Le Corbusier developed the Modulor in the long tradition of Vitruvius, Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, the work of Leon Battista Alberti, and other attempts to discover mathematical proportions in the human body and then to use that knowledge to improve both the appearance and function of architecture. The system is based on human measurements, the double unit, the Fibonacci numbers, and the golden ratio. Le Corbusier described it as a “range of harmonious measurements to suit the human scale, universally applicable to architecture and to mechanical things”.
With the Modulor, Le Corbusier sought to introduce a scale of visual measures that would unite two virtually incompatible systems: the Anglo Saxon foot and inch and the French metric system. Whilst he was intrigued by ancient civilisations who used measuring systems linked to the human body: elbow (cubit), finger (digit), thumb (inch) etc., he was troubled by the metre as a measure that was a forty-millionth part of the meridian of the earth.
The graphic representation of the Modulor, a stylised human figure with one arm raised, stands next to two vertical measurements, a red series based on the figure’s navel height (1.08 m in the original version, 1.13 m in the revised version) then segmented according to Phi, and a blue series based on the figure’s entire height, double the navel height (2.16 m in the original version, 2.26 m in the revised), segmented similarly. A spiral, graphically developed between the red and blue segments, seems to mimic the volume of the human figure.
Le Corbusier used his Modulor scale in the design of many buildings, including:
Unité d’Habitation in Marseille
In his first book on the subject The Modulor, Le Corbusier has a chapter on the use of the modular in the Unité d’Habitation. The modular governs: the plan, section and elevations; the brise-soleil; the roof; the supporting columns and the plan and section of the apartments. It was also used for the dimensions of the commemorative stone laid on 14 October 1947. A version of the Modulor Man was cast in concrete near the entrance.
Church of Sainte Marie de La Tourette
In the Church of Sainte Marie de La Tourette Le Corbusier floors the majority of the church in pale concrete panels set to Modulor dimensions. Also, the engineer Iannis Xenakis applied the Modulor system to the design of the exterior vertical ventilators or “ondulatoires”.
Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts
In the Carpenter Center the Modulor system was used for the brise-soleil distances, the floor to floor heights, the bay distances and the column thicknesses. Le Corbusier conceived that the dimensioning of the entrance ramp would be “visible essay on the mathematics of the human body“.
In Le Corbusier’s buildings and art a recurrent silhouette appears. It’s a stylised human figure, standing proudly and square-shouldered, sometimes with one arm raised: this is Modulor Man, the mascot of Le Corbusier’s system for re-ordering the universe. You’ll find him in two major exhibitions showing now: Cold War Modern at the Victoria & Albert Museum and a retrospective in Liverpool, the first big Corb show in the UK for 20 years.
The Modulor was meant as a universal system of proportions. The ambition was vast: it was devised to reconcile maths, the human form, architecture and beauty into a single system. This system could then be used to provide the measurements for all aspects of design from door handles to cities, and Corbusier believed that it could be further applied to industry and mechanics. The fundamental “module” of the Modulor is a six-foot man, allegedly based on the usual height of the detectives in the English crime novels Corbusier enjoyed. This Modulor Man is segmented according the “golden section”, a ratio of approximately 1.61; so the ratio of the total height of the figure to the height to the figure’s navel is 1.61. These proportions can be scaled up or down to infinity using a Fibonacci progression. In devising this system, Corbusier was joining a 2000-year-old hunt for the mathematical architecture of the universe, a search that had obsessed Pythagoras, Vitruvius and Leonardo Da Vinci.
Le Corbusier developed the Modulor in 1943, and the first volume of his study of it was published in 1950. From the Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles (completed 1952) onwards, Corbusier applied the Modulor to his buildings, including the government complexes he built in Chandigarh, India, and his rural retreat, Le Cabanon. It won widespread praise, and was used by architects and designers including Georges Candilis and Jean Prouve; no less a figure than Albert Einstein said: “It’s a tool that makes the good easy and the bad difficult.” But it was not widely adopted, perhaps because Corbusier wanted to patent the system and earn royalties from buildings built using it.
However, the fact that Corbusier showed Modulor to Einstein betrays how proud he was of his creation. He became transfixed, attributing mystical virtues to the system and seeing it as part of the fundamental architecture of the universe itself. The quixotic search for a key that can unlock the secrets of architecture obsessed him, as it has others through the ages. The quest continues: architectural historian Charles Jencks, who has written extensively on Le Corbusier, identifies Peter Eisenman and Cecil Balmond as the inheritors of the spirit that drove the creation of the Modulor.
The Modulor was, however, as arbitrary as any human measurement: its six-foot basis was plucked out of the air, there was no reason the Modulor Man couldn’t be five foot ten or six foot two. As is often said, a six-foot rule is hardly fair to women and children. Also, Corbusier’s own application of it was somewhat haphazard. Jencks points out that the children’s bedrooms in the Unité are six feet by 23 feet, not exactly an elegant proportion. If it’s flawed, if it never became the universal measure Corbusier wanted, why honour it? Why even remember it?
It goes without saying that things that are in proportion to one another are naturally more pleasing to the eye. But what’s really important is that the Modulor puts the human form back at the centre of design. In the present architectural climate of post-modern free-for-all, driven by computer processors and buoyed by parametric ideology, biomorphism runs riot, but human proportions are out of the picture. Maybe this is the result of an understandable discomfort with the idealisation of the human body. But we should overcome that discomfort to obtain the magical comfort of inhabiting spaces that we know were designed with our forms in mind.