill (Jencks p. 63). Just one year later, he reverts back to a classical puritan position: "I am possessed of the color white, the cube, the sphere, the cylinder, and the pyramid ... straight roads, no ornament" (Jencks p.88). In his mature style, Le Corbusier was able to bring the opposing categories to a synthesis. In the words of Charles Jencks: " … his architecture starts to shift from the white machine aesthetic toward a hybrid, rough mode that combines crude hand-built masonry and factory-built systems … Instead of white machines for living … he produces mud huts with grass roofs … curved cities based on the meander of rivers and the thighs of women … LC becomes a Post-Modernist before the fact, a nascent eco-hippy, building regional and contextual objects that are poems to nature-worship" (Jencks p. 188f).
"Post-modernist", "eco-hippy", "nature worship", there are many possible ways to frame the importance of Le Corbusier's hybrid style. Taking Gebser's philosophy as the point of departure, I would argue that Le Corbusier embodied the integral spirit that emerged from the growing scepticism towards technological progress typical of the mid-twentieth century. Le Corbusier conducted his experiments almost a full century ago. I do feel, however, that we have yet to fully realise the implications of these works for the twenty first century.
Maison de Week-end, plan (Fondation Le Corbusier).
Maison de Week-end, interior (Fondation Le Corbusier).
Maison de Week-end, view from southwest (Fondation Le Corbusier).
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Yoffee, Norman, Myths of the Archaic State: Evolution of the Earliest Cities, States and Civilizations, Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Silvan Laan is a designer, schooled in Amsterdam in the modernist tradition. He is also an avid birdwatcher. Currently based in Tennessee, Silvan Laan provides consultancy and architectural design services to private and public entities.
email: silvan dot laan at xs4all dot nl