Le Corbusier's Ecology: What Modern Architecture Teaches Us About Green Design

Le Corbusier's Ecology: What Modern Architecture Teaches Us About Green Design
Cocoon House, Paul Rudolph with Ralph Twitchell, 1951, from "Lessons From Modernism: Environmental Design Considerations in 20th Century Architecture, 1925-70"
(Courtesy the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture Archive of The Cooper Union)

Sustainability has become something of a buzzword in contemporary architecture. The future of design seems inextricably entwined with the future of our planet. Knowing this, we gamble our fate on technological advances, on innovations such as green roofs, photovoltaic cells, and new, more complex schemes for recycling water, energy, and other natural resources. But according to Kevin Bone, architect, professor, and pioneering researcher on urban waterfronts and water supply systems, the past has more to offer the future than one might be inclined to believe.

Bone is the curator behind “Lessons From Modernism: Environmental Design Considerations in 20th Century Architecture,” an upcoming exhibition at The Cooper Union that will analyze the ecologically conscious features of 25 architectural projects dating from 1925 to 1970. Displaying works ranging from Alvar Aalto’s Finnish row houses to Oscar Niemeyer’s experiments in tropical modernism, the show attempts to dispel the stigmatized conception of modern architecture as a blithely out-of-context and even environmentally disruptive style of building. Though some of its outcomes were less salubrious toward the environment, as Bone suggests, this oft-misunderstood movement championed a surprisingly relevant agenda to find harmony with the natural world.

ARTINFO recently spoke with Bone about the solar cycle, Le Corbusier, and what “green” architecture really means.

How did you become interested in the topic of sustainable design in modernism?

I’ve been interested in a broader field of environmental design for over 30 years, and I brought some of that with me to the Cooper Union. I’ve long believed that we’ve been making a mistake by regarding the discussion of the environment as secondary to the primary design mission. That was what motivated this show: to demonstrate that at the core of the modern movement, the great architects we all regard as the heroes of the discipline were in fact very attuned to the cycles of nature. I wanted to make that evident to the students, so that they were not going forth thinking that sustainability or green architecture or environmental design — whatever term you want to use — is simply something that you call a consultant for. Rather, it’s something that needs to be initiated at the very beginning of the architectural idea.

What do you think it is about modern architecture that makes it seem antithetical to environmentally responsible design?

I think we have to be careful to distinguish between modern architecture and modern corporate buildings, which often get identified as being modern architecture. The standard hotel or office tower from around 1970 on has been a sealed glass building, and a lot of people find these to be uncomfortable environments because they lack fresh air, or they are heavily air-conditioned. I think the public sees any simple glass box as a work of modern architecture, and that’s probably part of the problem.

There could also be some misinterpretation of Le Corbusier’s statement that “the house is a machine for living in.” Of course, if one reads the text of that book [“Vers une architecture”], he goes on to very explicitly discuss the relationship between the garden and the house, the sun and the house, natural ventilation and the house. In a way, that quote has somehow been taken out of context to mean that architecture should be “mechanized.” I don’t think that was necessarily the direction he was heading towards.

Given that the notion of sustainability as we know it today did not exist during this era of modernism, what do you think motivated architects like Le Corbusier to come up with what can be considered sustainable design solutions?

There was a resource crisis in Europe. Fuel was precious; wealth was precious. The modernists were attempting to make architecture for a class of people who were not necessarily privileged to the architectural product. I think that’s very relevant for our times, because once again architecture has drifted to the fringe of being a product for the elite. I think when the early modernists imagined that we could build light, airy, and dignified architectural environments for working-class people, they recognized that there was a limitation on the resources and capital that society had available to make the work. That’s very similar to what we have today, even though the resources and the capital were perhaps limited for different reasons.

This might be why — when we travel to Europe — we’re amazed at how utterly well built some of their buildings are. A routine building in Denmark from the 1950s is often far more energy-efficient than what we’re doing nowadays in the United States. And that’s because they had very little fuel. They were trying to do more with less.

So, do you believe there is some underpinning of the modern movement that inspires concern for the environment?

Yes, I don’t think the language of “protecting global eco-systems” was being spoken in those times, but nonetheless, the result of what modernist architects were doing had less negative impact on the environment. The motivations were slightly different, but not so different. They were still rooted in resource conservation and the idea that one can make an economical building — a good economical building — that would also be enveloped in the spirit of architecture. Economy didn’t have to mean rock-bottom social housing with no redeeming spatial and spiritual qualities or a sense of place.

What do you hope that contemporary architects and architecture students can learn from revisiting modernism through the lens of sustainability?

They’re going to see that all of these architects were in contact with nature, and that nature was often a very big influence on how they saw the world. I think that’s fairly important because a lot of us are growing up nowadays in a kind of urban-digital bubble where there’s not a lot of contact with the visceral cycles of the planet. If you don’t understand the most fundamental aspect of the site — the relationship of the sun to the planet at the given place where you want to make the architecture — then you’re at a disadvantage. You see through the sketches — those of Oscar Niemeyer, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Marcel Breuer — that the movement of the sun through the sky is critically important.

What are some of the most resonant examples of design in the exhibition?

The Frank Lloyd Wright Solar Hemicycle — one of his Usonian Houses that he built up in Wisconsin — is really a textbook example of a passive solar heating structure. But that’s reasonably well known. There are others, such as Antonin Raymond, who went over to Tokyo to work on the Imperial Hotel [with Frank Lloyd Wright] and built a very beautiful work of modern architecture using traditional Japanese methods. Here was someone who used locally sourced — in the jargon of today — building materials and local craftsman and demonstrated that he could make a work of modern architecture. Modern architecture didn’t have to be either poured-in-place concrete or a white stucco box. Many materials could be worked with. There was clearly a sense of the local that came through in a lot of these projects.

“Lessons From Modernism,” will be on show at The Cooper Union's Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery, located at 7 East 7th Street, 2nd Floor, from January 29 to March 16.

To see more images from "Lessons From Modernism," click the slideshow here.