Dom-ino︱Frame versus Carcass

Rigotti, A. M. . (2017). Le corbusier and a new structural system as the germ of the modern grammar. Journal of Civil Engineering and Architecture(11), 690.

The importance of Auguste Perret’s influence cannot be left aside when considering the issue of the structure in Toward an Architecture.

We know that the notion of “structure” was introduced as topic of the discipline by Éugène Viollet-le-Duc—structure as internal reason, as a principle that generates and organizes the shape in accordance with the dominant static logics in a construction system. This internal reason would be the basis for establishing aesthetic registers and the supreme value of style, in a clear step forward towards the recognition of the discipline’s constituent laws and resources, of its nature and purpose beyond tradition or social conventions.

This viewpoint is not very different from Karl Bötticher’s notion of Tektonik, which he states in his reflections on the dialectics between Kernform and Kunstform: a relationship of a necessary and constitutive interdependency, wonderfully achieved in Ancient Greece, between a “core” which resides in the material, static and functional aspect, and an artistic “skin” which expresses and high lights the function of the core with which it is intimately linked. With this, Bötticher issues a moral demand that resounds once and again in Le Corbusier’s notes.

Tracking in Le Corbusier’s thinking, the organizational survival of these 19th-century conceptualizationswhich, many times, happen on the quiet, with transformations and changes of meaning also places us in the historiographic debate on his formative years. We refer to the alleged dominance of idealism over any flirtation with the French rationalist tradition, which would have been reduced to a weak note or reinterpreted as absolute principles underlying Nature. It is a debate in which the importance of Le Corbusier’ s references to Perret and the concepts and registers of constructive rationalism are at stake.

Perret is the interlocutor in Toward an Architecture. He is the ghost behind Le Corbusier’s reference to the aesthetics of the engineer with which he decides to start the compilation. Perret’s concept of carcass is the one that organizes—by means of a subversion, but without a change of register—Le Corbusier’s arguments around the issue of the structure.

It was through the Perret brothers that Le Corbusier came into contact with the French rationalist tradition and, in general, with architecture as a discipline. We know that their relationship started in July 1908, when Le Corbusier joined the studio under a work schedule which left the afternoons free for him to visit libraries and museums and take courses. It was Auguste who acquainted him with mathematics, the writings of Viollet-le-Duc (Le Corbusier bought the Dictionnaire Raisonné with the money from his first salary), Auguste Choisy and Adolf Loos, and who introduced him to Ozenfant and Tony Garnier. To Le Corbusier, Perret was a father figure, and he would constantly turn to him for guidance and advice—even with regard to the “Dom-ino” system; Perret also supported Le Corbusier’s L’Esprit Nouveau magazine project by being a member of the publishing society.

Their relationship was full of tensions, as can be easily noticed in several Toward an Architecturestatements where Le Corbusier contradicts Perret’ s principles. The conflict became more virulent when Perret attacked Le Corbusier in an interview by saying that he was “a disciple of a school of volume creators”. This sparked off a fierce public debate that was resolved through the press and focused on the role of the structure in the process of the formal description of architecture, on the expression of materials, on the fenêtre en longueur and the elimination of cornices. What was at stake was Le Corbusier’s will to differentiate himself from Perret’s continuity with tradition. The conflict eventually led to a breaking-off of the relationship around the year 1925, with Le Corbusier accusing Perret of being, among other things, a simple engineer and inviting him to mind his own business.

As we have already mentioned, Le Corbusier borrows the notion of carcasse (carcass)—only bones, no flesh, no modeled details—from Perret. This notion led Le Corbusier to become absorbed in a reflection on the building itself. The carcass as an element which is beyond contingencies, is determined by permanent factors (like the materials and the laws of stability) can be assimilated to Charles Perrault’s concept of “positive beauty” and resounds in the “Dom-ino” system and its purist retrieval in Toward an Architecture.

Perret conceives the notion of carcass in terms of woodwork (charpente)—first translated into stone, then into steel and, at that time in France, into reinforced concrete. This is why, for him, the framework—not only the support frame but also the enclosure frame with its infilling areas—is a formal issue, and it enables him to reintroduce composing topics of classic or gothic inspiration and to define interior space in accordance with the rhythm and the modulation of the support frame and the enclosure frame.

In Le Corbusier’s thinking, this relationship between carpentry and the classic language is lost. The carcass, that monolithic reinforced-concrete cage, no longer defines the outer shape. The ossature (as structural skeleton) and the membrane (as architectural external “skin”) are now considered as two separate entities, different in terms of material nature, resolution and construction role. Thus, the internal space no longer depends on the vertical structural frame, and the external skin of the building dissolves the presence of the ossature through the veil of a surface without sutures, free to get involved in an autonomous plastic interplay since it is now free from any tectonic reference.

While for Perret, the reference to carpentry was based on the need of a wooden form work that would work as the negative of the reinforced concrete carcass, Le Corbusier makes several extreme attempts to break this bond. He resorts to complex technical tricks to get rid of the wooden formwork and to set the structural concrete frame free from carpentry as a model, all this without being disloyal to the rationalist maxim that establishes that the shape cannot but be the result of the exact construction nature of the thing.


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