Dom-ino︱Revolution

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.

We know that, once and again, Le Corbusier held that the laws of architecture are always the same and that they do not change along with the transformation of technical means, within a logic that seems to refer more to absolute laws present in all ages under different forms than to positive principles—as is the case with a very similar statement by Viollet-le-Duc. However, both reinforced concrete and, later on, everite and other innovative techniques for the construction of light partitions (slag, plaster, compressed straw, wood, laminated sheets) arose his interest and stimulated him to devise a construction system which could be industrially exploitable in the promising post World War I reconstruction scene.

We refer to the “Monolythe” systemlater on, “Dom-ino system” with its connotations of house and flexible assembly. In Toward an Architecture, Le Corbusier relegated the subject to the last two chapters dealing with mass production housing. However, the “Dom-ino” system, reinterpreted as the core of purism in architecture, functions as the through-line and justification of the whole book.

Stimulated by the mass destruction of houses in Flanders, Le Corbusier conceived the “Dom-ino” system in the solitude of Chaux de Fonds in late 1914. It was a construction system devised with the technical support of Max Du Bois, a friend engineer who had translated Emil Mörsch’s book on reinforced concrete and with whom Le Corbusier went into partnership to patent the system and obtain commercial profit from it as a way to launch his career in France.

It is not worth tracking and discussing the potential references for each component. We will focus on the changes that Le Corbusier introduced with respect to similar structural proposals inspired on the possibilities open by reinforced concrete, since these changes are the ones which allowed him to make the “Dom-ino” frame the key to a redefinition of the vocabulary and the syntax of a new architecture.

The system is supported by Le Corbusier’s intention—which is clear from the very beginning—to consider, in a radically independent way, that frame and membrane constitute a vital separation of powers.

Such independent stance is not limited to the rejection of the resolution of the supporting structure and the enclosure on the same plane: Le Corbusier also rejects the vertical window due to its ambiguous status of opening in the wall or gap between two supporting elements.

With a reformulation made possible by the new construction procedures, Le Corbusier, in a way, makes use of the Urformen identified by Gottfried Semper, each one of them associated with precise technical operations. The membrane (Wand), as the enclosure and the light partitions that delimit and orientate the interior space through the figurative inscriptions of horizontal movements (la marche in depth), is textile: by eliminating any reference to the material; the roughcast transforms the membrane in a painter’s canvas, in a freed surface that can be treated with the compositional resources of Purist painting. The frame would be the roof’s support (Decke) translated into horizontal slabs. The concrete dices—later on, the pilotis and the free ground plan, would serve as mound (Mauern), protecting the building from the damp and differentiating it from the soil.

There are five other attributes of the “Dom-ino” system: (1) The rectangular proportion of the slabs in order for them to be attached to one another by the ends, with the possibility of orienting them in different ways; (2) The cylindrical character of the six pillars, the 
autonomy of which is reinforced by the elimination of all the elements of passage with respect to the bearing and support planes, for which lightened beamless slabs would be used; (3) The recessed location of the pillars with respect to the longer side of the projecting slab, in order to make the facade (as well as internal partitions) totally independent from the structural frame; (4) The emphasis on the smooth character of all the elements, reinforced by the use of roughcast in order to eliminate any reference to the material nature; (5) The replacement, of course, of the pointed roof by a terrace.

Many of these architectural choices negatively affect the structural behavior, so much so that Perret warned Le Corbusier that it would be impossible to build such houses, and Le Corbusier did not even use this system in the many commissions that he got between 1917 and 1919 to build groups of houses for the working-class.

The recess of the pillars with respect to the edge of the slab had been used by Perret in the interior of the Ponthieu garage in order to improve the performance of the monolithic slabs. However, Le Corbusier resorted to a complex lightened system with hollow blocks that made the execution of the overhangs and the infrastructure installation very difficult. The beamless slabs had been used by François Hennebique and Robert Maillart, but they resorted to mushroom-shaped columns to ensure a rigid joint with the slabs. Le Corbusier also made complicated efforts to avoid resorting to wood formwork as the negative of the concrete structure and potential determining factor of its shape. Despite the increase in weight that this entailed, instead of removable waffle slabs, he made use of hollow bricks supported by a double framework of angle iron pieces that would demand a two-stage casting for each level.

The “Dom-ino” system productively intermingles the design of a prototype for mechanical reproduction and the definition of a new structural type that partly makes use of, and is defined in counterpoint to, the three structural types defined by Viollet-le-Duc. Le Corbusier attempted to achieve the synthesis and coherence of the Greeks (separate pieces resting on one another), and he made use of reinforced concrete based on the Roman construction principle (monolithic unit, small construction elements, support system autonomous from the enclosures that define the inner space), but starting from the radical distinction between “frame” and “membrane” of the gothic.

The new structural type not only allowed him to leave behind the means of the old architecture but also more than half a century of trials—still engaged in a dialogue with the oldest principles of the discipline—at defining the formal and spatial resources of a post-wall architecture with regard to the structural frame. The frame/membrane polarity as essentialist reduction of the primitive cottage enabled Le Corbusier to make a revolutionary return—like M. A. Laugier in 1753—to a point zero of the discipline in order to radically reconsider its resources—i.e., by re-elaborating the logical support in a new construction base, he was able to review the values and even the concept of architecture.

The amendment of the code is internal to the discipline and it is supported by the devising of this new structural type underlying the “Dom-ino” system.


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