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Romanticism, Rationalism, and the Domino System

Published onApr 23, 2021
Romanticism, Rationalism, and the Domino System

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret in his garret with Léon Perrin overlooking the Seine, Paris VIe, 1908. (Photograph courtesy of Archives Fondation Le Corbusier.)

The work of Le Corbusier often seems to possess mysteriously elusive, even ineffable qualities. While we can usually describe the essential nature of other architects’ works, Le Corbusier’s designs elicit from us stronger and less objective reactions, difficult to articulate. Thus, his work has always aroused extremely emotional responses, and any one of his designs can produce varying reactions—for example, some see the Villa Savoye as the very epitome of a cold, passionless machine aesthetic, while others see it as one of the most affective and poetic creations of our age.

This multiplicity is not simply in the observers’ eyes but is inherent in the work itself and, more than that, in its underlying theoretical foundation. The architectural thinking of Le Corbusier seems to be structured in a distinctive way that might be called dualistic or dialectical, based on opposing principles or dichotomies that he expresses on many levels in his work and thought. On a physical level, there are contrasts of specific architectural qualities, as in the play of geometric and amorphous forms, which are seen throughout his work. On a theoretical level, in his writings Le Corbusier continually describes the world in terms of paired opposites, such as matter and spirit, active and passive forces, reason and emotion, and so on—as when he explains the use of a painting as the frontispiece to his city planning book La Ville radieuse with the statement that “The objective and the subjective are the two poles between which arises the human creation made of matter and spirit.”1

This dualistic pattern in Le Corbusier’s work and thought appears, moreover, to be a manifestation of a basic trait of his personality, a tendency to see everything in terms of a struggle between opposing forces. In his own life, this trait could be seen reflected in his self-image as an isolated, heroic figure, always battling with opponents (an image that is often explained in terms of the many disappointments of his career but that in reality he exhibited even as a young man, long before the nature of his career had justified it).2 In his architecture, this dualism is expressed in many ways: on a fundamental level, as two opposing conceptions of the nature of architecture; or in dramatic formal terms, as the defiant separation of his buildings from the earth below, suggesting the contrast between the clarity of man’s mind and the vagaries of nature (or la tête et la bête, to use two of Le Corbusier’s favorite terms for this dichotomy). And his image of the Open Hand suggests a similar symbolism: the hand of man, disembodied and isolated from the earth, and often even represented by Le Corbusier as a double image that is not only a hand but also a bird, age-old symbol of the spiritual as opposed to the material world (Fig. 3).

Figure 3
La main ouverte, lithograph, 23 August 1963. As in his architecture, Le Corbusier’s representations of the open hand suggest a dualistic notion of man’s mind in opposition to the world—or “la bête et la tête,” as he put it. (Source: Le Corbusier, Oeuvre lithographique, Zurich, n.d.)

Though it may be futile to seek the ultimate source of the dualism in Le Corbusier’s thought, it is worth suggesting that it lies partly in the religious atmosphere in which he was raised. His family (including a devoutly religious aunt who helped raise him) belonged to the strong Calvinist tradition of the area around Geneva, a tradition that emphasized the struggle between spirit and sin more strongly than most Christian churches. Furthermore, there was a tradition, staunchly supported by Le Corbusier himself, linking his family to the Albigensian Catharists of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in southern France, a sect that had represented the most extreme adherence ever seen in Europe to the radical dualism of the Manichaean heresy, equating spirit with good and matter with evil. Throughout his life, Le Corbusier was fascinated with this Albigensian sect (his library contains a number of books on the subject, which he read and annotated); and whether he truly was descended from the Catharists, he believed he was, and he considered this tradition to be an important part of his heritage.

Specific components of Le Corbusier’s thought, however, can often be traced to their sources much more precisely than his general dualism can. A fundamental dichotomy in his thinking involves two views of the essential nature of architecture. One view, which could be called rationalist, is concerned first and foremost with objective, worldly matters—structure, technology, function, other human needs—and is suggested by Le Corbusier’s famous definition of a house as a “machine for living.” The other conception (implied by another of Le Corbusier’s definitions, “Architecture, pure création de l’esprit”)3 could in a general way be called romantic; it sees architecture principally as a spiritual or personal activity—whether as the creation of abstract forms or in a Platonic, idealistic sense, as the embodiment of perfect spiritual ideas that the architect has intuited or discovered. Much of the tension and power in Le Corbusier’s architecture derives from the dynamic relationship between these two conceptions, the romantic or idealistic and the rationalist. And their specific sources can be identified quite clearly—corresponding, in fact, to the two major teachers of Le Corbusier in his youth, Charles L’Eplattenier and Auguste Perret.

With the aid of Le Corbusier’s early correspondence, sketchbooks, and especially the books that he read and annotated in his youth (which are now in the Fondation Le Corbusier in Paris), it is possible to reconstruct the story of how he encountered these ideas, struggled with them, and then attempted to synthesize them—first achieving this synthesis around 1915 in the Domino System design.

La Chaux-de-Fonds and L’Eplattenier

The basic facts of the youth of Le Corbusier (or Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) in La Chaux-de-Fonds are well known: his apprenticeship at the age of thirteen to learn the profession of watchcase engraving at the local Art School; his decision, encouraged by his drawing teacher Charles L’Eplattenier, to become an architect; his participation in L’Eplattenier’s regionalist arts-and-crafts program (including the design and decoration of a house for a local citizen named Fallet); and then his departure, in 1907, on the long series of travels that took him to Italy, France, Germany, Eastern Europe, and the Mediterranean, and back to La Chaux-de-Fonds several times, before he settled permanently in Paris in 1917.

What has remained largely unknown is the aesthetic philosophy to which he was exposed in his early years in La Chaux-de-Fonds. In later recollections, Le Corbusier always recognized L’Eplattenier as the most important influence on his early development, not only as his teacher in drawing and design but also as the man who introduced him to aesthetics and art theory.4 Yet he never described the specific nature of L’Eplattenier’s ideas (except for details such as the fact that he read Ruskin to his students and told them that in designing ornament they ought to start with natural forms but then abstract them to reveal their “vital development”).5 Le Corbusier’s library, however, contains several books from this early period that suggest in some detail the aesthetic principles to which he was being exposed.6 And consistently they represent the view that architecture and art in general are essentially spiritual rather than material activities, and they furthermore suggest that L’Eplattenier was interested in certain esoteric subjects which he considered relevant to art and design.

When Jeanneret was about to leave La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1907, L’Eplattenier gave him a copy of a popular book of the period entitled Les Grands Initiés, by Edouard Schuré.7 The book is a romanticized portrayal of the greatest mystical initiates of the past (listed by Schuré as Rama, Krishna, Hermes, Moses, Orpheus, Pythagoras, Plato, and Jesus); it would seem to be an odd parting gift for an art teacher to give to his favorite student embarking on a career in architecture. Yet it is only one of several similar books that Jeanneret read which glorify the role of the prophet or mystic in human history. And in some of these books (including Friedrich Nietzsche’sZarathustra and Ernest Renan’s Life of Jesus), Jeanneret’s annotations suggest that he had begun to identify with these figures and to think of himself as a kind of prophet, too, in the realm of art and architecture.8 This discovery is of more than merely psychological interest to us, for it suggests a special conception of the role of the architect—not as someone concerned with solving problems empirically in the world, but rather as someone intuiting universal truths, which he then reveals to the world. Le Corbusier himself was to express this attitude in many ways—for instance, in his descriptions of the Modulor system (which, by the way, are very similar in some respects to Schuré’s descriptions of the numerology of Pythagoras).9

But another book that Jeanneret read during his adolescent years in La Chaux-de-Fonds has even more obvious architectural implications. This was a little-known work published in 1904, entitled L’Art de demain, by a French architect named Henri Provensal.10 It may have been the first book on aesthetic theory that Jeanneret read, and its ideas seem to have had a profound influence on him. Its general philosophical tone is Platonic, antipositivist, and more specifically in the tradition of nineteenth-century German idealistic philosophers like Hegel and Schelling. Constantly recurring throughout the book is the theme that the major purpose of art is to express the underlying spiritual forces of the universe, to reveal “pure thought,” “perfect spirit,” “eternal harmony,” and so on—many of Provensal’s phrases reminding us of those in Le Corbusier’s later writings.

When Provensal discusses architecture, he makes an unusual proposal: that the forms best suited to expressing these spiritual ideas are those of the purest geometry, particularly cubic forms—a point that he repeats emphatically, in one place defining architecture as “the harmonious cubic expression of thought.”11 In itself, this advocacy of cubic art is remarkable, since in 1904 cubism had not yet been coined as a term in painting. Although there is evidence that Jeanneret had been influenced by some protocubist designs in the decorative arts as early as 1901,12 it seems to be Provensal who got him thinking seriously about a cubist aesthetic in architecture. And there are more specific indications of his influence on Jeanneret. For example, at one point in his book he suggests that the architect can find inspiration in those few forms in nature which are cubic, such as crystals and crystalline rock formations; we also know that at roughly this time Jeanneret was doing drawings of crystalline rock formations (Fig. 4) in the mountains around La Chaux-de-Fonds; these drawings are almost like studies of the cubic bracket details he included in the Fallet House (Fig. 5), as well as foreshadowing his designs of the 1920s.

Figure 4
Drawing of rock formations near La Chaux-de-Fonds. A reflection of Henri Provensal’s suggestion in L’Art de demain that crystalline rock formations could inspire the new “cubic” architecture he was advocating. (Source: Le Corbusier, Le Corbusier, Paris, 1960, p. 22.)

Figure 5
Bracket detail of the Fallet House, La Chaux-de-Fonds, 1906-1907. In his first house design, Jeanneret included this one tentative expression of Provensal’s cubic aesthetic. (Source: E. Chavanne and M. Laville, “Les premières constructions de Le Corbusier,” in Werk, vol. 50, 1963, p. 483.)

Even the language and terminology used by Provensal to describe architecture seem to reappear in Le Corbusier’s later writings. In fact, Le Corbusier’s famous definition of architecture as “le jeu savant, correct et magnifique des volumes assemblés sous la lumière” (found elsewhere in his writings in varying forms, such as “… des jeux architecturaux de pleins et de vides13 is strikingly similar to several of Provensal’s own definitions of architecture—such as “le drame plastique … de pleins et de vides, de jeux d’ombres et de lumière. “14 This is not to suggest that Le Corbusier consciously paraphrased Provensal but rather that this book had made such a deep impression on him in his youth that its concepts and very phrases had entered into his subconscious feelings about architecture.

To define architecture in this abstract way—as pure forms under light—is very typical of Provensal’s romantic and idealistic aesthetic and apparently also reflects the training Jeanneret had received from L’Eplattenier. This abstract conception of architecture was to remain an essential component of Le Corbusier’s thinking throughout his life. But first it had to undergo a traumatic encounter with an opposing philosophy, in Paris in 1908, which precipitated probably the major intellectual crisis of Jeanneret’s youth.

Paris and Auguste Perret

In June 1907, at the age of nineteen, Jeanneret left La Chaux-de-Fonds, spent several months traveling in Italy, went to Vienna, where he spent the winter, and then on to Paris, where he was to remain for more than a year. There he heard that the most exciting things in architecture were done by a man named Auguste Perret, whom he went to see, and who gave him a job in his office, at that time located on the ground floor of his reinforced-concrete apartment building on the Rue Franklin. Perret took Jeanneret on as a kind of apprentice, encouraging him to take courses in technical subjects and architectural history. But more important, Perret attempted to inculcate him with the architectural philosophy often called French Rationalism—the tradition whose major exponent in the nineteenth century had been Viollet-le-Duc, and which Perret himself now exemplified in his researches into the formal potentials of concrete construction.

Several of Jeanneret’s annotated books from this period, as well as his correspondence, reveal the ideas that Perret was presenting to him. Just as significantly, they reveal that this rationalist philosophy was totally new to Jeanneret—virtually a revelation—which at first he embraced with the fervor of a new convert, rejecting what he considered to be L’Eplattenier’s overly formalistic thinking. In a long letter (November 1908) to L’Eplattenier, he implicitly criticizes his former master for teaching false doctrines, says that he knew nothing before and that only now has he realized “that architecture is not a matter of the ‘eurythmie’ of forms …” (a phrase that had recurred in Provensal’s book) but is simply the proper use of materials to satisfy specific needs.15 And he proudly states that he is now studying subjects like statics and the strength of materials and implies that he had never before suspected their central importance to architecture.

One of Jeanneret’s books from this period gives us a remarkable view of this program of reeducation. Perret apparently encouraged him to go directly to Viollet-le-Duc’s writings, for he bought an expensive edition of the Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle and inscribed the first volume with this resolution: “I bought this work on August 1 st, 1908, with my first paycheck from Mr. Perret. I bought it in order to learn; because, knowing, I shall then be able to create.”16

In the text itself, at a passage in which Viollet describes the form of the Gothic flying buttress as a perfect expression of the structural problems involved, Jeanneret inserted a note which begins (Fig. 6), “These lines show how this whole art lives by its carcass.” (Carcass was a favorite term of Perret’s for the underlying structural form of a building.) Jeanneret then draws an analogy between this Gothic structural system and reinforced concrete and concludes, “Now, Auguste Perret has told me, hold on to the carcass, and you will have the Art.”17 That is, if one designs properly from the structure, it is not necessary to worry about “art”—one of the favorite notions of the Rationalists.

Figure 6
Jeanneret’s annotation in Viollet-le-Duc’s Dictionnaire raisonné, vol. 1, Paris, 1854, inscribed 1908, p. 66. Jeanneret describes the rationalist lessons he had been receiving from Auguste Perret, such as the principle of concentrating on the structural “carcass” of a building. (Photograph by Paul Turner. Courtesy of Archives Fondation Le Corbusier.)

Jeanneret clearly believed he was adopting the rationalist approach that Perret represented and that this would be the foundation of his architectural career, rather than L’Eplattenier’s training. Yet in retrospect we can see that this was not quite the case. Jeanneret’s enthusiasm for rationalism was in turn to wane, and he was soon to begin struggling with the two systems of thought. Indeed, even in his initial excitement over Perret’s ideas, Jeanneret reveals a peculiar ambivalence about them. For example, in his long letter to L’Eplattenier, while proclaiming the primacy of structure and rationalism, he often shifts to the most romantic descriptions of the architect as an isolated prophet seeking spiritual answers through intuition and a turning-away from the world: “[Others] do not know what Art is: the intense love of one’s spiritual ‘Self.’ I shall find it through retreat and solitude, the divine ‘self which can be made earthly if one forces it to be…. This inner self speaks; it speaks of the profound nature of Being. Art then is born, and springs forth….”

These phrases come right out of Provensal and Schuré and are notions that a true rationalist would have considered irrelevant to (if not incompatible with) the real problems of architecture. Even Jeanneret’s inscription in Viollet-le-Duc’s Dictionnaire reflects this ambivalence. For when he says he is reading it “because, knowing, I shall then be able to create,” he is expressing much more the initiate’s faith that art will spring forth once he has received enlightenment than the rationalist’s belief that each specific problem must be approached on its own terms.

Jeanneret was obviously attracted to aspects of both of these philosophies. In the next few years his main energy seems to be spent attempting to resolve them—to create a synthesis that somehow would preserve the integrity of both extremes. But in Paris in 1908, he had not yet found the way to do this. His letters reveal his frustration, and he began a period of vacillation between allegiance to Perret and to L’Eplattenier. Only in this light do his activities of the next several years make sense.

Toward a Synthesis

At the end of 1909, Jeanneret left Paris and returned to La Chaux-de-Fonds. This was a strange move, considering that his letters to L’Eplattenier had praised Paris as the place where he could learn most effectively. Furthermore, after letters that had criticized his former teacher and colleagues, he joined them in a decorative-arts undertaking—called the Ateliers d’art—whose program of activities was stone carving, mosaic, wood carving, repoussé metal work, and so on. This was fully in keeping with L’Eplattenier’s arts-and-crafts background, and to this extent, Jeanneret was setting aside Perret’s dedication to modern materials and technology and returning to the handicraft regionalism of L’Eplattenier’s classroom.

Even the design that Jeanneret produced at this time for a building to house these Ateliers d’art (Fig. 7), which at first glance might seem to be in the spirit of Perret because it appears to be designed for construction in concrete, is in reality a rejection of Perret’s principles, since it shows virtually no consideration of the building’s structure or construction (for instance, the second-floor walls are over voids). Instead, it is an extremely formalistic composition of Provensalesque cubes, like a large-scale version of the cubistic bracket ornaments on the Fallet House. In this sense, it represents a way of designing which Jeanneret had criticized, in his letter to L’Eplattenier from Paris, as “ma conception purement plastique (faite de la recherche seule des formes)…,” which he had said characterized his work before he met Perret.

Figure 7
Design for Ateliers d’art, 1910, compared to the Fallet House bracket detail. Leaving Perret and returning to La Chaux-de-Fonds and L’Eplattenier, Jeanneret resumed Provensal’s abstract, cubic conception of design. (Source: Le Corbusier, Oeuvre complète 1910-29, p. 22.)

Then, in April 1910, Jeanneret set out on the second phase of his travels, which took him to Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, and Italy. After arriving in Germany, he received a commission from L’Eplattenier and the Art School to study the Werkbund and other design movements in Germany. In this capacity he visited and interviewed many of the important German architects and designers of the time, eventually meeting Peter Behrens in Berlin and joining his firm for a short period. Behrens has the remarkable distinction of having employed the entire trinity of modern architecture—Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier—although, contrary to the popular story, the three of them were not in his office at exactly the same time (when Jeanneret arrived in November 1910, Gropius had left already, though Mies was still there).18 Behrens’s position in Germany was somewhat analogous to Perret’s in France, since he was among the foremost proponents of a progressive, basically rationalist design process employing modern materials and technology. Thus it has been natural to assume that Behrens’s main influence on Jeanneret must have been to strengthen his dedication to this progressive, internationalist vision of modern architecture, leading by an essentially direct route to his work of the 1920s.

So it comes as a considerable surprise to discover that, on the contrary, in Berlin Jeanneret experienced a reaction against Behrens and actually made a written resolution to return to a Swiss regionalist style of architecture. This is revealed in Jeanneret’s annotations in a book that he ordered from Geneva in October 1910. This book is not of great interest in itself, but it elicited a powerful response from Jeanneret. Entitled Les Entretiens de la Villa du Rouet and written by a Swiss artist named Alexandre Cingria-Vaneyre, it consists of a series of dialogues set in an imaginary villa. Their major theme is that the region known as the Suisse-Romande (the French-speaking part of Switzerland) should develop its own regional style of art, which should be based on classical traditions from the Mediterranean rather than on German traditions.19 It is such a provincial and innocuous proposal that we are amazed to find how strongly and enthusiastically Jeanneret responded to it. He wrote several fervent annotations in the book (each dated separately, some even to the hour of day) attesting to the impact it had on him. In one he wrote: “… this book is helping me orient myself. It provokes an investigation, and clear luminous thinking; it unlocks the German vise from me. One year from now, in Rome, I shall re-read it, and with sketches shall establish my Jura, Neuchâtel discipline.”20

As it happened, Jeanneret was to fulfill this vow perfectly, for he was indeed in Rome, precisely one year later, after having traveled through Eastern Europe to Constantinople and then Greece (his Voyage d’Orient, which he later said opened his eyes to the beauty of Mediterranean forms).21 Furthermore, his route for this trip roughly followed an itinerary suggested by Cingria, who had lived in Constantinople and compared its topography and beauty to that of the Suisse-Romande. When Jeanneret finally returned to La Chaux-de-Fonds, he designed some houses that, in their simplified classical forms, geometric massing, and some details like color, follow Cingria’s suggestions for a Suisse-Romande architecture. Despite all this, it would probably be a mistake to suggest that Cingria’s book had a great influence on Jeanneret in the sense of giving him new ideas. Instead, as Jeanneret himself wrote, it “provoked” and aided his own thinking, which must have been ready for a reorientation back to some of the principles represented by L’Eplattenier and his regionalist arts-and-crafts activities.

This unexpected phase in Jeanneret’s development helps explain an incident that hitherto has been difficult to understand. Le Corbusier later recalled that while in Constantinople in 1911, he had by chance met Perret, who was there to supervise construction of the French Embassy. Perret urged Jeanneret to return to Paris to work with him on his largest commission, the Champs-Elysées Theater, but Jeanneret declined the offer.22 This refusal to pursue his career in the progressive environment of Paris can make sense only in the light of his decision to “establish my … Neuchâtel discipline” and suggests a return not only to L’Eplattenier’s regionalism but also to his aesthetic philosophy. Thus it is not surprising that Jeanneret’s diary notes and letters describing his Voyage d’Orient reveal an almost exclusive concentration on the abstract, idealistic, and spiritual qualities of architecture—culminating in his experience of the Parthenon, which for the rest of his life was to epitomize the mystical power of architecture to put us directly in touch with the forces of the universe. Le Corbusier’s descriptions of the Parthenon often sound as though they could have been written word for word by Provensal, as for instance when he writes in Vers une architecture that the Parthenon strikes a chord within us, which produces

… a resonance, a kind of sounding-board, which begins to vibrate. Trace of the indefinable absolute pre-existing in the depths of our being. This sounding-board vibrating within us is our criterion of harmony. It must be that axis on which Man is organized, in accord with nature and probably the universe, that axis of organization which must be the same one on which all phenomena and objects in nature are aligned; this axis leads us to admit a unity of operation in the universe, a unique will at the origin. Even the laws of physics would have come out of this axis….23

In late 1911 Jeanneret returned to La Chaux-de-Fonds, where he spent the next five years. Later in his life he seldom referred to specifically this period; yet it was crucial in his development, since this is when he was formulating the methods of designing which were to underlie his work of the 1920s. But it was not an easy formulation for him, and his activities, designs, and notebooks of the period reveal that he was still faced with the conflicts that had plagued him—between L’Eplattenier and Perret, regionalism and internationalism, romanticism and rationalism.

In the first half of this period (roughly up to 1915), Jeanneret’s activities seem to be relatively consonant with his Swiss-regionalist resolution. He worked with L’Eplattenier in an experimental Nouvelle Section of the Art School (teaching an elementary course whose assignments emphasized the abstract formal properties of architecture); he cultivated social connections with other artists involved in creating a Suisse-Romande culture (including the novelist Ferdinand Ramuz, the musician Ernest Ansermet, and Cingria himself); and he pursued several commerical design ventures involving the decorative arts, interior design, and the remodeling of houses in the area—besides his own designs for houses.24

But then, around 1915, his concerns became more progressive and internationalist and suggest at least a partial reorientation to the attitudes of Perret. His notebooks contain references suggesting increased correspondence with Perret (he had also been visiting Paris occasionally); he did sketches exploring problems of mass housing and urbanism (including the ville-tours, which would lead to his city plans of the 1920s, and which he acknowledged had been inspired by Perret); and in his architecture he began to rely almost exclusively on reinforced concrete. The Schwob House of 1916, his major executed design of this period, has a reinforced-concrete structure; and his notebooks refer more and more to problems of concrete construction.

But the Domino System, more than any other design of this period, signals a breakthrough in Jeanneret’s search for his own architectural synthesis. Although it might appear at first to embody exclusively the principles of Perret, in reality it represented an ingenious and peculiar combination of aspects of the opposing philosophies Jeanneret had been contending with, and in this sense it was the key he had been looking for.

The Domino System

The design that Jeanneret dubbed the Domino System (probably a pun on the word domus and the game of Dominoes, with its connotation of flexible linkage) was conceived, according to his later recollection, in late 1914, partly in response to the widespread destruction of housing in Flanders in the first phase of the war. This dating is likely correct, for in a sketchbook which he kept during 1915 there are several pages of rough sketches and notes relating to this design—though not including any of the more precise drawings that Le Corbusier later published in the Oeuvre complete.25

At first glance, the Domino design (Fig. 8) seems consummately simple and straightforward: a concrete structural unit consisting of three horizontal slabs, six columns, and a stair connecting the levels. This was to provide two-story housing units, which could be linked or expanded in various ways, as Jeanneret suggested in other drawings and also in a patent that he wrote up in his notebook, which described the design as a “system of constructions able to be arranged according to infinite combinations of plans.”26

Figure 8
The Domino System. Visually and conceptually simple, though beset with constructional problems. For Jeanneret it represented a resolution of L’Eplattenier’s and Perret’s teachings. (Source: Oeuvre complète 1910-29, p. 23.)

On the surface, this design appears to be concerned largely with structural issues and with the new potentials offered by reinforced-concrete construction. In traditional building methods, the wall tended to be wedded to the structure, but reinforced concrete now allowed the structure to consist simply of thin columns, freeing the wall of any structural function. The French engineer François Hennebique, and then Perret, had been among the first to realize the implications of this method; and in the 1920s Le Corbusier himself was to include this wall-separate-from-function principle among his “Five Points” of architecture (expressing it in two of these points, the “façade libre” and “fenêtres en longueur”). In his notebook patent for the Domino System, Jeanneret refers to this “separation of powers,” suggesting its importance in the design—although he seems not yet to have recognized its possibilities fully, since the façades that he actually designed for it have conventionally placed window openings and wall surfaces and thus do not exploit this principle as his later designs were to do.

It is sometimes said that the most distinctive feature of the Domino System is that the columns are set back, away from the edge of the slab. It has even been suggested that this setback was original to Jeanneret—although this is not strictly true, since Perret, for one, had already used it in the interior of his Rue Ponthieu garage of 1905. We can assume that Perret had explained to Jeanneret the structural advantage of this device in reinforced-concrete construction (the short cantilever actually improving the structural properties of a monolithic slab) and that Jeanneret used it in the Domino design for this structural reason, as well as for the fact that it emphasized the “separation of powers” principle. Ironically, however, Jeanneret then proceeded to negate this structural advantage by deciding not to use integral, monolithic slabs in the Domino System (Fig. 9), instead proposing a complex scheme for the slabs (involving the use of hollow blocks, held in place by a special scaffolding, with concrete then poured over them)—a scheme in which the cantilever becomes a hindrance rather than an advantage and which, in fact, would have been very difficult to build. Why did Jeanneret get himself into this predicament? The answer seems to lie at least partly in the formal properties he wished to embody in the design.

Figure 9
The Domino System. (Source: Oeuvre complète 1910-29, p. 23.)

Figure 10
The standard, Hennebique System of reinforced-concrete construction. The opposite of the Domino design. Though structurally logical, it was unacceptable to Jeanneret from a formal and conceptual point of view. (Source: Paul Christophe, Le Béton armé et ses applications, Paris and Liege, 1902, p. 106.)

The one truly distinctive (and unprecedented) characteristic of the Domino System is not structural but formal: its columns and slabs are completely smooth—that is, its columns have none of the splay or brackets, and its slabs have none of the exposed ribs that characterized virtually all concrete construction of this period (for example, the commonly used Hennebique System [Fig. 10]). Even in Robert Maillart’s Zurich warehouse of 1910, in which the rib beams were eliminated, apparently for the first time, and a flat slab thus achieved, the columns had to be given a broadly extended, “mushroom” splay to provide the necessary rigid connection with the slab. The Domino System, however, with neither rib beams nor column splay would have been difficult if not impossible to construct at this time. Jeanneret seems to have become aware of this problem, perhaps from Perret himself (since he wrote “ask Perret” next to his Domino sketches in his notebook), and this may have been the reason he was looking for a new way to construct the slab—though, as mentioned already, the method he then devised caused even more problems, negating the advantage of the column setback.

All these difficulties suggest that the smooth, simple forms of the slab and the column were the result of a purely formal or aesthetic decision—made in spite of, rather than because of, structural or practical considerations. Jeanneret’s own descriptions of the Domino System (both in his notebook patent draft and later in his writings) confirm this by their insistence on the smooth (lisse) nature of the parts: “Système des constructions … de béton armé à plancher lisse”;27 “… il s’agit d’un matériel de chantier special qui per met de couier les planchers définitivement lisse.”28

This absolute smoothness and simplicity is the one feature of the Domino design which distinguishes it from all earlier reinforced-concrete construction. Jeanneret simply made an uncompromising formal decision to strip the structural elements down to their most generalized forms, a pure slab and a pure column. From a structural or constructional point of view, they may not be simple at all, but visually and conceptually they are, and that was what Jeanneret decided was important. As an image or concept the Domino design embodies, almost Platonically, the Idea of column-and-slab construction in its purest and most general form: the Ideal Column and the Ideal Slab.

This is precisely the method of designing which Provensal had recommended in his book: designing from ideas, and creating pure forms that are general rather than particular, ideal rather than down-to-earth. In this sense, the Domino System represents a rejection of rationalism and a reaffirmation of Provensal’s romantic idealism. And yet in a strange way, it seems to have represented for Jeanneret a synthesis of the two methods—since ostensibly at least, it dealt with the rationalists’ concerns (a structural system, a new material, and to a lesser extent such aspects as mass housing and prefabrication). To Jeanneret, this was the way of resolving, as much as possible, the conflicting philosophies of his training, by taking rationalist objects and transforming them with a romantic or idealistic method. This technique, in one form or another, became from then on a distinguishing characteristic of his work—whether it was a structural system, a housing type, a technological image of some sort, or a whole city that he subjected to this transformation.

After Jeanneret moved permanently to Paris, the theory and designs that he began formulating and then published and built in the 1920s contained elements from many different sources not examined here. But in all of his work, probably the most distinctive quality was embodied in the Domino System: the spiritual transformation of the objects of the modern technological age by their placement within a romantic, poetic, even mystical framework. This was his way of resolving the architectural philosophies encountered in his youth and of remaining true to his two teachers.

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