Updated: Jan 27
Le Corbusier was an architect that has been credited as a pioneer of the modernist movement of architecture in the 20th century and his influence and ideas continue to permeate and influence to this day. His fundamental thinking regarding urban planning and town regeneration has been loved and loathed and are as important today as they were when they were first conceived in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Compared to modern standards of work, the number of buildings that he designed, constructed and built are small, however these buildings can be seen the world over in France, India, Japan, Brazil and the Soviet Union.
Born originally as Charles-Édouard Jeanneret in 1887 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, with joint Swiss French citizenship, he later changed his name to Le Corbusier in 1920 when he moved to fashionable Paris in 1917.
As with famous architects at the time, Le Corbusier did not have any former training and began his creative career in the visual arts as a painter. His art teachers recognized a different talent in him and guided him in the route of becoming an architect.
At the age of 18, with the aid of a local architect in Switzerland, he designed his first house, Villa Fallet, ornamented in an Art Nouveau style with a steep pitched roof. Further houses followed including the family home.
Between 1907 and 1911 he began travelling to various countries including Italy, Budapest, Vienna, Serbia, Bulgaria and Istanbul, taking various sketches. International style was the dominant language of expression at the time of Le Corbusier's formative years of thinking, philosophy and creativity and he also began to study the thinking of Nietzsche, a German philosopher who was influential at the time.
He had the good fortune to have worked in the offices of Peter Behrens in Berlin, an architectural practice that also saw the names of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe as employees at various points in the 1920's.
Before moving to Paris in 1917 he designed the Villa Schwob in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a private villa, a modern building due to its reinforced concrete construction, one of the earliest use of this building material in a private house, it is a curious mixture of classical and modern with a symmetry of design within its floor plan.
His early years in Paris were defined by a change of name to Le Corbusier and founding a magazine, L’Esprit Nouveau where he published some of his paintings, he was also publishing articles which were eventually made into a book which appeared in 1923. “Towards a new Architecture” a book which was to become an influential book in the world of style and design. Themes of modern engineering show through with the influences of aviation, motoring and shipping as well as ideas for a new architectural movement.
The quintessential symbol of the 20th century, the motorcar, was to become not just a form of transport but a machine that was to become integrated into Le Corbusier's building designs in the late 1920's and early 1930's.
The Maison Citrohan project in 1922 incorporated a garage and space for a motor vehicle within the void of the building which was of a simple rectangular shape, reduced to a simple functional construction designed to be mass produced, which was referenced in the last chapter of his book ‘Mass Production Housing’. But only one of these building concepts were built, for the Stuttgart Weissenhof exhibition in 1927.
Further explorations of a similar theme continued with the commission of the Villa La Roche in 1925 in Paris, built for Raoul La Roche, a french banker. The building is formed in two parts, part designed by Le Corbusier's cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, its spaces connected by a route described as promenade architecturale.
The Five Points of Architecture
Le Corbusier was at the time working on a set of principles that should govern and form his philosophy of architectural style, his manifesto became known as the five points of architecture,
Pilotis are reinforced concrete columns that elevate a building off the ground plan allowing for ground space to be used for other purposes and to give a building a feeling of lightness.
The horizontal window
This gives the floor space inside plenty of equal natural light and panoramic views of the surrounding environment.
The roof garden
This is incorporated in the elevation of the building off the ground, Le Corbusier's idea was to replace the buildings mark on the environment by replacing the buildings footprint with nature on the top of the building.
The free ground plan
Traditional buildings have internal supporting walls restricting the design of the internal space, by removing these constraints, flexibility is introduced to allow for artistic freedom and movement within the building.
The free facade
Supporting columns are moved inside the building, removing the load from the facade plane, allowing external walls to be made from any material and shape, curtain walling is also a popular form of this architectural style.
These five points of architecture are all beautifully incorporated into one building, Villa Savoye, I will write a blog on this building shortly.
The late 1920's saw Le Corbusier consolidate his new architectural system with logical structural forms and influenced by the driving forces of aviation and technology at the time.
Le Corbusier’s international reputation began to grow with a number of large commissions including the Building of the Tsentrosoyuz headquarters of the Soviet trade unions in Moscow. He saw the USSR as a good place to experiment with his architectural ideas.
He was also exploring urban design and city planning and carried the noble cause of wanting to improve housing for the working class through his designs. He worked on a modular housing unit for a number of cities in France, one of them called the Maison Loucheur which was designed to be mass produced and transported to the construction site.
This was one of Le Corbusier's more controversial housing plans. At the centre of its design lay symmetry and standardization of housing design on a grand scale, with the use of zoning, segregation of commercial, business, entertainment and residential areas. The buildings would rely heavily on vertical architecture leaving shared open spaces in between the vertical apartments. However the counter argument against such urban designs was that it dehumanizes the individual, and removes the ability for the inhabitant to relate to his or her surroundings due to the scale of the project. Ville Radieuse was never built although the closest representation of its idea was Brasilia in Brazil.
There is one example of urban housing that could be associated with Le Corbusier's housing philosophy, this being Pruitt-Igoe in St Louis in the USA. A housing complex that became so controversial, its demolition was televised live on national TV.
After the Second World War, the newly formed United Nations which succeeded the League of Nations was looking for a new location which was finally decided upon in New York. An international design team was commissioned in 1947 including Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier, there was an element of rivalry during the design process which led to Le Corbusier pressing his design for the General Assembly on Niemeyer's design, altering its original concept, however a compromise was reached and Oscar Niemeyer's 39 story curtain walled glass tower was incorporated with Le Corbusier's brutalist concrete General Assembly building.
Le Corbusier continued to create buildings that were complex and varied, based on old themes of design and new explorations of new forms and concepts. It is possible that the Second World War altered Le Corbusier's faith in his past glorification of 1920's and 30's human advancements in the motor car and aviation.
There are hints in some of his work that he was returning to a more organic form of architecture with vernacular undertones.
Le Corbusier was fundamentally an atheist, however he did have a spiritual belief, it is these beliefs that can be seen in the Chapel of Notre Dame-du-Haut built in the 1950's. The Chapel sits on top of a hill that overlooks the town of Ronchamp in France, the most striking feature is its huge dark concrete roof that tapers at one corner, it has echos of a thatched roof and traditional architecture even though it was built between 1950 and 1955. One one side of the building is a high wall that is punctuated by small stained glassed coloured windows that let light flood into the central chapel giving a sense of wonder and numinous.
If you consider Le Corbusier's previous works to Ronchamp, you can argue that he had diverted from his previous style in this buildings construction.
This was Le Corbusier's largest project, built between 1951 - 56 Chandigarh, the capital city of the Punjab in India. The project was charged with political emphasis, a symbol of post independent India wanting to become a notable force upon the International economic and political stage.
The main features of the city plan included a commercial centre containing the main state buildings, the Governor's Palace, the Assembly Building, the High Court and the Secretariat. Within the design were Le Corbusier's urban standards of “light, space and greenery”.
In July 2016 UNESCO Declared Chandigarh as a world heritage site “The Architectural work of Le Corbusier an outstanding contribution to the Modern Movement”.
Le Corbusier embarked on a radical housing design concept in the modernist style that eventually spawned five versions, four built in France and one built in Berlin. They were constructed over a 10 year time span.
Industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries caused mass exodus of people from the countryside into the city community, causing substandard housing in many countries and cities, this was perpetuated further after the Second World War. Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation was the proposed solution to this issue, supplying modular units, designed as houses, two stories high, apartments interlocked with wide access corridors every 3rd floor.
The best preserved and most celebrated block was the Unité d'Habitation in Marseilles, France, completed in 1952. It has 337 apartments which also incorporates a hotel and rooftop terrace adorned with sculptural objects. The surfaces of the building were formed using the béton-brut concrete technique, and then textured using wooden planks.
Furniture Designer and Artist
Le Corbusier was as dynamic and forward thinking in his designs for furniture as he was with buildings, using industrial concepts of style and materials that could create mass produced furniture. Metal tubing that was used to make bicycle frames at the time were incorporated into some of his furniture designs, most famously the LC4 chair.
He was also an artist, painting predominantly in the cubist style, a talent that is often forgotten as his buildings have been more internationally recognized than his art, which spans most of his life.
The last decade of his life produced many varied styles of buildings, he completed the final series of housing projects Unité d'Habitation of Berlin in 1958.
His final completed building was the Church of Saint-Pierre in Firminy, France. The construction began in 1971, six years after he died , and completed in 2006, led by a French architect Jose Oubrerie who had been a pupil of Le Corbsier. The building's concept was to create a place for spiritual enrichment making an internal space that was naturally lit through light boxes punched into the external walls, very similar in design to Rontcamp. It is unmistakably Le Corbusier's style with the use of thick textured concrete and cavernous interior space peppered with voids in the thick walls to allow for coloured glass windows to dapple the internal spaces.
No matter how you personally feel about Le Corbusier's style of architecture, his influence across the international landscape has helped to shape many cities and town planners and continues to do so to this day.