Le Corbusier, Electronic Calculation Center for Olivetti

Perhaps more than any other transformation exerted by the computer, the immediate coordination of orthographic projections (plan, section, elevation, axonometric, etc.) has had the greatest effect on architecture. Building Information Modeling is, in fact, so good at correlating projected views with each other that the automatic production of drawings is by now hardly a novelty at all.

However in the perfect coordination of these various means by which architects inscribe their ideas, architecture loses some of the space in which it once operated. The simple difference between the plan and the elevation of Palladio’s Villa Malcontenta, as drawn in his Four Books on Architecture, was enough to incite generations of British Palladians to iterate their own versions of the stair. Given that our software makes thinking in any other mode than three dimensions almost impossible, one avenue for productive critique may be to challenge the immediacy of the correlation between plan, section, elevation, etc.

If Mannerism was a response to the high degree of perfection reached in the Renaissance, this argument might be a suggestion born of the same impulse. Without disregarding or degrading the ordnances of perfect coordination, architecture has the capacity for dissonance. In other words, although they might be drawn from the same object, the plan and section might appear radically different from one another, and from the object itself. The term “estrangement” can be used to designate such differences. And these differences are always relative: a plan itself cannot be described in this way, it can only be “estranged” from its sections, elevations, or otherwise.

One of the best examples of this trope would be Le Corbusier’s bizarre project for the Electronic Calculation Center for Olivetti. The strangely arterial shapes of the plan become flat, conic, or sinuous in section, and the model is quite different from either. The project is all the more relevant for its function, a building to house early computers. Moreover, the building was planned near Turin, the city of Giorgio de Chirico, whose paintings in and of that city portray the quintessential affect of estrangement. The Oeuvre Complete quotes Le Corbusier saying of his Olivetti project, “Vast construction for 4000 employees using these immense calculating machines…miraculous and able to answer the questions that modern science suggests. Here the ‘simple man’ (like myself) feels like a poor little man. But he feels that at both ends of this adventure, there is the implacable human presence: the person who asks the question and the one who receives the answer.” Quite rightly, Le Corbusier splits the one who asks from the one receives the answer. An architecture of estrangement would suggest that we’d do best to keep the two separate, for now.

Jonah Rowen