The Modulor is a universal, anthropometric scale of proportions created by the Swiss-born French architect Le Corbusier and devised to measure and reconcile maths, the human form, architecture and beauty into a single system.
What is the Modulor?
Right after the end of the Second World War, Le Corbusier began to think about a way to unite two virtually incompatible systems: the Anglo-Saxon foot and inch and the French metric system, forming a universal scale. During this time, he devised the first bases of the “Modulor”, a scale of harmonic measures that set architectural elements in proportion to human stature.
Initially, the Modulor man’s height was based on a French man’s average height of 1,75 meters, but it was then changed to 1.83 m in 1946. The dimensions were subsequently refined to give round numbers, and in 1950 the theory was finally perfected and the overall height of the human model with its arm raised was set at 2.262 m.
To answer the formidable problems of our times on the means of our society there is only one acceptable criterion, which will trace every problem back to its true roots: that criterion is man.
– Le Corbusier
Developing the Modulor, Le Corbusier looked at the long tradition of Vitruvius, the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Leon Battista Alberti and other attempts to pinpoint mathematical rhythms in the human bodies. He was also fascinated by the ancient civilisations who used similar, body-based measuring systems, whilst at the same time quite troubled by the metre as dependent from a scale as the Earth’s meridians.
Why the Modulor?
Le Corbusier’s intention was to develop a scale which could improve both the appearance and function of architecture, solely by using human proportions, the double unit, the Fibonacci numbers and the golden ratio. He aimed to design a visual bridge between two incompatible scales, the imperial system and the metric one, that could reconcile mankind, architecture and nature.
How does it work?
The Modulor system is based on the height of a man with his arms raised, reaching an height of 2.262 m. It was first used by Le Corbusier in a number of buildings, before getting codified into two books: “Le Modulor” and “Modulor 2″.
The architect suggests that the system could be used to provide the measurements of all aspects of design: from door handles to cities, from industry to mechanics.
The Picasso of architecture, as he was also called, used the Modulor to design many elements in his body of work, including:
- Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France;
- Unité d’Habitation, situated in Marseille, France;
- Church of Sainte Marie de La Tourette, located on a hillside near Lyon, France;
- Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, built in the United States.
Although the Modulor was very successful at the time, several criticisms againist it rose up.
First of all, the height of the human figure appeared to be far too arbitrary and more likely chosen to be mathematically convenient. In fact, it didn’t take into account the height diversity of men, and the average user would probably be constrained to rely on the scale in more complex and artificial ways.
Secondly, Robin Evans noted that the female body “was only belatedly considered and rejected as a source of proportional harmony”, during the works leading to the creation of the Modulor, therefore alienating a large swate of potential users.