Introducing the New Manual of the Dwelling

A series about how to design a home for the new modern age.

Villa Savoye
Villa Savoye/ Le Corbusier.

Lloyd Alter

The first in a series of posts looking at how to design our homes in a low-carbon, post-pandemic world.

"Towards a New Architecture" was the English title for Le Corbusier’s "Vers Une Architecture," a collection of essays written for a magazine starting in 1921 and turned into a book. In a chapter extolling the virtues of airplanes, he notes that everything about an airplane “lies in the logic which governed the enunciation of the problem and which led to its successful realization.” It is a machine for flying. Le Corbusier believed that a house should be a machine for living, with every part as useful and as well-resolved as the airplane. In this chapter he also included “an urgent appeal to architects; they should have The Manual of the Dwelling [a section of the book] printed and distributed to mothers of families and should demand the resignation of all the professors in the architecture schools.”

Manual of the Dwelling

Le Corbusier

This short Manual of the Dwelling holds up rather well 90 years later, with advice like “keep your odds and ends in drawers or cabinets,” “if you want to see bad taste, go into the houses of the rich." and "put only a few pictures on your walls and none but good ones.” Then there is “teach your children that a house is only habitable when it is full of light and air, and when the floors and walls are clear.” Or the last: “Bear in mind economy in your actions, your household management and in your thoughts.” (See more here: The Manual of the Dwelling: Lessons in Living From Le Corbusier.)

In Le Corbusier’s beloved airplanes, everything was about efficiency and economy; pilots then and now had to know the weight of everything and the exact amount of fuel to get that plane and its contents to its destination. Airlines now spend billions on new planes that squeeze out the most passenger-miles per pound of fuel. If you didn’t have enough fuel, you had a serious problem.

Today, we have a different kind of fuel problem – we have to stop burning it, we have to stop releasing the carbon dioxide that is cooking the planet. That means thinking about radical efficiencies, rethinking both the design of our houses and where we put them. 

Le Corbusier was also thinking about design in the aftermath of the flu pandemic and the ongoing tuberculosis crisis that spawned the modern movement. Although we can see the light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel, we may well face yet another crisis of antibiotic resistance.

We have always been dependent on our homes, which as Le Corbusier noted, are “a shelter against heat, cold, rain, thieves and the inquisitive." But today, the heat, cold, and rain are changing around us. The methods that we have used to stay warm or cool inside are now contributing to the problems outside. The thieves and the inquisitive are not kept out by mere walls and locks, and the coronavirus has demonstrated that there are new threats to our health and wellbeing that we have never considered in our home design. 

Maisons Jaoul, Le Corbusier
Maisons Jaoul, Le Corbusier.

Lloyd Alter

Le Corbusier wrote that a house is a machine for living. Today, we have to build a better, more efficient, and healthier machine. It's time to update The Manual of the Dwelling for a different world. Can it be done in time? Can we fix this problem before it’s too late? One last airplane analogy from Le Corbusier in 1927:

"The airplane shows us that a problem well stated finds its solution. To wish to fly like a bird is to state the problem badly… To invent a flying machine having in mind nothing alien to pure mechanics, that is to say, to search for a means of suspension in the air and a means of propulsion, was to put the problem properly: in less than ten years, the whole world could fly."

It took a world war to change the airplane in 10 years, and we are in an equally dire crisis now, to cut our carbon emissions in half in less than 10 years and to zero in 30.

This is the first of a series of posts, based on ideas previously discussed in Treehugger and research done for an unpublished book and will summarize what I have learned and written over the years that is, thanks to the pandemic, suddenly more relevant. Consider it a manual for understanding the homes we have today, and what they have to become – resilient in the face of change, supportive of our health and well-being. Efficient but more importantly, sufficient – just what we need to be happy, healthy, and comfortable.