In 1907, just before leaving on his first extended trip away from La Chaux-de-Fonds, Le Corbusier—known then as Charles-Edouard Jeanneret—gave to a friend a French edition of John Ruskin’s popular book, Sesame and Lilies.1 For those engaged in the intricate process of attempting to order, to understand, and to come to terms with Le Corbusier’s vast legacy of visual and written documents, words of admonition—and solace—are found in Ruskin’s section “Of Kings’ Treasuries,” on the treasures to be found in books.
“Do you deserve to enter?” This is the question Ruskin would have us believe is posed to all who wish to pass through the “Elysian gates” to the world of thought contained in the writings of the savants of past generations. He cautions:
… be sure that you go to the author to get at his meaning, not to find yours…. And be sure also, if the author is worth anything, that you will not get at his meaning all at once,—nay, that at his whole meaning you will not for a long time arrive in any wise. Not that he does not say what he means, and in strong words too; but he cannot say it all, and what is more strange, will not, but in a hidden way and in parables, in order that he may be sure you want it.2
In his own writings, Le Corbusier described the creations of the artist in somewhat similar terms. “In a complete and successful work,” he wrote, “there are hidden masses of implications, a veritable world which reveals itself to those whom it may concern, which means: to those who deserve it.”3
These ideas are important to keep in mind when dealing with the work of Le Corbusier. Those who search for meaning in his work soon discover that they cannot find it simply by reading his texts in chronological order or reconstructing the chronology of his artistic production. For although there is a great sense of direction in his work and an overall progression from one phase to another, he was in the habit of making frequent allusions to thoughts or images from his earlier work, often using them as a starting point for new variations or developments. For this reason, one can learn a great deal about his total work through the study of one element, but one can learn only a limited amount about that element without studying his total work.
The present essay, which grew from research on Le Corbusier’s earliest drawings,4 attempts to follow from Le Corbusier’s youth some of the peregrinations of one recurring element: the tree.
Arbre, compagnon millénaire de l’homme!
Le Corbusier’s awareness of some of the abundant imagery associated with trees began at an early age. He loved the surrounding Neuchâtel Jura and the landscape of the nearby Doubs River, which formed the border toward France. He knew this countryside intimately, having grown up in a family atmosphere where the out-of-doors and Alpinism were among the dominant interests. In addition, his school years coincided with the wave of enthusiasm for natural forms which had characterized the Art Nouveau movement and which still influenced the efforts of one of his teachers, Charles L’Eplattenier, to establish a vocabulary of forms based on Jura motifs. L’Eplattenier’s endeavor had its first flowering precisely during Le Corbusier’s time at the Ecole d’Art from 1902 to 1906, particularly during 1905 and 1906, the first year of L’Eplattenier’s Cours supérieur d’art et de décoration.6
The training Le Corbusier received at the Ecole d’Art concerned in large measure the analysis of forms from the immediate environment, vegetable in nature, as well as mineral and animal. While all these motifs show up in his early drawings, the tree, without question, occupied a foremost place in his creative work.
Le Corbusier studied the tree from many points of view. Following a method somewhat like that demonstrated in works by Eugène Grasset,7 he sketched it in its landscape setting, then reduced it to basic elementary shapes, either in whole or in part, to serve as design units to be repeated horizontally and on occasion vertically. In addition, he analyzed growth patterns, investigated the principles of root structure, and studied forms in section as well as elevation and plan. In his drawings, he even considered the tree form for its direct analogies to architectural elements, roots forming the bases of the framing elements of windows, trunks serving aspiloti, masses of foliage defining the shapes of openings, branch patterns forming mullions and bars. Similarities exist between some of the concepts expressed in Le Corbusier’s drawings and those found illustrated or described in other major source books from the nineteenth century.8
The tree motif carried over into Le Corbusier’s early architectural work at La Chaux-de-Fonds: his designs for façades for Beau-Site (1905), a new structure for the Union Chrétienne de Jeunes Gens;9 his house for Louis Fallet fils (1906-1907), the first of his four houses on the hillside of the Pouillerel overlooking La Chaux-de-Fonds from the northwest; and his collaborative effort with colleagues from the Ecole on the no longer extant music room for Matthey-Doret (1906) and on the interior redecoration of the Chapelle indépendante of Cernier-Fontainemelon in the Val-de-Ruz (1907).
An examination of his use of decorative forms during this early period reveals a general consistency in attitude: motifs from nature—however abstracted—were applied most frequently in their normal position of growth as found in nature, obeying the laws of gravity and the sun. In the music room (Fig. 11), for instance, a pine tree motif was elongated and stylized on the window and door frames; branches, heavy with pendant cones, were worked into the plaster of the upper wall surfaces. The ultimate source of this decorative motif was even made part of the total composition of the room, since one wall (that away from the piano and organ) was dominated by the view through the large window of the living trees outside and by the light which flooded in, giving perpetual life to the plants worked in stained glass. Judging from the typical height of a chair, this window measured almost two meters square, a size unusual for domestic use.
Although Le Corbusier’s contribution to the design of this music room ensemble has not been definitively established,10 surviving drawings give clues to the nature of his involvement. One such drawing (Fig. 12) relates to the woodwork. There is an obvious formal relationship between the finished window and door framing and these studies which combine the tops of branches, pendant cones, and the grouping of four or more implied tree trunks with bark patterns and residual branching.
In Vienna, after his Italian trip with Léon Perrin in the fall of 1907, he designed two houses for sites farther up the hill from the Matthey-Doret house and L’Eplattenier’s neighboring home. These were constructed under the supervision of René Chapallaz in 1908, one for Albert Stotzer, the other for Jules Jaquemet. While both houses retained certain motifs relating to the tree, especially for mullions and the barge boards of the Maison Stotzer, they already reflect a new attitude, being far more sparing in the quantity of decorative motifs employed. Le Corbusier’s interest in the detailing of the stonework (gained through close observation of Florentine examples) held the upper hand. One of the strongest features is the northwest entrance of the Maison Stotzer (Fig. 13), where the void reads as the motif of a pine tree while the solid reads as a stepped-rock motif—a device used earlier in various ways in the Maison Fallet, where a tree motif had even dominated several elevations.
Even during his subsequent work with the Perrets in Paris, Le Corbusier proposed the application of pine motifs as decoration for no less a location than the ceilings and walls of the loggias of the Perrets’ new apartment building at 25 bis Rue Franklin, the building which housed their offices.11
During Le Corbusier’s absence from La Chaux-de-Fonds in Paris in 1908 and 1909 and later in Germany in 1910 and 1911, tree and plant motifs continued to be important in the designs of his colleagues at home who formed the Ateliers d’art réunis, particularly in their work for the main hall of the Post Office at La Chaux-de-Fonds and for the Crematorium, where trees featured in L’Eplattenier’s murals. Soon after this group was officially incorporated on 15 March 1910,12 Le Corbusier, in a letter to Léon Perrin,13 suggested designs for their emblem. The pine tree was included, with emphasis on its triangular form, along with a stepped-rock motif and a curved form.14 The triangle of the pine may even have been relevant in Le Corbusier’s proposed structure for artists’ studios grouped around a central two-level Salle du Cours (the pyramidal roof of this space reads as a triangle in elevation),15 as it seems to have been in an earlier design for a railway station.
In 1910 and 1911, Le Corbusier’s attitude toward the decorative arts and architecture changed radically as the result of his travel, reading, study, and work away from home.16 This change in attitude reveals itself in his designs. Thus, even though he still produced some of his most handsome ornamental repeat patterns based on pine motifs around the time that he returned from his Orient trip to La Chaux-de-Fonds in November of 1911 (to prepare to take up his teaching post at the Ecole d’Art in L’Eplattenier’s Nouvelle Section), his two houses from this period have little applied ornament. But one motif was retained for both houses, that of the pine cone/pine tree. It was used, modestly, as the newel post of the main stair of the house for his parents at La Chaux-de-Fonds (1912) (as it would be later at the Villa Schwob) and was employed in several variations for capitals for La Forêt, the Villa Favre-Jacot at Le Locle (1912).
The applied patterns produced by Le Corbusier’s students17 tended toward the drastic reduction of thematic material to simple geometrical shapes, as seen on the bottom of a page from the 1912 Prospectus of the Nouvelle Section18 (Fig. 14). A few of the patterns actually negate the implied three-dimensional form they decorate and would seem to presage Art Deco and Op Art; but triangular pine and stepped-rock motifs can still be recognized as the bases for some of these designs. In their repetition of units both horizontally and vertically and in their avoidance of shadow, the designs achieve a weightless quality not unlike that typical of works of the Wiener Werkstaette.
Although employing different means, Le Corbusier strove for somewhat the same weightless effect in his atectonic detailing of the upper story of the main façade of the Villa Favre-Jacot (Fig. 15). Because of the heavy shadow above it, the lintel over the tripartite entrance seems to have no carrying function. Also, the cone/tree motif serving as a capital for the flanking pilasters seems neither to crown nor to support, since the design unit has been repeated four times, oriented diagonally, as though one were regarding the capital in plan rather than in elevation. In addition, the device of enclosing the major elements of the façade with a continuous straight profile (which is brought downward but never carried upward to the roofline) serves the same purpose of negating load and support. This treatment reveals that Le Corbusier’s concept of architecture had indeed changed, and reflects, in its own complexity, the disparate and at times conflicting influences affecting this change.
By 1914, he renounced self-conscious attempts to produce a Swiss or a local architecture and denounced ornament altogether19—in principle, if not in practice. As a result, the tree, as a motif for applied decoration, all but disappeared during his remaining years at La Chaux-de-Fonds.20
But as part of real landscape, the tree took on new importance. Le Corbusier’s letterhead of 1912, listing his services as the architect of the Ateliers d’art réunis, included “architecture de jardins.” Among his schemes involving landscaping was a design for the extensive grounds of the Villa Favre-Jacot. Favre-Jacot also owned one of the oldest farmhouses in the region, the Maison du Diable.21 Le Corbusier’s project for the adaptation of this structure, probably inspired by its partial demolition in March of 1912, called for a far bolder use of plant materials on the roof terrace than his project for artists’ studios of 1910. Later, he projected extensive plantings as an integral part of the roofscape of the Villa Schwob (1916) and included double rows and isolated trees in his formal, symmetrical design for the gardens (Fig. 16); a panel with a deciduous tree with the date 1916 was to be the decorative element over the right entrance of the main façade.
Another aspect of Le Corbusier’s interest in trees during his La Chaux-de-Fonds years—and one of considerable importance—was that he too followed the lead of the Garden City Movement. He planned for Gustave Arnold Beck in 1914 a Cité jardin for a vast tract of land acquired by Beck on 30 April22 of that year, on ground known as Les Crêtets, across La Chaux-de-Fonds from his early houses. In doing so, he was following in a tradition in which the tree was not only an omnipresent element in physical site planning but was the very symbol in the literature of the movement23—stemming from Ruskin and William Morris—of “the good life.” In the Beck project, existing allées were retained; other trees were planned to border the main central way and to define the semi-circular contour of the land. At the southwest end of the site, space was reserved on an existing knoll for an elevated grove of trees,24 rather like a symbolic shaded promontory to which one could retire to survey the panorama, or to meditate.
From this brief survey, it is evident that the tree as a physical reality and as a stylized motif was very much a part of Le Corbusier’s early design vocabulary and that within the time span of his first thirty years (1887-1917), spent largely at La Chaux-de-Fonds, his interest in the tree manifested itself in many different ways. In searching for the meanings which Le Corbusier may have associated with the tree, one must turn to his early formative years and his first concern with this motif.
L’art et la beauté moralisent à leur façon….
L’Eplattenier’s successful attempts to develop with his students a vocabulary of forms based on Jura motifs was not an exercise in empty formalism. The adaptation of motifs had deeper significance for those engaged in the process, over and above its obvious regionalist implications. Some of the meaning attached to the process undoubtedly came from Owen Jones, whose Grammar of Ornament was popular in L’Eplattenier’s classes not only for its thirty-seven Propositions which set forth principles “in the arrangement of form and colour, in architecture and the decorative arts” but also for its magnificent color plates illustrating the ornament of past ages.
To overcome the eclecticism of the architecture of his day, Jones proposed the comparative study of ornament of the past and of natural plant form as well as the principles which reign in each. In his view, new forms and new ornament developed from such study might eventually lead to a new architecture. While most of his discussion is scientific in tenor, he closed the work on a religious note in speaking of “the Creator.” He wrote, “… as all His works are offered for our enjoyment, so are they offered for our study. They are there to awaken a natural instinct implanted in us,—a desire to emulate in the works of our hands, the order, the symmetry, the grace, the fitness, which the Creator has sown broadcast over the earth.”26
John Ruskin also was interested in principles in art and nature, as in The Elements of Drawing, but he was just as interested in applying these principles, through analogy, to the behavior of man. In the moralistic writings of Ruskin, one finds many potential sources of inspiration for specific motifs developed by L’Eplattenier’s group27 as well as for the meaning possibly associated with these motifs. Particularly in regard to trees, Ruskin’s potential influence was considerable, since unlike Jones he was not content with straightforward description and analysis but interlaced his writings on trees, especially in Modern Painters, Volume 5, with references to many other things—even quoting Herodotus and Keats.
Writing at a time when the ill effects of industrialization were rampant, Ruskin lamented the loss of traditional values and likened the acts of a good society to tree growth. “The power of every great people,” he wrote, “as of every living tree, depends on its not effacing, but confirming and concluding, the labors of its ancestors.” In making such comparisons, Ruskin referred frequently to Biblical sources, seldom bothering to identify a particular passage, such as the famous vision of the Messianic age: “As the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands….” (Isaiah 65:22).28
The Biblical reference and the context in which Ruskin used it seem appropriate to one of the early design tasks Le Corbusier was associated with, the interior redecoration of the Chapelle indépendante at Cernier-Fontainemelon. The work for this chapel—a modest structure set between two villages amid agricultural land in a part of Switzerland famous for its horology—was undertaken just during that period when some of the handcraft aspects of horology in this region were fighting a losing battle for survival, in spite of the efforts of L’Eplattenier and others for their revitalization.
Trees are the dominant motif of the chapel interior (Fig. 17), whose totality was the most complete visual statement made by L’Eplattenier’s group before Le Corbusier left La Chaux-de-Fonds in early September 1907. A contemporaneous description reads, in part:
The theme chosen by the student who had conceived the project of the decoration was this: in the middle of a forest all is calm and silent; one does not see the sky except in raising the eyes; all around pine trees form by their branches a tapestry rich in designs and in colors, joined to the earth by columns, the verticals of trunks; lower down the plants, their flowers form the most agreeable carpet. The calm is complete; the attention is involuntarily attracted by the radiance of the sky in which the “Cross” appears resplendent with light.29
Upon close inspection, the design reveals that not only is the Cross resplendent with light, with the circular form of the sun behind it, but rays shine forth in all directions, reaching downward to touch the upturned branches of the pine trees.
The forms of the trees of this upper zone of the wall decoration, which is inscribed “Gloire à Dieu,” seem to relate to Ruskin’s discussion of the four great laws which summarize the principles ascertained in trees:
1. Support from one living root.
2. Radiation, or tendency of force from some one given point, either in the root, or in some stated connexion with it.
3. Liberty of each bough to seek its own livelihood and happiness according to its needs, by irregularities of action both in its play and its work, …
4. Imperative requirement of each bough to stop within certain limits, expressive of its kindly friendship and fraternity with the boughs in its neighbourhood; and to work with them according to its power, magnitude, and state of health, to bring out the general perfectness of the great curve, and circumferent stateliness of the whole tree.30
Since, for Ruskin, “There is no moral vice, no moral virtue, which has not its precise prototype in the art of painting; so that you may at your will illustrate the moral habit by the art, or the art by the moral habit,”31 there were naturally moral analogies to be drawn from the four laws. He left the reader to draw his own analogies from the first, third, and fourth laws, but took no chances with the second, explaining:
It typically expresses that healthy human actions should spring radiantly (like rays) from some single heart motive; the most beautiful systems of action taking place when this motive lies at the root of the whole life, and the action is clearly seen to proceed from it; while also many beautiful secondary systems of action taking place from motives not so deep or central, but in some beautiful subordinate connexion with the central or life motive.
The other laws, if you think over them, you will find equally significative; and as you draw trees more and more in their various states of health and hardship, you will be every day more struck by the beauty of the types they present of the truths most essential for mankind to know1; and you will see what this vegetation of the earth, which is necessary to our life, first, as purifying the air for us and then as food, and just as necessary to our joy in all places of the earth,—what these trees and leaves, I say, are meant to teach us as we contemplate them, and read or hear their lovely language, written or spoken for us, not in frightful black letters, nor in dull sentences, but in fair green and shadowy shapes of waving words, and blossomed brightness of odoriferous wit, and sweet whispers of unintrusive wisdom, and playful morality.32
In the footnote “1” of this passage, Ruskin discusses the rays of light from the sun, which come “straight from Him,” “the greater Sun,” and which, filtered through leaves and striking the ground, still bear “His image.”
The pine trees and their branches in the design at the chapel have been regularized in the service of greater decorative power, but their organization certainly reflects what Ruskin prescribed: support from one living root, radiation, liberty in the search for light, and the interrelatedness of the group. Even for those unaware of Ruskin’s moral analogies and their social and religious implications, the sense of order achieved by the composition with its assemblage of ordered elements oriented toward “the Light” is very striking. The design in its simplicity and in its directness of iconographic program was well suited to a chapel meant to serve orderly rural Jura communities.
Ruskin had gone to great lengths in Modern Painters, Volume 5, to define what the pine tree signified. In his terms, the deciduous tree was the “shield-builder” but the pines were the “wild builders with the sword.” Ruskin did not analyze the pine in as much detail as he had its leafy counterpart, leaving that to his reader. But he did make some general statements, for example:
A sword-builder may … be generally considered as a shield-builder put under the severest military restraint….
Of the many marked adaptations of nature to the mind of man, it seems one of the most singular, that trees intended especially for the adornment of the wildest mountains should be in broad outline the most formal of trees…. The pine, placed nearly always among scenes disordered and desolate, brings into them all possible elements of order and precision. … let storm and avalanche do their worst, and let the pine find only a ledge of vertical precipice to cling to, it will nevertheless grow straight. Thrust a rod from its last shoot down the stem;—it shall point to the centre of the earth as long as the tree lives…. the pine is trained to need nothing, and to endure everything. It is resolvedly whole, self-contained, desiring nothing but rightness. … It may be permitted … to these soft lowland trees that they should make themselves gay with show of blossom…. We builders with the sword have harder work to do for man, and must do it in close-set troops…. we pines must live carelessly amidst the wrath of clouds…. we builders with the sword perish boldly; our dying shall be perfect and solemn, as our warring: we give up our lives without reluctance, and for ever.33
Ruskin goes on to discuss the main “characters” of the pine: its straightness and rounded perfectness; its magnificent erectness, “Magnificent!—nay, sometimes, almost terrible”; its exquisite fineness, its finished delicacy.34
But this for him is not enough. There must be further analogies. He sees the influence of the vegetation of a country on the human character of its residents: “… the tremendous unity of the pine absorbs and moulds the life of a race. The pine shadows [pyramidal in form, he notes earlier] rest upon a nation.”35 He concludes by describing the Helvetii as “the foremost standard-bearers among the nations of Europe in the cause of loyalty and life—loyalty in its highest sense, to the laws of God’s helpful justice, and of man’s faithful and brotherly fortitude.”36
Once one has read Ruskin on trees, one cannot walk in the woods without being haunted by the imagery of his vivid descriptions and analogies. For someone Swiss-born, and especially for someone from the Neuchâtel Jura where majestic white pines are the dominant features of the landscape, the image of the pine tree would become mingled with prevalent visions of patriotism,37 with God’s justice, with the uprightness of the individual, with an active, building principle—warring for the good of right and brother, with potency, strength, dignity, and resolve. Another look at the decoration of the altar wall at the chapel reveals that the Cross is not isolated in the heavens amid the radiant light but is actually the continuation of the main trunk of the central pines: God and the tree, and by analogy, man, are all inextricably bound in one grand design.
Since this moralizing attitude toward nature and the function of the artist in evidence at the chapel at Cernier-Fontainemelon was such an integral part of Le Corbusier’s early training, it is understandable that it would exert an influence on his later development.
If the artist tells, he is betraying himself!
We cannot know what Le Corbusier’s vocabulary of forms meant to him. We can, at best, reconstruct contexts, analyze forms, and scrutinize verbal statements in the hope that by doing so we may at least begin to approach the artist’s intention.
Since Ruskin put so much emphasis on the pine as the builder with the sword, for example, is there any relation between this notion and a drawing by Le Corbusier39 that supposedly shows his coat of arms around 1920? The drawing includes, top to bottom, a sword (with red) shown horizontally with the handle at the left, a cloudlike form (with blue) and a star shape (with yellow), with the words, “La vie est sans pitié.”40 Is this image, said to be “les armoiries d’un jeune homme qui n’était nullement pessimiste,” the sword builder living carelessly amidst the wrath of the clouds or ineffable space, defending “uprightness” or constructing for a high purpose? Is there any connection between what Ruskin wrote on the structure of trees and the statement published in Après le Cubisme of 1918 concerning the research of laws of harmony that alludes to “des axes principaux, comme dans l’arbre les feuilles, les rameaux, les branches, un tronc”?41
While these are isolated examples, many related questions arise concerning Le Corbusier’s book The Radiant City,42 the first diagram of which illustrates how to plant a tree. References to trees are scattered throughout. Even on the cover one finds the symbols of this urbanistic concept: an orange-red sun—soleil, a blue cloud—espace, and a deciduous tree with a double-branched trunk (Ruskin’s most perfect tree shape),43 the base of which also serves as the trunk of a green triangle (the pine) behind—verdure. Are there analogies to tree structure, albeit imperfect, in such symbolic notions as façades as the “providers of light” (leaves), partitions considered as “membranes” (secondary branches), floors “carried independently of the façade, by posts” (branches and trunks)?44 Even the basic materials of city planning were seen to be “sun, sky, trees, steel, cement, in that strict order of importance.” “The basic pleasures [les joies essentielles],” Le Corbusier wrote, “by which I mean sun, greenery and space, penetrate into the uttermost depths of our physiological and psychological being. They bring us back into harmony with the profound and natural purpose of life.”45 Elsewhere in The Radiant City Le Corbusier links psychophysiological needs with “collective participation and the freedom of the individual [liberté individuelle].”46
Collective participation and the freedom of the individual were basic notions of Ruskin’s fourth and third laws ascertained in trees. It seems possible, therefore, that the term ville radieuse47 may be related to Ruskin’s second law on “radiation” and his moral analogy “that healthy human actions should spring radiantly (like rays) from some single heart motive.” Ruskin’s thought that the more one knows trees the more one gains from them “the truths most essential for mankind to know” and his notion that the vegetation of the earth is “necessary to our joy in all places of the earth” are certainly in harmony with Le Corbusier’s plea for “ies joies essentielles.”
Indeed, Section 4, “Laws,” of Part 3 of The Radiant City is very much like a modern-day Modern Painters written of course not in defense of a modern-day J. M. W. Turner, but in defense of Le Corbusier’s own thought on architectural and urban form.48
Le Corbusier’s acute awareness of natural events and cosmic phenomena could have found direct inspiration in Ruskin’s writings: man in relation to the total environment is the constant theme. By the thirties, the bird’s-eye view of the earth possible from an airplane had revealed nature to man in new ways; Le Corbusier expressed these revelations in terms of “character,” the same term employed by Ruskin in his discussion of the pine, and elsewhere concerning natural phenomena. “We are confirmed in the belief that character is one of the essential components of the created universe,” wrote Le Corbusier. “And that since the order of that universe is so beautiful and the characters that compose it so clear-cut, we too should base our own human creations on the eminent values to be observed in character.”49
This notion may hark back to his student days at La Chaux-de-Fonds, for on the previous page he speaks of another new way in which technology had permitted man to look at nature. Slow motion studies (photography plus clockwork, he notes) of leaves had revealed their motion, following the sun in the course of a day. “To our insufficiently sagacious eyes,” he wrote, “it appeared that the foliage prolonging the movement of the branches, stems, or trunk of a tree or a plant were disposed around it like a symmetrical crown; that the leaves of a tree stood as motionless and quiescent around a tree trunk as the petals around a moon daisy, or the scales around an artichoke.” Ruskin had referred to the artichoke50 by way of comparison in discussing the shape and packing of boughs. Le Corbusier continues his description of the leaves following the sun, “This tiny and pathetic adventure, lived out daily by a tiny little leaf, by the billions of tiny leaves that form part of the complex existence of hedgerows or great forests, always obeying and turning their faces to the great warm star, proclaims the fundamental law of this earth we live on: that the sun is our dictator.”51 The echo of Ruskin seems clear.
To pursue this further, compare texts by Ruskin and Le Corbusier on city life versus country life:
Still if human life be cast among trees at all, the love borne to them is a sure test of its purity. And it is a sorrowful proof of the mistaken ways of the world that the “country,” in the simple sense of a place of fields and trees, has hitherto been the source of reproach to its inhabitants, … as if it were quite necessary and natural that country-people should be rude, and towns-people gentle. Whereas I believe that the result of each mode of life may, in some stages of the world’s progress, be the exact reverse; and that another use of words may be forced upon us by a new aspect of facts, so that we may find ourselves saying: “Such and such a person is very gentle and kind—he is quite rustic; and such and such another person is very rude and illtaught—he is quite urbane….
And indeed I had once purposed, in this work, to show what kind of evidence existed respecting the possible influence of country life on men; it seeming to me, then, likely that here and there a reader would perceive this to be a grave question, more than most which we contend about, political or social, and might care to follow it out with me earnestly.52
… I am attracted to a natural order of things. … in my flight from city living I end up in places where society is in the process of organization. I look for primitive men, not for their barbarity but for their wisdom ….
The city? It’s already an empty shell. Its product is there all right, polished and superb, clear as crystal. The fruit of culture. But look at the refuse and scum. Look at the misery, the unhappiness and stupidity. People behave like children, negatively and destructively, without meaning to ….
I go where order is coming out of the endless dialogue between man and nature, out of the struggle for life, out of the enjoyment of leisure under the open sky, in the passing of the seasons, the song of the sea.
I go where tools are being put to use: the primary tools that are required for the purpose of making existence possible within the limits of the day, the seasons, the years and the generations.53
Le Corbusier obviously considered “the possible influence of country life on men” to be a grave question. Whether this has Ruskinian roots can be debated, but his use of visual images in The Radiant City suggests a connection. The “harmony” of the pine cone is illustrated, as well as “the stupendous and extraordinary explosion of the bud.”54 The bud shown seems to be a later ink version of a pencil drawing from his student days, dated April 1908.55 Used isolated as a line drawing (the pencil drawing has several views of the bud, not just one), it has a general resemblance to buds illustrated in Ruskin, such as Figure 6 of The Elements of Drawing and Figure 70 of Modern Painters, Volume 5. Ruskin uses the latter in “Fellowship,” a section on boughs and buds in which he elaborates on ideas similar to those of his four laws concerning trees. It would seem significant that the greenery which formed part of the theme, “The Radiant City, Sun, Space, Green” of Le Corbusier’s pavilion design for the Ideal Home exposition in London (plans dating from 1938 to 1939), was not so much a tree as an enlarged branch tip with bursting buds.56
Perhaps the most telling statement in The Radiant City and that which best sums up Le Corbusier’s attitude is his description of a constantly recurring image, that of the unencumbered growth of a plant or tree. He wrote, “It is possible for the works of man to grow and rise in just the same way.” He saw man as the product of nature, carrying within him nature’s own potential, nature’s own forces, her spirit and her essence. “Our fingers and our brains,” he goes on, “are capable of creating works that express her harmony, works of perfection and purity.”57 His later casting of the Radiant City symbols in the concrete walls of his Unités d’habitation,58 therefore, would seem to carry with it not only the notions associated with les joies essentielles but also the implication of Le Corbusier’s personal quest for oneness with nature.
In considering the presence of trees or their parts in Le Corbusier’s work during his Paris years, one must take into account the motifs found in one of Le Corbusier’s paintings from 1931, the year he supposedly began work on The Radiant City. The painting is a grandiloquent visual statement of a woodcutter, the oil Le Bûcheron (Fig. 18). In addition to cut trees, tree stumps59 and the woodman’s tool, as well as his knife and daily bread and wine is, at the bottom, a single fallen leaf. At the upper left is the image of the head of a man—the woodman himself? Below the head in large stencil letters, larger than typical for most works from this period (his usual signature being Le Corbusier in modest size, somewhere along the bottom) is LeC set off by tonal difference from orbusier 31.
The work may well be a self-portrait, judging from a later use of the Bûcheron motif: Le Corbusier has included it in Le Poème de l’angle droit (1955) in section “C. 3. chair” on a sheet (Fig. 19), which in word and image (as well as context) has autobiographical implications.60 This may have no relation to Ruskin—but there could be a very direct one. In his first chapter of Modern Painters, Volume 5, after discussing city versus country life, Ruskin continues: “For the present, the movements of the world seem little likely to be influenced by botanical law; or by any other considerations respecting trees, than the probable price of timber.” He then describes his method and aim:
I shall limit myself, therefore, to my own simple woodman’s work, and try to hew this book into its final shape, with the limited and humble aim that I had in beginning it, namely, to prove how far the idle and peaceable persons, who have hitherto cared about leaves and clouds, have rightly seen, or faithfully reported of them.
If, in forming his own personal mythology, Le Corbusier cast himself in the role of the Ruskin of the twentieth century, doing his own “simple woodman’s work,” hewing his way through the problems of the new age, seeing to it that leaves and clouds were given their due consideration,61 then the fallen leaf in Le Bûcheron may be related to Ruskin’s lessons to be received from the leaf-builders, including:
Let them [dead leaves] not pass, without our understanding their last counsel and example: that we also, careless of monument by the grave,62 may build it in the world—monument by which men may be taught to remember, not where we died, but where we lived.63
These quotations from Ruskin, potential sources for Le Corbusier’s complex imagery, illustrate Ruskin’s great gift for stimulating the imagination of his readers. He forces one to focus on an object and at the same time suggests its myriad relations to a greater context of accumulated myth and meaning; in the reader’s mind, the object gains in amplitude through implied associations. It was this mythopoetic factor that made him such a controversial figure and at once repulsed and attracted his readers—including Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier’s ambivalent reaction is evident in his frequent allusions to Ruskin in L’Art décoratif d’aujourd’hui of 1925.
The single fallen leaves often sketched by Le Corbusier and the presence of such a single leaf in Le Bûcheron remind one of his interest in “objets à réaction poétique” which, he says, first occurred in his work around 1925.64 This was a period of his life during which he deliberately recalled his youth—in writing the concluding chapter “Confession” for L’Art décoratif d’aujourd’hui (most others having appeared earlier in article form in L’Esprit Nouveau). Certainly, in considering the “objets à réaction poétique,” one must take into account the use of similar motifs by other artists of the period, particularly Fernand Léger.65 Yet Le Corbusier’s enrichment in the mid-1920s of his “man-made” Purist motifs (such as glasses, bottles, books, plates, and violins) with natural objects (such as bones, shells, flint, stones, and pine cones) was a phenomenon—whatever its immediate catalyst—not out of harmony with the preoccupations of his youthful training at La Chaux-de-Fonds.
We find a similar harmony if not indeed a direct connection with his youthful training when we consider the probable relation of the tree to another symbolic image that occurs frequently in Le Corbusier’s work: the hand.
La main révèle done cette situation ambiguë de l’homme qui est d’être à la fois supérieur à tous les vivants et inférieur à ce qui fait la vie.
An open hand is one of the symbolic forms that plays an important role in Le Corbusier’s late work,67 associated primarily with the project for the Open Hand at Chandigarh, the new capital city of the Punjab in India. Le Corbusier first proposed it in 195168 as a major element in the composition of the Capitol complex; on 16 November 195469 he presented the project to the Cabinet of Ministers; later, in 1958, he proposed it as a crowning feature for the Bhakra Dam.
Le Corbusier wrote about the Open Hand in conjunction with Chandigarh on many occasions. One of the earliest published documents is a sheet dated 22 November 1951 from his “carnet de route” on which he discusses a visit with Nehru. Le Corbusier notes that he had been obsessed with the symbol of the open hand since 1948 and wanted to be able to place it at the extremity of the Capitol, before the Himalaya. “One had wanted to involve me in the sterile battle of extremes,” he wrote. “I have disowned it.70 And I have thought that at the moment when the modern world gushes forth in unlimited intellectual and material riches, one had to open the hand to receive and to give.”71 In a letter to Nehru of 26-27 November 1954, he described India’s situation as a country that had not had to live through the century of the troubles of the first mechanization. He saw it as awakening, intact, at a time of all possibilities. At the same time, he pointed out that India was not an entirely new country but rather one that had known the highest and most ancient civilizations. He continued:
She possesses an intelligence, an ethic and a conscience.
India could consider precious the conjuncture of raising in the Capitol of Chandigarh actually in construction, in the midst of the palaces sheltering her institutions and her authority, the symbolic and evocative sign of the “open hand”:
open to receive the created riches
open to distribute them to her people and to others
The “open hand” will affirm that the second era of the machinist civilization has begun: the era of harmony.72
Not only did Le Corbusier use the word ethic in describing India; he used the word again in Modulor 2, first published in 1955, in writing of his design for the Open Hand. This occurs in a discussion of the development of the project: “Little by little, by stages ever since 1948, this complex work of architecture, sculpture, mechanics, acoustics and ethics had run its course, from the first act of invention to the working drawings.”73
Why and in what context was the Open Hand to be included? Le Corbusier credits his collaborator, Jane Drew,74 with having admonished him that he owed it to himself to install in the very heart of the Capitol “the signs by which you have come to express urbanism on the one hand, and on the other, your philosophic thought; these signs deserve to be known, they are the key to the creation of Chandigarh” (my translation). From this came the conception of the great esplanade which joins the Parliament and the High Courts; there the signs were to be erected: among them, the Modulor, the harmonic spiral, the solar day of twenty-four hours, the play of the two solstices, the tower of the four horizons, the Open Hand.75
The setting and the form of the Open Hand were described in another letter to Nehru, that of 21 July 1955 from Paris.76 Le Corbusier wrote that in 1951 he had instituted the notion of “La Fosse de la Considération” (the Ditch of Consideration). This was to be forty meters square and five meters deep with two amphitheaters, tribune, and acoustical shell. Here the Open Hand—its enameled, beaten sheet iron form reaching a height of twenty-five meters—was to tower over the debates, debates held not by those with political mandates but by those who would have “the desire and the need to discuss the commonweal.”
But the Open Hand had an importance for Le Corbusier far beyond that of its presence at Chandigarh. Earlier in the same letter he referred to it as a “signe des temps modernes—signe annonciateur des temps nouveaux.” In closing, he stressed its international relevance, asking Nehru to accord to Chandigarh, “city freed from backward traditions and open on tomorrow, this monument at the foot of the Himalaya of an event of immense world-wide bearing.” He went on, “And I am sure that in raising the ‘Open Hand’ at that place, India will make a gesture which will come to confirm your so decisive intervention at the crucial moment of the machinist evolution and of its menaces” (my translation).
The time at which his first notion of an open hand took form is not clear. He is quoted to have said that it had occupied and preoccupied him for six years: “Dans la force du signe, j’ai reconnu son droit d’existence….”77 On another occasion, he says that it was born in Paris, spontaneously, “or more exactly, in response to preoccupations and inner debates come from the anguishing sentiment of the disharmonies which separate men so often and make enemies of them. … A spiritual reaction of 1948 has taken in 1951 an eminent place in the composition of a capital in India.”78 On the other hand, in the same letter to Nehru of 21 July 1955 just quoted, he prefaced his remarks on “La Fosse de la Considération” with the statement:
Obsessed by the tragic impasse offered on all sides under the scandalously abusive expression “committing oneself,” I took up again a drawing of 1943. One sees there above the horizon an open hand; five women grouped on the earth see it surge. From that moment my design contents itself with the hand all alone. More and more it takes a pure form. I draw it in the course of my voyages. It becomes more and more precise (my translation).
If this date is not a misprint, it would indicate that Le Corbusier considered the Open Hand for Chandigarh to be the outgrowth of an earlier version of an open hand employed as a visual symbol long before the question of Chandigarh arose, indeed, years before India achieved independence.79 A sgraffito drawing of 1950 (Fig. 20), one of a series thought to date in part from as early as the mid-1940s,80 fits Le Corbusier’s description. A large reclining figure and four others all face in the general direction of an open hand above the horizon line; the position of their bodies echoes the form of the hand.
Le Corbusier’s most poetic statement about the open hand—one not necessarily related to Chandigarh—occurs in his Le Poème de l’angle droit (1955) in the section “F.3 offre (la main ouverte)”:
Elle est ouverte puisque
Ouverte pour recevoir
Les eaux ruissellent
Les outils dans la main
Pleine main j’ai reçu
It is open since
Open to receive
Tools in the hand
With a full hand I have received
Although the implications are extremely personal—the sensuous and the sensual being linked with the spiritual and the symbolic—reciprocal giving and receiving is a basic theme.81
Le Corbusier’s drawings and paintings had long shown a preoccupation with hands and with gesture.82 Hands appear singly, in interacting pairs, in groups. Particular attention was paid to hands in one of his last lithographic series, Entre-deux ou propos toujours reliés, composed between 1957 and 1964. On Plate 16, an “UBU” is shown to spring forth from the palm of an open hand. His text refers to this action as “the bursting of a bud.” But Le Corbusier linked the notion of an open hand and the notion of enfolding plant growth in a much earlier text.83 It occurs in Quand les cathédrales étaient blanches, written in 1936, in a chapter concerning New York, “Aucun arbre dans la ville”:
Not a tree in the city! That’s the way it is.
The tree, friend of man, symbol of all organic creation; the tree, image of a total construction. A ravishing sight which, although in an impeccable order, appears to our eyes in the most fanciful arabesques; a mathematically measured play of branches geared down each spring with a new open hand (my translation and emphasis).84
The comparison of tree growth and an open hand can be found still earlier, in Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing: “… in most trees the ramification of each branch, though not of the tree itself, is more or less flattened, and approximates, in its position, to the look of a hand held out to receive something, or shelter something.”85
Thus Ruskin’s influence may again be relevant, this time as a source for some of the symbolism associated with the Open Hand. In the third and fourth laws governing tree growth quoted earlier from The Elements of Drawing, Ruskin emphasized reciprocal action: the boughs reaching forth for their share of nourishment and at the same time respecting a kindly fellowship and fraternity with the boughs of their neighborhood, working with them for the greater good of the whole tree. While other writers may have reinforced or elaborated this basic concept in Le Corbusier’s interpretation of it,86 Ruskin provides the basic notion, clearly and simply stated, with its analogies to the behavior of man directly implied.
Knowingly or unknowingly, Le Corbusier echoed Ruskin’s emphasis on fraternity and solidarity in conversations with Costantino and Ruth Nivola sometime during 1951 when he was their guest on Long Island. The Open Hand was featured in Le Corbusier’s sand sculptures which Nivola cast. One of Le Corbusier’s drawings, done in preparation for the castings, shows the hand on a vertical support with a substantial base (Fig. 21).
Costantino Nivola still has very vivid memories of Le Corbusier’s discussions. When asked about the Open Hand he recalled, and his wife Ruth confirmed, having heard these or very similar words:
La main ouverte est un geste plastique chargé de contenu profondément humain.
Un symbole bien approprié à la nouvelle situation d’une terre libérée et indépendante. Un geste qui appelle à la collaboration fraternelle et solidaire tous les hommes et toutes les nations du monde.
Aussi un geste sculptural et plastique capable d’attraper le ciel et d’engager la terre.87
Le Corbusier’s words take on increased importance if one considers that they date from a time when the form of the Open Hand for Chandigarh was still being developed and refined. The freedom and spontaneity which characterize the drawing were to diminish as Le Corbusier worked through variation after variation reaching toward the final three-dimensional form. Another drawing88 (which Nivola recalls was probably done as Le Corbusier explained the main characteristics of the site) shows the monument in the landscape near the Governor’s Palace with the mountains in the distance; the view is framed, as though one were looking through an arched opening. In later versions of the design, such as one dated “48-51” (Fig. 22), the base has been opened up and itself provides a frame incorporating man and landscape.89 This idealistic concept had to be abandoned partially in still later versions in order to accommodate the shaft or trunk on which the weight of the hand would be supported.90 Le Corbusier is quoted to have actually likened the motion of the Open Hand to that of a branch or tree: “une palme rutilante de couleurs d’émail jaune, rouge, vert et blanc devant la chaîne des montagnes.”91
As the central three fingers92 of the hand gained in importance in these later versions, the hand took on more and more of a birdlike appearance, adding—intentionally or not—still another dimension to the associated imagery.93
Nivola, who was familiar with Le Corbusier’s working methods from sharing studio space with him in New York, considers the open hand “simply one of his general prophecies created in his perpetual state of intuitive and disinterested creativity.” This would agree with Le Corbusier’s own contention. In a text dated 7 August 1951 at Cap Martin in which he describes his preoccupation with the theme of an open hand, he refers to it as “un travail intérieur ininterrompu.” Thus he implies that its sudden manifestations in November 1948 and later can be compared to that phenomenon common in his painting and other work in which old themes were taken up again and given new life.94
While Le Corbusier’s interest in the image of the hand was by no means an isolated occurrence in the world of art and literature, it is worth noting that the symbol of the open hand became especially important in his oeuvre when he was deliberately reviewing his life’s work. He had spent much of the summer and fall of 1947 selecting and preparing material for his first major exhibition since the Zurich 1938 show. Called “New World of Space,” the exhibition was first shown in Boston, in 1948, the year in which he claims to have had “a spiritual reaction.” A hand was important in one of the drawings submitted for this exhibition (Fig. 23); the drawing may even have come about as a result of the reviewing process, since it is dated “4 oct 47 d’après 1932.” It is inscribed, “comme si c’était une façade de cathédrale.” In this version, the hand is not upright as it was in earlier related compositions;95 it has become more squat, with less elegant, stubby fingers, comparable to those of hands designated by Le Corbusier as early versions of the Chandigarh Open Hand.
Le Corbusier also included in this exhibition (which was a general survey of his total oeuvre) a large group of drawings from his La Chaux-de-Fonds period. Many concerned trees. If old images indeed inspired new works, then surely, as he handled his La Chaux-de-Fonds drawings, memories associated with them were called forth. Maybe he even recalled his early interest in Ruskin.
Ruskin in Chandigarh? Although never stated in so many words by Le Corbusier—at least not to my knowledge—the Open Hand would have been an appropriate tribute to Ruskin, whose teachings had, after all, played a significant role in the development of modern India, in particular in the programs instituted by Gandhi.96
Gandhi, in one of his often repeated acknowledgments of debt to Ruskin,97 describes a poet as “one who can call forth the good latent in the human breast.”98 Le Corbusier called attention to the poetic intention of his own life’s work in writing, just a month before he died: “Ma recherche a toujours été dirigée vers la poésie qui est dans le coeur de l’homme.”99
One readily thinks of Le Corbusier as the poet in conjunction with aspects of the design of the Capitol complex at Chandigarh—but particularly in regard to the monument of the Open Hand. In addition to the intended poetic implications already stated, he gave hints and indications of many others. Foremost among these was the notion that those who would gather in La Fosse de la Considération would have nothing visible to them except the sky and the Open Hand rising above them, orienting itself according to the direction of the wind. This, he said, was the “symbôle de la prise en considération des faits de la réalité quotidienne.”100 The hand’s free rotation—which Le Corbusier actually projected, as in a sketch of 1954 (Fig. 24)—implies the expression of continuous changefulness.101 Elsewhere, one reads that the hand was to turn on ball bearings like a weathercock, “not to show the incertitude of ideas, but to indicate symbolically the direction of the wind (that is the state of affairs).”102 The words in parentheses in this English translation in the Oeuvre complète 1946-52 miss somewhat the meaning of the French version, which reads: “non pas pour marquer l’incertitude des idées, mais pour indiquer symboliquement la direction du vent (l’état de la contingence).103
If part of the deeper meaning of the Open Hand concerns the notion of a “the state of contingency,”104 it again accords with Ruskin’s ideas on man as presented through analogy to plant growth. For in addition to meaning “quality or state of being contingent, a possible or not unlikely event or condition, an adjunct or accessory,” contingency has the philosophical meaning of “the fact of existing as an individual human being in time, dependent on others for existence, menaced by death, dependent on oneself for the course and quality of existence.”105 Although one cannot be sure just what Le Corbusier implied by using the word contingence (whose many meanings involve a straight line in geometric and a right angle in gnomic constructions), one of his early statements on the Open Hand in regard to Chandigarh does imply uncertainty and interdependence. He wrote, “‘La Main Ouverte’—ouverte là-bas aux Indes—à l’illimitée richesse du destin moderne: le machinisme, l’humilité devant l’inconnu de la vie, la fraternité entre hommes, bêtes, et nature. Un peu beaucoup d’optimisme. La vie difficile m’a désigné cette voie.”106
If Ruskin’s writings can be seen to embody some of the philosophic bases for the meaning Le Corbusier associated with the Open Hand, then one may ask if they could have provided some inspiration for the image itself, as far as the gesture and position of the hand are concerned. In continuing the passage in The Elements of Drawing in which he likens a branch to the “look of a hand held out to receive something, or shelter something,” Ruskin wrote:
If you take a looking-glass, and hold your hand before it slightly hollowed, with the palm upwards, and the fingers open, as if you were going to support the base of some great bowl, larger than you could easily hold; and sketch your hand as you see it in the glass with the points of the fingers towards you; it will materially help you in understanding the way trees generally hold out their hands: …107
Le Corbusier’s sketches of the tip of a pine branch seen from different angles (Fig. 25) would seem to illustrate an awareness of Ruskin’s principle. Also, his drawing of the hand with five figures does have the hand (the left one, as seen by the artist as though sketching his own hand) held at eye level in the gesture Ruskin describes (but seen directly, not in a mirror). It is sketched without the arm and wrist, floating in space as a branch flake appears to float.
Le Corbusier gives the date of 1948 to a drawing of a similar hand, published in Modulor 2.108 The same drawing is published elsewhere with a text describing an early version as “une espèce de coquille flottant au-dessus de l’horizon: mais des doigts écartés montrent une main ouverte comme une vaste conque.109
The shell had had its place in his paintings for many years, as a symbol of mathematical order. By referring to his early design as a shell, he may have been recalling in his own mind the mathematics associated with tree growth and consequently justifying the application of his Modulor to the design of the Open Hand.110 This would be natural and appropriate.
Unequivocally, it is trees Le Corbusier referred to when recounting the early work which led to the Modulor. In criticizing the proposals of the Association Française de NORmalisation (AFNOR) for the standardization of all objects involved in the construction of buildings, saying that their method seemed arbitrary and poor, he wrote:
Take trees: if I look at their trunks and branches, their leaves and veins, I know that the laws of growth and interchangeability can and should be something subtler and richer. There must be some mathematical link in these things. My dream is to set up, on the building sites which will spring up all over our country one day, a ‘grid of proportions’, …111
If one can accept the statements made about the employment of the Modulor for all phases of the design work at Chandigarh, then he indeed realized this dream.112
But his other dream, that of seeing his favored image—the open hand—rise in Chandigarh, was not fulfilled, in spite of his urging:
This open hand, a sign of peace and of reconciliation, must rise at Chandigarh. This sign which preoccupies me for a number of years in my subconscious should exist to bear witness to harmony …. God and the devil—the forces present. The devil is in the way: the world of 1965 is able to put itself at peace. There is still time to choose, let’s equip rather than arm.113 This sign of the open hand to receive the created riches, to distribute [them] to the peoples of the world, should be the sign of our epoch. Before finding myself one day (later on) in the celestial zones among the stars of the “Bon Dieu,” I would be happy to see at Chandigarh, before the Himalaya which rises up straight on the horizon, this open hand which marks for “le père Corbu” a deed, a course traversed. You André Malraux, you my collaborators, you my friends, I ask you to help me to realize this sign of the Open Hand in the sky of Chandigarh, city desired by Nehru, disciple of Gandhi.114
André Malraux’s funeral oration called attention to this unfulfilled wish, quoting Le Corbusier as having said; “I have worked for that which men of today need most: silence and peace, and the principal monument of Chandigarh should have been surmounted by a gigantic ‘hand of peace,’ upon which the birds of the Himalaya would have come to perch. The ‘hand of peace’ is not yet in place….”115
“Silence and peace” … “Hand of peace” … These words bring our thought back once more to Le Corbusier’s formative years when he first learned to link form and meaning in association with designs such as the decorations of the Chapelle indépendante at Cernier-Fontainemelon where “in the middle of a forest all is calm and silent.”