DOM-INO HOUSES


Housing design by Le Corbusier, 1914–15 and later
Between 1914 and 1915, Le Corbusier, partly encouraged by his friend Max du Bois,
conceived of a standardized system of construction using reinforced concrete, which was
to provide the structural basis of most of his houses through the mid-1930s. These were
the Dom-ino prefabricated houses with independent skeletons. The frame was to be
completely independent of the floor plans of the houses. Derived from the Hennebique
frame, it consisted of six thin concrete columns that simply carried two horizontal slabs
as the floors. The columns and slabs were connected by staircases. Apart from this
structural core of the houses, nothing else was fixed, thus permitting a great flexibility to
suit demands on the basis of aesthetics, climate, composition, or view. The floor plan was
also extremely flexible, as interior partitions were independent of the grid. This utterly
simple and clear “open plan” method did away with load-carrying walls. Supporting
beams for the ceiling slabs were eliminated. The vertical supports, recessed with respect
to the exterior walls, allowed the facade to be freestanding, allowing windows to go
easily around corners. The houses were to be built of standardized elements to be
attached to one another in a wide variety of combinations, allowing for a great range in
the grouping of the houses. This was not only a highly innovative idea from the technical
standpoint but also an entirely new method of construction that promised rapid,
economical mass housing.
At this time, reinforced concrete was still a relatively unused material for construction.
After Tony Garnier and Auguste Perret, Le Corbusier was one of the first to advocate its
use. For Dom-ino houses, there was to be a special on-site arrangement for pouring
concrete to produce completely smooth and even floor slabs. A contractor would provide
the frames. Other, specialized contractors would furnish different, mass-produced
building material on the order of the architect-planner or the client. After windows and
doors had been attached, the exterior walls would be built.
The system was conceived as a solution for the post-World War I rebuilding problem.
At the time, reports of war devastation in Flanders were the major news. Dom-ino houses
demonstrate Le Corbusier’s awareness of housing not only as an important social and
architectural problem but also an industrial process. Construction would be transformed
into a scientifically run, large-scale activity. The Dom-ino house marked a significant
Entries A–F 695
step in Le Corbusier’s quest for developing a standardized, rational solution to the
problem of housing.
The name “Dom-ino” invites several levels of interpretation. “Dom-ino” invoked domus ,
Latin for “house.” As a patent industrial label, it was also a play on the word domino ,
appropriate for a standardized house. In plan, the six-point supports resemble a
rectangular domino chip. The physical form of the houses could also be interpreted in
terms of dominoes, with the columns as domino dots and the zigzag pattern of a group of
these houses as formations of dominoes. Le Corbusier also saw Dom-ino as a product
(the architectural equivalent), in both form and mode of assembly, of a perfectible
industrial object. Experiments with the Dom-ino prototype and the Citrohan House of
1920–22 were based on his belief that a perfectible housing type could be formulated. He
expressed this belief in the famous phrase “a house is a machine for living” in L’Es prit no uveau in 1921.
Widely misinterpreted as a functionalist statement, this meant that a house could be just
as rationally produced as any object-type. In Vers une architecture (Toward a New Architecture), Le
Corbusier wrote, “if we erase all rigid notions of the house from our hearts and minds and
look at the question from a critical and objective point of view, we will inevitably arrive
at the ‘house-tool,’ the mass-production house within everyone’s reach, incomparably
healthier than the old (even morally) and imbued with the beauty of the working tools of
our daily lives.” The universal house-machine was to provide aesthetic pleasure as well
as functional efficiency and healthy surroundings.
Dom-ino houses were not built in Flanders during the war; its principles as economical
housing only began to be applied in 1928 in France with the passing of the Loucheur
Law, which was aimed at building 200,000 low-income housing units. In the meantime,
the principles of the Dom-ino house were applied to the elegant Villa Schwob in La
Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland (1916), which successfully synthesized the potential of the
Hennebique frame and stylistic elements drawn from elsewhere. It is one of the first
concrete-frame villas in Europe. The Dom-ino house was further evolved into the
Citrohan House, which was exhibited at the Salon d’Automne of 1922. Much more
sophisticated than the Dom-ino house, the Citrohan House represented for the first time a
duplex design with a double-height living space, a mezzanine, and children’s bedrooms
on the roof. This marked the initial development of one of Le Corbusier’s characteristic
spatial treatments: interlocking spaces of different, proportional heights. These
superimposed duplexes with two-to-one interior space, spiral staircases, and garden roofs
would be a major recurrent theme and also figure as the villa blocks of the Contemporary
City for Three Million Inhabitants (1922). This type was derived from the 19th-century
artist’s atelier and the mégaron of Mediterranean architecture.
Le Corbusier’s houses up to 1935 evolved from the structures of the Dom-ino house
and the Citrohan House and consisted of freestanding columns and cantilevered floor
slabs. The almost cubelike Cook House (1962) in Boulogne, one of the high points of this
period, incorporated mechanistic analogies and the aesthetics of purist painting. The Villa
Stein/de Monzie (1927) in Garches, with a unique outdoor room that is half inside and
half outside, demonstrated the potential of the Dom-ino skeleton to become a
superimposed or overlapping set of layers. The Orbus Plan (1932) included small Domino
house cells for the working class. Le Corbusier considered his formulation of the
elemental form of pure column and pure slab as central to his lifelong oeuvre.

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