At the very outset of his epochal 1927 text Towards A New Architecture, Le Corbusier provides an explicit insight in his approach to architecture and design. He writes: “A great epoch has begun/There exists a new spirit.” (3) It is clear that Le Corbusier is praising the idea of novelty or newness in architecture and design. But novelty and newness are in themselves ambiguous concepts without context: is the new not only to be discerned by contrasting it to the “old”? Le Corbusier clarifies what he means by novelty in the following lines that immediately follow within the same text: “There exists a mass of work conceived in the new spirit; it is to be met with particularly in industrial. Architecture is stifled by custom.” (3) Le Corbusier’s vision of the new is thus elucidated in terms of an emphasis on what he understands to be the “industrial”, the latter at the same time existing in antagonism to “custom.” What Le Corbusier means by this is arguably found in his contributions to the Paris Exhibition of 1925, in particular, his project of the Pavilion of the New Spirit. Using the above quotation from Towards a New Architecture as a guide, the Pavilion of the New Spirit therefore reflects novelty in its commitment to the “industrial”, while also breaking with “custom.” The question in regards to the Pavilion for the New Spirit thus becomes as follows: how does Le Corbusier understand the novelty of “the industrial” in this design, and, furthermore, how does this design avoid the “stifling” effects of custom?
Le Corbusier’s Pavilion of the New Spirit is driven by his remark: “the house is a ‘machine for living in.’” (Timmerman, 50) As Timmerman notes, what is crucial to unpacking the meaning here and thus the new ideas Le Corbusier introduced in “to find out exactly what Le Corbusier means by ‘machine.’” (50) Set in the context of the opening remark from Towards a New Architecture, the machine, in so far as it is praised by Le Corbusier, as an emphasis on novelty, is something that opposes old “customs.” The house, arguably, is the site of “customs”: it is the place where families gather, where traditions are shared, where generations grow together. The house, in other words, is the very basis of “custom”: the house is something that would seem to oppose novelty and change, the familial domicile functioning as a place of stability, reflecting the stability that is commonly understood to exist in the family unit itself.
Thought in this way, Le Corbusier’s new ideas as presented in a Pavilion of the New Spirit are entirely radical: he wishes to apply the novel and newness to that which seems to oppose novelty by definition – the family home. In other words, Le Corbusier wants to transform the home as the seat of tradition into a machine that has no ties to tradition or custom. This is why Le Corbusier’s approach is so radical: he wants to introduce novelty into the most fundamental location of custom.
But what makes the machine an example of novelty? That is to say, what makes the machine and the industrial something that opposes custom? Clearly, what is at stake in Le Corbusier’s interpretation is an understanding of technology as something entirely new, something without limits. According to Timmerman’s reading of Le Corbusier, this reverence for the technological and the machine is the product of the notion that technology “makes man independent of nature.” (51) The motif of independence from nature arguably parallels the motif of the freedom from custom: Le Corbusier’s approach to architecture and design is to emphasize freedom and independence. This is clear in the Pavilion of the New Spirit: for example, the opening of the house onto the backyard breaks down the closed walls of the house. (see: image) The home’s openness mirrors Le Corbusier’s image of the openness of technology. Certainly, this may seem like a paradox. Our most intuitive notions of machines appear to convey the exact opposite: are not machines that which restrict freedom, for example, in the image of the machine as something that is repetitious? Furthermore, the industrial image of labor also seems to reflect this same lack of freedom: consider only the image of the factory worker working on the assembly line, a prevalent image in Le Corbusier’s time.
Perhaps this paradox can be understood as follows: If one of the objectives of art, architecture and design is to be creative and new, it is essential for art, architecture and design to challenge limits. This is what is made clear in the design of the Pavilion. The challenging of the borders of the house between front and back, the openness of the living space, can be understood as an openness to possibility. (see image) Freedom, as Le Corbusier notes, is found in technology’s constant overturning of what we can and cannot do: technology opens new possibilities for the human species. In the same way, the Pavilion should also offer new possibilities. Thinking of the home as a machine means to think of the home as a space for freedom. In the words of Davies, it means “the reconciliation of modernity with domesticity.” (48) Arguably, this is not strong enough to capture Le Corbusier’s thesis in the “Machine for Living”: domesticity itself must become a site for modernity. This is because modernity, for Le Corbusier, is freedom: this freedom must also exist in the most intimate places of human existence, namely, the home. This is made explicit in the Pavilion’s novelty as openness.
This means that art, architecture and design must take as a model technological progress: it must think its fundamental concepts in terms of technological concepts, such as the machine. This is the novelty of Le Corbusier’s vision of the Pavilion: an account of technology that emphasizes its freedom for the human species; what the “Machine for Living” demonstrates is Le Corbusier’s conviction that architecture and design should share these same ethical commitments to freedom.
- Davies, Colin. Key Houses of the Twentieth Century: Plans, Sections and Elevations. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2006.
- Le Corbusier. Towards a New Architecture. New York: Dover, 1986.
- Timmerman, Peter. “Architecture in the Mirror of Technology: The Rhetoric of Le Corbusier and the Futurist Movement.” In: R. Heil et al. (eds.) Tensions and Convergences: Technological and Aesthetic Transformations of Society. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2007.