Eyes That Do Not See

In Toward a New Architecture, what does Le Corbusier mean by “sight?” He means both physical eyesight and metaphorical insight, and he moves back and forth between those meanings smoothly but not always clearly or consistently.

First, I have a few general notes. Corbusier praises engineering for its adherence to math/efficiency, which “puts us in accord with universal law… [and] achieves harmony.” Ideally, the architect’s role here is to arrange forms expressively, creating relationships that resonate with us and create beauty. For us to appreciate that, our eyes “are constructed to enable us to see forms in light.” Simplicity and clarity are thus the relevant values that Corbusier believes architecture has stopped honoring in favor of pointless things like historical styles. Likewise, our eyes are the primary way we interact with the built world and are in fact meant for that purpose. He does not specify whether we have evolution or a divine creator to thank for that, but it’s not hard to see a kind of soft Thomistic connaturality as an underlying assumption here.

Right from the beginning, he is setting up an opposition between basically everything from the recent past of his time and his ‘new architecture.’ Styles are trends that go away; his parallel with clothing fashion is absolutely not a coincidence. Frankly, he displays a fair amount of sexism throughout the manifesto, blurring universality and masculinity. His universal eye height is really more a universal male eye height, for example (5’-6”). I suspect that he is worried already because engineering is more manly (according to his description of it) than architecture, so he’s overcompensating just a bit.

Then we get to his “eyes that do not see” section. He describes architecture as “stifled by custom” and describes style as a “unity of principle animating all the work of an epoch,” so here he’s reclaiming style as a unifying zeitgeist (following Jung?) but he wants it to have a complete break with what’s gone before in order to make it maximally authentic. The idea that only something ahistorical can be truly universal is, of course, a sort of Aristotelian ideal of an unmoved mover who ultimately directs all things through a thicket of intermediaries. “Our own epoch is determining, day by day, its own style. Our eyes, unhappily, are unable yet to discern it.” He invokes the same idea of rational unity (very Platonic, really) when he talks about the modernist ideal of being able to start ‘from the inside’ and in essence derive the floorpan from some seed of pure mental creation. From that point, we unfold the rest of the building from the plan—a viewpoint that not every designer would agree with, allow me to point out. His assumption is, of course, that it would be possible to be so pure in your reasoning that only an error would leave you stranded partway or somehow attempting something outside the “language of architecture.”

I believe he is basically looking at mass production to reproduce (pun unintended but inevitable) the Platonic ideal of effortless creation, with the architect in the place of the Demiurge, leveraging technology in every way to make a lot of stuff really fast (without losing any manliness). Desiring these forms, our eyes trick us into falling away from the purity of the intellect into a sort of middle world of feelings, again very Platonic, but our minds can “measure” our perceptions nonetheless. I note that recent research has explored how deeply Corbusier was inspired by Freemasonry (Birksted) and a lot of his Platonic tendencies were no doubt shaped specifically by their masonic interpretations (note: no women there either…) and not necessarily through a lot of direct readings of Plato and/or Aristotle.

So who is it who isn’t seeing?

“We have not forgotten the dweller in the house and the crowd in the town. We are well aware that a great part of the present evil state of architecture is due to the client, to the man who gives the order, who makes his choice and alters it and who pays. For him we have written ‘eyes which DO NOT see.’”

According to Corbusier, it’s not the architects’ fault, which is rarely a convincing way to frame an argument about universal principles of design. Here we finally meet a metaphoric use of sight in a clear separation from literal sight; the person whose daily attention is trained on the rising and falling ways of the marketplace, whose decisions are inconstant, is the person who demands changes in what should be an unchanging rationality of the plan-derived design. Echoing ideas we have seen in Loos’s famous anti-ornament essay, the businessman (and I think the gender-marking here is neither pure coincidence nor a naive reflection of its time) spoils what could be a good, clean design with, I extrapolate, excess. Corbusier doesn’t typically draw a clear line between his literal and metaphoric senses, since he’s perhaps working in a more symbolic mode of thinking much of the time, and clearly when he talks about lack of sight (loss? never had it? failed to gain it?) he is not being literal.

To be clear, literal sight in this text acts as a go-between for the world and the mind, following a general line of philosophy that was certainly outmoded by Corbusier’s time among mainstream European philosophers and only making a partial comeback among the phenomenologists and process thinkers like Whitehead. I have no reason to think he was reading those sources, though; I think he was drawing on a broad philosophical tradition in Europe without really trying to be rigorous about it (ironically but practically).

“The eye of the spectator finds itself looking at a site composed of streets and houses. It receives the impact of the masses which rise up around it. If these masses are of a formal kind and have not been spoilt by unseemly variations, if the disposition of their grouping expresses a clean rhythm and not an incoherent agglomeration, if the relationship of mass to space is in just proportion, the eye transmits to the brain co-ordinated sensations and the mind derives from these satisfactions of a high order: this is architecture.

Physical eyesight here is filling an intermediate role between consciousness and the (built) environment, in the same way that it did for classical and medieval philosophy and anthropology. In fact, it’s narrowed down considerably from late medieval theories of ‘common sense’ (an organizing power of the soul that coordinated sense information from our eyes, ears, tongues, and skin into a less material and more native modality of the mind) to a specifically visual conduit of knowledge that the mind resolves (sort of like a puzzle or like the medieval notion of the ‘phantasm’) into thoughts and emotions that we can write about.

The rationalist ideal of ‘unpacking’ a parti into a full design, and perhaps eventually a material building, haunts architecture schools to this day. While I am very sympathetic to the project of getting students to engage their creative process with greater rigor, I am also pretty sure that we’re not doing them any favors when we don’t push back against the Corbusian paradigm of purity of logic as a design path of least resistance. If we implicitly represent every conscious decision point as evidence of having fallen away from perfection, if we reject emergent properties of scale and materials, then we are not preparing students (or ourselves) to deal with contingencies of joy and frustration, nor to participate in actual construction as it affects us in return. We will be encouraging them instead to develop their own set of eyes that will not see, to all intents and purposes.

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