The Palais des Soviets and the Palais des Nations, like the Party Buildings in Nuremberg, symbolized the hoped for triumph of a "new order." Communism, like Nazism, believed that society functioned according to certain, almost mathematical laws. The dialectic of class against class had brought the proletariat to power, and the communist Soviet state represented the natural and inevitable apex of human evolution and history. Le Corbusier shared in the Nazi predilection for seeing scientific order as an ideal in all things. The classical building with its carefully defined parts and their mathematical relationships to one another were like the parts of a machine - each piece an essential part of the whole, the whole inoperable without the parts. Indeed, Le Corbusier likened the house to these engines of the industrial age calling houses "machines for living."
In 1931, the government of the Soviet Union announced a competition for designs for the construction of its planned Palace of Soviets. The following year it issued a decree mandating the use of classical forms in combination with modern materials and techniques.
The rules reflected an understanding of the meaning of the Classical tradition as it related to the communist enterprise. The dialectic itself was derived ultimately from classical philosophy by way of the German philosopher Hegel. More importantly, the use of Classical styles and orientations reflected the Soviet Union's grasp of its civilizational heritage. Again, the classical idiom showed the past was part of the present, leading inevitably forward to the triumph that was communism.
The Palace of Soviets featured a classical orientation, and a three hundred foot tall facade covered with reliefs and pillars - the classical on a modern scale.
At such a height it outclassed the old Czarist-era churches, thus emphasizing that Communism, like Nazism, was the new religion, the state creed which all would follow. Le Corbusier's architectural ideas, too, were nearly religious in nature, and fit well with such projects. Le Corbusier, too, was seeking to perfect humanity, and to develop a new way of thinking that could be reflected in the new world's buildings and cities.
For Le Corbusier, the classical ideal was one that aspired to a representation in concrete form of ultimate natural rhythms and harmonies. One could read nature in mathematics, in the relationship of leaf to tree and flower to bud. Classical ideals fused with modern needs, materials, and techniques, could create a utopia that was at once more natural and more suited to the human condition than even the Antique Classical originals. Le Corbusier's philosophy on the transcendence of nature could be summed up in his following recollection, group of us often met on the summit of the highest mountain.... In the midst of peaks and great sweet slopes, bands of animals, infinite horizons, flights of crows, we prepared for the future. There, the Master said, we shall construct a temple dedicated to nature. We shall devote our lives to it. We shall leave the city and live in the forest at the foot of the structure which we shall slowly fill with our works. The spirit of the entire site shall be incarnated there. All the animals, all the plants. Once year there will be a great celebration. At the four corners of the temple the ceremonial fires will be lit.
In his espousal of classicism, Le Corbusier was trying to recreate the nature religion of his youth, and to bring this faith to the masses of humanity. Le Corbusier studied a postcard of Michelangelo's Capitol in Rome; placing another postcard over it at right angles, he observed that the placement of the angles determined the whole effect and proportionality of the structure.
In that one moment, he had discovered his "religion," uncovering the quintessential rules that lay behind all good building.
Moving forward with these ideas, Le Corbusier combined the strict rules of the Classical canon with an emphasis on the needs of the machine age "religion." Mass production was as much a sign of the modern god as geometric angles were images of the presence of the divine spirits of nature. To be useful and aesthetically pleasing, modern buildings - even the simplest ones, like houses - would have to be capable of being mass produced out of easily available materials. The Domo-Ino house represented the first culmination of Le Corbusier's principles on housing and urban design, "An art in which the engineer's calculations and the architect's feelings are perfectly matched, an art in harmony with the reason and power of the machine."
The machine was setting the pace in tandem with deeper considerations of natural order and proportion such as those demanded by classical architectural theory. In designing the Domo-Ino house, Le Corbusier followed strictly classical ideas when he broke down the structure into its basic parts. These fundamental pieces could then be infinitely multiplied and reproduced, a fact that linked this concept equally with modern industrial methods of production.
Le Corbusier envisioned houses on the model of Domo-Ino being mass manufactured to meet the needs of Europe's working population - art and industry coming together to serve a natural and useful function. Architecture based on a natural religion of lines and angles was furnishing the blueprint for human i.e. natural necessities.
No doubt, Le Corbusier was attracted, in part at least, to the competition for the Palace of Soviets because the Soviets, in theory, were also trying to better the living conditions of the great bulk of humanity. The religious triumphalism of the palace of soviets was Domo-Ino writ large. Classicism combined with the best of the machine age could be represented in stirring and inspirational form. Works like the Palace of Soviets could further spur endeavors like Domo-Ino by inspiring others with the same kind of messianic zeal. Much later, in fact, Le Corbusier's architectural religion of aesthetic improvement through industry took another, and decidedly more blatantly religious turn. In the church at Ronchamp, he finally produced a masterpiece that looked back to traditional Western faith while presenting his ideals for a new world.
Over the years, he had come to view Catholicism in a way that reflected his own understanding of humanity's place in nature and the cosmos. Born a Calvinist, he had rejected that faith early on. In 1955 he wrote, "I discover in Catholicism the continuation of the most ancient, the most human rites, (human scale, and pertinent)."
He also wrote the Poem of the Right Angle after seeing a Greek iconostasis. Le Corbusier was increasingly seeing in geometry and proportion profound images of cosmic significance, such as had been seen by the medieval alchemists and other thinkers who had sought to discover the true metaphysical meanings behind the relationship of objects in the material world. He would use these angles in his representation of the Virgin Mary at the Chapel at Ronchamp.
The geometry of the figure of Mary would convey Her connection to universal, divine rhythms and truths.
Le Corbusier's emphasis on the Classical ideal reflected general trends in Late Twentieth Century and Early Twenty-First Century architecture. The public's preference for classically-inspired forms and proportions appeared to reveal a deeper dissatisfaction with the aims and products of modernism in architecture. Nevertheless, Le Corbusier's interpretation of the Classical is not Classical in the strict sense of appearance. Few of his works would be instantly recognizable as "Classical," or even as "natural."
The designs of Le Corbusier, whether in the forms of his representation of Mary, or in his designs for the Palais des Soviets, or Domo-Ino, signify an attempt to distill the essence of Classicism for mass consumption. He took the simplest possibly abstraction of the Classical canon and turned into to what he believed were contemporary needs and desires. In this sense, Le Corbusier's works are particularly modern, and almost anticlassical, based as they are on his own notions of public need and the general welfare. Much of the public was turned off by Modernism's attempt to reshape the world. Similarly, the "flights of fancy" that characterize the works of designs of Le Corbusier, and many of his successors, do not always conform to public tastes or wants.
Le Corbusier sought out Classicism as a symbol of universal realities, yet he often used its principles to endorse his own, quintessentially modern, hyper-individualist tendencies - his architecture was not necessarily everyone's architecture.
Classicism, therefore, has been a powerful force even in the modern era. Both Nazis and modernizing architects, like Le Corbusier, employed the style and its principles in connection with their own aims. In both cases, the Classical canon was seen as a way of expressing fundamental ideas about society and the world. Classicism, with its strict rules of composition and proportion, appeared ideally suited to a movement that craved strict order and rigid discipline at all costs, as did the Nazis. Its naturally-inspired rhythms appealed to Le Corbusier because they appeared to represent the way…
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