Finally codified in 1945 after several years of research, Le Corbusier’s Modulor is probably the most comprehensive proportional system imagined during the 20th century. Developed through contacts with consultants such as art historian Elisa Maillard, and referring to statistical measurements of the human body, the Modulor concluded decades of discourse on proportions, a theme that preoccupied Le Corbusier ever since his sojourn in Germany in 1910.
Matila Ghyka’s work on the golden section was one of the sources for the Modulor, but his work in general was used by other architects, such as Le Corbusier’s rival André Lurçat, who proposed his own range of proportions related to the work of builders as much as to that of designers. Proportions thus became a central issue in the postwar French reconstruction, as architects struggled to maintain their status amid changing procedures in building production.
On Friday, September 28, 1951, Le Corbusier addressed the First International Conference on Proportion in the Arts at the Milan Triennale, introducing, with affirmed modesty, the system of proportional measurements he had invented in the preceding years as if it were an elementary, prosaic tool: ‘The Modulor, which I have described to you, is a simple work tool, a tool such as aviation, such as many other improvements created by men.
In his presentation of the Modulor, Le Corbusier insisted on measurements, proposing an analogy with music, a field he was familiar with: according to him, the Modulor was ‘a tool of linear or optical measures, similar to musical script’ (Le Corbusier 1950: 17; 1956: 17). This parallel with music was meant to be explored in his office in the 1950s by the young Greek engineer and composer Yannis Xenakis, who worked on key projects such as the La Tourette monastery and the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair.
Yet the preoccupation of Le Corbusier with proportions predated by more than thirty years the publication of Le Modulor, and could be traced back to his formative journeys throughout Europe, from his contacts with German architects to his long investigation of ancient buildings. He would insist specifically on the matter when publishing the scandalous essays that brought him to public attention in Paris.