Le Corbusier's "Modulor"

One of the great heroes of the Modern Movement of the early part of this century was the Swiss architect Le Corbusier who worked in France. He is credited with inventing the concept of the skyscraper, "streets in the sky" is how he described them. One would expect that such a modernist thinker as he would be fully committed to the use of the 'rational' metric system, a product of the Age Of Reason. Unfortunately life is never that simple, ideas and ideals are all very well but if they do not work in practice they must remain unrealised dreams (or nightmares as Francisco de Goya showed so graphically in his etching entitled "El Sueño de la Razon Produce Monstruos" ­ when Reason dreams, monsters are born).

Faced with a growing architectural practice now operating in America as well as in France, Le Corbusier came up against the problem of working with two very different and incompatible systems of measurement. In order to overcome this perceived difficulty, as well as to find a way of creating harmonious proportion, he went back to the ancient Greek idea of the Golden Section, this being derived from the phi ratio (designated by the symbol - Ø ). Originally he took as his starting point a hypothetical man 1.75m tall - a french height he called it. The modules developed from this starting point, as well as being difficult to calculate accurately, proved unwieldy and unsuited to everyday living.

In one of his books he tells the following story:­
He had been working for some time on his Modulor system using these French decimal measurements but without much success. Then one of his collaborators, Py, said: "Isn't the height we are working with rather a French height? Have you ever noticed that in English detective novels the hero is always six feet tall?" Le Corbusier continues: " We then applied this standard. To our delight, the graduations of a new Modulor, based on a man six feet tall, translated themselves into round figures in feet and inches". (hardly surprising when you consider that this is a natural system of measure.).

The different positions of the human body during various activities fits the Modulor divisions.

The Modulor consists of two scales, the red and the blue scale (the above illustration shows the two scales combined). The dimensions of the blue scale are double those of the red and the divisions of each scale are based on Ø the phi ratio, the ratio of growth in all living things and the basis of the Golden Section. Thus the Modulor is not only an instrument of architectural proportion but also a means of ensuring that the buildings designed using it are of a human scale.

The unit length in any scale is of importance. Le Corbusier's Modulor is based on the human figure and on the traditional inch/foot scale which is itself based on the human figure. These modules were used very successfully in the design of furniture as well as buildings and anthropometric measurements should always be used in furniture design.

Yet another demonstration of the efficacy of traditional wisdom. Metric measurement may be a new idea but because an idea is new does not mean it is an improvement. It must be shown beyond reasonable doubt that it is better than the old ways and we are still waiting for the pushers of this system to state their case.

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The British Weights & Measures Association

Statement of views and aims

The British Weights and Measures Association opposes wanton abandonment of our traditional weights and measures, and asks for support in a campaign of opposition to compulsory metrication.

This opposition is for good reasons: freedom of choice; majority public opinion; avoidance of expense and loss; convenience and practicality; the value of cultural continuity; and preservation of a useful part of our heritage. Individuals should be free to use in trade those units which they prefer and find most convenient, and likewise manufacturers, shops and their customers. There is no justification here for denying freedom of choice.

Metrication is unnecessary and unpopular. Most people do not want these changes. Despite years of metric teaching, the findings of national surveys in the last few years are that the overwhelming majority of people normally think, not in metric units, but in miles, feet, inches, gallons, pints, pounds and ounces, and that they find these units more convenient.

The cost of metrication runs into many hundreds of millions of pounds and, inevitably, it generally has to be passed on to consumers. It is crippling to many small businesses and some specialist suppliers. Small petrol stations have closed as a result. Shops that sold paraffin, or fuel for small boats, have lost business when unable to afford new equipment. We should ask why we are shooting ourselves in the foot like this. We should insist on an answer. The United States, with the world's largest economy, uses the same units of weight and length as we do. Most other countries use our units in addition to metric ones. For example, computer printers all work in inches; Dutch and German plumbers use inches; nearly all aircraft measure altitude in feet. Organ pipes, tape recorder speeds and so on are internationally non-metric. Since British units are so widely used, and are also part of our heritage, children should know them. It is irresponsible of schools not to teach them.

The latest regulations enforcing metrication are being imposed in order to comply with European Union directives and not on account of any desire by the British people. Our wishes, convenience, traditions and culture are being treated with contempt. Parliament, which let the measures through without debate, must be woken up to its responsibility in this matter.

Penalties for not using metric units have been imposed only in the UK and the Irish Republic (not in any other country in the EU) and this discrimination is in breach of the EU's own anti- discrimination rules. The decimal metric system, while superficially easy, is inefficient in several respects. Metric units are artificial, arbitrary, and often too small or too large, especially for everyday purposes. By contrast, British measures embody a wisdom that is too often overlooked in the rush for supposed progress. Traditional units are related to the human scale and the mind's perceptions. They evolved out of generations of experience, and are convenient in size.

The foot of twelve inches, the gallon of eight pints, and the pound of sixteen ounces are, like the year of twelve months, easily and conveniently divided. This divisibility makes them doubly practical. As a result they are widely preferred wherever people are free to choose. Moreover, the technology that took man to the moon was based on customary units since, contrary to metric propaganda, they are fully capable of the most precise use.

Last, but not least, traditional units are part of our language. They are built into our historic buildings and live in our literature. If we abandon them, we lose a valuable heritage, handed down over centuries. Conservationists should oppose cultural vandalism. It is too late to value something when it has gone. To succeed, we need more members. We will win if we show how much serious opposition there is to metrication, so we invite your support now. Members receive a newsletter with details of the campaign to defend our weights and measures, and our journal, The Yardstick.

Further information from:-

British Weights and Measures Association
Director: Mr Vivian Linacre
45 Montgomery Street
Edinburgh EH7 5JX
United Kingdom

Telephone International: code for United Kingdom + 44 131 556 6080
National: 0131 556 6080

Public Relations Officer: Mr David Delaney
Telephone: 01568 708 820
Fax: 01568 708 765

...or visit the official web site of the BWMA

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Sir John Hirschel's letter to The Times, 1869.

As Mr. Ewart's Bill for the compulsory abolition of our whole system of British weights and measures, and the introduction in its place of the French metrical system, comes on for its second reading on the 13th. proximo, I cannot help thinking that a brief statement of the comparative de facto claims of our British units and of the French on abstract scientific grounds may, by its insertion in your pages, tend to disabuse the minds of such, if any, of our legislators who may lie under the impression (I believe a very common one among all classes) that our system is devoid of a natural or rational basis, and as such can advance no a priori claim to maintain its ground.

De facto then, though not de jure (i.e. by no legal definition existing in the words of an act of parliament, but yet practically verified in our parliamentary standards of length, weight and capacity as they now exist), our British units refer themselves as well and as naturally to the length of the earth's polar axis as do the French actually existing standards to that of a quadrant of the meridion passing througfh Paris, and even in some respects better, while the former basis is in itself a preferable one.

To show this I shall assume as our British unit of length the imperial foot; of weight the imperial ounce; and of capacity the imperial half pint; and shall proceed to state how they stand related to certain prototypes, which I shall call the geometrical ounce, foot and half pint; and shall then institute a similar comparison between the French legally authenticated metre, gramme and litre in common use with their (equally ideal, because nowhere really existing) prototypes supposed to be derived from the Paris meridian quadrant, distinguishing the former as the practical, the latter as the theoretical, French units.

Conceive the length of the earth's axis as divided into five hundred million equal parts or geometrical inches. Then we will define:- 1. A geometrical foot as twelve such geometrical inches; 2. a geometrical half pint as the exact hundredth part of a geometrical cubic foot; and 3. a geometrical ounce as the weight of one exact thousandth part of a geometrical cubic foot of distilled water, the weighing being performed, as our imperial system prescribes, in air of 62°F under a barometric pressure of 30 inches.

In like manner the theoretical kilogramme and litre of the French are decimally referred to their theoretical metre on their own peculiar conventions as to the mode of weighing.

This premised - (1) the imperial foot is to the geometrical foot in the exact proportion of 999 to 1000, a relation numerically so exact that it may be fairly considered as mathematical; and (2) and (3), the imperial half pint and ounce are, each of them, to its geometrical prototype as 2600 to 2601.

Turn we now to the practical deviations from their theoretical ideals in the case of the French units. Here again (1), the practical metre is shorter than its theoretical ideal. The proportion is that of 6400 to 6401. The approximation is, indeed, closer but the point of real importance is the extreme numerical simplicity of the relation in our case, more easily borne in mind and more readily calculated on in any proposed case. (2) and (3). Any error in the practical value of the metre entails a triple amount of aliquot error on the practical kilogramme and litre, so that, in the cases of these units, the proportion between their practical and theoretical values is not that of 6400 to 6401 but of 2133 to 2134. Here, then, the greater degree of approximation is in our favour; and it is to be observed that in our case this triplication of error does not hold good, since, by a happy accident, our standard pound has been fixed quite independently of our standard yard, and our gallon is defined as 10 lbs of water.
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
J.F.W. Herschel.
April 30, 1869.

Sir John Hirschel was Astronomer Royal and his letter was prompted by one of Parliament's periodic attacks of bureaucratic madness in attempting to impose the "French Metrical" system of measurement on the British people. It is to our disadvantage that, more than 100 years on, our Parliament behaves as if it were in a permanent state of bureaucratic madness.

It is worth noting that, since that letter, the French have found it necessary to amend the official length of their metre on two more occasions (having been amended twice prior to that date) whereas the British foot remains the consistent reference point it has been since it was legally defined in 1603.

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