The Modulor is an innovative but rarely used system devised and patented in the middle of the twentieth century by the Swiss architect Charles- Édouard Jeanneret (1887-1965), known by his pseudonym Le Corbusier.
The system seeks to establish an ideal set of human proportions and to relate those proportions to both natural and architectural forms. Le Corbusier believed this modular system - an anthropomorphic scale that fuses the imperial and metric measurement systems - could be used to design everything from the smallest cabin to entire cities.
The fundamental "module" of the Modulor is a six-foot-tall man with arm upraised or a height of 2.26m. By combining human proportions, the Fibonacci sequence, and the Golden Ratio, Le Corbusier attempted to standardized design in his 1948 text The Modulor: A Harmonious Measure to the Human Scale Universally Applicable to Architecture and Mechanics.
One might use the Modulor to establish column grids, sizes of rooms, ceiling heights, or the abstract pattern of a wall. Albert Einstein described Le Corbusier's Modulor Man as "a scale of proportions which makes the bad difficult and the good easy."
Incompatible systems of measurement deter standardization and globalization.
A universal scale needed to unite the imperial and metric measurement systems. To Le Corbusier, the meter, a construct of the French Revolution derived from the meridian of the globe, was absent any connection to the human body. As such, it is both an arbitrary and artificial measure.
The Anglo Saxon inch and foot, however mathematically inconvenient, maintain a relationship to human proportions and to other efforts by Vitruvius, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Leon Battista Alberti to discover mathematical rhythms in the human body. By bridging the two incompatible scales, the Modulor would restore a human dimension to design and by extension, could improve both the function and harmony in architecture through numerical patterns.
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To illustrate the Modulor method, Le Corbusier pairs a stylized figure of the Modular Man with two sets of measurements. The blue series of numbers serve as the generative measurements for the Modulor - foot to the waist, waist to top of the head, top of head to fingertips of the raised arm. As he explained, " A man with arm upraised provides, at the determining points of his occupation of space - foot, solar plexus, head, tips of fingers of the upraised arm - three intervals which give rise to a series of golden sections, called the Fibonacci series." He then adds, " On the other hand, mathematics offers the simplest and also the most powerful variation of a value: the single unit, the double unit, and the golden section."
Every number is progressively the sum of the previous ones from zero to infinity. The red series is the ratio between these measurements, which determine the ideal proportions of the built environment. Generating various parts of a design, the Modulor established the mathematical relationship between human dimensions and a modern architecture. An abstract architecture freed from literal references to nature and human form could still bind itself to the human body.
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In his experimental design for a mixed-use building in Marseilles, the Unite d'Habitation (1952), Le Corbusier applied the comprehensive system to all scales of the architectural design from the grid of the elevation and plan to the height of each of the 23 different types of apartments including the built-in furniture. The rhythm of the facade is a pattern of single and double-height balconies generated from 15 different Modulor dimensions. The apartments are 3.66m wide and 2.26 high or 4.84m when double-height. A concrete bas-relief of the Modulor silhouette was embedded on the side of the building and other iterations of the Unités from Firminy to Berlin.
In addition to experiments for the Unités, the same proportional system underpins the design for his one-room wooden cabin (1951) in Roquebrune-CapMartin. The interior of the 'petit cabanon' measures 2.26m high, the basic Modulor unit, or the height of a six-foot man with one arm raised. The sides of the cabin are 3.66 wide or twice the length of a six-foot man. The compact cabin is divided into sleeping, living, and washing zones with the same ratios. With a similar economy and like today's ergonomics, the movement of the human body and rigorous calculations are applied to those objects viewed as extensions of our limbs - a stool, a table, and lighting.
While re-centering design on the human form, the Modular is as arbitrary (and male-centric) as any measurement. Even with acceptance and validation by various mathematicians and architects, it did not become a unit by itself like the Ampere or Kelvin (which honor the inventor) instead requiring conversion to the imperial or metric system. However, in privileging the rational and irrational, Le Corbusier attempted to not only reconcile mathematics, physiology, architecture, and aesthetics into a single universal system but also to humanize space in the context of massive postwar production. In the current architectural climate, driven by computer-generated parametric design, a belly button and an extended hand would be welcome measures.
Corbusier Le, The Modulor, 2nded, Basel: Birkhauser GmbH, 2011.
Frampton Kenneth, Le Corbusier: Architect of the Twentieth Century, New York: Thames & Hudson 2001. http://www.fondationlecorbusier.fr
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