versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996
ARQ (Santiago) n.76 Santiago dic. 2010
ARQ, n. 76 Day & Night, Santiago, December 2010, p. 20-27.
Light in the work of Le Corbusier(1)
Claudio Vásquez *
* Professor, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile
From the analysis of a particular way of understanding natural light in some of the houses by Le Corbusier, one discovers the importance given by the architect to the placement of points of artificial light. Openings, windows and facade components combine with the use of naked bulbs to give character to the spaces and details.
Key words: Architecture-lighting, Le Corbusier, houses, natural light, artificial light.
THE ILLUMINATION OF OBJECTS AND OBJECTS FOR ILLUMINATION / Le Corbusier's quote (1920) "Architecture is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light. (...)" It sends us to his images of platonic volumes, industrial silos, and his architecture of the 1920's. However it would be useless to seek out the key to his work with light without asking for the rules and how he sought what was correct and magnificent.
In the same series of articles in which this quote appeared, a sketch of the Green Mosque in Bursa was published of his visit to the east in 1911 to demonstrate that the perception of the exterior is a result of the interior. The travel sketch is eloquent: from right to left, a low entrance opens onto a vaulted, naturally lit volume flanked by another, similar, but in shade and a smaller one on the other side, also in shade. The sketch illustrates a lit void that functions with the balance given by the adjacent shadows. A composition based on light but also on a sequence that begins in the street, continues through a small space and ends in a void where according to Le Corbusier "(...) one is fascinated, loses his sense of the common scale(...)". Light and scale work together and are perceived because of the existence of a composition of transitions and paths. He explained that being in the interior one gauges the exterior.
In the works of Le Corbusier the light has a compositional-or playful- sense whose rules can be seen in both his use of natural and artificial light.
OBJECTS ILLUMINATED OR THE COMPOSITION OF NATURAL LIGHT / In 1925 Le Corbusier exhibited his personal interpretation of the architectural history of the window. From the shadow of the small opening of antiquity, the first jump was made by the Gothic lancet windows that illuminated as much as possible. Later the vertical openings of the Renaissance arrived at their largest size considering the determining weaknesses of the structural walls of the time. In the age of Haussmann the city began to require more open facades to make the most of the interior of the buildings, forcing the vertical window to its maximum proximity, creating a problem that only portico-ed structures of steel and concrete could resolve with long window and the completely glazed facade or pan de verre.
To understand the change produced by the horizontal window, Le Corbusier presented a scheme that compared the illumination zones produced by the same glazed area placed in two vertical windows and a horizontal one, wall to wall. Using photometric measurements(2), he recorded that the verticals generated up to four zones with with varying levels of illumination and the horizontal only two zones. By digitally analyzing the levels of illumination of the scheme we prove effectively that the difference exists and the horizontal window produces a more uniform light albeit with a strong difference between the front and the back of the space. The same analysis in three dimensions allows one to observe that the horizontal window utilizes the lateral walls, the floor and the ceiling as reflectors to multiply the interior light efficiency, while the vertical windows do not utilize the ceiling and the walls do not arrive at their maximum intensity.
The horizontal window formed part of the five points of the new architecture, whose principal importance was that they opened a new compositional poetry for space thanks to the liberty for design that it provided. The garden terrace, the ribbon window, the pilotis, the horizontal window and the open plan are autonomous, compositional elements and also technologically repetitive; all speak of the same, that is, the use of active tensile structures. The architectural promenade was also part of this compositional poetry in that it was activated by the relationship between the body in movement and the objects freely placed in the interior. Even the structure, that is transformed in load lines, can be strategically placed as an additional object.
The imagery developed in this environment transformed the furniture into an architectural dilemma, incorporating it as part of the walls. A direct way of understanding this relationship was through a drawing series that Le Corbusier exhibited in 1925, the small house built for his parents on the banks of the Leman Lake. The sections and a series of sketches show the association between furniture and windows or between walls and furniture, creating elements capable of zoning, creating paths as well as lighting a composition of elements that create situations where natural light and the objects within live together.
The sills of the horizontal windows are transformed into storage for the utensils of daily life. This was reiterated in the photographs where Le Corbusier recorded this element in an environment carefully designed with all kinds of objects that quietly speak of the life that takes places in this space. If we observe with care, the shelf, the window and the sill create a complex system. The lintel stores the curtain; the window doesn't reach the height of the shelf that finishes the sill; this shelf is easily confused with the tables under which appear furniture, connections or radiators. At this density another crucial element is added: the landscape and the highest intensity of interior light that is found on the horizontal plane of the sill-shelf. In one act, objects, light and landscape share a stage created by a counterpoint that places the everyday objects of the time in a place of importance. In this way the natural lighting emphasizes a composition based on the counterpoint between object and landscape, a contrast that employs natural light as the basis of an aesthetic thought: the relationship between manufactured objects and nature governing human action.
To understand how composing with natural light works, we can study an analysis of the luminosity of the second floor of the Ville Savoye. The red represents the maximum light intensity flooding the terrace and service patio open to the sky. It also functions as a perimetral ring formed by the ledges of the horizontal windows, creating a spatial composition based on the juxtaposition between objects, light and landscape.
NAKED OBJECTS IN THE COMPOSITION OF ARTIFICIAL LIGHT / In 1925, Raoul La Roche wrote Le Corbusier to complain about the lack of artificial light in his house, especially in the gallery(3). In his letter, he recognized that the designed artifacts were ingenious although insufficient for lighting correctly. The photos of the time show that this ingenious solution consisted of a garland of naked light bulbs floating above the double-height space. It is surprising that these elements are not only in the photos of this house, but also in other works of the twenties.
The control that Le Corbusier maintained over the publication of his works, especially over the photographs, makes it difficult to know whether the naked bulbs were waiting for a lamp (De Smet, 2007). In fact, in some of the photos the light bulbs are on, ensuring they do not go unnoticed. This reaffirms the question made by Reyner Banham (1969), who noted the photo-mechanical work done to reinforce the presence of the light bulb lighting the living room of the Villa Cook (1926) in his publication, Oeuvre Complète. On the other hand, in both the technical specifications and the correspondence associated with different projects reveal the detailed control of the selection of the cables and artifacts used. For example, in 1930 Perfecla House(4) solicited Le Corbusier to consider some electrical artifacts that Madame Savoye had liked, showing that it was he who chose them for that project.
Reyner Banham (1969) associated the persistent use of naked bulbs in the purist houses of the twenties to the declared prestige of achieving the absolute honesty prevalent in various areas of artistic and intellectual production at the time, a concept that could be tracked in many articles of L’Esprit Nouveau. He also emphasized that Le Corbusier used a variety of glass and metal screens of industrial origin, and that the use of the naked bulb was admissible until at least 1930 considering that it also was considered an industrial object
In 1928, the illumination of the gallery in Villa La Roche was changed for a sophisticated lamp that indirectly lit the painting walls, similar to the lamp in the salon of the Villa Savoye, an artificial illumination strategy that Flora Samuel (2007) has followed up to the Carpenter Center in 1964. This strategy consists in the use of walls, ceilings and floors as reflective surfaces activated by lamps specially designed to generate controlled light environments. These lamps were special design objects developed through studies and details that took architects to the detail of 1:1 scale.
It was this aesthetic aspect associated with lighting objects, technically the resulting illumination that can be evaluated according to the standards of the time considering the equipment and potencies specified in each case.
In 1926, Bolstroff advised toward achieving a horizontal illumination with three light level between 15-20 lux for high-quality, or principal salons where manual activities are developed; and between 35-50 lux for mechanical studios and conference rooms. The analysis of the studio of the Maison Ozenfant of 1922 and the gallery of the Maison La Roche of 1924, both lit with naked bulbs show that the standards of the time already met the requirements with light levels around 55 lux with an almost uniform distribution.
The output in both cases is between 9 and 11 w/m2, showing the application of similar criteria in both.
It is foreseeable that the coherence in the standards and the similarity of the output had nothing to do with the architects but with the techniques used in each case. In 1929 Le Corbusier made the following declaration to the president of the Centrosoyuz of Moscow: "(...) we never draw the heating, water and electrical plans, (...) we indicate the places that requite heating, water, light (...) we decided these places with the builder where the ducts will pass in way that is both economical and in which the architecture is uncompromised..." If the technical work was done by the builders, then the selection and design of the artifacts for illumination were center of his preoccupation with artificial lighting.
In this way, the artificial light played between the crude light of the naked artifacts -sometimes incandescent and others fluorescent- and the sophisticated indirect lighting of complex, specially-designed lamps.
THE OBJECTS AS THE HEART OF THE PROBLEM OF ILLUMINATION / Beatriz Colomina (1991) has consistently showed the importance assigned by Le Corbusier to industrially manufactured objects. He was a collector of catalogues and cut-outs of cars, planes furniture and even turbines and motors. This fixation was not limited to discovery, it was an assiduous search sought out manufacturers for their catalogues because in them he found the arguments for showing the most concrete aspects of the machinist society before the eyes of artists, intellectuals and architects. The various articles published in L’Esprit Nouveau are full of these consumables. This fixation on the objects appears in his work with light, however it did not mean arranging static stages for illuminating objects like an exhibition but to put them in play as part of the composition of the space, using them only to emphasize the compositional freedom opened by the structures of steel and reinforced concrete.
The nakedness of the light bulbs and their raw, incandescent light -objects for illumination- and the strategic utilization of the ledges -for illuminating the objects- are some of the rules that transformed illumination to that which Le Corbusier named a learned game, that is none other than that which he later called his patient search.
1. This article is based on the results and discussions and work realized by the students Ignacio Pérez, Álvaro Urrutia and Felipe Torreblanca, in the clases Investigation Seminar at the Architecture school of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, between 2006 and 2008.
2. These measurements are mentioned in arious texts, however there is no record of them apart from the sketch shown.
3. See La Roche, Raoul. “Letter to Le Corbusier, April 2, 1925”. (Benton, 1987)
4. See PERFECLA, Letter to Le Corbusier. February 2, 1930, FLC H1-12-96
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Le Corbusier. "Carta a Lubomov, 31 de enero de 1939". Quetglas, Josep. Les heures claires. Proyecto y arquitectura de la Villa Savoye de Le Corbusier y Perre Jeanneret. Massilia, Barcelona, 2008. [ Links ]
Le Corbusier "Tres advertencias a los señores arquitectos. I El volumen" y "Arquitectura II. La ilusión de los planes". Hacia una arquitectura. Apóstrofe, Barcelona, 1998, or. 1920. [ Links ]
Samuel, Flora. "Light and dark". Le Corbusier in detail. Elsevier, Architectural Press, Oxford, 2007.
[ Links ]