The Technology of Living

28 August 2013


Gotland 1

Variations on a Theme of Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier famously (or notoriously, depending upon your point of view) said that a house is a machine for living in (“Une maison est une machine-à-habiter”). This appears in his manifesto of modern architecture Vers une architecture of 1923 (which has been translated as Towards a New Architecture and more recently as Toward an Architecture), and it would be worthwhile to consider the context in which Le Corbusier made this assertion. It appears at least three times in Le Corbusier’s book, as follows, first in the opening “Argument” of the book:

“The airplane is the product of close selection. The lesson of the airplane lies in the logic which governed the statement of the problem and its realization. The problem of the house has not yet been stated. Nevertheless there do exist standards for the dwelling house. Machinery contains in itself the factor of economy, which makes for selection. The house is a machine for living in.” (p. 4)

In the section, “Eyes which Do Not See” (elaborating on the “argument” given above), Le Corbusier wrote:

“A house is a machine for living in. Baths, sun, hot-water, cold-water, warmth at will, conservation of food, hygiene, beauty in the sense of good proportion. An armchair is a machine for sitting in and so on.” (p. 95)

And again in the last essay, “Mass Production Houses,” Le Corbusier wrote:

“‘Citrohan’ (not to say Citroën). That is to say, a house like a motor-car, conceived and carried out like an omnibus or a ship’s cabin. The actual needs of the dwelling can be formulated and demand their solution. We must fight against the old-world house, which made a bad use of space. We must look upon the house as a machine for living in or as a tool.” (p.240)

What Le Corbusier was reacting against in his manifesto was the traditional European house, the old-world house, as it calls it. It is probably pointless to ask if a manifesto is right or wrong, as it is the nature of a manifesto to be polemical, i.e., rhetorical, and therefore not meant to be held to standards of logic or reason applicable elsewhere. It is probably more helpful to go into the detail of what Le Corbusier was condemning in the traditional house: citing his litany of “Baths, sun, hot-water, cold-water, warmth at will, conservation of food, hygiene” we can obtain, by way of the via negativa, his image of the traditional house. In many respects, Le Corbusier was completely justified. Let me try to explain.

I have mentioned in past posts by interest in seeking out open-air museums in Europe. Last year I mentioned the Hardanger open-air museum at Utne and the Sogn open-air museum near Sogndal. Today I visited an open-air museum in the north of Gotland at Bunge, the Bungemuseet, which not only collects many traditional houses and rural industrial buildings together, but also includes many picture stones as I mentioned yesterday.

The traditional houses preserved in open-air museums have a certain kind of rustic beauty, though this may not correspond to Le Corbusier’s canon of “beauty in the sense of good proportion.” I admit I am fascinated by these old houses, and take any opportunity I have to visit them. But as much as I am enthralled by them, I can see that Le Corbusier was right. If you have never lived in an old house you may not understand what Le Corbusier is talking about when he writes of, “warmth at will,” but I can assure you from personal experience that older, drafty houses heated by woodstoves do not give warmth at will. Most houses today do give warmth at will, so people have forgotten what a great advance over the past this is.

As for the rest of Le Corbusier’s litany, these houses had no running water, much less hot and cold running water. They had no indoor bathrooms, showers, or bathtubs. The Windows are small and dim, letting in little light. Their kitchens have no modern conveniences or appliances, so there was no conservation of food. Le Corbusier focused on the needs of the body, but the needs of the mind are equally wanting. When I look around these cramped homes in which people like my ancestors lived, I realize how little intellectual stimulation they had. Even in the midst of civilization, it seems, having entered into a social contract, life can be “poor, nasty, brutish, and short” — in Hobbes’ famous phrase — but it was not likely solitary. People had to live closely packed together just to survive.

It is always humbling to me to see the conditions under which our ancestors lived, and to reflect how far we have come, and how quickly. But I also observe the remarkable level of technology involved in even the most rudimentary dwelling, and the way of life it implies. If a house is a machine for living in, as Le Corbusier said, then different houses are different machines, and each housing mechanism is integrated into a particular technology of living.

In my many visits to museums I have, example, seen many traditional spinning wheels. Some of these are very rudimentary and easy to understand, but the later ones from the 19th century, before the industrial revolution rendered then all obsolete, are quite complex and could only be operated by someone with a significant level of skill and knowledge in this particular technology. I suspect that if a person started with the simplest spinning wheel and used it for a while, the limitations would become obvious over time, and you might begin to see how and why the additional complexities were introduced; one might, in this fashion, ontogenetically reconstruct the phylogeny of a technology.

An entire house, even a traditional house, as a machine for living in, is like the spinning wheel, and to live in a house according to the way of life for which it was designed is to understand why it was built in the way it was built. But we don’t get to live in the houses and rooms we see in museums; we observe them briefly, and so we do not really understand them.

The Gotland open-air museum also displayed a large number of structures associated with rural industries, including an unusual wind-driven saw. Most of these mechanisms were beyond being brought back into service, although I turned the crank on one old mechanism and its wooden teeth and gears still meshed perfectly and I suspect the machine was still useable. But I didn’t know what it was for; I didn’t understand its function. These several literally “cottage” industries all involved the production of the most basic necessities of life — the production of food and clothing — and the industrial processes behind them were surprisingly complex, involving many stages of production and specialized workers. The lives of these workers, in turn, would have reflected their involvement with the industries they have masters. Rural characters such as the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker — not to mention the blacksmith, the carpenter, and the miller — are as familiar in the stories we still retain from those times as the social roles of today that represent industrialized society (banker, salesman, clerk, mechanic, etc.).

This made me think of the Vasa warship that I recently saw in Stockholm, which was not only enormous, but also a highly specialized and intricate piece of technology. If you took a few hundred intelligent and and educated persons of today and put them on the Vasa as its crew, they literally would not even know where to begin to get the ship underway. Our advanced technology and engineering knowledge does not replace or supersede the technological and engineering knowledge of our ancestors; we could no more cope with their world than they could cope with ours — though either, given the time, could learn the life of the other.

The technologies of living are many and various; the lives of individuals are integrated into a technology of living that is adapted to their place and time, and houses in which they individuals live are both technologies in and of themselves as well as being integrated into a wider technological context. What is this wider technological context? Adam Smith’s famous example of the woolen coat furnishes us with the perfect example of technological synchrony.

Here is a typically longish paragraph from Smith, which I have not quoted in its entirety, but I have quoted at sufficient length to give a proper appreciate for Smith’s conception:

“The woollen coat, for example, which covers the day-labourer, as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production. How many merchants and carriers, besides, must have been employed in transporting the materials from some of those workmen to others who often live in a very distant part of the country? How much commerce and navigation in particular, how many ship-builders, sailors, sail-makers, rope-makers, must have been employed in order to bring together the different drugs made use of by the dyer, which often come from the remotest corners of the world? What a variety of labour, too, is necessary in order to produce the tools of the meanest of those workmen! To say nothing of such complicated machines as the ship of the sailor, the mill of the fuller, or even the loom of the weaver, let us consider only what a variety of labour is requisite in order to form that very simple machine, the shears with which the shepherd clips the wool. The miner, the builder of the furnace for smelting the ore, the feller of the timber, the burner of the charcoal to be made use of in the smelting-house, the brickmaker, the bricklayer, the workmen who attend the furnace, the millwright, the forger, the smith, must all of them join their different arts in order to produce them. Were we to examine, in the same manner, all the different parts of his dress and household furniture, the coarse linen shirt which he wears next his skin, the shoes which cover his feet, the bed which he lies on, and all the different parts which compose it, the kitchen-grate at which he prepares his victuals, the coals which he makes use of for that purpose, dug from the bowels of the earth, and brought to him, perhaps, by a long sea and a long land-carriage, all the other utensils of his kitchen, all the furniture of his table, the knives and forks, the earthen or pewter plates upon which he serves up and divides his victuals, the different hands employed in preparing his bread and his beer, the glass window which lets in the heat and the light, and keeps out the wind and the rain, with all the knowledge and art requisite for preparing that beautiful and happy invention, without which these northern parts of the world could scarce have afforded a very comfortable habitation, together with the tools of all the different workmen employed in producing those different conveniencies…”

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chap. I

If we think through Smith’s imaginative litany of craftsmen, and reflect on the fact that such a list could be made much longer and with much greater detail, we can better understand how technological change introduced within this complex synchronic web of inter-dependencies must of necessity only slowly make its impact felt throughout the whole system of production. However, all of these innovations are occurring in the same parallel, synchronic fashion, and these collected innovations incrementally affecting the whole slowly lead to changes to the whole, though it is difficult in the extreme of indicate any one point of transition. The temptation is to identify and name a decisive point of transition, but this is a falsification of history.

Our lives, and the mechanisms by which we live it — our technology of living, as it were — are as integrated into a technological context as were the lives of our ancestors. These technologies are very different, so different in fact that it is difficult to discern the underlying continuity that led from the one to the other, but it was countless small changes that added up to the transition from the subsistence agriculture of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to the escalating production powers of industrial-technological civilization.

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Gotland 3

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Grand Strategy Annex

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