Leonardo da Vinci and Le Corbusier

Aerial view of Capitol Complex, Chandigarh

Text by: Rajnish Wattas

About 500 years ago was born—what Sir Kenneth Clark, eminent historian described as the ‘the most relentlessly curious man in history’—Leonardo da Vinci. He was an amazingly prolific draftsman, keeping journals full of small sketches and detailed drawings observing all manner of things and recorded in 13,000 pages of notes and drawings, which fuse art and natural sciences displaying an enormous range of interests. He is widely considered one of the most diversely talented individuals ever to have lived, whose areas of interest included invention, drawing, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, cartography and much more. He has been variously called the father of architecture and one of the greatest painters of all time.

Quite amazingly, five centuries later one finds in Le Corbusier born on 6 October, 1887, an alter ego of Leonardo echoing similar multi-faceted creativity. The legendary architect-planner of Chandigarh was also self-taught with no formal training in architecture, and much like Leonardo, an interdisciplinary polymath who learnt it all by apprenticeships, insatiable curiosity, copious observations and studies made of the world around him. Formally trained as a painter in his hometown La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland he soon transcended it– creating confluence between art, sculpture, architecture, science, engineering and study of nature. He first started as a painter in the art school of his native town of Switzerland in the Jura Mountains, but encouraged by his mentor Charles L’Eplattenier, he pursued architecture as a career mostly by self study and rudimentary training by the architecture teacher of the polytechnic.

Much like Leonardo, he also dabbled in synthesis between mathematics and human proportions. He too left behind a repertoire of 32,000 architecture drawings, 8,000 art drawings, 200 paintings and 1.5 million memos and other documents.

The huge, uncanny similar strands of creativity and curiosity of their minds, realms of imagination and inventiveness, leave one truly amazed and wondering at the destiny’s redux of human creativity. But as the world commemorates 500 years of Leonardo da Vinci’s death anniversary and his unique 360 degrees genius, it’s perhaps time also to reflect on manmade borders existing between various disciplines of knowledge today. In an age when we have super specialisations and computer generated parametric designs by ‘star architects’ supported by hordes of details-men and battery of engineers, special consultants —are we losing touch with natural creativity and a synergy that exists between different fields of human imaginations?

The fact that Leonardo though with little formal learning, is considered as the prime exemplar of ‘Universal Genius’ or ‘Renaissance Man’ in the world is a lesson humanity shouldn’t forget easily—and more so architects!

Leonardo born on 15 April 1452 in a remote Tuscany village of Italy was given only elementary education. At the age of 14 he was left at the workshop of artist, sculptor and engineer Andrea del Verricchio, a leading Florentine painter and sculptor of his day. The Florence of 1400s was a city of creativity. Many of the artists were also architects. Polymaths people like Brunellschi who studied ancient Roman monuments and Vitruvius who wrote paeans to classical proportions, and Alberti deeply influenced young Leonardo. He was exposed to both theoretical knowledge and a wide range of know-how including drafting, chemistry, metallurgy, metal working as well as the artistic skills of drawing, painting, sculpting and study of the human anatomy. His studies of the Florence Duomo and the Bulushconni’s dome on the top on which Leonardo was involved in the placement of the huge copper ball prepared by his mentor Verricchio, in whose studio he was apprenticing were huge learning experiences for him.

Not too differently, Le Corbusier too during his apprenticeships at the offices of architects August Perret in Paris and of Peter Behrens in Berlin and during travels to eastern European countries, Italy, Greece and Turkey as a youth kept copious notebooks and journals where he recorded keen observations. These include sketches of human hands, animal figures, sea shells and many other natural things and phenomenon, and of course architectural masterpieces. Many of these later evolved into forms and creative seeds for his architectural forms, paintings and sculptures.

If Florence was the town that made Leonardo, it was Paris that re-invented Corbusier. It was here that after migrating from his small town of La Chaux-de-Fonds he metamorphosed from his original name Charles-Édouard Jeanneret to Le Corbusier that lent more gravitas and a patrician ring to his otherwise common place name given at birth. And quite interestingly Corbusier too spent quite some time in Florence taking copious notes, making sketches and on the spot paintings taking in the minute details of architectural forms, monuments and the urban grain.

Architecture and Urbanism

Leonardo’s first foray into architectural domain came during his employment with the Duke of Milan, where he had shifted then from Florence as his patrons for work and commissions there started drying up. In fact, such was his self confidence in his engineering, inventive and artistic abilities that in his job application to Duke of Milan, Leonardo in the first ten paragraphs listed his abilities to design bridges, waterways, cannons and buildings. Only in the end, he mentioned, ‘likeways in painting and I can do everything’!

A competition held for the Milan cathedral requiring a lantern tower called Tiburio gave Leonardo his first architectural opportunity to work with other great builders like Donato Bramante and Francesco di Giorgio. He then went on to conceptualise numerous designs for centrally planned churches, with overlapping squares and circles, a number of which appear in his journals, although none was ever realized. Leonardo made more than 70 sketches for church designs with domes and idealized plans.

Corbusier’s early works too were mostly of houses in his home town La Chaux-de-Fonds, including one for his parents called ‘Maison Blanche’, in 1912.

In 1502, Leonardo during his service at Cesena took on the avatar of a military architect and engineer and created a map of Imola town. Maps were extremely rare at the time and of great strategic value to the rulers. This was his first step in the realm of study of town configurations and thoughts, ideas and engineering innovations towards improving them.

Although the Renaissance is renowned as an era of incredible progress in art and architecture, it’s rarely noted that the 15th century also marked the birth of urbanism as true discipline.

The architectural milieu in France during Corbusier’s early years was struggling to find a new language and spirit for a more truthful and functional idiom for the new machine age realities defining cities all over. While Europe was still stubbornly stuck with pseudo-classical eclectic styles, America was responding faster with the pioneering work done by Louis Sullivan and his disciple Frank Llyod Wright. However, it took Corbusier to lead the way in Europe with his 1922 doctrine advocating his new concepts of architecture and urban planning in a series of polemical articles published in L’Esprit Nouveau.

In 1927 Le Corbusier and others proposed the foundation of an international conference to establish the basis for a common style. The first meeting of International Congresses of Modern Architects (CIAM), showed the way forward for a new architecture and urbanism in the world. No wonder he is hailed by scholars and critics as a ‘Renaissance Man’.

Coming back to Leonardo and his urbanism, Milan had been then ravaged by plague in 1487. He boldly proposed a radical plan for the city that he described as, ‘packed like goats filling every face space with fetid smells’. As an architect and city planner Leonardo proposed a radical ideal plan envisaged at two levels. The upper level was designed for beauty and people and pedestrian Life. ‘Let only wide streets and arcaded walkways flanked by beautiful homes and gardens’ he desired. The lower level was for commerce, transportation and the two were to be connected by spiral staircases.

Leonardo was a visionary enough to foresee a city to be built on several levels, linked with vertical staircases. Although nowadays this is a common practice and Corbusier introduced not only creativity in his single flight staircases but also turned ramps into sculptural metaphors for organic plasticity as counterpoints to his cuboid volumes.

Leonardo also thought that the width of the streets ought to match the average height of the adjacent houses: a rule still followed in many contemporary cities as a part of architectural and volumetric controls. Visible most conspicuously in Baron Haussmann’s renovation of Paris ordered by Emperor Napoleon III during 19th century, they show up later also as stringent controls regulating street pictures in Corbusier- designed Chandigarh’s urban design.

Today, Leonardo’s ideas are not simply valid but truly visionary. With scarce urban land, building upwards instead of outwards, integrated with nature along with efficient transport infrastructure could help modern cities become more efficient and sustainable. Can there be lessons in these for our boomtown Gurgaon, Bangalore and other IT hubs?

Quite interestingly Le Corbusier too in 1922 had presented his model of the ‘Ville Contemporaine’ a city of three million inhabitants. With the advent of the machine age he believed that the new, modern city needed to be built as vertical towers with circulation for pedestrian and motorists at separate levels. The various city functions would be segregated into separate land use zones to liberate the ground space for continuous parklands. His second utopian proposal Ville Radieuse or ‘radiant city’, elaborated in a new book published in 1935 demonstrated his ideas for a new kind of city, where the principle functions; heavy industry, manufacturing, habitation and commerce,
would be clearly separated into their own neighbourhoods, carefully planned and designed.

Music of Mathematics

Although da Vinci is best known for his artistic works, mathematics—in particular, perspective, symmetry, proportions and geometry—had a significant influence over his drawings and paintings, and he was most certainly ahead of his time in making use of it. He believed there was harmony in proportions, and maths was nature’s brushstroke.

He knew of Vitruvius’s work – that with the navel as the centre, a perfect circle could be drawn around a body with outstretched arms and legs, and evolved his own model known as the ‘Vitruvian Man’. He realised that if arm span and height are related, the person would fit perfectly inside a square. His Vitruvian Man took these observations and attempted to solve the problem of ‘squaring’ a circle.

Le Corbusier similarly devised ‘The Modulor’ as a standard model of the human form to determine good anthropometrics and correct amount of living space needed for residents in his buildings. He considered it as an innovative scale for ensuring harmonic proportions that ‘made the good easy and the bad difficult’.

He too used the golden ratio in his Modulor system as a continuation of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man using the proportions of the human body to improve the appearance and function of architecture. In fact he too like Leonardo believed the city as an organism like the human body with the analogy of ‘arteries as circulation systems’. Le Corbusier’s plan of Chandigarh too is based on segregation of various functions like living, working, circulation and care of body and spirit as advocated by Leonardo da Vinci five centuries ago for his ‘Ideal City’ project.

In his pursuit of harmonic proportions of the Modular all the undulatory glazings used in his buildings at Chandigarh are based on this scale. Corbusier’s scientific studies were used to calculate solar angles at different times of the day and seasons for the city’s tree plantation schemes to provide shade where needed. The Tower of Shadows is a live demonstration of his engineering device called brise soleil sun breakers, based on solar angles and the need to cut off the unnecessary ingress of radiation inside the buildings.

Leonardo’s fame was primarily that of a painter. He pioneered the portrait representing the inner thoughts of their sitters, not just the external appearance. For him, ‘the goal of portraitists should be representing the inner thoughts of their sitters, not just the external appearance’. Leonardo developed the technique of ‘sfumato’ (from the Italian word for vanishing like smoke) for this purpose where the transitions from bright to dark, or from one colour to another, are subtle to soften or obscure sharp edges. Light created shadows and perception of depth.

His 16th century small portrait known as the Mona Lisa is perhaps the most famous painting in the world. Its fame rests, in particular, on the enigmatic smile on the woman’s face, its mysterious quality perhaps due to the subtly shadowed corners of the mouth and eyes such that the exact nature of the smile cannot be determined. On my sighting of the fabled painting displayed in the Louvre, Paris—I just couldn’t move away from her haunting eyes that followed my gaze in whichever direction I moved. Leonardo’s most famous mural ‘The Last Supper’ uses principles of perspective developed by him. Another mural ‘The Battle of Anghiara’ commissioned in 1505 in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence was never completed.

Though Corbusier started with elementary landscape paintings of his scenic hometown, on moving to Paris in 1918, he met the Cubist painter Amédée Ozenfant, in whom he recognized a kindred spirit. Rejecting Cubism as irrational and ‘romantic’, the pair jointly established a new artistic movement called Purism. Corbusier too painted murals and designed tapestries that he called ‘nomadic murals’. A continuum of Leonardo inspired fusion of art, science, engineering and architecture is manifest in Chandigarh’s Capitol Complex’s edifices, imbued as they are with his woven tapestries, murals and enigmatic motifs/symbols.

Leonardo da Vinci who died on 2 May 1519 at Clos Lucé in Loire Valley, France is buried in the village church. Likewise, Le Corbusier who died on 27 August, 1965 lies in France at Roquebrune- Cap-Martin coast. Both rest in peace and fame; but buried far from their native lands. Yes, both Leonardo da Vinci and Le Corbusier were geniuses. But not in the conventional sense. They were not endowed with some supernatural divine powers, “touched by lightening”, observes Walter Isaacson. “Their genius rather was wrought by their own will and ambition.”

Rajnish Wattas, former principal of Chandigarh College of Architecture is a noted author and critic.