Recollecting Innovation

History of Arch. II
December 2013

Instructed by: Todd Gannon

1. Gomez, Alberto Perez. “Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science.” The MIT Press, n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2013.

2. “Ornament and Crime Excerpt” Adolf Loos. Ornament and Crime. 1908

3. Besser, Joern, and Stephan Liebscher. “THE THEORIES .ANALYSIS OF THE VILLA MUELLER.” Adolf Loos-The Life-The Theories-Villa Mueller. University of Bath 2005, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.

4. Le Corbusier. The Modulor. Paris: Birkuser – Publishers for Architecture. 2000. Print.

5. Moss, Eric Owen. Lebbeus Woods Is an Archetype. SCI-Arc Gallery: 2013. Los Angeles: SCI-Arc, 2010. Print.

Historians Johann Winckelmann and Francois Blondel were inclined toward the idea that the existing systems designed by the ancients are more than sufficient for the world. They both argued that instead of innovations, conventions should be appreciated and more widely recognized. While Wincklemann and Blondel made very convincing arguments, modernist architects such as Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier begged to differ. They believed that innovation is absolutely necessary, and have devoted their entire lives doing so. Masters like Loos and Le Corbusier were innovators of their times, but this does not mean they do not look back. Innovation to them would not be possible if there were not pre-existing precedents to innovate from. In order for one to move forward, one must first take a step backwards. In other words, new advancements must be built on existing grounds shaped by people before us. In many of these existing systems created by the ancients, the golden ratio is perhaps one of the systems that remained most prominent. Since its discovery by the Greeks, the golden ratio had been the mathematical formula for beauty.

Built by the Athens when they were at the height of their power, the Parthenon is one of the most important buildings that survived from the past. It has since served as a symbol that reminded past generations and generations to come what their ancestors were able to achieve with limited resources and knowledge. The Parthenon set a new standard when it was built, and their descendants are required to learn from it and excel it in every aspect. The Parthenon was also among one of the earliest buildings that embodied the golden ratio. Whether the Greeks purposefully implemented the golden ratio in the Parthenon is still under debate, but solid evidence have shown that the golden section governs the entire building; from the composition of the entablature to the spacing of each column. The Parthenon, to Francois Blondel, was “good and magnificent” because it came from mathematics, and mathematics is basis of all sciences. He states that “much would be gained if architects studied mathematics and mathematicians studied architecture. (Gomez 42)”

Blondel also made it clear that “External ornaments do not constitute beauty. Beauty cannot exist when the proportions are missing. (Gomez 45)” Of all architects that subscribed to Blondel’s belief in absence of ornamentation, Adolf Loos is perhaps the architect that fully articulated the belief in his buildings. “Ornament is no longer a natural product of our culture” (Loos 22) Loos believes the absence of ornament is the style of his age. He thinks ornaments are types of excessive decoration and they are characteristics of older societies. Ornamentation, according to Loos, is a luxury that is slowing down the human evolution because men are wrongly focused on things they do not need. Loos also mentions “the modern man uses his clothes as a mask.” (Loos 24) Combining his theory on excessive ornamentation and how he portrays the modern man should dress, Loos creates the exterior of his Muller house as a simple white box that presents itself as merely a mask – refusing to communicate or show itself to the outer world. The interior of the Muller house, however, is very elaborately articulated comparing to the exterior. While considering himself as a modern man, Loos creates the interior of the Muller House very carefully with the use of preexisting geometric systems and proportions, and among them the golden ratio. The golden section can be found in both the inside and outside of the building where “the diagonal of the half of the original squares on the facade is resulting from certain harmonic bisections of the overall shape that is in proportion with the golden section (Besser et al.).” While Loos is extremely careful with his minimal exterior façade, he implemented the golden ratio in both the exterior and interior of the Muller house. This proves that Loos understands the ancient geometric system’s timeless qualities, and that the golden proportion is above the qualities he considered “modern” at the time. The implementation of the golden ratio is Loos’ way of acknowledging the importance of knowledge from the past.

Similar to Loos, Johann Winckelmann also deeply believed the authority of the golden section and where it stemmed from: the human body. As portrayed by the ancient Greek, the human body is the perfect form - both aesthetically and historically: “For example, the bilateral symmetry in any building provided a positive delight precisely because it was an imitation of the disposition of a beautiful face or human body (Gomez 45).” Just as Wincklemann, Le Corbusier acknowledges the close relation between the human body and the golden section. The Modulor Man – created by Le Corbusier – is a system that uses the golden ratio to form a scale system of architectural proportion. The creation of the Modulor man is an attempt to reinvent the Vitruvian man - which interesting enough - was Da Vinci’s attempt to reinvent the golden section. The Vitruvian man aimed to improve the image and function of an object through imposing proportions of the human body.

Le Corbusier was clearly acknowledging the importance of the older system of Vitruvius. The system was however outdated, Le Corbusier therefore updated it with the implementation of new standards including the Anglo Saxon foot and inch system, and the French metric system. Le Corbusier writes “rhythms apparent to the eye and clear in their relations with one another. And these rhythms are at the very root of human activities. They resound in man by an organic inevitability, the same fine inevitability which causes the tracing out of the Golden Section by children, old men, savages, and the learned. (Le Corbusier 3) ” System Modulor is applied in many of his buildings including the Unite d’habitation of Marseille and the Sainte Marie da La Tourette. The modulor and the golden ratio, to Le Corbusier, is a sacred system that will aid the complex problem of building design in ways perfected for the human body. The Modulor also served as a symbol of Le Corbusier’s realization of the importance to recollect from the ancients, and it remains prominent in his works.

Blondel and Wincklemann are correct in the sense that conventions and tradition should be celebrated, but it is impossible for the society to not look for ways to advance. Adolf Loos acknowledges that, and allowed the ancient system a place in his modern buildings. Le Corbusier understood that, and developed new systems based on that very belief. Progress and tradition are built from each other. In order for one to innovate, it is absolutely necessary for one to recognize the importance of the wisdom from the past. Just as Lebbeus Woods puts it, “if ideas were immortal, we wouldn’t have anything to do. Because we die, and because knowledge can’t be transferred directly, each person has to reinvent the form of ideas all over again. Our social existence is about helping each other to do just that. (Woods 2)”