Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Rule of Geometry

I heard this from a lecture by Ron Jelaco. He said he heard it from Peter Carl, who is completing a book called Some things are Sacred, Others are Not... which deals with this. Corbusier denied all of it.

What is geometry? Where can we find it?

These can be answered easily enough just looking at its axiomatic meanings (1 + 1 = 2 . Okay). But to figure out how to participate with geometry, understand it as the embodiment – more than the diagram – we need to take it from the instrumental and axiomatic meaning to the ethical and metaphorical meaning (1 Apple + 1 Bananna = 2 Fruits. Are they ripe? Do they small nicely? What kind of apple?).

Geometry is the way we tend to represent reality. It deals with spatial relationships, but it gets really hard to try and talk about it because it is an idea. It’s not something concrete. It’s not something you can look out the window and say, Hey! Geometry! Get out of my yard!

Why do we automatically jump to Corbusier? First, he was beyond smart. He was a complex thinker to the nth degree. Second, he set before himself the question, What meaning is embodied in proportion and harmony?

Corb found these three: geometry is math in its metaphorical dimension, geometry is l’ordinateur du form, and the axiomatic realities of geometry have nothing to do with the real world.

With Da Vinci, we recognize the familiar theme of defining man’s geometry, but Corb took his Le Modular slightly differently. Where the Vitruvian man creates his geometry, Corb’s extends beyond the body, forcing the latent space to begin to define the body. Said touched on this subject for most of his career, though he may not have know it. Corb uses his man and the golden ratio to design L'unité d'habitation in Marseilles. What we can see from Corb’s drawing of the modular man is the way he arrives at the golden ratio. He takes two equal squares and puts a third over the top to arrive at the same proportion as the golden means - he doubles the square.

Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, France

The site reminded Corb of the seven weeks he spent studying the Acropolis. At the Acropolis he found the golden ration everywhere – the face of the Parthenon, the scale of the site and buildings, et cetera. Ronchamps is the fifth building on the site. First was a pagan sun temple, then a roman fortress, then a 4th century Christian church, then a later church that was bombed in World War Two. From the top of the hill you can see all four horizons. The program is difficult because the congregation is small, but every September 15th, thousands of people flock to it. It is the pilgrimage site of the Feast of Assumption. Corb overcame this by providing an altar outside.

Father Couturier asked him to design Ronchamp. The Catholic church was desperate to regain touch with society and they had decided to do it through the arts. Father Couturier is a very interesting guy.

Corb designed Ronchamp. It exhibits characteristics uncharacteristic of a Christian church or cathedral: a convex roof instead of a vaulted ceiling, a convex space behind the altar instead of a nave, it lacks many of the other common meditations with heaven the convex curves defy. It lacks a cross floor plan. The floor slopes down to the altar. It has no rose windows. Instead of delicately buttressed stone, the building uses bulky concrete walls and ceiling. After the plan and elevations were released, many of Father Couturier’s colleagues objected to his choice, saying Corb was not catholic, not even Christian, and was in some ways a vocal atheist. Father Couturier replied, “Corb is a veritable Christian, only 5000 years before Christ.” Of course this elated Corb, who later said that comment “means we’re getting close to pure form.” While designing the building, Corb oscillated seamlessly back and forth between his painting and his architecture and many of the forms come directly out of his Taureau series of paintings.

The building itself lies on a complex six-by-six grid. Most of the form’s relationships can be unlocked using just one grid, but adding the second square, then the third for the Golden Means, unlocks astounding geometry. The south-side wall cuts all project straight to a corner in the original six-by-six. Taking the first two square’s diagonals, finding where they intersect the third square, then extending a line along those two points finds the diagonal of Le Modular. Starting with parallel lines, the building begins to unfold, revealing itself on the grid. I will go no further but there is much, much further to go.

Corb never talked much about his church, and he was usually a shameless self-promoter. The one thing he did say is, “the chapel reveals itself to those who have a rite to it. That is to say, those who deserve it.”

(That bit about pure form is very interesting. This is a conversation Ron and A. had on this subject:

A.: The thing that I tried to do was react from what everybody else’s design factors were and make a building that evoked some emotional response.

Ron: How? You can’t do that. It can’t be purposefully done. Architecture does not affect emotionally – I’ve gone on record at several schools saying that. An architect cannot predict what effect his building has. It’s not in the program. Not today at least. It is a deep and complicated subject, but right now there is no Universal Truth in Architecture. I told you why I’m here, didn’t I? Didn’t I say something like that? I don’t think my generation has the capability to overcome the problems in architecture, but yours might. I wanted a hand in training the generation that might overcome the barriers. My generation is too enamored with architecture as a technology. There is so much good architecture out there that it makes me sick. I don’t think Corb cared about what people would feel coming into his building. Like we discussed, it was just Corb.)

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