A PLEA FOR THE MODULOR
December 8, 2016
What is the point of looking back at Le Corbusier’s Modulor in this digital day and age? Let me start with what appears as an antithesis. In Le Modulor Le Corbusier proposes a universal apparatus that provides what today we would call topological continuity:
My dream is to set up, on the building sites which will spring up all over our country one day, a “grid of proportions”, drawn on the wall or made of strip iron, which will serve as a rule for the whole project, a norm offering an endless series of different combinations and proportions; the mason, the carpenter, the joiner will consult it whenever they have to choose the measures for their work; and all the things they make, different and varied as they are, will be united in harmony. That is my dream (my italics).i
“Only ten days or so after distributing Modulor tape measures to his assistants, Le Corbusier forbade their use.”ii It is also well known that in at least one occasion Le Corbusier stated:
Le Modulor, je m’en fiche (I don’t give a damn about the Modulor).iii
What appears as an antithesis, ambivalence, or opposition between two terms, is a highly reticulated field of different stylistic procedures and operations, technical objects and instruments or as I call them, model-spaces. The two parts of the antithesis––the Modulor and anti-Modulor, the geometrical and non-geometrical––are two different modalities, whose very existence as [their] difference is a function of technics and their relative speed. This difference is a function of the time it takes for the different model-spaces to take place, operate, and reticulate with one another. The slower the speed, more distinct, distant, and opposed these modalities appear in relation to one another; and conversely, the higher the speed, less distinct, distant and opposed they appear. I use the term speed (and time) in the literal sense of the time required to perform a certain task or series of tasks, as well as [and especially] in the sense of the degree according to which these different model-spaces are historically more or less unified and universalized through technology. Do traces of such ambivalence and what this ambivalence is an effect of, that is, the reticulation of different model-spaces, still exist in contemporary architecture and architect’s relationship to his instruments and technics? Can and should such ambivalence exist, today? If yes, what form should it take given today’s historically unprecedented advances in computational speed?
Every universal needs a body, some body. In order to be constructed and transmitted from one subject to another subject, from one subject to an object, or from an object to another object, this universal, whether a golden section geometry or advanced algorithm, needs some kind of technics: pencil and paper, software and hardware, a geometrical, natural, or artificial language, some kind of memory machine that operates through letters, graphics, glyphs, traces or digital circuits. This process of encounter is conditioned by technical finitude; it happens with a certain amount of speed (however fast it may be) and it takes a certain amount of time and delay (however short it may be). This delay opens up the possibility of what Bernard Stiegler calls individuation, which is a process in and during which the universal [message] is stylized and idiomatized.iv Finding this delay is itself a stylistic process. Style-as-individuation is [the] incalculable.
Le Corbusier’s Modulor is such an attempt at individuation. What ideologically, symbolically and technically stands for anthropometric proportions, golden section and neo-Pythagorean geometry undergoes stylization. This style-as-individuation is achieved through a reticulation of different model-spaces: grids of proportions, geometrical patterns, objets ambigus such as shell forms and industrial objects, sketches and drawings, photographs and paintings, visualization and calculation methods, tabulated values, historical examples and precedents, texts such as personal accounts and correspondences (in the form of what we today would call personal relations and social media), and concrete architectural examples, both modular-like looking buildings like the Habitation de Marseille and curvy-looking buildings like Ronchamp, the latter being a quintessential example of non-modularity. These different model spaces perform as incomputable limits of one another.
Is style still possible today, in the context of an ever increasing computational speed, that is, in a context where the reader and the writer tend to be unified, integrated, and universalized? The question is timely precisely today, when, because of the rapidly growing yet deceptively unlimited computational speed, the monstrous and frightening dream of a universal and “hegemonic style”v – or what comes to the same thing, a universal computational and symbolic apparatus without any lack – might appear to come true.
Yet, there is no such thing as a universal and hegemonic epochal style. Style cannot quite become hegemonic. While style always emerges from an epochal already-there, say, a large Style, it is irreducible to that epochal already-there. Style-as-individuation is radically resistant to both hegemony and “apodicticity. It can never be apo-dictized. Like all idiom style is untranslatable.”vi However well optimized and unified the relationship between writer and reader might be, the prehensive encounters between the two are open to singularity and individuation.