Katerra and Le Corbusier, or: A Better Definition of Innovation, Part 2

Construction photo of the Villa Savoye

What can both Katerra and Le Corbusier teach us about how to define innovation in architecture?

I remember when I was working at Richard Meier's office, I found someone who I thought I could confide in. I told this person, "I'm not sure I really get why Le Corbusier is so great." Now, those of you who have spent time in architecture school will know that saying this is the probably the fastest way to become an outcast in design circles. Especially since I was at Richard Meier's office at the time, which was essentially a high temple of Corbu-worship. So this admission was like revealing a long-hidden vulnerability. That supposed confidant was indignant and incredulous. They scoffed and spouted: "Le Corbusier changed the way buildings are put together!"

I think I misread the situation.

Now, in the sense that Le Corbusier's ideas and designs suggested ways that buildings perhaps may one day be put together, I can see the statement about 'changing the way buildings are put together' as being partly true. Famously, he wrote, "a building is a machine for living." He explicitly referenced the turning radii of automobiles when drafting the curves of Villa Savoye.

But look at actual construction photos of how his buildings were put together: just like any other building of the time. And crucially, not that different than the way many buildings are put together today.

What those construction photos also reveal is how much is hidden from the way we think about architecture. Le Corbusier is glorified in photos where he is sketching, painting, making models, and looking towards the heavens for inspiration. And then, of course, we see the photos of his completed buildings, to where throngs of idolators make pilgrimages. What we don't often see is everything that happens between inspiration and completion, which is really the stuff our built environment is made of.

Le Corbusier with a model of Ronchamp

As for Katerra, there is no shortage of ink spilled on how Katerra raised and spent 2 billion yet failed. But my initial reaction to their founding premise was that they saw architecture the way we are taught to--in part due to the legacy of Le Corbusier--seeing the built product, but not having a full understanding of everything that goes from idea to completion. What's visible in architecture is just the tip of the iceberg.

The AEC process is long, complicated, mostly analog at many points, with entrenched interests and codified processes at every step. It requires a thorough understanding of the complete picture in order to effectively apply innovation at any one of those points. Try to displace too many of these points and you're essentially trying to boil the ocean. Neither Le Corbusier nor Katerra were able to do it.

Katerra offices, pre-implosion

But with an appreciation of the complete AEC process, we can begin to apply meaningful improvements at many individual points along that process. Small, incremental steps towards a better built environment.

Dr. Atif Ansar and Prof. Bent Flyvbjerg just published a paper from Oxford Global Projects where they compared NASA to SpaceX, looking to answer the fundamental question: moonshot or modular? "How should government and business solve big problems? In bold leaps or in many smaller moves? Do big problems get solved through ambitious projects that push innovation on all fronts? Or... are they better solved incrementally?" What they found is that the moonshot approach of companies like Katerra (and NASA) are more expensive, slower-to-market, less scalable, and more prone to failure.

This is why UrbanForm was built: to support the people who are working towards better buildings, cities, and environments. One. Small. Step. At a time.

For a start down the rabbit hole of Katerra postmortems:

Part 1 of this series, "Why we Need a Better Definition of Innovation in Architecture: Because of Guggenheim Helsinki," is available here:

Watch out for Part 3 shortly!

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