Beatriz Colomina

Towards a Posthuman Architect

“This American country is dimensioned for the plane. It seems to me that airline networks will become its efficient nervous system.”
Le Corbusier: Précisions. Paris 1929

“Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned.”
Marshall McLuhan: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York 1964

Towards the end of his life, in his last retrospective book, My Work (1960), Le Corbusier published a full-page map of global flight paths, probably taken from Air France—the center of the world is Paris—and wrote,

The world now has 24 solar hours at its disposal. Marco Polo took his time. Nowadays we say: “Here are your papers, Sir, your contract and your airline ticket. Leaving at six to-night, you will be in the antipodes to-morrow. You will discuss, you will sign and, if you wish, you can start back the same evening and be home next day.”[1]

Fig. 1: Map from My Work

Air travel was revolutionized in the late-1950s with the arrival of commercial jetliners. The Caravelle and the Boeing 707 introduced by Air France in 1959 cut flight times in half with the company claiming to operate “the two best jets on the world’s largest network,” then covering 350,000 kilometers. But it is not just that space has collapsed with the introduction of rapid air travel; time has expanded. Le Corbusier had already foreseen the implications of this new condition for the architect. Practice is no longer local and time is continuous—almost a banality today when architectural offices with outposts in several cities around the world, connected through the Internet and by video conferencing, work 24 hours a day. As the New York office goes to sleep, the office in Beijing, for example, picks up a project that New York worked on the day before. And it is not just 24 hours but every day of the week. As Bernard Tschumi puts it, “Now you work around the clock, seven days a week. In Abu Dhabi, for example, Sunday is not a holiday. So you travel on Saturday and work on Sunday.”[2]

Le Corbusier saw this collapse of traditional space and time as nothing less than the emergence of a new kind of human. En route to India, in his favorite airplane seat, he noted, “January 5, 1960. I am settled in my seat by now acquired number 5, alone, admirable one-man seat, total comfort. In 50 years we have become a new animal on the planet.”[3]

This posthuman is an animal that flies; the airline network is its “efficient nervous system,” its web covering the globe. The hyper-mobile architect is a symptom of a globalized society in which humanity will be necessarily transformed. Nearing the end of a 50-hour set of continuous flights, Le Corbusier noted, “Nov. 30, 1955 (10pm Paris time = 6am Tokyo time). We will arrive in 2 hours. 50 hours in a plane. One could write a Condition Humaine on the basis of discovering-revealing airplane flight.”[4]

Already in 1923 in his most famous book, Vers une architecture, he had written about the airplane itself as “a product of high selection.” And crossing the Atlantic in the Graf Zeppelin in 1936, he said he had discovered “a new fauna: the machines,” which included the “fountain pen that you put in your pocket,” as well as “the airplane that handles the overseas transports of people and letters,” and which included “this Zeppelin in which I am writing this very moment. I just had a look at the enchanting interior skeleton of the air vessel. What are its laws? Precise, dramatic, rigorous: economy.”[5]

The evolution of these machines stimulated an evolution in the very condition of the human. By 1960, Le Corbusier was speaking about electronics as the brain of the new posthuman:

Electronics is born, that is to say, the possibility of letting robots study and establish files, prepare discussions, propose solutions. Electronics is used to make films, to make sound recordings, television, radio, etc. Electronics will offer us a new brain of incomparable capacity.[6]

The evolution of the airplane accelerated not only the speed of travel but also the speed of human transformation. The arrival of the ballistic logic of jet travel reconfigured both passenger and world:

The genius of the forms: the Super Constellation is beautiful: it is like a fish; it could have been like a bird… etc. But since the advent of the “jets,” a new threshold has been crossed: it is a projectile = a perforator and not a glider.[7]

Fig. 2: Sketch of an airplane, 1960

Seat Number 5

Le Corbusier could be said to be the first global architect. In an age in which almost every architect is global, it is hard to appreciate how radical Le Corbusier’s mode of operation was. As he wrote in one of his sketchbooks on the Ahmadabad–Bombay plane on November 13, 1955:
Corbu is all over the world, traveling, his dirty raincoat in his arms, his leather satchel stuffed with business papers, with razor and toothbrush, brillantine for a few hairs, and his suit from Paris, which clothes him here in Tokyo or in Ahmadabad (without the vest).[8]

Fig. 3: Le Corbusier outside of a plane

Starting in 1951, when he was hired as a consulting architect by the government of Punjab for the construction of a new capital in Chandigarh, Le Corbusier went to India a total of 23 times, traveling twice a year, and staying over a month each time. The pace was much slower than what he suggested in 1960. Required by his contract to travel Air India, a company he loved and compared very favorably over Air France, the typical itinerary took him from Paris to Geneva or to Rome, then to Cairo, Bombay, and Delhi, where he traveled by car to Chandigarh and moved around by Jeep.[9]

Despite the grueling schedule, he seemed to have been deliriously happy in the air, constantly making staccato entries next to the drawings in his sketchbooks. As he wrote in 1951 on the plane to Delhi:

Plane 2½ hours Paris–Rome 4½ Rome–Cairo 9 Cairo–Bombay 3¼ Bombay–Delhi I have been in the plane since 2 o’clock Saturday. It is Monday noon. I am arriving in Delhi. I have never been so relaxed and so alone, engrossed in the poetry of things (nature) and poetry pure and simple (Apollinaire’s Alcools and Gide’s Anthologie) and meditation.[10]

In the midst of monitoring every detail of the evolving mechanics of air travel (time tables, speed, cabin temperature, outside temperature, food, airports), he repeatedly becomes ecstatic and lyrical. The sketchbooks are an extraordinary diary of global movements and of the new perceptions generated by that movement. He wrote about what he was reading on the plane, which not surprisingly often included other polemical travelers. Marco Polo and Don Quixote keep reappearing. Travel became an opportunity to reflect on travel. The plane was an escape from the “cacophony” and “one man upmanship” of the world:

1957. Airplane 6:15pm Paris time. In this really atrocious, crushing life that I have been leading for so many years (these last years) these first six hours in flight have been a paradise. I am alone (with myself) free… I read, I think, they offer me some whiskey: one, then two. I am free, no one nor anything is bugging me.[11]

Le Corbusier claimed to be “at home in airborne India.” He even had a seat reserved on Air India, “Number 5, called ‘L-C seat.’” The airplane was his “home,” an “asylum of salvation.” Le Corbusier became one with the airplane:

Zurich, March 3, 1961//1:30pm. We take off in Air India, my usual seat Number 5 = huge space in “Super Constellation”… I refused the Boeing because it’s American taste, even when run by the Indians! Constellation 550km instead of 1,100. But here I am at home, in airborne India this airplane asylum of salvation.[12]

If the airplane was the home of the new human, its details were prototypes for a new kind of house on the ground. Le Corbusier took specific inspiration from the airplanes that he lived in, paying attention to every little detail of the design. He admired the interior, the reclining chairs, and the storage bins. He even requested drawings from the designer.[13]

The tight economy of space in the airplane gave him ideas for his projects, just as the ocean liner and the car had once been the source of inspiration. In a sketch of a berth of an Air France plane he wrote: “Constellation arrived New York January 23, 1949 a couchette makes an adorable nest for 2 to chat, oriental fashion. One would not dare build it in a house.”[14] Nevertheless, a few months later he used the sketch to plan the rooms of the Unité.[15] And in 1961, on the Boeing to Delhi, he noted that “the cream white casing above the seat” could be used in the “Ville Radieuse dwelling in Marseilles.”[16] Even the dishes are of interest to him, “June 15, 1960 Paris ask Air France Boeing//where can I buy some stackable metal dishes, like those used in the New York–Paris plane on June 15th//These are very simple but very adaptable dishes//very shiny//In-flight service.”[17] Fellow travelers’ equipment became a source of interest as well. He drew a sketch with detailed measurements of a traveling bag, and around it he wrote, “Air India plane//zipper//A serious Japanese man (minister perhaps), has this soft wild boar’s hide courier’s bag//find out about that to replace mine.”[18]

Fig. 4: Sketch of a suitcase

Even the outside decoration of planes became a key source of inspiration. Observing the bright gleaming paint on the metal fuselage, he developed the concept for the enamel painted doors of Chandigarh.[19] But ultimately he wanted to redesign the space of an airplane himself. Seeing Air France as inferior to Air India, he repeatedly proposes that the French company “outfit their planes” in a more modern way.[20] The dream never materialized, which may explain Le Corbusier’s increasing diatribes against Air France. On a trip to India via Tokyo he wrote:

October 31, 1955. Air France’s “Super Constellation” plane is not “Super”… The 1st class (cabin) = a line of portholes overlooking engines the remainder 5 or 6 lines overlooking wings you don’t see a thing. Sickening uproar! Air India… 1st class cabin = nice portholes, table, comfort, elegance of the woodwork.[21]

In 1957 he tried to propose a redesign of the Air France headquarters, writing to the head of the company, “This state of French inferiority. If L-C does Air France = international activity.”[22] In fact, Le Corbusier’s real ambition seemed to be to design international activity itself, Le Corbusier’s fascination with jet travel and the new space of global airline networks grew out of the relentless fascination with global communication that had structured his career from the beginning.

Global Circuits

Even before transatlantic air travel became possible, Le Corbusier was dreaming of a global practice through publications. In his journal L’Esprit Nouveau, number 17 (1922), he published a map of the world with the location of subscribers to the journal, which reached six continents, with dots all over Europe but also in several countries in Africa, Asia, North and South America, and even Australia.

Fig. 5: Map of dissemination of L’Esprit Nouveau

How important this outreach was for him is evident when, in his last book—which included the route map he had requested from Air France—he quotes the opening words of a speech welcoming him to São Paulo by the state parliament in 1929: “When the first issue of L’Esprit Nouveau reached Brazil, we felt the impact of a great event.”[23] His publications had preceded him, even making the invitation to lecture possible in the first place. The situation is also the reverse; the lectures given during his tour in Latin America generated his book Precisions. Publication generates travel that generates publication, and in the middle of this cyclical engine projects are produced.

Fig. 6: Le Corbusier seated in studio, December 1929

From the 1920s on, Le Corbusier was repeatedly in South America, lecturing and making urban proposals for Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro, Bogota, and ultimately developing projects such as the Ministry of Education and Public Health, Rio de Janeiro (1936–1945), or the Plans for the Cité Universitaire of Rio (1936), the Curutchet House (1951–1955) in La Plata, Argentina, and the unbuilt Errázuriz House in Chile (1930).

On his first trip to South America in 1929, Le Corbusier took his time, traveling by ocean liner to Montevideo and Buenos Aires, and then mostly by plane—accompanied by such pioneer aviators as Jean Mermoz and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry—staying from September to December in Buenos Aires, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro. It was on this first trip that he developed the first sketches for the plan for Rio de Janeiro—60 kilometers of elevated highway with housing underneath. He returned in 1936, traveling in the Graf Zeppelin between Frankfurt and Rio de Janeiro via Recife. The flight was 68 hours to Recife alone. Oscar Niemeyer described him arriving like a god, first to step off the Zeppelin, after a rough landing that had worried the local architects eagerly waiting for him in the hangar.[24]

Fig. 7: Graf Zeppelin, Rio de Janeiro

Le Corbusier published, lectured, and worked all over the world, developing urban plans—some of them unsolicited—for “Algiers, Stockholm, Moscow, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Zurich, Antwerp, Barcelona, New York, Bogota, St. Dié, Marseilles, and Chandigarh,”[25] and completing buildings in such far away cities as Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, La Plata, Tokyo, Baghdad, Ahmadabad, and Boston. As his global reach expanded, the space of his movements increased radically. His practice was finally unthinkable outside jet travel. If in the 1920s he was already fascinated with the global distribution of the subscribers, in 1960 he was obsessed with the architect’s new kind of mobility.

Even Le Corbusier’s architectural education consisted of traveling. Speaking, as he often did, in the third person, he wrote:

At 19, LC sets out for Italy, 1907 Budapest, Vienna; in Paris February 1908, 1910 Munich, then Berlin. 1911, knapsack on back: Prague, Danube, Serbia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Turkey (Constantinople), Asia Minor. Twenty-one days at Mount Athos. Athens, Acropolis six weeks… Such was L-C’s school of architecture. It had provided his education, opening doors and windows before him—into the future.[26]

Le Corbusier drew a map of his journey, publishing it repeatedly from 1925 onwards, until the maps of jet travel took over. The path of the solitary student giving way to the nervous system of a new kind of human…

Fig. 8: Le Corbusier in Greece

Global Education

If international travel was the architectural education for Le Corbusier, who never went to architecture school, in the 1970s the Architectural Association (AA) in London under the leadership of Alvin Boyarsky became the first truly global school of architecture. Boyarsky, who went to the AA from Canada via Chicago, boasted that the school included students and faculty from 30 countries. That he was keeping count already indicates a high level of self-consciousness. In 1970, before he was elected AA chairman, as director of the International Institute of Design, Boyarsky founded and coordinated from his kitchen table in Chicago the first “Summer Sessions” that took place at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. In Boyarsky’s account, this summer school program brought together architects and students from “24 countries.”[27] The faculty included such figures as Arata Isozaki, Hans Hollein, Nikolaas Habraken, Adolfo Natalini, Yona Friedman, Charles Jencks, Juan Pablo Bonta, Stanislaus von Moos, Peter Cook, Andrea Branzi, Germano Celant, Cedric Price, Gordon Pask, James Stirling, and Reyner Banham, among others.

As if to emphasize the internationalism of the school, the advertisement for the Summer Session in 1972 had a multiple-exposure image of an airplane (a sleek De Havilland Comet) taking off. The logo of the school was the front elevation of an airplane, the machine that made it all possible. The new Boeing 747 would soon become the fetish of a whole generation of students and teachers. Student Paul Shepheard did his diploma thesis at the AA on the 747 and many lecturers from Dennis Crompton to Tschumi were obsessed about its modernity, speed, size, comfort, and affordability—as if describing an ideal building.

But it was not only jet travel that brought the Summer Sessions together. In what seems an anticipation of a more contemporary situation of electronic social networking, Boyarsky spoke of the success of the Summer Sessions as “cheered on particularly by the ‘global village’ servicing chats and by the example of the ‘linking-up’ forays performed by the optimists on the London scene.”[28] The objective of the Summer Sessions, according to Boyarsky, was simply “to provide a forum and a platform in an optimum setting… an opportunity for cross fertilization, interchange and first-hand contact.”[29]

Elected chairman of the AA on the basis of the extraordinary success and allure of the Summer Sessions, Boyarsky extended the same formula to the school itself. What had been a very British school, well known through its publications—many of which were little magazines produced by the students—became a truly global school of architecture. The school inaugurated a new form of pedagogy in architecture where the objective was not to educate the student architect in the profession (Boyarsky thought that this was something that could be learned in architectural offices) but to immerse the student in a global conversation. The AA had the first commuter teachers. From 1976 onwards Tschumi, for example, went to London from New York every two weeks.[30]

But it was not just the faculty of the AA that was international and mobile. In the mid-1970s the government took away the grants that British students used to receive to support their studies at the AA. Boyarsky traveled around the world to places like Malaysia, Japan, and Korea to recruit students and the internationalism of the school grew exponentially.[31] The mobility of students and faculty was part of the school’s philosophy. Boyarsky himself claimed he didn’t have a base, despite the fact that he was chair at the AA and living in London: “I don’t have a base. I move around the world and so I always think of my activities as being involved with international events.”[32]

Eventually, Boyarsky was rarely to be seen outside the school. The international network that he had cultivated through his own travel now traveled to the AA. The school itself became a compact global scene, with publications streaming back out of it to the world. What Le Corbusier called the new nervous system of the airline network became the nervous system of the school itself. And as with Le Corbusier, what started as exchange and diffusion of ideas eventually turn into actual projects.

The AA generation that circulated ideas through teachers and books would form the core of a new generation of global practitioners. Some of the best and most mobile teachers, such as Rem Koolhaas and Tschumi, and their students, for example Zaha Hadid and Steven Holl, would lead an international avant-garde with major projects throughout the world. A generation that grew up trafficking in ideas is now trafficking in projects.

Members of an even younger generation, like Foreign Office Architects (Alejandro Zaera Polo and Farshid Mousavi), Asymptote (Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture), Reiser + Umemoto (Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto), and Carme Pinos, had their first real opportunities to build outside of the United States or Europe. China, the United Arab Emirates, and Latin America, for instance, have become the places for experimenting with ideas and testing new figures. Very often, it is a former student going back to his/ her own country who makes the connection for the teacher to realize a project. These new sites of production are not only experimenting with young architects, they also experiment with all forms of diversity. Women architects and African architects, for example, are increasingly commissioned to do major civic buildings in distant countries. The most radical work now appears continents away from the traditional sites of academic and professional power.

Even the most ordinary local commission has become infused with extraordinary global forces. The new economy of global movement envisaged by Le Corbusier, and prototyped in his own operation, has become normalized. The new kind of human he designed for, as if designing for himself, has become the generic client. Everyone moves in countless networks. From computer to cell phone, you no longer have to get on the plane. Everyone is already in seat number 5—a window seat.

[1] Le Corbusier: Le Corbusier, My Work. London 1960, p. 152.

[2] Bernard Tschumi in an interview with the author, New York (08/25/2009).

[3] Sketch 501 (1960), in: Le Corbusier Sketchbooks. Vol. 4, Cambridge, MA 1985a.

[4] Sketch 337 (1955), in: Le Corbusier Sketchbooks. Vol. 3, Cambridge, MA 1985b.

[5] Le Corbusier: “Les tendances de l’architecture rationaliste en rapport avec la collaboration de la peinture et de a sculpture,” written “on board the Zeppelin (Equator) July 11, 1935,” presented at the Volta Congress, Rome, October 1936, FLC U3 (17) 90, p. 2. Published in Convegno di Arti, Fondazione Alessandro Volta, Reale Accademia d’Italia (Rome, 1937), quoted by Jean-Louis Cohen in “Sublime, Inevitably Sublime: The Appropriation of Technical Objects,” in: Le Corbusier: The Art of Architecture. London 2007, p. 224.

[6] Le Corbusier: “Preface to the Second French Printing,” in: idem: Precisions: On the Present State of Architecture and City Planning. Cambridge, MA 1991.

[7] Sketch 637 (1956), in: Sketchbooks (1985b).

[8] Sketch 440 (November 13, 1955), in: ibid.

[9] I am grateful to Vikram Prakash for his help in figuring out Le Corbusier’s movements in India.

[10] Sketches 628–629 (1951), in: Le Corbusier Sketchbooks. Vol. 2, Cambridge, MA 1985c.

[11] Sketch 881 (1957), in: Sketchbooks (1985b).

[12] Sketches 688–690 (March 3, 1961), in: Sketchbooks (1985a).

[13] In 1951, for example, he reminded himself in a sketchbook: “On return [to] Paris//Write to Tata = congratulate him on plane Bombay–Delhi leaving October 29, 1951 at 8:30am ask him for drawings of the plane + drawings of the reclining armchairs (remarkable)//for 226 x 226 x 226.” Sketch 625 (1951), in: Sketchbooks (1985c).

[14] Sketch 330 (1949), in: Le Corbusier Sketchbooks. Vol. 1, Cambridge, MA 1985d.

[15] “June 11, 1949. Room 1//room 2//cross section inspired by Air France Constellation February 22, 1949 Paris New York.” Sketch 331 (February 22, 1949), in: Sketchbooks (1985d).

[16] Sketch 791 (1961), in: Sketchbooks (1985a).

[17] Sketch 575 (June 15, 1960), in: Sketchbooks (1985a).

[18] Sketch 104 (1958), in: ibid.

[19] Sketches 276–277, 360, (1959), in: ibid.

[20] Sketch 123 (July 24, 1954), in: Sketchbooks (1985b).

[21] Sketch 323 (October 31, 1955), in: ibid.

[22] Sketch 817 (1957), in: Sketchbooks (1985a).

[23] Le Corbusier: My Work (1960), p. 49.

[24] Le Corbusier traveled to Rio in the Graf Zeppelin, “the magnificent 237-metre German airship that, between 1928 and 1937, made 143 impeccable transatlantic flights. ‘I went to meet him.’ […] Le Corbusier descended from the air, ‘a mighty god visiting his pygmy worshippers,’ says Niemeyer.” Jonathan Glancey: “I Pick Up My Pen. A Building Appears,” in: The Guardian (08/01/2007), p. 23. “The 13th of July of 1936, all the architects of the project of the MES were waiting for him in the hangar of the Zeppelin, 45 km from the center of Rio de Janeiro. A wretched landing had them very worried but Le Corbusier was first off the plane.” “Interview with Carlos Leao” (Rio de Janeiro, 1981), quoted in: Elizabeth D. Harris: Le Corbusier: Riscos Brasileiros. São Paulo 1987.

[25] Le Corbusier: My Work, (1960), p. 50.

[26] Ibid., p. 21.

[27] Boyarsky described it as “an unusually active commuting axis embroidered by a network of lecture circuits and sundry snoops on both sides of the Atlantic” and went on to talk about the “kaleidoscopic nature” of applicants coming from “every corner of the world:” “Oslo, Santiago, Zurich, Cincinnati, Stuttgart, Trondheim, Sydney, Buenos Aires, Helsinki, New Delhi, Ljubljana, Washington, DC, etc.” Alvin Boyarsky: “Summer Session, 1970,” in: Architectural Design, 41, no. 4 (April 1971), p. 220. By the next Summer Session in 1971, the outreach had expanded even further to Tokyo, Lima, Ankara, Guadalajara, Brisbane, Ahmadabad, Yokohama, Stockholm, Chicago, etc.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Bernard Tschumi in an interview with the author, New York (August 25, 2009).

[31] Ibid.

[32] Alvin Boyarsky, interview by Bill Mount, 1980, in Boyarsky’s archives in London. Cited by Irene Sunwoo: “Pedagogy's Progress: Alvin Boyarsky's International Institute of Design,” in: Grey Room, 34 (Winter 2009), p. 31.

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