My first application of heuretics to historical analysis focused on the work and legacy of the architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965). One of the founders of heroic International Modernism, Le Corbusier designed hundreds of buildings (more than 70 of which were built) and published 47 books (not including monographs of his oeuvre), numerous articles, furnishings, exhibits, and was a prolific painter under his given name Charles-Édouard Jeanneret. This personal oeuvre, in addition to the hundreds of publications written about his his life and work, make Le Corbusier one of the most recognizable figures in the history of architecture, even amongst non-architects. And, like the other members of his early twentieth century avant-garde milieu, Le Corbusier was constantly engaging in method experiments.
The Modernists in particular were attempting to engage new media and physical materials to produce new ways of working that were not to be found in any historical precedents. Greek temples, gothic cathedrals, monuments from the vast material history of human culture can offer lessons in line and form, light and shadow, and guide us in the use of traditional materials such as stone, timber, brick and earth, but they can tell us little directly of how to use steel, huge panes of glass, and reinforced concrete to make buildings. When these industrial materials became widely available for construction in the late nineteenth century, completely new possibilities were opened in how architects and engineers could conceive of space and structure, but no one had an extant way of working to apply these possibilities to design and construction. Methodological experiments were needed to test new design languages appropriate for industrial materials. Modern-ism, like any “ism”, is not a style; it is a way of working/making – a way of making modernity. Modernism is a method. Each work produced by the early twentieth century avant-gardes, in every medium upon which industrial technologies effected change, exists as more than just a completed object: it is the index and direct result of a methodological experiment. Evaluating these works as objects misses so much of their usefulness, and so much of the value they embody for posterity.