Le Corbusier and Gaudi, architects inspired by bees

Posted 8 years ago

More extracts from The Hive, by Bee Wilson:

Throughout history, architects have emulated the building powers of bees using honeycomb motifs in their designs. This has continued into modern times, and has led architects in wildly different directions as they have tried again and again to transpose the spirit of the beehive on to human living space.

For example, both Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), arguably the greatest architect of the late nineteenth century, and Le Corbusier (1887-1965), arguably the greatest of the first half of the twentieth, drew inspiration from the lives of bees, but with starkly diverging results.

Gaudí was an eccentric but pious man, who died aged seventy-five when he was hit by a trolley bus on the way to vespers. He never married. For him, the beehive provided a way of fusing his Catholic faith with an almost Moorish love of organic natural forms. Gaudí´s designs, often for Catalan chapels, were florid, symbolic and somewhat mind-boggling, with bizarre mixtures of reptilian metalwork and geometric forms so intricate and alive that you could barely look at them. Gaudí´ most famous architectural invention was the parabolic arch, whose haunting shape was exactly the same as that made by the bees when they build a natural honeycomb, unaided by the hives imposed by men.

From the 1880´s onwards, these parabolas became Gaudí´s trademark. He used them in entrances, in attics, in windows. Gaudí loved bees for all the reasons you might expect a frugal working-class Catalan vegetarian to love them. Honey was the only luxury food he allowed himself in a diet which otherwise consisted of green vegetables, wholemeal bread and yoghurt. Gaudí revered the bees as workers like himself, who knew necessity and pain of sacrifice. He was a champion of the Catalan co-operative movement, and drew worker bees on posters to promote the cause. Meanwhile, in one of his most famous buildings, the Palacio Güell in Barcelona, he designed a vast honeycombed cupola, with some of the cells cut out so that light shines through – forming a kind of symbolic hive in which anyone entering can feel that they belong, like a bee.

It was a very different vision of bees that informed the work of Le Corbusier. Where Gaudí was anarchic, Le Corbusier was formal. Where Gaudí was traditional, le Corbusier was a modernist through and through, the author of books called Urbanism (1925) and The City of Tomorrow (1929). It was he who declared, ´The house is a machine for living in´. Where Gaudí borrowed from teh exuberance of natural honeycomb, Le Corbusier used the box-shaped forms of the modern apiary. He read The Dancing Bees by the scientist Karl von Frisch several times, making extensive notes in the margin. What excited him about the beehive was the cleanliness and efficiency, the dream of collective action. He stole from modern apiculture the idea of ´precise breathing´ or temperature control. Humans, he believed, would live best if they could accommodate themselves in ´individual living cells´, self sufficient housing complexes in which all needs could be meet under a single roof.

Le-Corbusier-buildingAfter the Second World War, he oversaw the reconstruction of Marseille, where he built vast, concrete vertical communities, each of which could house 1,600 people. Like the beehives of his native Switzerland, these human hives were raised off the ground on stilts. he hoped that people living there could forget the troubles of war and learn to lead a perfect life, motivated by ´the desire to live efficiently and in harmony´.

But efficiency is not everyone´s idea of harmony. When we look now at Le Corbusier´s concrete blocks on stilts, it is easy to get the creeps. for many people, they have a sinister, totalitarian feel. Sometimes when people wish to disparage concrete apartment blocks in the style of Le Corbusier they refer to them as ´anthills´or ´beehives´, implying that the collective has taken precedence over the individual.

Little do they consider that this may have been precisely the architect´s intention in the first place.

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