Le Corbusier: Modernist Visionary, Controversial Genius

Le Corbusier: Modernist Visionary, Controversial Genius

Anna Hoffman
Oct 8, 2009
Le Corbusier, with his famous glasses

Le Corbusier was one of the most celebrated architects of the 20th century. His designs were inspired by the automobile, and celebrated modern materials and technologies, but his favorite building was an ancient Greek temple — go figure!

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (image 1) was born in Switzerland in 1887, and adopted the name Le Corbusier in 1920. (Not sure why he chose that name, which is similar to his paternal grandfather’s name, Lecorbésier, and also to the French word for ‘crow,’ le corbeau, but at any rate, it was clearly a good branding decision). In his twenties he worked for a few important visionary architects, including Josef Hoffmann (of Wiener Werkstätte fame) and Peter Behrens, whose other assistants included Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe.

Le Corbusier’s main ideas, which he outlined in Vers Une Architecture (Towards an Architecture), were about standards and perfection. He felt that the automobile was a machine whose appearance was not an end in itself, but a result of the engineer’s goals – of motion, speed and comfort – combined with the exigencies of industrial production, creating a set of standard elements (four wheels, running board, etc.) that with each refinement brought the car closer to perfection (I think “clunkers” was not a word in 1920s France). He wanted to apply this idea to architecture. Le Corbusier felt that “all men have the same needs,” and that a house should be “a machine for living.” His favorite building was the Parthenon (image 2), the ancient Greek temple that combined the standardized elements of classical architecture – columns, pediment, metopes, etc. – to create an ideal structure, timeless in its beauty, perfect in its proportions. Le Corbusier wanted to set standards for contemporary architecture, to find universal elements that could be combined to create structures for the use of all people.

Le Corbusier’s first solo projects were theoretical urban plans for the design of modern cities. His 1922 Ville Contemporaine (Contemporary City) for 3 million inhabitants proposed a cluster of X-shaped 60-storey apartment buildings centered around a transportation hub for trains, buses and even airplanes (image 3). Although the buildings were surrounded by green space, at street level, the priority was always given to cars, with separate paths for pedestrians. The apartments within were identical housing units, stacked atop one another up to the roof, made to serve the needs of all men.

At the 1925 Universal Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris, Le Corbusier presented a pavilion called L’Esprit Nouveau, or the New Spirit, where he showed an example of this universal living unit. While all the other pavilions showcased what would later be known as high Art Deco style, with sumptuous, decorative interiors, Le Corbusier’s pavilion was a model of a “machine for living.” It was a white stucco, flat-roofed structure with pilotis, (reinforced concrete stilts), and ribbon windows. Inside, the light, minimalist, airy interior was radically modern, with built-in case furniture that helped differentiate the spaces in the open plan. These characteristics soon became Le Corbusier’s architectural standards.

In 1931, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret completed the Villa Savoye (image 4), a country house outside of Paris, that featured the five standard elements of their designs: pilotis, ribbon windows, a free façade (because new materials and methods meant that exterior walls did not have to support the structure), a free plan (because interior walls were also liberated from their support function, thanks to steel and reinforced concrete), and a rooftop garden that compensated for the green space displaced by the building. (It also featured a ramp that ran from the roof all the way to the ground, predating Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim building by 28 years!)

Le Corbusier applied his formula again and again, to different types of structures around the world, including the concrete apartment blocks he built in several cities as a Utopian ‘machine’ for mass housing (image 5). The designs of these buildings originally called for steel frames, but post-war shortages led to the selection of rough-cast concrete, an inexpensive choice that inspired the architectural style known as Brutalism (the name itself is from “béton brut” (raw concrete), which is what Le Corbusier called the material).

In the 1950s, Le Corbusier helped plan and construct Chandigarh (image 6), the new Indian capital of Punjab, intended to be a symbol of India’s future and its engagement in the modern world. It is important to see the colors he incorporated into his designs, so often photographed in black and white.

My favorite Le Corbusier building is his 1954 chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in France (images 7-8). Both primitive and modern, solid and dynamic, the structure plays with light and color (it has many windows scattered across its thick walls, some with jewel-toned stained glass), water (its roof slants to a point, so rainfall creates a natural fountain), and land (set into a hill, you can’t see the chapel until you’re nearly upon it, and its floor mimics the slope of the land beneath it).

Le Corbusier’s ideas weren’t all so great. Critics (like Jane Jacobs) argue that his vision for urban life was destructive to the city, alienating people from one another, and elevating the car over the human. He was on the fascist end of the political spectrum for a while, at one point working for Mussolini. And for decades, he tried (and thankfully failed) to get Paris to raze the Marais neighborhood and build one of his city plans (like image 3). Contemporary designers seem less driven by Le Corbusier's modernist idea that “all men have the same needs,” and more into the postmodern concept that everyone has different wants.

Nonetheless, Le Corbusier is one of the modern masters, a true visionary. Next week, we’ll look at Charlotte Perriand, a designer who worked with Le Corbusier and collaborated with him on his furniture products.

Images: 1 Le Corbusier, from Leriel on flickr; 2 The Parthenon in Athens, built in the 5th century BC, image from Wikimedia Commons; 3 Le Corbusier's Ville Contemporaine from 1922, image from a French blog called Utopies et avant-gardes; 4 Villa Savoye (1928-31), image from D4m1en on French Wikipedia; 5 Unité d'Habitation in Marseilles (1947-52), one of several apartment blocks using this design in various international cities, great images by G. Thiriez on the French site Villes-en-France.org; 6 Chandigarh's Palace of Justice (1952), image by Eye-for-it ( Off & On ) on flickr; 7 & 8 Notre Dame du Haut (1954) in Ronchamp, France, photos from a beautiful set by roryrory on flickr.

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