The Modulor: human closeness as a basic value
The Modulor – a recurring silhouette in Le Corbusier's art and buildings with wide shoulders and narrow waist. A proud human figure who puts an arm up and has been thought as a universal proportioning scheme that places human needs at the center of design and architecture.
Things that are in a pleasant relationship to each other are beneficial to the eye. The Modulor was developed to combine human form, architecture and beauty in a single system. While the Modulor and its practical applications are the subject of a two-volume book series, Modulor I (1948) and Modulor II (1955), Le Corbusier succinctly described it as "a measure based on mathematics and the human scale, a double series of numbers, the red line and the blue." Le Corbusier's colorful measuring system is based on the dimensions of an "ideal man". According to sources, the "handsome policeman" as described in English crime novels that Le Corbusier liked. He started from an assumed standard size of the human body and marked three intervals that are in the approximate proportions of the Golden Ratio1. The Modulor represents the most significant modern attempt to give architecture a mathematical order oriented to the measure of man. He is thus in the tradition of Vitruvius2. The basic idea is to embody harmonious proportions and a design philosophy according to which buildings derive from the human needs of the inhabitants. The well-known Professor Albert Einstein was also taken by the calculations and the Modulor model. He said the Modulor is a language of proportion that makes good easy and bad hard.
«It's a language of proportions that makes the bad hard and the good easy.»
- Prof. Dr. hc C. Albert Einstein -
The Modulor mass or the human proportion system
The Modulor dimensions are measures with a physicality. In his travels, Le Corbusier saw buildings of the Greeks, Egyptians and other ancient and advanced civilisations. Where formerly the cubit or the foot were used as units of measure and were replaced by the decimal system, the Modulor brings back this corporeality into architecture. Le Corbusier's fascination for proportions and mathematical harmonies deepened with time. While acknowledging the metric system, Le Corbusier regretted the loss of the human connection that forms the basis of the imperial foot and customs system. In the book "Vers Une Architecture", published in 1923, Le Corbusier explains: "Geometry is the language of man," and the regularities contained in it, such as the Golden Ratio, are at the root of human activity. With the Modulor measurement system, Le Corbusier succeeded in combining human body measurements with the foot-based Anglo-Saxon measurement system and the metric decimal system. The Modulor was based on two tools of mathematics. The subtle effect of the Golden Ratio and the functional level of the human body. The first Modulor was 1.75 meters tall, the second – from 1955 – 1.829 meters. The measures are based on the principle of the Fibonacci numbers3, according to which the sum of two values determines the sequence value. The red row, starting from 6 English feet (= 1.83 m) in body size, produces a series of measurements by reducing or extending the basic size in the approximate ratio of the Golden Ratio. But the red row (113, 70, 43, 27 cm) can be derived even from the belly button height of 113 cm. However, the steps in this series seemed too large for daily use. So the blue row was formed, starting from 2.26 m (fingertip of the raised hand of the Modulor). These dimensions are created by continuous division of the Modulor according to the Fibonacci rule (226, 140, 86, 43 cm, etc.). Each height corresponds to a human emotion ideally at this height. Examples are stool height 267 mm, chair height 432 mm, room height 2,260 mm and so on.
«Humanity, that's the basic value of Modulor.»
- Le Corbusier -
Application of the Modulor
An example of the use of the Modulor can be found in the La Tourette monastery in Éveux, near Lyon, France. Sainte-Marie de La Tourette Monastery is considered one of the most important buildings of brutalism. The building is of austere beauty. It was built to be a self-contained world for a community of silent monks. To accommodate the monks' unique and specific way of life, the convent consists of one hundred individual cells – each one 226 cm high and 183 cm wide – a community library, dining room, cloister, church and classroom. The uneven spacing of the vertical concrete posts as well as the divisions between them were designed according to Le Corbusier's modular system of proportions. However, the Modulor and Modulor dimensions were also used at the Unité d'habitation in Marseille. It was opened in October 1952 and is 138 meters long, 25 meters wide and 56 meters high. In total, there are five Unités: Marseille, Rezé-les-Nantes, Briey-en-Forêt, Berlin-Charlottenburg and Firminy. But the Unité in Marseille is the only one born directly from Le Corbusier's plans and completely modulor-sized. Le Corbusier endeavored to reduce the housing shortage after WWII with the construction of the Unité and to meet the human requirements. Various facilities for daily needs were built into a building with 337 apartments (two-storey maisonette apartments). Le Corbusier has taken equal account of private and public spaces (shops, a small hotel and a laundry next to a kindergarten, open-air theater and sports hall). The Modulor measuring system has been consistently put into practice in the Unité of Marseille. The Unité is a typical example of Le Corbusier's will to change architecture. Using technical possibilities, better living conditions were to be created and this "vertical city" was exactly expressing that for him. Humans are not only the center of attention with the Modulor, from a functional point of view; they also become the benchmark of all things. Further examples of buildings with or after the Modulor measurement table are the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University and the housing machine – also known as the “Corbusierhaus” – in Berlin. Right next to the entrance of the Unité in Berlin, the Modulor awaits visitors and residents as a relief made of exposed concrete. The "Type Berlin" was built between 1956 and 1958, but little of what Le Corbusier wanted was realized in the house. For example, the ceiling was raised to 260 cm – bypassing the Modulor system and also the golden section. Of course, 230 cm are rather low for today's gusto, and the human kind is getting bigger and bigger. Critics of Le Corbusier's proportional system also mention that the feminine system is irrelevant or that the measurements are difficult to remember. Whether this is disturbing or not is subjective for each and every one. But the recurrent silhouette with a narrow waist and broad shoulders had for Le Corbusier a simple and yet great goal – to give architecture in the post-war period a bit of humanity and objective order.
The Modulor, the abstract
The Modulor is a measurement or proportioning system developed by Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier’s Modulor consists of a red and a blue row of numbers with meters and inches of numbering. Based on the Golden Ratio and the human proportions, it is an attempt of architecture, in the tradition of Vitruvius, to give human dimensions as a mathematical order. The default size was 183 cm (6 feet), whereas the first Modulor was only 175 cm tall. Starting from the standard size, intervals following the Fibonacci rule mark various heights corresponding to human needs. The measurements (only approximate to the Golden Ratio) are 113 cm navel height and 226 cm total height with outstretched arm. "The Modulor", published by Le Corbusier in 1949, is one of the most important writings in architectural history and theory. The Modulor is used, for example, in the Corbusierhaus in Berlin. However, only the Unité of Marseille and the Convent La Tourette were created according to Le Corbusier's theory of proportion. Although many buildings of Le Corbusier are created with pleasant proportions, neither the Villa Savoye nor Chandigarh are built entirely according to the Modulor masses.
Couvent Sainte-Marie de La Tourette © FLC / ADAGP - Olivier Martin-Gambier
Unité d'habitation Marseille © FLC / ADAGP - Paul Kozlowski
Modulor and Le Corbusier with Albert Einstein © FLC / ADAGP
Unité d'habitation Berlin © Les Couleurs Suisse AG
1) The golden section is a design component that was already widespread in ancient times. When dividing lengths according to the golden ratio, the result is always harmonious. In this case, a track divided so that the smaller section to the larger section is in the same proportion as the larger section to the total distance.
2) Vitruvius is the first notorious architectural theorist who worked in Rome at the time of Caesar and Augustus. For Vitruvius, man formed the measure of architecture.
3) The Fibonacci sequence can be found countless times in nature. The mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci discovered the sequence as he watched the growth of a rabbit population. The sequence starts with the number 1. Each subsequent number is formed from the sum of the two preceding numbers.