Colin Rowe was an Architectural historian, teacher and critic, amongst other things he was also acknowledged as having a significant influence on the world of architecture receiving a gold medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1995 (four years before his death). He praised classicism and was publicly seen as one of the key figures doing everything in his power to cement post-modernism’s place in the architectural world.
As Architecture’s well renowned master of the modernist movement and king of all things logical, it is often easy to forget that Le Corbusier at times designed for the sheer beauty of architecture and that there was not always a mathematical vision behind his plan, section or elevation. This post rationalisation I would suggest instead, is the product of over-critique by ‘experts’ eager to bolster their comparisons or indeed by Architects trying to justify themselves as such improving credibility. My scenario I believe is evident in this week’s reading of the short essay ‘Mathematics of the Ideal Villa’ by Colin Rowe published in 1976.
Rowe frustratingly ignores beauty as reason for architecture in this essay, instead confining it to the initial introductory paragraph and a quote from Sir Christopher Wren – ‘There are two causes of beauty, ‘natural’ and ‘customary’. Natural is the geometry consisting of uniformity, equality and proportion. Customary beauty is begotten by its use; familiarity breeds a love for things not in themselves lovely.’
In the essay Rowe makes a direct comparison between ‘Malcontenta – villa Foscari’ by Andrea Palladio and ‘Villa Garches – for Mr and Mrs Stein’ by Le Corbusier, at first discussing their similarities in volume, namely both villas confining themselves to a ‘6 units long x 5.5 units wide x 5 units high module’. He then continues to dissect the two buildings using differing comparatives such as structural support, opening sizes, floor plate movement and occupied zones of the floor plan. He concludes firstly by saying that in comparison of the two villas it is clear Le Corbusier has the virtue of a free, mathematically disciplined elevation whereas Palladio has thorough control of his plan, but secondly that he feels both Corbusier and Palladio villas became instead ‘picturesque objects in a park’ and a source of ‘amusing exhibition techniques’.
Returning to the scenario I presented earlier, what if the links people such as Colin Rowe make in their essays are in fact total rubbish, if I took an example from Corbusiers career that reinforces my opinion, as one would assume Rowe regularly did also. The ‘5 points of architecture’ as defined by Corbusier, ‘Replacement of supporting walls by a grid of reinforced columns’ – Meaningful architectural genius or just post rationalisation of getting walls out of the way for aesthetics and space? ‘Roof Gardens replacing nature taken by the footprint of the architecture whilst providing necessary protection for the concrete upper deck of the building’ – Corbusier, a well known creature of habit, potentially just finding somewhere secluded for the client, like him to complete a 6am gymnastics routine and eat an 8am breakfast in private?
I do not wish to flippantly evaluate each of the points Corbusier occasionally enforced in his work, but instead to illustrate my belief that sometimes people just design because design is beautiful and those people shouldn’t need to justify their design, in the same way we as members of the public or architects shouldn’t feel need to respond to a daft, potentially fictional critique of any work post its completion in the form of a book, tv program, essay or perhaps even a playful social media comments.
I try to attend lectures as regularly as time allows in my spare time and unfortunately it is common that architects seem to believe they have to use mathematical reasoning and social conditions to justify design decisions and manipulate the way in which their works are received by the public. I prefer to imagine that being the experienced professional he was, Le Corbusier first walked onto site in Poissy, France to survey the surroundings of the now Villa Savoye, he lit his pipe and thought to himself “my god, this place is beautiful; raising the building and having wider windows would allow my client to enjoy that”.
For that thought I salute him as a great architect, without all the rigmarole we have created since and just wish that sometimes the world would do so too, for Corbusier, future architects and the profession alike this is much needed, besides who cares what ‘the people’ think? if the client is happy with the end product, then so am I!!