Dom-ino: Archetype and Fiction
Like many Le Corbusier projects, Dom-ino appears under two very different guises, depending on the degree of familiarity one has with the work of itsauthor.For the layperson, Dom-ino consists primarily of an image, one of those iconic images that is endlessly reproduced in architectural journals and books. With its three slabs, six columns, and staircase in the background, the picture, a perspectival view of an allegedly “monolithic”structure, ranks among the most famous illustrations produced by modernist architecture. Because of its pervasive, at times subliminal presence in architectural discourse, it has overshadowed the technicalities of the system itself and the various examples of its application given in Le Corbusier’s Oeuyre complete.The situation is quite different for the student of the architect, for whom the system and its applications are also present.There are other examples of this duality between icon and layered system. Plan Obus for Algiers presents the same two-tiered structure, which explains the highly differentiated reception of some Le Corbusier’s projects. In this case too, a highly emblematic iconography has eclipsed a far more complex and ambiguous proposal than what has been generally retained by architectural theorists and historians.
More than the system, it is the iconic image that I would like to question here. Where does its power come from? What does it tell us about the way Le Corbusier conceived its role as an author of general or rather archetypal proposals susceptible to a wide range of applications?As I will argue,the Dom-ino icon reveals the role played by fiction in the architect’s approach. For the drawing is to a large extent rooted in fiction, just like many other spectacular images produced by Le Corbusier. This fictional dimension may prove useful for interpreting other archetypal projects such as Plan Voisin for Paris or Plan Obus. Above all, it could account for their productive character, despite their highly unrealistic features.
In the first volume of the Oeure complete,the perspectival view of Dom-ino appears in stark contrast with the other illustrations of the system and its various applications to individual villas, as well as to collective housing programs. The line is stronger, without the slight waves and distortions that affect some of the other drawings, like the ones showing the application of the Dom-ino system to a mansion and to a group of more simple houses.The overall appearance of the perspectival view is more technological and precise, like the representation of an engine by aprofessional draughtsman.Interestingly, on the same page,cross-sections that are supposed to carry essential technical information on Dom-ino lack this degree of clarity, as if the synthetic view were imbued with a special matter-of-factness.
A closer look reveals that this objective appearance is actually the result of a careful graphic construction that owes a lot to traditional visual codes of architectural representation in addition to its evident debt to early 20th-century advertisement techniques. First,the view is not axonometric.The protruding angle and the use of two vanishing points are reminiscent of the scena per angolo used by various Enlightenment-century artists,from Ferdinando Galli da Bibbiena to Giovanni Battista Piranesi.The marked contrast between light and shadow seems also indebted to 18th-century graphic techniques. In addition to the importance they both give to the frame, to the tectonic,this 18th-century touch accounts for the frequent parallel made between Dom-ino and Marc-Antoine Laugier’s primitive hut as represented by French artist Charles Eisen on the frontispiece of the second edition of the Essai sur larchitecture. In this regard it is worth recalling that Le Corbusier was an avid reader of French 18th-century architectural theorists at the time he was working out Dom-ino.
How does one not subscribe at this stage to PeterEisenman’s penetrating observation regarding the dual character of the system as both modernist in its self-referentiality and rooted in a more ancient architectural tradition? This hybrid status is conveyed by the Dom-ino image,which blends two seemingly incompatible orientations: a concern for matter-of-factness or obiectivity, and illusionistic rendering techniques.