ISSUE 3/ May 2021

Le Corbusier

the magic snake and the Kayser Caravel

Serial production and death at sea.

by Aftermath laika

"I will not leave this damned ship without having found the explanation for my golden rule," says Charles Édouard Jeanneret-Gris - better known as Le Corbusier - to his companion Claudius Petit. Both travel to the United States aboard the ship Vernon Hood »

Credits: Texts, Design and Illustration Aftermath laika® / Buenos Aires 2021

"I will not leave this damn ship without having found the explanation of my golden rule" says Charles Édouard Jeanneret-Gris - better known as Le Corbusier1- to his companion Claudius Petit. Both travel to the United States aboard the ship Vernon hood. It is the year 1946. The trip that had started from the port of Havre ended up being delayed ten days and his arrival in New York concluded after 19 days of hectic crossing. Le Corbusier, the great architect who never ceases to amaze the world with his urban plans and his exquisite architecture based on the magnificent interplay of volumes under the light, is eager to show an invention that he considers urgent and radical: a new measurement system . Your question is simple: Is it possible that we can live with two systems of measurement, since the metric system does not refer to anything known, except a capricious calculation around a planet? It is clear that the world has been divided between the users of the foot and the inch, and those of the meter. The first using a scale indifferent to human size "Since there is no man who is one meter or two meters tall" and supporters of the foot system clearly resolved in "Atrociously complicated manipulation" 

The metric system appeared in 1875 with the need to simplify economic exchanges, unify values ​​and avoid inequalities. However, the Anglo-Saxon world has an exceptional permit - discretionary, of course - and maintains its standard in feet and inches. Le Corbusier feverishly notes in his notebook: "The elbow, the breaststroke, the span, the foot and the inch were the prehistoric instrument and it continues to be that of modern man" But there is something wrong. Architecture, like music, depend on measure. Le Corbusier knows it. In his notebook he rehearses the peculiarities of musical writing whose notation, he says, is a common norm throughout the world. It may not be true, but it is also concrete that his perspective is completely Western and Central European. Of course he refers as an example to Latin whose language is the mother for the understanding of history and thought.  

In New York he begins with his interviews. All with great expectation. He plans to visit Líliental, the general director of the Tennessee-Valley-Authority in Knoxville, a businessman backed by President Roosevelt and with whom they will undertake the Tennessee levees. But the immediate meeting is with Henry Kayser, a renowned engineer and builder whose name illustrated having developed the Libertyships, the armed merchant ships that would rebuild the English fleet decimated by German submarines during the second war. Le Corbusier's obsession, during the interview, focuses on the urgent need for the industry to adopt his invention, —a definitive rule — in an agreement capable of solving the serial production systems that the world already uses on a daily basis. It could be said that it is nothing more than a mandatory, a minor detail compared to the problems and virtues that the question of architecture condenses historically by itself. Le Corbusier notes in his notebook: «Architecture is judged in the eyes that see, with the legs that walk […] it is not a synchronous phenomenon, but a successive one, made up of spectacles that are added to each other and take place in space and time, like the music"  

 But the Swiss has long carried a curious box of Kodak film in the inside pocket of his jacket. But there is no celluloid there. Inside, rolled up, it contains a strange glossy graduated ribbon of varnished paper that Let go, one of his most disciplined collaborators has built it according to his precise indications. Weeks ago "Haunted snake" He ends up stepping out of his box all the time to confront whoever is there about the proportions and needs of human space. The background to the magic tape is in Le Corbusier's studio in the form of a drawing and on the walls: the silhouette of a man raising his hand to the sky. The free and poetic drawing organizes a proportional cell of 2,20 meters inscribed in two superimposed squares of 1,10 meters around its movements: the golden section, a square, the downcast diagonal. Tape Let go he condenses the sequence of the cell drawn in his study and like a magical device, Le Corbusier mixes with people to share the spatial experience. None of that changes during the voyage in the Vernon hood; at last an obsession that in the form of a golden rule leads him to discuss with the passengers on the deck and even on the bridge, the virtues of his invention. You will even envision a future application of a global newsletter that can account for user feedback and update your development process. Before the trip, it is also explained to the chief engineer of the Paris patent section: Le Corbusier does not think about money. This is how he exposes his ethical principles to the official: 

Sir, I am not going to make a fortune with my invention. Money should not be involved in this matter. […] I don't need a commercial organization nor do I want publicity. The nature of my invention is such that if it is worth it, modern architects, my friends all over the world, will accept it, and their magazines - the best of all countries - will offer their pages to study and disseminate it. I fully realize the responsibility of this issue, in which the evil, violent, savage and unscrupulous subject of money cannot be introduced. I have many scruples and I am the scruples myself in this business. I understand that architects and builders will use this useful measurement tool. Congresses will deal with it; Later, if the matter deserves it, the United Nations will study the question through its economic and social section, and who knows if it must be admitted that, one day, the obstacles, the braking, the competition and the opposition arising from the antagonism of the two current measures - the inch and the meter - and, then, our measure can bind what is separate and become an instrument of union » 

In New York, businessman Henry Kayser watches the architect closely. In his life he has developed a coarse production, as much or more than that exhibited by his brilliant interlocutor. That is why he listens to him, because he understands the Swiss architect's obsession with optimizing production issues. Meanwhile Le Corbusier had already discussed the question of design and costs twenty years earlier in order to rebuild the city after the first great war. The idea of ​​that moment was not too far from what he was explaining to the entrepreneur at the time: the field of design defines the same category of work for a pipe, an ocean liner or a car. Then, Build in series it meant treating the house as a machine for habitation. An efficient machine, low cost and fast in its execution. And for that he needed to put his Modulor2. In fact, regulating the lines in design did not in itself represent a poetic or artistic act, but the very need to balance plastic problems: «It is necessary to tend to the establishment of the standard to face the problem of perfection» The Parthenon is a selection product applied to a standard. Architecture acts on standards [because] they are things of logic, of analysis, of scrupulous study, and they are established on a well-posed problem. Experimentation definitely sets the standard. The great industry must take care of the building, and establish the elements of the house in series. You have to create the state of the spirit of the series » 

For Le Corbusier, the subway was an abstract figure that had weakened architecture by ignoring the spatial relationship with the human body, a topic of enormous subjectivity that the architect called "human scale"  Le Corbusier details his research in his notebooks, on the walls, and elegantly replicating it on blackboards: graphical equations, theorems, drawings, and number series; mathematical naming with colors. The drawings and geometries of enormous complexity include even Fibonacci series. He states at last the convenience of his invention with a question "And if, in addition, harmony crowns our effort?"  

Le Corbusier says he ignores the miracle of faith, but notes the articulation of the disciplines that lead him to think in common about problems in the same sense: «Around 1910 [the] creators of Cubism […] They spoke of the fourth dimension with more or less intuition and clairvoyance. A life devoted to art and particularly to the search for harmony, has allowed me to observe in my turn the phenomenon through the practice of three arts: architecture, sculpture and painting » 

But at times the explanation seems to descend to a reality even more complex and strange than the one it indicates to overcome. Le Corbusier argues that his system has unlimited combinatorics insofar as its module is designed on a height of a man of 1,75 meters. measure that the architect considers «UA rather French size: "Haven't you noticed in English crime novels that nice guys — a cop, for example — are always SIX FEET tall? So we try to apply this module: 6 feet = 6 X 30,48 = 182,88 cm »  

Write your manifesto starting with a Preamble. Decide that the brand name will of course be «Modulor », finally, a measuring device based on human stature and mathematics. On his return from America in 1947, Le Corbusier put into practice the Modulor with all its work team, directors, technicians, draftsmen, operators. He does it in Marseille in the project for the Factory Usine Claude et Duval built in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges, between the years 1946-1951 and without a doubt the feeling is that of having done an honest job and that is how he writes it in his notebooks. Meanwhile, the prestigious Architectural Review of London publishes the investigations by means of descriptive plates drawn up largely by the theorist Matila ghyka3 that he had already dealt with arguing the golden ratio in his own books. Le Corbusier's enthusiasm is passionate even when he knows the possibility of rounding off —disciplinary— the figures of his invention to bring them closer to the usual ones: «The Modulor will automatically perform the meter-foot-inch conversion and seals, in fact, the agreement not of the meter (which is just a conventional metal bar at the bottom of a well in the Breteuil Pavilion in the vicinity of Paris 10) but decimals and inches, relieving these, through decimal operations, from the complicated and paralyzing calculations of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing » 

After the exhibition, Henry Kayser stands up placid and speaks clearly. He tells him that even though his production program in the United States has been preparing for a long time to build XNUMX houses a day, he has changed his mind: "I'm going to make cars", says the builder. Le Corbusier is unfazed. Leave the interview respecting the employer's decision. He knows that Henry Kayser is serious and businessman proves it immediately. Soon he joins forces by partnering with Joseph Frazer, another successful industrialist. In the 50s, the United States promoted the automobile while businessmen made calculations on the extraordinary profits that a much simpler object such as an automobile would produce. The Kayser-Frazer company then produces beautiful Sedans postwar using tooling and engines Graham-Page that they reconsider of an abandoned plant of Ford in Michigan. For Le Corbusier it is only about «Influence the public's taste and tell them that the car is a sign of consideration, the first step of consideration, which will flatter you: bodywork streamlineA car as big as those of the most admired brands, a manifestation of power and even emphasis: cars are magnificent, sparkling, carriers of optimism and ambassadors of strength; but they are immense, and their foreheads resemble the faces of gods of power with gigantic chrome jaws. The congestion of the streets in the United States is public and notorious. The cars are twice as long as would be convenient; they clog the tracks when they turn and cover them like shells. Effectiveness? Speed ​​prohibited by the regulations double consumption of steel, paint and gasoline. We are again facing a problem on a human scale » 

Of course the competition is fierce and the firm Kayser-Frazier, even with the market in its favor, it fails. Meanwhile, Kaiser is not discouraged and will close its automotive life in Argentina by providing the first assembly line in the country: Las Kaiser Argentina Industries —IKA— in Santa Isabel, Province of Córdoba. In the industrial plant produces 10,000 units of other Sedan: one so luxurious for the time that when buying it, the concessionaire delivered it with a vinyl recorded with the curious voice of the powerful and completely national Kaiser caravel4  

El Since Creole can transport up to seven people but a few are used as taxis. Meanwhile, the industry needs different cars, perhaps not so spacious and certainly cheaper. Even though later the Rambler Classic with electric window lifter and air conditioning, the Fiat 600 it becomes the sought-after pearl. In 1961, after four years of serial production, Kayser closed its plant in Argentina. Another part of the industry thinks differently. The 1955 Lincoln Futura Concept car is born and its only copy is produced by the company Ghia for $ 250,000 dollars. Although the flamboyant model survives for just four years - until 1959 - the film industry is always on the lookout: In 1965, designer George Barri spent just $ 1000 - here and there - to convert the extraordinary flat body of the Lincoln Futura in the historical batmobile that Fox is looking for for its new television series: Batman.  

Le Corbusier dies that same year of a heart attack while one car turns into another. Indifferent, walk in front of the sea near Le Cabanon, your modest holiday home in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, the French Riviera. In your notebook you will write one appointment among hundreds. This is from the post-impressionist painter Henri Jean Guillaume Martin: "Whoever practices the harpsichord does not know that he handles logarithms" 

 Just four more years, in 1969, during a program devised by UNESCO for the study of cultures in Latin America, the journalist Damián Bayón asked the architect Clorind Testa5 about prefabrication and serial construction. Testa answers bucolic that he does not see the inconvenience of repeating a house; In fact, it would be the same case as designing a refrigerator that is going to be repeated ad infinitum and that one thing is as interesting as the other. That is, when understanding the turns that design undertakes especially in the industrial sector, there should be no difference between architecture and design. The journalist cross-examines. Testa is blunt; architecture should be repeatable. It's true, says Bayon: "It does not make sense that 27 million people have a different house each when the reality is that they buy the same model of car without question" 

Buenos Aires, May 2021