DIANE LEWIS: Einstein and Le Corbusier

(above) Le Corbusier and Albert Einstein, Princeton, New Jersey, c. 1946.


The Theory of Relativity was proven by the observation and the measurements generated by a photograph of the solar eclipse.

Any architect who is interested in the augurations and divinings that were the basis for the plans to found the ancient cities, might wish to found a new order and templos form on the celestial image of their epoch—this epoch.

Just before Christmas I happened upon a documentary about Einstein. It was an intimate and specific examination of his life. It carefully linked his actions and decisions to his scientific ideas and to the larger issues of his epoch.

I was amazed and inspired by the biographical approach of the film because it illuminated the fact that Einstein’s early expression of his ethics and pacifism, as a scientist and a professor, in the epoch of the continuing war and destruction of the world wars that surrounded him, was instrumental to the dissemination and eventual support for the proof of his intellectual breakthrough, relativity theory.

His outspoken and visionary scientific and ethical positions bonded him with like-spirited minds directed toward peace and civilizing forces, in other nations, across time, and at a great distance. These were the courageous individuals ultimately responsible for protecting him in the struggle to bring relativity theory forward within a forum of intellectual freedom, while surrounded by the chaos of an international theatre of war and an embattled post-war that followed.

The finale of the film focused on the key proof of relativity; the telescopic photograph of the solar eclipse. The photograph was necessary to measure the precise deflection and displacement of starlight, which Einstein’s theory explained was due to the physical distortion of space by the sun’s gravity. Newton had much earlier claimed that gravity would deflect a star’s light, but Einstein went much further, claiming that space, not the massless light from stars, was bent by the force of gravity. The full solar eclipse of 1919, photographed in the Canary islands by a team of British scientists dedicated to the truth of the proposed formula, observaton, and the furtherment of civilization, was not bogged down with the post-war anti-German sentiment of their countrymen.

(below) Arthur Eddington’s photograph of 29 May, 1919, taken of a full solar eclipse. The apparent displacement of a known star just behind the sun had been attributed by Newton to the bending of light rays by the sun. Einstein’s prediction of a visual displacement twice that of Newton’s was attributed by Einstein to the sun’s warping of space. This photograph proved Einstein’s prediction more accurate, and his theory correct:

Each scientist who studied and ruled on the results of the solar eclipse, used the photos to measure the deflection of the light of the surrounding stars to verify or disprove the theory. Each archive had their photograph of the eclipse—white corona on black page, with notations written in white, and the measurements of the shift in the apparent positions of the stars surrounding the sun through the veil of a disrupted corona.

This rather  detailed aspect of the documentary  showed each scientist in their locations in laboratory archives around the world. Seeing the repeated presentations of the solar eclipse photo on the screen, I had the odd, yet excited feeling of familiarity with the images as they were being discussed, one by one, sequentially. Each time the eclipse photo was explored by the camera of the documentary, I got the urge to move my head closer and closer to the TV. The uncanny familiarity of this notational flat image—white displaced dots on black background—read to me as an architectural text. Searching my memory for what this Relativity-proof document reminded me of, I felt that the image reminded me of an image I had seen over and over. There it is—the “rub,” as the Surrealists called it, when the imagination and memory are jostled to reveal the “supernal.”

It occurred to me, within moments, that in my mind’s eye the photograph of the eclipse used to prove the theory of relativity resembled the plan of the Palace of the Congress at Chandigarh.  I have always called it ‘a celestial plan.’

The Chandigarh plan reminds me of the definitive solar eclipse measured in regard to General Relativity theory. With the displaced light of the stars surrounding it, bent in the curved space of the rays, it is a plan that embodies a moment in the contemporary re-definition of space and gravity. A flat image, it is a slice through a field, a field that is  a world of floating bodies and light trajectories. A slice that reveals space in regard to a redefinition of gravity and as such, it is a rescaling of the implications of gravity. The photo is a section through a specific part of the universe.

The ideas of architectural order revealed in the cut—the plan and section, as read in the extreme artifice of the two-dimensional section—here captures the entasis of celestial motion, the moment and flux of the resistance of the void, and of forces that can be seen as registered in a dialogue with materiality or a force field of light motion. This photo section is a fleeting but generative slice from which worlds expand and contract as projected in a plane of observation.

The gravity of the great burning orb of the sun eclipsed by the blackening moon disk sends its light around the moon from behind. The sun’s light warps and wraps this moon mass, and begins to penetrate it from the edges of its erratic silhouette. As the light wraps and warps forward into space, it serves as a luminous field of resistance to the streams or beams of light being sent from far-distant, luminous bodies. The light years penetrate the field, are deflected, and thus reveal the delay within the larger exuded and obstructed solar field of light.

A search for new typologies of the plan and section that, in my understanding, is the underpinning of Le Corbusier’s work, it makes great sense to use the image of  the definitive cosmological model of ones epoch as the foundation for form and spatial dynamics. I hypothesized: what do I know that associates with or recognizes as the potential, between the image of the eclipse and Le Corbusier’s plan of the Palace of the Congress at Chandigarh? And, if I examine the Plan and the Section, what do I find?

I always remembered the picture of Corb visiting Einstein at Princeton.

I looked it up. Yes, it was 1946 on the visit to New York for the UN project—during the When the Cathedrals were White episode. And then- I find that  it is 1951 and there is the appointment at Chandigarh that he noted in the Oeuvre complete.


I went to the books and found a little sketch entitled “ Dans le Palais de L’Assemblee: possibilite de fetes cosmiques, las lune, le soleil” [“In the Palace of the Assembly: possibility of the cosmic feast days, the moon, the sun.”]

Here the sun and the moon are projected on tipped vectors that cross and from which the parabolic curves of the section of the hall within the grid could be derived. The back to back curves imply a hyperbolic projection or conic figures of space exuding from within, both upwards and down.

The hyperbolic section of the central orbital form is the movement of light from one orb around another—the funnel of the eclipse. The sketch seems to generate it from a celestial diagram of two sources caught in the twisting forces of torque.

The idea that a plan is an “explosante fixe”, the spatial phrase invented by Breton. And remember another oracular time/ space definition that Duchamp gave to his Bride stripped bare by her Bachelors even: “a delay in glass”.

The plan or any work of art is a fixed moment in a trajectory of thought—implosive or explosive—accepting a stop action, which has implicit rather than explicit trajectories. My reading of Corbs vision of plan from the new cosmological section captured in the eclipse photograph is a different conduit of thought to matter than any methodology using analogy between disciplines for the derivation of form. The acceptance of a fixed moment  in space-time as an equivalent to the essential portrait of architecture shown in the language of the cut is the key to an ‘open’ text. The artifice of the two dimensional slice of space and time is indigenous to the space of architecture, where the suspension of scale is a tool to create the plan for the founding myth of the epoch. The long span image of space-time can be embedded in plan notation, a collapse of universal order into a singular structure.


Here the constant of the structural grid as a field latent or actual is transformed by the insertion of the orb. The presence of the orb surrounded by a halo of radial columnsImpacts the rectilinear grid in a number of ways that transform it and affect it in different magnitudes by virtue of the distance from its halo.

The Palace of the Congress at Chandigarh is a prelude to Le Corbusier’s plan for the United Nations Headquarters complex in New York City. This ensemble of buildings, including the General Assembly Building, had the declared purpose of promoting world peace by bringing together the representatives of all the world’s nations to talk and sort out their differences. The celestial model inspiring Chandigarh’s assembly building appears here with even greater force with its widely held symbolic significance and its history of helping to heal the wounds of human conflict.

In my reading, a cosmic visage was shared by Einstein and Le Corbusier to imprint space and earth with a new vision of order. This cradle of space time imagery is reflected in the seminal steps of a difficult journey toward world peace in the  era when the possibility of the total obliteration of man’s existence first became the challenge.


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