CYBER-HISTORY: Applied Heuretics; Section 6 - Cyber-history Applied: Le Corbusier's Poème de l'angle droit as Widesite

Moving on from using the CATTt Generator analytically to articulate method experiments in Le Corbusier’s publications, we can shift to the larger scale of the architect’s life and career using the widesite. Late in his career, Le Corbusier published an image compendium called The Poem of the Right Angle. We will proceed with our application of heuretics to historical analysis through an explanation of Le Corbusier’s Poème de l’angle droit as an example of a widesite, stuffed full of images of wide scope and assembled since early childhood for the purposes of inventive reasoning. At this point, it should be sufficient to identify some of the figural contents of the Poème as images of wide scope and begin to show that Le Corbusier himself, while unaware of the terminology deployed here, was aware of what a set of such images is and how it works.

WIDESITE ANALYSIS Conductive inference and image relation Wide images are constructed and related to one another in a widesite using conductive inference. Conductive logic supplements three other movements of inference: deduction, where the truth of a conclusion follows from the truth of the premises; induction, where inference provides a reasoned movement from specific facts to a general conclusion, very useful in the construction of theories; abduction, where unrelated facts are thought to be somehow related, a hunch prior to induction or deduction. Abduction, deduction and induction describe movements of inference between things and ideas, while conduction recognizes a movement directly between things (Ulmer 1994, 127). These things related by conduction must already be in the mind to be recognized and for the movement to occur.

Conductive reasoning is radically different from other modes of inference in that the movement it describes, from thing to thing, is precisely the relationship obtained. Even abductive inference, a ‘hunch’ that disparate facts are related, implies that the actual relationship is hidden and is only indicated through the abduction. Inductive inference performs a similar temporary scaffolding, this time between scales; the relationship between specific facts and a general conclusion is posited, even if the actual relationship is as of yet unknown. In conductive inference, the movement obtained by correspondence is the relationship described. This is the manner in which images are brought into relation: ‘conduction puts into logic the aesthetic operations of images (word and picture). [It] is the inference proper to images’ (Ulmer 2003, 10).

Because the figures deployed in the Poem of the Right Angle are so multifarious, perhaps the most effective way to go about decoding some of the core components of Le Corbusier’s widesite would be to identify a few elements that are seen to recur throughout his career, starting from a rather young age. Three such figures are: the raven or crow, the glacier, or the variegated phases and forms of water, and the unusual physical form of Le Corbusier’s hands. This brief list does not represent the most interesting or even most essential components of either the Poème or Corbu’s widesite. It merely serves to test the hypotheses presented, that the Poem of the Right Angle is an example of Le Corbusier’s widesite, and staging the opportunity for future analyses. Image 1—The Raven, The Crow A more accurate title for this recurrent figure in Le Corbusier’s work would be something like the ‘Dark Bird,’ because many different varieties of bird emerge in his drawings and paintings from early adulthood, and he began to consciously identify himself with these creatures early in life. A crow-like figure does appear in the Poème, but it is vague and can easily be missed. In the Iconostase of the Poème there is an identifiable bird-man/woman as the right-hand figure of panel E.2. This bird-person appears against a swathe of red and has a blue head with a beak-like nose. This may seem a trifling detail, but given the overwhelming amount of bird-person representation in Le Corbusier’s work, his choice of face structure here in E.2 of the Poème is significant. Also, if we eschew species limitations by naming this figure the Dark Bird, we can include the much more prominent owl emblem displayed on panel B.3 as another instance of its appearance in the Poème. Other dark bird species appear throughout Le Corbusier’s works, vying for attention as part of a similar representational image along with the most famous representations of the crow.

The crow was chosen by Le Corbusier as a self-identifying image, one component of his pseudonym, formed from the words ‘corbeau’ and the name of an ancestor, Lecorbesier (Weber 2008, 178). The French corbeau can mean a large crow, a raven, a rook, a black coat (which would make its wearer resemble one of these dark birds), a priest (who would wear such a coat), a corbel, or the writer of poison-pen letters (‘Corbeau’, Harper Collins). All of these associative meanings were operative when Charles-Édouard Jeanneret first began using this new moniker in the pages of his periodical L’Esprit Nouveau in 1920 (Weber 2008, 178-9). And before the crow/raven/rook portmanteau took hold of Jeanneret’s mind, he presented another bird of darkness as an avatar, identifying himself as a great condor perched high and aloof on a mountain pinnacle on a Christmas postcard to his parents in 1909 (ibid, 70).

The bird-figure of E.2 has been identified as a priest in a detailed analysis of the alchemical content of the Poème’s symbology. James Splawn explaines the raven’s meaning in alchemical traditions, signifying nigredo, a state of primordial blackness evocative of putrification, dissolution and death in a stage of passage to a higher state of being (Splawn 1990, 75). In B.3, the owl is identified by Splawn’s analysis as a symbol of knowledge, combining powers of procreation and wisdom to forge a new force (ibid, 41-42). We see here in the Poème and in Le Corbusier’s avatars the common thread of new knowledge, dissolution and the passage to a new stage of life or existence. In the early appearances of the Dark Bird wide image, the condor is an avatar indicating loneliness, estrangement, and change in the family discourse at the entrance of the young Jeanneret into his career discourse; the pseudonym ‘Le Corbusier’ allowed the architect to finally take his avatar as a public identity, one no less aloof, mysterious, lonely or estranged, only this time distanced not from his family but from the mainstream paradigms of contemporary architecture. Thus, adopting the Dark Bird wide image as an avatar during the publication of L’Esprit Nouveau is a repetition of a process learned through inventive change set against existing discourse relations. Near the end of his career, in the 1955 publication of the Poème, Le Corbusier had long since become conscious of the value of the Dark Bird as an emblem relating to the mysterious and alienating processes of invention. Image 2—The Glacier: The Water Cycle The appearance of water as a vehicle for understanding all manner of things in the universe is so frequent in Le Corbusier’s writings that it is an immediately identifiable trope in his communication of key ideas and concepts. The phases of the water cycle appear often in the Poème: A.2 features storm clouds releasing precipitation into the horizon-forming sea; A.4 shows the serpentine forms of rivers viewed from the air as snake-like clouds; A.5 shows a puddle or cloud form encroaching into the light from a dark field. An exhaustive list of the appearance of water elements in the Poème would be daunting given the profusion of water-related elements and symbols like the conch, the fish, and the moon, all of which appear throughout the Iconostase.

Le Corbusier used the image of a river’s course as a metaphor for his ‘law of the meander’: the natural and ever-changing contingencies that exert forces and pressures dynamically over time, producing a meandering trajectory of action, whether that action be the work done by gravity on a body of water, or the actions of individuals struggling in the midst of their contemporary environment and all of its contingent problems. This meandering path also moves water from the river’s source—usually a high mountain glacier—to its lowest level—the level of the oceans—from whose body it will evaporate and form a part of the atmosphere to be redistributed via cloud activity around the world, feeding the ever-changing trajectory. What is interesting for this examination of the recurrence of the Water Cycle as a wide image is its source in early discourses of the popcycle, in Le Corbusier’s family and his childhood in La Chaux-de-Fonds.

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret’s father was an avid mountain climber and served as president of the local chapter of the Club Alpine Suisse. He would lead yearly group excursions to the highest region of the Alps of Valais, and the Jeanneret family frequently vacationed in the region in the summer (Vogt 1998, 312). As soon as the boys were old enough, Édouard Jeanneret-Perret led them on climbs to even higher portions of the Alps, amongst the glaciers and over the Great Saint Bernard Pass (ibid, 315). These excursions with their father were a profound part of the boys’ childhood learning, a manner of relating the activities of the family to the prized aspects of the region in which they lived and the famous features of their nation. Close contact with the glaciers of the Valais allowed for an affective link with the source of many of Europe’s major river systems, a link that was a structural component of cognitive development simultaneously in more than one discourse of Le Corbusier’s popcycle.

Image 3—Le Corbusier’s hands Le Corbusier’s hands had an unusual feature called the Mount of Libra: the center two mounds of each hand were fused (Moore 1980, 134, n 43). This rare feature was certainly a source of fascination throughout Le Corbusier’s life, and ended up tying in nicely to investigations into alchemy and astrology later in his career. Libra is the architect’s sign—the sign of balance, and is linked to Capricorn—binding Fall and Winter in the triadic year (ibid, 129 n 37). Capricorn appears as a common figure in Le Corbusier’s paintings and drawings, and panel C.5 of the Iconostase shows a multivalent Capricorn-woman figure being grasped by a large hand. And, of course, the hand figures prominently itself, being a key component of G.3, the level of the Iconostase titled as Outil [Tool], and is the only figure represented on level F.3, Offre (la main ouverte) [Offer (the open hand)]. The Capricorn-Hand figure of C.5, the right-most panel of the level titled Chair [Flesh], shows a symbolic linking of this astrological sign with embodied and worldly flesh, a link found in the hands of the creator of the Poème. The Poème as a tool The Poème gathers together Le Corbusier’s Wide Images to create a densely syncretic, interwoven, symbolic set: a widesite. In Ulmer’s work in digital media studies, this site takes the form of a website, but this format was unavailable to the Le Corbusier when he created the Poème. Le Corbusier, while not having access to digital media, was a master of multimedia publishing and presentation, always searching for new and appropriate formats to express the complex ideas in architecture, urbanism, and modernism.

The Poème forms a widesite that describes Le Corbusier’s cognitive relation to all of the institutional discourses of his life, informing his development of modernism. In fact, Le Corbusier’s invention of a method to produce a contemporary society was a placement of himself, and by hypothetical extension all of humanity, into a specific inventive relation with certain features of the world, contingencies of production and the solving of contemporary problems plaguing the twentieth century human environment. This invented method that is his modernism, a way or method of producing the modern. This special modernism must be learned through practice and one must draw on precedents and examples, and these precursors need not be directly related to the discipline or discourse within which the invention is prescribed. In the Iconostase of the Poem of the Right Angle, Le Corbusier is telling the viewer how he is positioned in relation to all of the discourses that inform him and construct his world, and it is this series of relations that produces modernism.

The Poème describes a tool for navigation, a powerful guide for Le Corbusier, the components of which the architect began assembling in childhood and had grown increasingly complex throughout his career. This guide, or a widesite like it, can also be constructed by each and every viewer using similar materials—Wide Images—to identify their position in relation to the institutions with which they are forced to interact and marking their own creative figures for the play of invention. The Poème culminates in a holistic and multifarious image of The Open Hand and the poem itself as a tool offered to mankind, encompassing all of the stuff of Le Corbusier’s world and pointing toward a new immanent condition. We cannot yet see the inside of the lock, but we have been granted the right and ability to make our own keys.

< Section 5

CATTt Analysis of Le Corbusier's



  • Harper Collins French-English; English-French Dictionary, 8th ed., 2006.

  • Moore, R. 1980. ‘Alchemical and Mythical Themes in the Poem of the Right Angle, 1947-1965,’ Oppositions: Le Corbusier 1933-1960, No. 19/20, Winter/Spring.

  • Splawn, J. 1990. Under the Oak Tree: The Mythical Intentionality in Le Corbusier’s Le Poeme De L’Angle Droit. Master’s Thesis, McGill University.

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

  • Ulmer, G. 2003. Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy. Pearson Education, Inc: New York.

  • Vogt, A. M. 1998. Le Corbusier, the Noble Savage: Toward an Archaeology of Modernism, R. Donnell trans. MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass.

  • Weber, N. F. 2008. Le Corbusier: A Life. Alfred A. Knopf: New York.

#cyberhistory #lecorbusier #poèmedelangledroit #widesite #conductiveinference #ulmer #iconostase

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