CATTt Analysis of Le Corbusier's VERS UNE ARCHITECTURE

CYBER-HISTORY: Applied Heuretics; Section 5 - Cyber-history Applied: CATTt Analysis of Le Corbusier's Vers une architecture

The CATTt Generator is a heuristic device that takes identified common resources from the careers of innovators across the spectrum of arts and sciences and configures them as an intertextual matrix that syncretizes the resources into an emergent poetics. The major or most likely components of Le Corbusier’s CATTt can be identified in his publications, forming a set that provided the primary raw materials operative in his inventive activities. Most of these materials have already been sought out by Le Corbusier scholars and architectural historians looking for Corbu’s precedents. Where this literature has had the most trouble is in describing how precedents known to be important to Le Corbusier were used as inventive material in the construction of something new. Identifying some of the material components and describing their syncretic union into poetic images can help to find how Corbu’s inventive processes unfolded.


The result of the CATTt generation is a new poetics, a way of working/making, or a method. So, Le Corbusier’s CATTt would simulate his construction of a new method. To find the appropriate components, we should select a method to analyze. Corbu is most frequently identified with his modernism, as he was a major proponent and disseminator of a way of making modernity. A large part of Le Corbusier’s legacy is his urbanism, a way of making the modern city. Both were extremely influential in twentieth century architecture, although Corbu’s urbanism is widely considered unsuccessful due to problems that urban development practices influenced by his publications have encountered in the decades since his death.

It is best to view Le Corbusier’s modernism as trans-scalar and not as a method for producing isolated architectural objects. His abstract villas of the 1920s brought fame and served as examples of Corbusian modernism. Even though Le Corbusier found greater success in completing isolated, object-projects, the method that was his modernism was not confined to the scale of a single private lot, but rather covered the whole of society. That being said, for clarity’s sake, the publication we will analyze here, Vers une architecture (Le Corbusier 1986), can be broken into different scales of application and explanation. The author never allows the scales of architecture and urbanism to separate completely, but they are distinct enough to be identifiable and have slightly different precedent component materials.

Contrast component

Beginning with a component that demonstrates some of the complexities of deriving CATTt components through analysis, Le Corbusier’s Contrast in Vers is Beaux-Arts academic architecture. It is easiest for us, as it was for Corbu, to point to the ‘academy’ as a source of contrast instead of saying specifically what about it was found to be so egregious. The title ‘academy’ is a heterogeneous image encompassing a vast array of method, aesthetics, and values, some of which might be individually useful and incorporated into the new poetics sought. But, the image of the Beaux-Arts and the kind of architecture it generally produced was an adequate contrast, having more polemical power than the more specific methodological contrast used: what we might call academic conservative historical stylistics. We would need to debate and discuss exactly what to call this source of contrast and what is included under the title, but it was enough for Le Corbusier to point a discursive finger at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts projects and say ‘No—not that’.

Corbu calls this image by name and he gives a succinct description of some of its primary attributes:

In a great public institution, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the principles of good planning have been studied, and then as time has gone by, dogmas have been established, and recipes and tricks. A method of teaching useful enough at the beginning has become a dangerous practice. To represent the inner meaning certain hallowed external signs and aspects have been fixed. The plan, which is really a cluster of ideas and of the intention essential to this cluster of ideas, has become a piece of paper on which black marks for the walls and lines for axes play at a sort of mosaic on a decorative panel making graphic representations of star-patterns, creating an optical illusion The most beautiful star becomes the Grand Prix de Rome. (ibid, 179-80)

Certainly, this is an oversimplification of the pedagogy in practice at the Ecole, but the characterization, the ‘Beaux-Arts image’, is invoked as a definitive point of contrast for an effective architectural design methodology. This contrast would later become the focus of an entire book, Croisade ou le Crepuscule des Académies (Le Corbusier 1933).

Analogy component

The analogy most operative in this early manifesto went on to attain an iconic status representing the paradigm of architectural modernism for many of its supporters and most vehement critics: ‘The Machine’. What became known as ‘the machine aesthetic’ was as methodological as visual, although its critics preferred to focus on the purely aesthetic content of the machine analogy. In the machine analogy or relay, the design methods employed by contemporary engineers in the production of modern technological marvels and infrastructural elements inform the manner that architecture and furnishing, even cities, should be designed.

Famous examples of machinic methodological examples from Vers include ocean-liners, automobiles, agricultural silos, bridges and airplanes. In the early years of the twentieth century, the idea that these increasingly quotidian features of urban life had an image or aesthetic at all was somewhat inventive, as they were designed by the dictates of function, with appearance mattering far less than it generally would in architecture or the trends dictating interior fit, finish, and furnishings. These mechanisms also had yet to spawn a native culture specific to their way of working on or in the world, a task that the Italian Futurists took to hand around the same time Le Corbusier was formulating his modernism.

It was precisely the methodological precision and idiosyncrasy of modern, engineered constructions that Le Corbusier sought to use as a relay for architecture: traditionally valued forms, configurations and construction techniques used in architectural designs were rarely the object of methodological critique in the same way that that were in industrial design applications. A great deal could be learned in turning construction into an industry and viewing the house as a machine for living and a candidate for mass-production techniques.

Theory component

The theory that informs Vers and grants it legibility within a discourse is a more difficult component to pinpoint because the name of the component might lead our analysis astray. What is meant by ‘theory’ as a component of the CATTt generator involves a terminological repetition brought about from conceptual isotropy:

In each case the theorist generates a new theory based on the authority of another theorist whose argument is accepted as a literal rather than a figurative analogy. The new theory will include on one register a literal repetition of a prior theory, modified, of course, by its interacting with the other elements of the CATTt. (Ulmer 1994, 9)

So, what kind of theory applies for application of the CATTt to Le Corbusier’s modernism?

In Ulmer’s terms, the theorist is searching for an already accepted theory for the production of a new theory. So, for Le Corbusier and our analysis of Vers, we can replace the word ‘theory’ with ‘architecture’ and ‘theorist’ with ‘architect’. Now, instead of looking for a theory per se, we are looking for an accepted architectural precedent used to lend believability to this new architecture toward which Corbu is taking us. It is easy to find, but like the entries for the Contrast and Analogy components, the Theory is best understood as a heterogeneous image constructed of a variety of precedents. The simplest component is found in the work of the Perret Brothers, for whom Le Corbusier served as an apprentice in Paris. However, the Perrets’ practice does not appear explicitly in Vers, so while historians studying Le Corbusier’s education invariably discuss his time at the Perret studio and the close mentor-apprentice relationship he had with Auguste Perret, Corbu does not seek architectural acceptance through reference to the Perret’s design precedents that use reinforced concrete in non-industrial building projects as a proof of the wide architectural applicability of modern construction techniques presented in in the text. Le Corbusier made his technique of persuasion rather complicated, possibly sacrificing a sense of architectural imminence for the method actually discussed in Vers. He leaves design applications of modern techniques and materials to engineers, showing iconic examples like Eiffel’s Pont de Garabit and the Fiat factory in Turin (Le Corbusier 1986, 9; 287), as well as many anonymous factories, hangars and grain elevators. In an egotistical move, the brunt of the contemporary architectural precedents is pulled from Le Corbusier’s own work. This was characteristic of Corbu’s inventive practices, as he was always presented as his own best example and assumed that his works would provide didactic guidance, dispel doubts, and answer any questions succinctly and completely if the receiver was paying attention. Thus, the most clearly identifiable abstract architectural proposition (or theory) Le Corbusier presents in Vers is the Maison Dom-Ino, appearing as a marginal diagram on pages 230 and 234 to supplement his own design drawings offered as applications of the concept.

Another component of Le Corbusier’s theory is his use of classical proportions as a guide to derive proper and pleasing forms in architecture. Here his best examples are not contemporary or industrial, but accepted historical precedents from Classical Greece, Gothic and Renaissance buildings. The Acropolis and some of its monumental constructions, especially the Parthenon, receive a great deal of attention, and regulating lines describing the ‘golden section’ are traced over the facades of Notre Dame and the Petite Trianon in Versailles (ibid, 77; 79). Le Corbusier’s own designs serve to lend gravity here as well, with regulating lines shown to govern the production of ‘modern’ building forms without recourse to ‘style’ (ibid, 80-83).

Target and tale/tail component

The Target or audience of Vers, as with most of Le Corbusier’s publications, lacked a sense of appropriate scale that might lend a certain precision to his discourse, but it certainly was clear: the whole of humanity and all of posterity were the focus of his persuasions. While Corbu’s desire to reach and influence all of humanity should be taken seriously as a component of his Target-image, for Vers architects are the focus group. This is evidenced by the section titled ‘Three Reminders to Architects’. This book is not just about architecture, it is for architects.

The Target audience dovetails with the tale of Vers because its format is a manifesto, a public declaration of intentions, opinions and objectives. More specifically, Vers could be considered a projective manifesto aimed not only at enlarging the group of practitioners ascribing to its tenets, but geared toward constructing such a group. The contents of Vers had previously been published as articles in the journal L’Esprit Nouveau, edited by Le Corbusier. The contributors and list of subscribers to L’Esprit were already more or less aligned with the manifesto’s directives, or at least familiar with its tenets. Corbu compiled these articles as a single expression in 1923 to gain a larger audience and find greater effect in the field of architectural practice. If a new architectural method was the goal, dissemination and propagation of that method to practitioners was essential.

Urban-ism: CATTt Generator for a Modern urban method in Vers

Urbanism is a subset of Le Corbusier’s modernism. The contemporary industrial society that produces buildings using the modern method will approach the organization and planning of its cities using the same method. Scale does bring important changes to the operative components for conceiving this method, and some of the differences in the urban CATTt are telling, and make the argument for the modern method’s application at different scales more acceptable to the contemporary reader. Le Corbusier was sensitive to these conceptual differences and carried them through to the final presentation of Vers.

The Target and tale will be the same because we are still examining Vers. But Le Corbusier offers a clear theoretical precedent while discussing the deployment of modernism’s principles at the town-scale: Tony Garnier’s Cité Industrielle (ibid, 53-55). He is critical of many aspects of Garnier’s scheme, finding that Garnier does not entertain possibilities that modernism could bring for the reorganization of society and property for example (ibid, 53). But the deployment of order in the Cité is consistent: open green spaces are abundant, and traffic organization has been considered. Of course, Le Corbusier’s own urban schemes serve as examples in greater abundance than Garnier’s, but the precedent has been identified as distinct from the Theory components used to model modernism at smaller scales.

The Contrast used at the urban scale is the contemporary industrial city. An illustration and its caption makes this Contrast literal, becoming a means of describing the character of the new city:


This section shows on the left how dust, smells and noise stifle our towns of to-day. The towers, on the other hand [on the right], are far removed from all this and set in clean air amidst trees and grass. (ibid, 56)

The contrast is not only formal, it is also methodological. The method of contemporary urban problem-solving was comparable to triage at best: in the modern urbanism, problems of the city, its form and functions are derived from deliberate planning.

The House-Machine as syncretic object

We now have some ideas of the individually identifiable precedent components of the CATTt that generated the modernism in Vers une architecture, but the components must be combined in order to produce something new. The best way to describe the transformation that occurs in the union of the components is syncretism, and the result is an emergent poetics. Thus, if our reading of Vers was not strictly analytical, we would see its contents as syncretic hybrids of the CATTt components. Some of the most lasting and confounding images from Vers involved multiple components in their genesis, increasing their affective capacity.

The House-Machine:

A house is a machine for living in. (ibid, 95)

If we eliminate from our heart and minds all dead concepts in regard to the houses and look at the question from a critical and objective point of view, we shall arrive at the ‘House-Machine,’ the mass-production house, healthy (and morally so too) and beautiful in the same way that the working tools and instruments which accompany our existence are beautiful. (ibid, 227)

The House-Machine is a source of confusion because it is both and neither: both the elements of house and machine have been changed through their union. The precedent machine is used analogically to take advantage of the critique of form with function and efficiency in industrial design. This method-image is itself augmented in the relay, as it is seen also to be the pursuit of an aesthetic: the hidden yet seductive beauty of the machine. The reason for unifying house and machine is also to transform the house-image, seen as inefficient and archaic. The machine relay is plugged-in specifically to these aspects of the house-mage deemed problematic for contemporary use.

The unpredictability of such a union has a great deal to do with the conductive capacities of the resulting image. In this case, House-Machine, an efficiently designed and constructed house ready for mass-production, had a flat roof: in the critical machine-relay, pitched roofs were seen as a waste of material and were unsightly when replicated in number, while a flat surface solved these issues and also provided occupiable space above the noise of the street in the open air and sunlight. The result is that not only does House-Machine evoke an ocean-liner (one of its precedent images, the controlled maintenance of which is recorded in Le Corbusier’s extensive use of exterior and interior views of ocean liners to describe the character of his modern construction), but also a Kasbah, an association that the Nazis were more than willing to point out after finding the famous modern Weissenhofsiedling housing development in Stuttgart— featuring buildings by many great modern architects including Le Corbusier—decidedly ‘un-German’. The flat roof and taut white wall surfaces had never led to xenophobic cultural associations when seen on an ocean-liner, but the House-Machine included culturally significant materials very different from those of sea-going vessels.

One must remember that a culture native to modernity was still a hypothesis in the early twentieth century, something being sought as an outcome of the poetics being synthesized simultaneously by modernists, futurists, and constructivists around the world. When combined with the associations of ‘home’, the machine and home suddenly became linked to other cultures, and the receiver-viewers became sensitive to the nomadic aspects of ocean-liners, airplanes and cars, allowing for a syncretic Bedouin culture to emerge within the native condition of industrial modernity.

The emergent nature of the modernism that Le Corbusier produced through combining his precedents is supported by the subsequent interest and attention he gave to all manner of cultural materials. While nomadic tent encampments of ‘primitive man’ are discussed at length in Vers (ibid, 69-72), the more permanent urban forms of desert cultures are not mentioned. It seems that the cultural reactions to modernism inspired Corbu to seek and represent cultural precedents, which appear in increasing number and variety in later publications. In his book Urbanism, published two years after Vers une architecture, Le Corbusier makes an allusion to the syncretic cultural material of modernity in showing a Bedouin ‘Nomads’ Camp’ (Le Corbusier 1947, 44). Great strides are made a few years later in the representation of cultural precedents as a component of the House-Machine when, in La Ville Radieuse (Le Corbusier 1935), Corbu included a drawing of The Kaaba in Mecca that highlights the forms of the surrounding buildings in the distance, and a discussion of the Casbah with diagrams and description of the traditional occupation of the roof-plane in support of his Plan for the City of Algiers (Le Corbusier 1964, 226-35). The Algerian project and his visits to North Africa led to an immediate interest in Arab urban forms, and entire spreads showing the similarities between aspects of Corbusian modernism and the architecture of the Casbah, both in Algeria and the more general form of the walled citadel town and old city centers in north Africa. By Maniere De Penser L’Urbanisme in 1946, the presentation of this cultural material had attained the level of an abstraction, for what was previously linked directly to the explication of an Algerian project here became a component of modernism’s ‘Application and Plans’ (Le Corbusier 1971, 122-3). The Kasbah has moved from the status of accident of poetic synthesis to be embraced as a key component of the poetics of modernism.

Another famous syncretic image from Vers une architecture is the Temple-Machine. In the section ‘Eyes That Do Not See’, the chapter ‘Automobiles’ is about both automobiles and classical Greek temples. The visual conduction between images of ocean-liners, modern houses and Arab architecture that the Nazis wasted no time in finding is attempted in this chapter’s representations, even though the conductive image relationship is not visual. Le Corbusier, in famous spreads on pages 134 and 135, simultaneously shows pictures of automobiles and the Parthenon and temple at Paestum, with construction dates for each and a text about the continual struggle to establish paradigmatic standards.

What the Temple-Machine indicates is that the components obtained through CATTt analysis find their poetic potential only in their experimental union, and reminds us what was repeatedly found during the analysis: that even the isolated components of the CATTt are heterogeneous image-assemblages. Temple-Machine demonstrates that syncretism is at work in the construction of individual components of the CATTt: the Analogy that Le Corbusier used as a relay for his method is in fact the Standard-Temple-Machine. He indicates that we should not make a modern architecture in the way the Greeks made temples, or the way Delage makes a car, but in the way human beings make the standard, guiding forms of temples and cars. The only way he could come to see this relay was through the haphazard union obtained via conductive relations between images, a relation that he attempted to re-present in Vers.

< Section 4, Part 2

The Fairy CATTtastrophe

Section 6 >

Le Corbusier's Poème de l'angle droit

as Widesite


  • Le Corbusier. 1933. Croisade ou le Crepuscule des Académies. Éditions Crès, Collection de "L'Esprit Nouveau": Paris

  • Le Corbusier. 1935. La Ville Radieuse. Éditions de l’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui: Boulogne-sur-Seine.

  • Le Corbusier. 1947. The City of To-morrow and Its Planning. Frederick Etchells, trans. The Architectural Press: London.

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

  • Le Corbusier. 1971. Looking at City Planning. Eleanor Levieux, trans. Grossman Publishers: New York.

  • Le Corbusier. 1986. Toward a New Architecture. Frederick Etchells, trans. Cover Publications: New York.

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

#lecorbusier #catttanalysis #heuretics #syncresis

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