A veil, a mirror, a method
What was Le Corbusier's Modulor? A measuring tool? A doctrine? A decoy?
The Modulor, published in France early in 1949, is marked by the turbulent times in which it was written. Amid the wreckage of post-war Europe, Le Corbusier proclaimed that proportion and measure would be essential tools in creating the architecture of a new 'harmonic' society. This emphasis on the significance of proportion was echoed widely in the immediate post-war era, particularly in the work of such authors as Rowe and Wittkower, and seems to reflect a need to endow the Modernist project of reconstruction with a historical continuity.
But if The Modulor functioned partly as a mirror of its time, highlighting the psychology of post-war construction, it also served to account for Le Corbusier's own activities during the war years. 'My studio was closed from 11 June 1940. For four years no reconstruction work of any kind was entrusted to me . . . A new law obliged me to submit my candidature to the Order of Architects created by the Vichy Government at the end of 1940.
My application remained under examination for a full 14 months, until the moment when the English guns could already be heard at Versailles.'
During this period, Le Corbusier explains, Modulor was conceived: 'The reader should try to imagine the circumstances in which this work was done . . . In the wretched atmosphere of occupied Paris, an argument on architecture between professionals was a difficult matter indeed.' Le Corbusier's true allegiances between 1940 and 1945 are far from clear, but he steps off the pages of The Modulor as a lonely hero, part resistance fighter, part Archimedes. And if The Modulor was, in part, designed to divert attention from his wartime position, it was certainly successful. The geometrical argument, showered on the reader in a confetti of dazzling strips, successfully lured mathematicians, historians and his architectural colleagues into a wide-ranging debate.
Central to the attraction of Modulor lay the fact that it was at the same time historically resonant (based on the Golden Section), visually elegant, and mathematically indeterminate; the last characteristic was perhaps the most appealing.While some demonstrated the numerical characteristics of the system, others first proved and then disproved the possibility of its geometric construction; still others showed that the 'squares' on which it was based could not be squares at all.
Such arguments fill the first half of Modulor 2, written during 1955.
The tone here is far more confident than that of 1948.'I mean to exclude from this work all the compliments I have received along the way, ' Le Corbusier begins, and immediately quotes a spectacularly complimentary eulogy, lauding him as 'the greatest initiator of the art of living in the world of tomorrow.' His position centrestage in the architectural world now firmly re-established, Le Corbusier uses Modulor as a sounding board with which to amplify the achievements of the studio at 35, rue de Sevres.
The final sections of Modulor 2, particularly the 'Good Humoured Soliloquy' which concludes the book, create an audibly harmonic spell linking Le Corbusier's history and his later work.
On the Unite d'Habitation he writes: 'Marseilles: the fruit of forty years of meditation; the fruit of the experience of a lifetime and the enthusiastic, unconditional aid of an army of young people, as devoted as partisans . . . Reader, look for yourself at the pictures made radiant by the Modulor - smiling grace of mathematics, grace of proportion to the human scale.'
A multi-faceted tool, then, Modulor: at once a mirror of its time, a veil to cover inconvenience, and the rhetorical prop of a consummate actor.
Tim Anstey is an architect in London