“Our body is the ultimate tool for discovering the environment” (Corina, 2014). From exploring the existing world with our five senses, to the creation of architecture using tools we invented; human civilisation took upon its existence the desire to build a more complex environment thus allowing us to improve our dwellings and progress through time.
The human body is “natures peak of perfection” (Corina, 2014) as it has an engine- the heart, and a steering wheel- our brain, which can be projected into architecture where the architect has the engine and the steering wheel with the ability to create the most ‘Vanustatis’ buildings. Without a human body there would be no architecture, however, the question we must ask ourselves is how did the role of the human body revolutionize architecture? Perhaps the answers lie in our body and history.
If the body was split in half, it would be symmetrical. It is proportional as it harmonizes with its surroundings to fit in and changes in different environments just like architecture. From there, we can see an indistinct link between the body and architecture. However, when we delve further into history we see the beginning of the adaptation of the body in architecture and where the initial link was made.
Vitruvius, one of the first architects known to us, wrote a book dedicated to architecture called “De ‘Architectura”. He proposed the three Vitruvian principles in his book, which states that the three principles of a good architecture are “Firmatis”, “Utilitas” and “Vanustatis” (Gwilt, 1874) translating to durability, utility and beauty. This has been used by many architects to design a functional building, however those three principles came from the human body. Further in the essay we will come back to Vitruvius, but first I will discuss the conception and the role of the human body in architecture through the readings of Vitruvius, Le Corbusier and Vidler and using the example of The Lowry.
Firstly, a concept that should be considered is if architecture exist without the human body. The basic answer is no, since everything that was formed was created by us. Vitruvius argues that the human body is essentially the pivot point where we became able to invent tools to shape and model the world, and find the basic principles from nature which we can follow and be obliged to, and without those tools, we wouldn’t be able to be where we are now. Furthermore, the body was the birth of maths and essential links between disciplines thus harmonizing together to form architecture with symmetricity and proportionality playing a vital role in designing and executing buildings.
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio commonly known to us as Vitruvius, was a Roman architect known for his multi-volume work entitled ‘De Architectura’ which acted as a guide for building projects in Rome (15BC). It is the oldest thesis on architecture to survive from antiquity and can be regarded as one of the first architectural theory to exist which has inspired and propelled many architects to reuse the body in their works.
Throughout the thesis Vitruvius analyses projects and proposes guides on how to execute a building project in the right manor. In book 3, chapter 1 called ‘On symmetry: In temples and in the human body’, Vitruvius explores the theme of proportionality and symmetry through the human body and how the ancients build the temples in the same manner as nature created the human body. The definition of the word proportion is “correspondence among the measures of the members of an entire work, and of the whole to a certain part selected as standard” (Vitruvius, 1914). This relates to the human body as “from the chin to the top of the forehead and the lowest roots of the hair, is a tenth part of the whole height; open the hand from the wrist to the top of the middle finger is just the same”, (Vitruvius, 1914).
Vitruvius is showing us through a mathematical point of view that our body is proportional to other members which argues that we have derived proportionality directly from our body since it exists on us and projected onto buildings, for example St. Peters Basilica.
Additionally, looking at symmetry, if the body was split in half cutting through the centre of the naval and the centre of the face, it would be symmetrical and proportional this is supported by “Then again, in the human body the central point is naturally the navel. For if a man be placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a pair of compasses centered at his navel, the fingers and toes of his two hands and feet will touch the circumference of a circle described therefrom.” (Vitruvius, 1914). Vitruvius thesis states that the human body fits a circle and a square, which from a mathematical point of view a square if cut in half its parts are symmetrical, same as the circle thus the ‘ancients’ having a respectable purpose for their rule on building temples where “in a perfect building the different members must be in exact symmetrical relations to the whole general scheme” (Vitruvius, 1914). Essentially the body being the starting point of identifying new shapes as Leon Battista Alberti argues in ‘De re aedificatoria’ that in nature we see circles everywhere same as squares, and shapes like the ‘octagon, hexagon’ (Alberti, 2007) have been derived from a circle which the human body formed from nature.
The body is a link between all disciplines, maths, biology, psychology and architecture. It is as described before ‘natures peak of perfection’, the pre-historic link that has been revisited by Vitruvius. From the human body the members where “right to derive the fundamental measures which are obviously necessary in all works, as the finger, palm, foot and cubit.” (Vitruvius, 1914), this quotation from the extract evidently supports Vitruvius argument that the role of the human body is important than ever as we have derived the essential units of measure from the human body.
Furthermore, the human body was also used to figure out value of currency in Greece at the time of Vitruvius, where throughout the study of palms and feet the values of coins and units were found. Vitruvius argues that without the human body we would not be able to have basic measures hence structures would be off proportion, as we would not be able to construct symmetrical and proportional structures. Therefore, we would not be able to calculate or find the golden section to satisfy the eye, nor work on finding a proportioning grid as there is no sense of order and harmony.
Similarly, how the body and maths work in their order, biology plays a vital role as “Architects and biologists ?nd themselves in a similar and curious position in this regard the differentiation between form and matter. Following Aristotle, both disciplines attempt an articulation of hylomorphism in regard to the body of the ”individual” (Mohd.S & Chris L. Smith 2012). Our body creates these links and allows disciplines to work together to design a building that produces a sense of awe and develops a psychological attraction towards it where we interlink and develop a relationship with the structure hence the link being a propelling factor in construction and how we behave in buildings.
Besides, Vitruvius says “Therefore, if it is agreed that number was found out from the human fingers, and that there is a symmetrical correspondence between the members separately and the entire form of the body, in accordance with a certain part selected as standard” (Vitruvius, 1914), the quote articulates that we should follow the fundamental principles and he clearly argues that we have derived certain principles from the human body and we have projected them onto architecture which can be seen as the perfect embodiment. Therefore “we can have nothing but respect” (Vitruvius, 1914).
On the other half The Lowry..
The above evidence all suggest that Vitruvius argues that the body should be respected for what it has fruited and provided for architecture. It clearly states that the role of the human body was vital as it was God’s creation and natures peak of perfection which has allowed us to learn and expand our knowledge and put it in motion in architecture. However, Le’Corbusier had a different conception of the human body in architecture, he saw it as mechanism rather than something natural.
The conception of the human body that Vitruvius had in architecture is opposing of what Le’Corbusier has proposed as his conception is based on the mechanical projection of the body in architecture where it is supported by mathematical expressions. Le’Corbusier argument comes from the fact that in the 1940s when he wrote the ‘The Modulor’ everything became mechanised from aviation to everyday tasks which he wanted to transfer into architecture and improve its appearance and function.
Scales have been used throughout our history and allow us to give a sense of accord and order when constructing since humans develop a psychological bond with dwellings and structures thus changing our behaviour if in poorly executed structures we can feel overwhelmed. Corbusier wanted to prove that a scale can be applied anywhere therefore the functionality should be at its peak.
Corbusier published his book ‘The Modulor’ in 1948, three years after World War II. The book was written to combine two incompatible measures – the metric and imperial system. It was aimed to solve the problem of mass production, Corbusier labelled it as a ‘problem of prefabrication’ (Le Corbusier, 1947) as he has realised that we do not poses a universal scale which makes us ‘inefficient’ (Le Corbusier, 1947) as there’s no harmonization and unity creating waste.
Corbusier argues that the construction industry needs some sort of universal proportioning grid (involving the human body) which can be used everywhere from window work to architecture (Le Corbusier, Bostock, De Francia, 1954). Corbusiers proposal seemed to be a perfect response on what was going in the 1950’s with the progression of technology and the rapid growth of the world’s population, with mass production being the focus due to numerous loss of architecture over Europe it focused onto helping manufactures to use it as a universal scale which would allow us to become more efficient. It is an attempt to bring generalisation into architecture where everything follows a singular template.
Firstly, Le Corbusier states that ‘society lacks a common measure which is capable of ordering the dimensions of that which contains’ (Le Corbusier, Bostock, De Francia, 1954) arguing that the current measure systems the imperial and metric are not harmonizing together preventing from bringing order. The idea of ‘The Modulor’ was to bring order and the human body was a mechanism, where it has been reduced to ‘physical matter’ (Imrie, 2003) by post- Galilean architects. The ‘physical matter’ was seen by Corbusier as ‘geometrization and algebraic equation’ (Imrie, 2003) which enabled him to come up with the modulor.
The combination of ‘divine proportions’ (Ramesh, n.d) from the golden section to the build environment led to his creation of The Modulor is that it combines a square and golden section to form nothing but a modular system (Frings, 2002). The Modulor shows the blue series showing the height in the golden section and the red representing the height of the naval with measures varying from 26cm to 226cm. Corbusier refers to the traditions of the Vitruvius man by using the naval as the origin point of red series.
The above points show that Le Corbusiers, The Modulor is a grid/scale to show proportionality at a universal scale. The human body is still seemed as a mechanism by Corbusier, which to him is linked with mathematics to create something easier for human kind. However, many argue that a proportioning grid designed by Le Corbusier is a delusion that he had with the Golden Mean. The proportioning grid is solely used for vertical dimensions which prevents from working out the sizes of doors and other construction elements. Further it is based on approximations to the Fibonacci numbers. Since the blue and the red series can be combined, the system becomes so elastic that the Golden Section is hard to detect. (Frings 2002) which contradicts his inspiration. Architecture is not about rounding up its an art of accuracy and precision which should respected.
Moreover, The Modulor Man is a healthy white male enhanced by mathematical proportional gimmicks ‘of nature’, such as golden ratio and Fibonacci series (Buzzi, 2017). Representing a normative and normalised body which cannot be applied to others meaning that it has not taken others into account and cannot be used as a universal scale.
Regarding The Lowry we can see…………
Anthony Vidler on the other hand, called Corbusier’s attempt to be simply ‘vain’ (Vidler, 1990) due to the vast number of faults mentioned before. Vidler argued against Corbusier’s conception of the human body as a mechanism, his conception is looking at the metaphorical interpretation of the body and how its applied in architecture due to being ‘technology dependant’ (Vidler, 1990)
In the essay “The Building in Pain” written in 1990, Vidler shows how the body is seen in the post- modernistic world, he shows how we applied the body in three diverse ways in architecture: the building as a body, the building as a projection of the body and the architecture as animism inspired from the body.
Vidler states that in the Vitruvius and Renaissance theory, that the body is projected directly onto the building (Vidler, 1990). The use of mathematical proportions that were gathered from the human body were directly interpreted into architectural proportions allowing to create a psychological relationship which wasn’t quite clear until post modernism. The conception of the body by Vidler was supposed to be more striking and meaningful its aim was to develop a bond between the viewer and the structure.
The role of the body has shifted from the more traditional and conventional views where it was literally interpreted and projected in architecture it has taken a more sophisticated approach of metaphorical interpretation. Vidler explores that through one of the three ways he mentioned before. The building as a body seems to us to be unrealistic if we were to look from the literal side however Vidler used Filarete’s idea to explain this. Filarete said that the body has ‘cavities, entrances and deep spaces’ (Vidler, 1990) which leads to its proper functioning therefore a building has ‘cavities’- windows and ‘entrances’- doors thus allowing it to function. Also, the nervous system is used as metaphorical interpretation in architecture as it branches out in our body which the same thing can be said about human circulation around the building as we move around we branch out into various parts of the building.
Furthermore, Vidler offers an understanding of architecture in terms of extension of the human body by animism. He himself defines it as projection of ‘awareness’ (Vidler, 1990) into objects giving them human like attributes therefore fragmenting the body and mutilating it into separate pieces. Vidler uses a chair as an example of animism as it can be deconstructed as a mimic of a ‘human spine’ which it functionality is given awareness in terms of its physical attributes. It clearly shows that our body does not have to harmonize in order it can be torn apart and projected into architecture creating a psychological bond where the object becomes an instrument.