Le Corbusier's Experiments in Dynamic Framing

Pruitt-Igoe on the Beach, Part 3- Le Corbusier's Experiments in Dynamic Framing

The Pavillon Parti: Le Corbusier's Early Framing Experiments

Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau of 1924-5, like Rockefeller Center, was an experiment in synthetic space-time. Le Corbusier’s deployment of the contents for this exhibit at the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes shows a conscious use of space as a key component of communication in the format of the presentation. The exhibit’s parti was composed of two distinct sections: a circular, drum-like space containing a presentation of The Contemporary City for Three Million Inhabitants and the Plan Voisin for the center of Paris, and a cubic volume comprising a single prototype dwelling to fit within the context of the larger contemporary city (Benton, Cohen & Phaidon 2008). Moving back and forth between these two spaces required the occupant to construct a synthetic frame to contain memories of the exhibition materials within a single, comprehensible conceptual structure. This synthetic frame would hold a trans-scalar vision of modernism as a methodology for creating the individual dwellings, the buildings that contain them, and the city that would form their larger context.

Only focusing on the model and drawings of the Plan Voisin in the drum-volume of the Pavillon obscures the movement implied in the parti, and thus hides the creative synthesis of spatial comprehension that such an exhibit necessitates. The frame that encompasses the presented modernity must be held in the mind of a moving viewer. This formula of ocular sensation combined with movement in space was mentioned numerous times by Le Corbusier in his writings and is an integral component of the famous promenade architecturale (Jencks 2000). Le Corbusier utilized the promenade architecturale to dramatic effect in the Maison La Roche Jeanneret of 1925, the same year as the Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau. The promenade architecturale was used as a spatial organizer in the Pavillon, making spatial movement a means of organizing information that provided a context for discrete materials in various scales and formats.

Le Corbusier himself did not fuse the spatial format of the Pavillon with its contents, as evidenced by his representations of the exhibit in later publications. In the Œuvre Complète (Le Corbusier & Jeanneret 1984, 108-121), there is a dramatic difference in the presentation of the two sides of the Pavillon. The housing prototype is a full-scale mock-up, an example of architecture presented as architecture. The spaces are the primary content; format and content are fused. On the other side of the Pavillon, in the drum, the Plan Voisin for Paris and the Contemporary City for Three Million Inhabitants are presented as drawings and models arrayed in a spatial container. The contents are the representations of these urban plans, while the presentation format is the drum-space of the physical exhibit. In the the Œuvre Complète de 1910-1929, first published in 1929, the exhibit format of the Pavillon is indicated by a plan and a few pictures inside the urban drum-space. The parti that allowed the occupant to link the various materials is not revealed in the documentation; the spatial format was separate from the contents of the exhibit.

By comparing Le Corbusier’s representation of the Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau with representations of his later urban exhibits, the separation of format and content in the Œuvre Complète in 1929 can be used to show an increased awareness and self-conscious use of space as a format for conveying information over the course of the architect’s career. In Des Canon, Des Munitions? Merci! Des Logis. . . S.V.P. (Le Corbusier & Jeanneret 1937), the catalogue from L’Exposition Internationale “Art et Technique” de Paris in 1937, Le Corbusier’s graphic layouts never allow the reader to separate the material presented in the exhibit from the physical deployment experienced by the moving occupant. This catalogue has the character of an exhaustive index that can be used by the reader to reconstruct most of the Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux. Navigating the book requires the observer to place texts, models, and murals in spatial relations mentally in order to make any sense of the information.

The contrast between the presentation of the Pavillon of 1925 in the Œuvre Complète and Des Canons allows us to identify of the Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux of 1937 as a key to Le Corbusier’s figural experiments in urban space-time. By the late 1930s, Le Corbusier avoided didactic presentation of his urbanisms, opting for a format of paintings and collaged photos and texts that is atmospheric and evocative, eschewing clear and denotative formats. The difference in these publications, a fusing of format and content, is the result of a series of figural space-time experiments that Le Corbusier documented in his publications, showing a steady progression from 1922’s presentation of the Salon d’Automne to Des Canons in 1937 and beyond.

Movement organization in Le Corbusier's later published works

Le Corbusier documented the contents of his 1929 South American lecture tour in his book Précisions sur un etat present de l’architecture et de l’urbanisme. To introduce and provide a context for the material in the lectures, Le Corbusier utilized the format of the travel journal to present the aberrant cultural musings of “The American Prologue”, where his first airplane flight became a topic generator to create adjacencies between disparate thoughts and observations (Le Corbusier 1930). He deemed the combination of flight and observation sufficient to organize the information in this short introductory text. Several years later, Le Corbusier used the dynamic frame induced by combining eyes that see and movement through space as an organizer of urban information obtained during his 1935 North American lecture tour, published as When the Cathedrals Were White (Le Corbusier 1937). The content of this book is decidedly urban, but nowhere to be found is the single, totalizing point of view of the urban plan, the static frame seen in the perspectives and plans so frequently culled from the Œuvre Complète.

When Le Corbusier wrote Urbanisme in 1924, he used Manhattan as an example of progressive urbanism, praised for its bold intensity, derided for its chaos (Le Corbusier 1924). But, after finally visiting Manhattan nearly a decade later, the architect presented his thoughts of American cities in Cathedrals by foregoing didactic explication and analysis altogether. Instead, he presented American cities through the subjective events of a travel diary. Here, the format of the “American Prologue” is used for the entire work; crossing the George Washington Bridge, seeing Louis Armstrong play in a jazz club, encountering the statue of George Washington deep in the financial district, train rides through the suburbs- these experiences and the affective relations they gather become an urban analytical framework.

When the Cathedrals Were White is certainly unusual, but it can be considered as a companion publication linked with the Athens Charter and La Ville Radieuse (Le Corbusier 1935) to form a set describing an urbanism that encompasses a great variety of material. Certainly, a great deal of conceptual work is required of the reader to construct a framework dynamic enough to cover the variations and contradictions contained in such a set, and the synthetic frame constructed would be as much a product of the individual receiver as the publications themselves. But this individual, subjective agency is not fundamentally different from the requirements demanded of the viewer by the complex spaces of Le Corbusier’s paintings, and the material considered is only as diverse as his architecture. Constructing a single frame that could delineate a continuous imperative of architectural invention was important for scholars of Le Corbusier whose work centered on producing discursive systems to guide interpretation and evaluation of the architect’s works (Jencks 2000; Tzonis 2001; Curtis 1986). Linking later, expressive projects like the chapel at Ronchamp and the Unité d’Habitation at Marseilles with the early modern villas of the 1920s can obtain an image of Le Corbusier as an architect that is useful for applying historical precedents to the complex problems of contemporary architectural practice. Constructing the synthetic frame that can include the idiosyncrasies of Précisions, Cathedrals, the Pavillon, as well as the iconic renderings of the Ville Radieuse, the Plan Voisin, and the obtuse tenets of the Athens Charter, could yield useful material for urban problem solving without necessarily being apologist or revisionist by ignoring the obvious problems and contradictions of these works.

The dynamic frame as an experimental format in Le Corbusier’s work culminates in his Poem of the Right Angle (Le Corbusier 1955). Here, the viewer is painfully aware that the simple diagram of the work, the rectilinear iconostase, is didactic but does not immediately reveal all of the content’s secrets. The structure and interrelation of elements in the poem are multifarious and evocative, yet Le Corbusier had no qualms in representing the general structure in a simple, gridded format. The motifs in the paintings indexed by each cell of the iconostase are ordered or linked by axis, adjacency, boustrophedon (serpentine movement), and three dimensional spiraling. This late work can offer interpreters a clue to envisioning grids and zones with a dynamic frame, for here rectilinear repetition is a foil or breading ground for variety and complexity, and not an attempt to reduce or eliminate heterogeneous conditions. The Poem remains as one of the final emissions sent by Le Corbusier as a traveler along the path leading from scientific rationality and abstraction into the strange territory of modernism weathered by world wars and molded into an affective tool for the industrialized subject to navigate his world. Instead of receiving the Poem as a piece that does not fit with other parts of Le Corbusier’s oeuvre, the interpreter can use it as a key, synthesized to connect with various aspects of his multifarious career, providing a conceptual synthesis of diverse works as understood by their creator. The Poem of the Right Angle is the frame Le Corbusier proposed through which to view his work.

Figure Analysis: Le Corbusier's Experimental Figure Proliferation

Giedion’s three space-time figures indicate an attempt to found a new kind of historical analysis that establishes meaningful relationships with architectural modernism and an urbanism for industrialized society. Giedion’s own later development of the figures into analytical categories- the “three space conceptions in architecture”: architecture as space-radiating volumes; architecture as interior space; architecture as both volume and interior space (Giedion 1971), lost some of the evocative power of the original space-time figures as a theoretical organizer. Unlike his project to outline architecture’s three space conceptions, Giedion’s original three figures from the 1930s do not appear to be a complete inventory of space-time conditions. New figures can be conceived and added to the list to increase the inventory of existing or possible urban space-time configurations. Le Corbusier’s series of works utilizing the dynamic frame of a prescient subject engaged in physical movement can be seen as attempts to develop new space-time figures for understanding contemporary urban conditions.

Giedion hazarded the Parkway as the paragon figure to describe the new scale of the industrialized city, Le Corbusier continued to produce new experimental figures, consistently enriching his spatial conceptions as the continued march of the twentieth century brought new conditions into confrontation with the existing stock of concepts used to understand them. The Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau might be said to have a space-time figure of trans-scalar synthesis, with a nesting of solutions at various scales. This trans-scalar figure is similar to the relation of figures in Le Corbusier’s contemporary Purist paintings, a multiple and sometimes contradictory space formed synthetically by the observer to encompass the material presented. The “American Prologue” of 1929-30 presents the figure of air-travel, an urban space-time that Le Corbusier finds terrifying and fascinating. We should not confuse this figure with that of the bird’s-eye-view or the celestial view, which has been a prevalent guide for formal urban developments around the world for millennia. The prologue’s figure is not hypothetical but physical, the moving view-point of a human eye positioned amongst the clouds. The tumult of rapidly changing natural conditions and a sense of the overwhelming scale and power of the natural world made the formal concerns of city planners seem futile, the tiny cities below dwarfed by the immensity of the Amazon. Le Corbusier was overwhelmed by a geological and vegetal space-time during this first flight. Instead of reinforcing the static vision of a god positioned outside of earthly space and time, air-flight was an experience that led the architect to muse over revolution, war, and radical change (Le Corbusier 1930), a fully historical time and material space, inevitably subjected to change.

Just as the flight-figure of the “American Prologue” supports alternative conceptual material to that ordered by the figure of the idealized bird’s-eye-view, analyzing the Athens Charter drafted by CIAM in 1933 using the framework of proliferating, experimental space-time figures yields surprising results. Perhaps the simplest figure to posit for the Charter is one of swathe-zoning, where a fully abstracted and homogenized logical space is allowed to assert a rigorous system with little influence from the perceiving subject. Time is also a component of the swathe-figure as a modulator of scale. Proximities and adjacencies of zones are regulated by the 24-hour day and the speed of inhabitants’ necessary movements as they go about their day. Thus, trans-scalar adaptability is implicated in the swathe-figure, recalling the diverse propositions of the Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau. Figure-analysis of Le Corbusier’s Modern urbanisms indicates that continuity between the Athens Charter and its precedent Plan Voisin as presented in the Pavillon necessarily includes Giedion’s dynamic frame and the temporal experience of a moving subject. Including time in the Charter’s figure references a cognizance of users’ needs that is lacking in many urban plans that were later developed using the concept of swathe zoning.

When the Cathedrals Were White presents an urban space-time of affective events that Le Corbusier had previously called “radiant moments” (Le Corbusier 1935; 1964, 129). Cathedrals is structured around a series of these radiant moments, fully subjective and embedded in the immediacy of urban experience and cognition. The unusual radiant-moment figure used to present the contemporary built environment of North America explains the frustrating lack of exposition or even what might be considered sound argumentation in Cathedrals. That this publication is not a total mistake on the part of the author, but rather is a component of a series of experiments in urban representation and comprehension is supported by the format of the Poem of the Right Angle in 1955. An inspiring and captivating work in its physical size and the syncretic nature of its contents, the Poem is best understood as a compendium of sorts that covers decades of analytical experiments: an index of space-time figuration, as understood late in the life of its creator.

Giedion and Benjamin: Competing Figures of History

It might be the novelty of Giedion’s figures that makes them compelling as a framework for organizing historical analyses. But the brief account of urban space-time figures presented here is an inquiry into the invention of Le Corbusier’s urbanisms. With Giedion's figures, as well as with Le Corbusier's writings, we are caught between history and invention. These figural accounts are a nascent history, and the novelty of the figural history that Giedion proposed in the 1930s should not obfuscate its utility in conveying some of the difficult and forgotten stories in the development of an industrialized society that continues to change and challenge the urban subject.

To get a better image of this proposed historical framework, we can compare it to Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, a figure pulled from Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (Benjamin 1969, 257-8). The angel of history is a figure for historical materialism, at a very general level of signification:

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistible propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (ibid)

This bleak figure, filled with a fatalistic anguish, characterizes the anxieties of a materialist conception of history, present and future, where the possibilities of the present moment must carry the imprint, the tremendous weight of eons of struggle that precede it. This mixture of vigilance and anxiety are not the only option for figuring the agency of the present subject.

The gulf separating Giedion’s projective figure of modern space-time from the 1930s before the war, and Benjamin’s figure of a modern present filled with the wreckage of contingency, first written in 1940 during the war, is immense. The difference between the figure of the Parkway and the Angel of History is not only in the objective shift from the urban environment to history. Figures, angels, avatars and icons are both guides and symptoms: they hold meaning in the present to point toward possible futures or pasts. As devices that order temporality, space-time figures are foci imaginarii, indicating possible trajectories as movement toward a horizon: “[l]ike all horizons, they move continuously in time and thus lend the walking the supportive illusion of destination, pointer and purpose” (Bauman 1991, 10). This treatment of the horizon comes from Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and Ambivalence, a work that attempts to bridge a perceived gap between the binary logic employed in the foundations of rational modern consciousness and the ambivalence and complexity of modern existence. The horizon owes its captivating power to its status as an imaginary goal that can never be reached, changing in details despite remaining a horizon and a possibility.

A rich link between the clarity necessitated by empiricism and the difficult variety of the external world can be found in Le Corbusier’s proliferation of ordering devices that play with the dichotomy of order/chaos by placing progression within the process of order-making. For Le Corbusier, each figure was a site for work to unfold, and temporality was profoundly linked to place. This is a profoundly architectural understanding of history and the relation of subject and object. To better understand the difference between Benjamin’s historical materialism, Bauman’s call for a reconciliation of rationality and ambivalence, and Le Corbusier’s architectural, site-contingent history, we can place Le Corbusier’s conception of history within a figural ordering-device symmetrical with Benjamin’s fashioning of the Angel of History and parallel with Bauman’s wayward gaze toward the horizon of the future. Le Corbusier described such a figure in a lecture in 1929:

I am in Brittany; this line is the limit between the ocean and the sky; a vast horizontal plan extending towards me. Suddenly I stopped. Between my eyes and the horizon a sensational event has occurred: a vertical rock, in granite, is there, upright, like a menhir: its vertical makes a right angle with the horizon. Crystallisation fixation of the site [sic]. This is a place to stop, because here is a complete symphony, magnificent relationships, nobility. The vertical gives the meaning of the horizontal. One is alive because of the other. (Le Corbusier 1991, 75)

Here, the guiding power the right angle offers to Le Corbusier is exposed in an affective, place and sense-based figure. For the architect, the horizon of time and the wreckage of history are of little importance until an affective moment emerges out of the interaction of subject and environment. The recognition of moment and place changes the role of the horizon or ultimate goal into one component of a contingent site for invention. Benjamin’s Angel of History witnesses everything and does nothing. Le Corbusier’s inventor/architect sees some things and is pressed into action. Perhaps he is visited by the Angel in the form of the figure.


< Part 2 Part 4 >


  • Bauman, Z. 1991. Modernity and Ambivalence. Polity Press: Cambridge, UK.

  • Benjamin, W. 1969. “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Harry Zohn [trans.]. Schocken Books Inc: New York, 253-264.

  • Benton, T., Cohen, J. L., and Phaidon Press. 2008. Le Corbusier Le Grand. Phaidon: New York.

  • Curtis, W. 1986. Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms. Rizzoli: New York.

  • Giedion, S. 1971. Architecture and the Phenomenon of Transition: The Three Space Conceptions in Architecture. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

  • Jencks, C. 2000. Le Corbusier and the Continual Revolution in Architecture. The Monacelli Press: New York.

  • Le Corbusier. 1924. Urbanisme. Crès & Cie: Paris.

  • Le Corbusier. 1930. Précisions sur un etat present de l’architecture et de l’urbanisme. Crès et Cie: Paris.

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

  • Le Corbusier. 1937. Quand les Cathédrals étaient blanches: Voyage aux pays des timides. Librairie Plon: Paris.

  • Le Corbusier. 1955. Poème de l’angle droit. Tériade: Paris.

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

  • Le Corbusier. 1991. Precisions. E Schreiber Aujame trans. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA

  • Le Corbusier, P. Jeanneret. 1937. Des Canons, Des Munitions? Merci! Des Logis. . . S.V.P. Monographie du “Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux” A L’Exposition Internationale “Art et Technique” de Paris 1937. Les Éditions de l’architecture d’aujourd’hui: Boulogne (Seine).

  • Le Corbusier, P. Jeanneret. 1984. Œuvre complete 1910-1929. Les Editions d’Architecture (Artemis): Zurich.

  • Tzonis, A. 2001. Le Corbusier: The Poetics of Machine and Metaphor. Universe Publishing: New York.

#lecorbusier #spacetimefigures #giedion #walterbenjamin

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