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Le Corbusier's WHEN THE CATHEDRALS WERE WHITE as Invention Experiment

CYBER-HISTORY: Applied Heuretics; Section 4 - Cyber-history Applied: CATTt Analysis of Le Corbusier's When the Cathedrals Were White, Part 1

Le Corbusier’s When the Cathedrals were White (Le Corbusier 1964a) is a highly subjective account of the author’s experiences during a lecture tour of the U.S. in 1935. This unusual publication features many elements that pose a problem for those who wish to follow Le Corbusier in attempts to unravel the significance of the architect’s experiences and their formative influence upon his work. While offering a glimpse of how Le Corbusier utilized occurrences and events from his surrounding milieu—analyzing and transforming them into valuable information for the creation of subsequent works—Cathedrals confounds the hermeneutic project of attaching meaning and value to the author’s account. Corbu’s text takes on many formats in this publication, a journalesque narrative riddled with nebulous personal psychology, stereotypes and historical inaccuracies. These characteristics indicate the usefulness of analysis that is not based on hermeneutics (the logic of interpretation) but rather utilizes a logic capable of working with the creative process of invention: heuretics.

Cathedrals is frequently relegated to the margins of studies of Corbu’s publications as an aberrant document which seems to pose more problems than offering any coherent understanding of the architect’s work. A heuretic analysis based on the logic of invention could unlock and explain the presence of personal idiosyncrasies in the work and provide a rigorous structure that can be placed at the liminal zone between experience and creative production.

Reading the multifarious entries that comprise Cathedrals as the result of heuretic production, and searching the urban and social content for the generative components of Le Corbusier’s urbanisms, a consistent structure for the work begins to emerge: the text can be read as a presentation of ecstatic moments that affect Corbu in a personal manner and offer him some bit of guidance by creating popcycle adjacencies. These events that Corbu called ‘Radiant Moments’ form his relationship with the yet to come Second Machine Age. The ‘radiant moments’ are Le Corbusier’s way of understanding the unknown space so fervently sought through his modernisms: the space of the Radiant City. It is not surprising then that Le Corbusier identifies and explains the nature of these affective events in the clearest and most complete exposition of his modern urbanisms, The Radiant City, the publication presenting the material covered during his North American lectures and the MoMA exhibit:

When man is torn from his state of inertia, thrust into new undertakings, swept up in a wave of initiative, bound to the prow of some new development that is hurtling forward like an avalanche, ever faster, ever vaster (consequences engendering consequences—the snowball effect), then he rises to sublimity. He finds himself in the position to. . . . He becomes capable of fulfilling these new responsibilities. He has become foresighted, a demiurge; he succeeds, he triumphs. What dazzling and radiant moments [emphasis added], what treasurable instants those are, however fleeting, when the lightning flashes out before us, our certain guide! And when that vision is followed by a full awareness of its meaning, then a new stage has been reached. (Le Corbusier 1964, 129)

Cathedrals as an opportunity for rigorous CATTt analysis

When the Cathedrals were White is a text that is particularly well-suited for heuretic analysis because its contents are positioned between the format of an argumentative essay (Le Corbusier’s publications usually feature an argumentative component serving the function of validation) and a personal narrative/anecdotal structure. While this anecdotal format is a common appearance in Corbu’s published oeuvre, the pervasive use of personal narrative in Cathedrals, because of its focus on urbanism, places the work in a unique position to offer posterity documentation of the processes of invention for Le Corbusier’s urbanisms. The appearance of argument and anecdote in Cathedrals also makes the work reveal its likeness to the avant-garde manifesto, the format that serves as Ulmer’s vehicle for explicating and enacting heuretic analysis. André Breton’s 1924 Surrealist Manifesto serves Ulmer as a relay, or an example of how to appropriate a theory for the design of a method. Understood as a combination of narrative and argumentative essay formats, the manifesto is taken as belonging to the tradition of the discourse on method (Ulmer 1994, 4-8). When the Cathedrals were White can be placed within this tradition, especially as a component of Corbu’s published works considered in their entirety as a collection that seems to work in successive steps toward the development of a new discourse on method for the production of a new architecture, a new urbanism, and a new contemporary society. Cathedrals, as a component of Le Corbusier’s discourse of modernism, documents generative moments in the production of a method which could, in Corbu’s mind, bring about the Second Machine Age.

The Cathedrals CATTtastrophe

Heuretic analysis of Le Corbusier’s work would attempt to yield the CATTt Generator components used to create his method for reaching the Second Machine Age. When the Cathedrals were White offers up Corbu’s process of finding bits of his milieu which can be plugged into the CATTt as his manner of producing a method. The ‘radiant moments’ recounted in Cathedrals feature a specific application of the CATTt, which Le Corbusier uses to guide the development of his method. Contrast is an instigator for tension and movement; Corbu uses the contrast function quite explicitly in his construction of the ‘atmospheres’ that open the text (Le Corbusier 1964, Part 1). The atmospheres contrast various aspects of life in France and the United States, the presence or lack of advertising at sporting events for example (ibid, Part 1, Part 2: ‘The decadence of the spirit,’ ‘Money’). The contrasting bits of information seem to attempt to position or tune the reader into a position that replicates Corbu’s own point of view. This function of the Contrast component indicates a spatialization of the CATTt Generator’s processes: a topology best illustrated by the ‘cusp catastrophe’.

Catastrophe theory, developed by Rene Thom, is a qualitative mathematics that seeks stable and continuous topological surfaces upon which discontinuous phenomena can be mapped. The cusp is the simplest of the catastrophes, and is frequently utilized to aid in describing discontinuous transformations and changes in all manner of systems, like energy fluctuations exhibited in the phase changes of H2O molecules. The catastrophe surface is a description of a system’s minimal potential. It maps the system’s tendency to move toward a local minimum state. The cusp forms when a system exhibits two possible local minima in an area of possible states. The ‘jump’ that occurs in the domain of the cusp fold is the sudden switch of the system’s minimum condition from one local minimum to the other, producing a discontinuous change in the system’s tendency toward a certain set of conditions (Woodcock & Davis 1978, 33).

Le Corbusier’s ‘radiant moments’ are examples of a complex phenomenon describable by the cusp surface. What catastrophe theory offers to the understanding of Corbu’s creative processes is a spatial description of heuretic activity, the functions of the CATTt components become fine-tuned to describe the production of a modern method in architecture and urbanism. Contrast determines the characteristics of each domain of the catastrophe surface—an existing set of conditions governed by one attractor (point e in Figure 1), which we could say represents the present—and the domain of a second attractor which governs a different set of relationships between conditions common across all domains of the surface (point c in Figure 1). The inventor/creator can only gain knowledge about the domain of point c with information obtained from the present conditions: the domain of e. Momentary glimpses of point c’s domain can be obtained by certain chance changes in present conditions, but the behavior of the system seems to revert quickly back to the present (e). These glimpses are the ‘radiant moments’ experienced by the individual situated properly within the catastrophe topology. The other components of the CATTt serve to develop a better understanding of the system’s overall characteristics and knowledge of how to move definitively from point e and the present attractor conditions to point c and stabilize the system’s behavior to remain in the domain of the second attractor. Analogy describes the movement from point e to point c as being similar to a trajectory studied from another field; Theory attests to the existence and possible stability of the hypothetical domain (c); the Target configures the behavior surface to include pertinent information; and the tale gives the system a communicative form. The catastrophe movement of Corbu’s ‘radiant moments’ will gain specificity when illustrated by key examples from When the Cathedrals were White in the next post.

Heuretics & Cyber-history

In the Design Studio

The Fairy CATTtastrophe


  • Le Corbusier. 1964. The Radiant City. Derek Coltman, trans. The Orion Press: New York.

  • Le Corbusier. 1964a. When the Cathedrals were White. F. E. Hyslop, Jr. trans. McGraw-Hill Book Co.: New York.

  • Ulmer, G. 1994. Heuretics: The Logic of Invention. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.

  • Woodcock, A. & M. Davis. 1978. Catastrophe Theory. E. P. Dutton: New York.

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