A year ago, I wrote an article which was exploring how the modernist theories had implemented the ideology of what I called an ideal normative body. In a nutshell, this oxymoron expresses the paradox of the elaboration of a body that was supposed to represent a standard for all bodies but, by doing so, became idealized as no real body was, in fact, perfectly matching this standard. The following article therefore constitutes a visual and textual opposition between this ideal normatized body as drawn by Ernst Neufert, Le Corbusier and the Architectural Graphic Standards and its subversion within architectural projects.
The modernist project to establish a standard for the human body is not born in the 20th century. Renaissance was built around this notion of idealized proportions both for the body and architecture. In 1487, Leonardo da Vinci drew what remains one of the most famous drawings of Western Art: the Vitruvian Man. Many re-interpretations and parodies of this drawing have been created to address the question of standard since then. That is the case (see below) of Thomas Carpentier, whose thesis project L’homme, mesures de toutes choses at the Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture motivated the redaction of this article.
In 1936, Ernst Neufert, one of the first student from the Bauhaus and protégé of Walter Gropius, creates an Architects’ Data book which establishes a rationalization of the human (male) body and its direct built environment (furniture, street, building etc.) so that the latter perfectly adapts to the former. Once again this body exists only as the representation of a norm. His dimensions saturated diagrams have been nevertheless considered as a source of fundamental information in many projects since then. Nowadays, his book is still considered as the “bible” in some countries’ architectural schools like in Brazil as my friend Lucas Issey Yoshinaga never misses an occasion to observe.
Before going any further within the exploration of transgressive approach to the norm, let’s re-establish what the latter constitutes. The paradigmatic example of the proportional rationalization of the human body is of course, Le Corbusier’s modulor which was supposed to embody a “range of harmonious measurements to suit the human scale, universally applicable to architecture and to mechanical things.” One has to observe that, despite the fact that Le Corbusier was working closely with the talented Charlotte Perriand who complemented his architecture with her industrial design, the modulor is exclusively male and thus participate to maintain a gendered domination of the standard in architecture. It is important, however, to notice the assumed idealization of this body in Le Corbusier’s stylized drawing which clearly represents a non-existing body.
In the second part of the 20th century, similar diagrams were collected in the successive copies of the Architectural Graphic Standards used as a reference volume by many architecture offices. The precision and illusory exhaustiveness of dimensioned combination of the body and architecture, however useful, elaborates an imaginary limited field of possibilities both for the body and its environment.
In 1974, American industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss re-interprets these normative diagrams by adding to them the gender differentiation as well as the acknowledgment that other bodies exists and respond differently to normatized environments. He even anthromorphizes his two main models by giving them names: Joe and Josephine. The very idea of including wheelchair users, handicapped or elderly within this mean of rationalization, however thoughtful and progressive, is problematic as it attempts to normatize what is, by definition, failing to respect the norm -that is the very idea of categorizing somebody as ‘handicapped’. It nevertheless helps us to question further a potential transgression to the universality of the norm.
More recently (last year actually), we could observe a new diagram of the human body in relation with its environment. The winning entry of the Phase Shift Park (Taichung) competition by Philippe Rahm architectes and Catherine Mosbach depicts indeed the body, not anymore by its anatomical dimensions but rather by its biological affections by the environment. Heat, humidity and pollution, as three factors having physiological consequences on the body, are mapped and exploited in the creation of the park proposition.
This last example now allows this article to investigate two architectural attitudes which fundamentally refuse to dissociate the body from its environment and consider those two entities as a balanced assemblage subjected to universal forces such as gravity or friction. No diagram in my knowledge illustrates such interaction better than the one drew by Claude Parent for Architecture Principe’s Oblique Function (see previous post). Architecture is expressed as a single oblique line, experienced simultaneously by two bodies, one climbing it up and therefore submitted to a fatigue from the action of gravity while the other is subjected to speed while going down following a vector of movement inferior to 90 degrees with the weight vector.
As always (see my essay Architectures of Joy), the body of work that I associate with Parent & Virilio’s research is the one elaborated for several decades by Arakawa and Madeline Gins. Their research, however more complex than the Oblique Function, deals with very similar issues. What they conceptualized under the name of Architectural Body, is the absolute non-dissociation of the human body and its environment which, when though as such, develops a form of symbiosis which resists to death as a process (multiple articles on this blog already referenced their work. See in particular the interview with Madeline Gins). The following diagram maps the complexity of relation that the body -in that case, simply the two arms- continuously develops with its direct environment. Such ‘qualitative’ -Deleuze would say ‘intensive’- approach is in direct opposition to Neufert’s quantitative -extensive- research and therefore can acquire the universality that the inventors of the ideal normatized body were claiming.
Excerpt from Reversible Destiny: We Have Decided Not To Die by Arakawa and Madeline Gins. New York: Abrams, Inc. 1997.
Now that this succession of diagrams interpreting the body and architecture has been established, we can come back to the project I was referring to in this article’s introduction: L’homme, mesures de toutes choses. In this student project, Thomas Carpentier subverts the normatization of the body by proposing a series of other standards whose bodies, fictitious or real, clearly imply a different approach in the conception of architecture. With a humorous tone, he depicts a door that would be considered as standard for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s build or Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion if it was inhabited by Jabba the Hutt. His last steps considers an ‘ideal’ magazine house, transformed in order to accommodate the anatomical standards of various characters such as Oscar Pistorius, Borg Queen or David Toole (see illustrations at the end of the article).
As a conclusion we can say that the elaboration of an architecture based on the consideration of an ideal normatized body is dangerous as this architecture will not only be discriminatory but will also force any body to physically tend towards this normatized body. Conceived this way, architecture becomes a machine engaging processes of normatization, both in its users’ imaginary and in an anatomical action -similarly to a garden stake for a plant- as the body always attempt to adapt to its direct environment. The only universality that we can allow ourselves to use as a creative vector is the one which actually applies indifferently to every body and therefore constitute a legitimate standard. As usual, project that ignore such questioning are very likely to participate to the process of normatization; in consequence we have to create subversive apparatuses that allows the anomaly -which concerns everybody to a small or larger extents- to express itself in resistance to architecture’s violence on the body.
APPENDIX (more illustrations):