Le Corbusier (1887–1965)

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LE CORBUSIER (1887–1965)


Swiss-French architect, influential worldwide for both creating and subverting the ideas and forms of modernism.

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, who adopted the pseudonym Le Corbusier in the 1920s, was born and brought up in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, and attended the local arts school, where it was intended he learn the trade of his father, a watch engraver. Here he came under the strong influence of Charles L'Eplattenier, a passionate advocate of regionalist Arts and Crafts design. It was L'Eplattenier who encouraged Jeanneret to interest himself in architecture, and as early as 1905–1907 he designed his first house, for a jeweler, Louis Fallet, in an Arts and Crafts style. Jeanneret was to design five other houses in and around La Chaux-de-Fonds as well as a cinema and a number of unexecuted projects before he finally moved to Paris in 1917. In the ten years before his move Jeanneret spent much of his time traveling.

While in Paris in 1908–1909 Jeanneret worked in the office of Auguste Perret, where he acquired a fascination for reinforced concrete; the plan of his Schwob House in La Chaux-de-Fonds (1916–1917) was based on one of Perret's designs. In April 1910 Jeanneret left for a journey that would take him to Germany and eventually Athens and Italy. A highlight of this trip was his visit to the Acropolis, which Jeanneret considered to be a perfect building. Even more influential, however, was his second visit to the Carthusian monastery at Ema, near Florence, which not only convinced him finally to become an architect but provided the model for most of his housing projects.

In 1915, with the help of the engineer and entrepreneur Max Du Bois, Jeanneret submitted a patent for a housing prototype ("Domino"). Although impractical as a means of delivering cheap housing, this project contained in embryo many of the underlying ideas of modernism: use of reinforced concrete, separation of structure from enclosure, and the use of thin, round pilotis supporting thin floor slabs without visible horizontal beams. When Jeanneret moved to Paris in 1917 he embarked on a disastrous business career but was fortunate enough to meet Amédée Ozenfant and with him began the art movement called purism, exhibiting with him in 1918 and starting the art journal L'esprit nouveau (1920–1925). Purism was an offshoot of cubism, with a stress on geometry and the representation of heavily simplified objects of everyday use. For this journal Jeanneret wrote a series of articles under the pseudonym "Le Corbusier-Saugnier" (and later, "Le Corbusier") which were subsequently published as books. The most famous of these, Vers une architecture (1923; published in English as Towards a New Architecture, 1927), became one of the century's best-selling books on architecture. The basic idea was that architects should respond to the spirit of the age—a spirit redolent of industrialization and new forms of transportation—and rethink architectural form from scratch on the basis of rationalism and the search for harmonious forms based on geometrical relationships. In all his written work, however, Le Corbusier makes clear that he was opposed to functionalism and aspired to achieve the highest architectural qualities measured by those of the architecture of the past. Le Corbusier went on to write more than a hundred books and an endless stream of articles and lectures, which very effectively transmitted his ideas and buildings across the world. Le Corbusier continued to paint all his life, usually in the mornings.

Le Corbusier's architectural career in Paris picked up pace when he took on his younger cousin Pierre Jeanneret as a partner in 1922. Pierre worked closely with him until 1937, and again in India after the war, taking complete responsibility for running the office, carrying out the detailed design, and supervising construction. In a series of well-publicized buildings in the 1920s, the partners established their reputation as among the foremost modernist architects in Europe, publishing a first volume of their Oeuvre complète (Complete works) in 1929. Unlike many of his modernist contemporaries, Le Corbusier very rarely benefited from state or municipal commissions. His main output in the 1920s was private houses for wealthy clients, studios for fellow artists and craftsmen, and a number of models and designs for public exhibition.

In 1927 Le Corbusier's profile was raised further on the international stage by his competition entry for the League of Nations building in Geneva, which was placed among nine equal first prizes. The scandal that blew up around the eventual allocation of the project to an eighty-year-old French beaux-arts architect, assisted by a number of the other prizewinning architects, helped mold modernists in different countries together into a group, leading to the formation of the CIAM (International Congresses on Modern Architecture) in 1928. This episode also helped Le Corbusier and Jeanneret obtain a number of prestigious commissions, including a ministry in Moscow (1928), the Salvation Army headquarters in Paris (1929), and the Swiss student hostel in the Cité Universitaire in Paris, completed in 1933. In 1930 he married and took French citizenship.

Around 1928 Le Corbusier had abandoned the purist style of painting for a richer idiom dominated by the forms of women, natural materials, and warm colors. In his architecture too he rediscovered natural materials and textures, stimulated by vernacular architecture. His villa for Hélène de Mandrot near Toulon marks a turning point in his work, as does the penthouse apartment he designed for himself in Paris in 1930. Here, reinforced concrete forms are juxtaposed with textured stone surfaces. During the 1930s Le Corbusier received very few commissions—he had the bailiffs in the office in 1935—as he concentrated on more and more ambitious urban projects in Algiers, Paris, and other cities. His book La ville radieuse (1935; The Radiant City) offers a rich and complex insight into his thinking. His political position, never very stable, veered in the 1930s between the left wing and sympathy for charismatic neofascist French nationalists, and Pierre Jeanneret, who was consistently on the left, began to practice separately after 1937.

After the French defeat in 1940, Le Corbusier joined a number of French architects (including Auguste Perret) in the collaborationist regime at Vichy, hoping to be asked to plan for the reconstruction of France. Finding that most of his enemies held the reins of power, he became disillusioned and eventually moved permanently back to Paris, where, in 1943, he founded a research group, ASCORAL (Association of Builders for an Architectural Renovation). When peace came, Le Corbusier's plans for rebuilding devastated cities were once again rejected, but he was given a special commission to build an eighteen-story "unit" of housing in Marseille (1945–1952) consisting of 337 maisonettes, two schools, a hotel, and a shopping street. He later built three more of these in other French cities and one in Berlin. The building made an impact for the sculptural treatment of the roof structures and for the rough concrete (beton brut), which led to the style known as "brutalism."

In the twenty years after the war Le Corbusier had an Indian summer in which building after building surprised and sometimes shocked his modernist contemporaries. Two important religious commissions, the pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp (1950–1955) and the Dominican monastery of La Tourette (1956–1959) revealed Le Corbusier's astonishing formal and symbolic richness, and these qualities were also very much in evidence in the buildings he designed at Chandigarh, capital of the state of Punjab in India (begun in 1951). The Jaoul houses in Paris (1951–1955) and two houses in Ahmedabad (Villa Sarabhai, 1951–1956, and Villa Shodan, 1951–1956) also marked a complete break from the pristine but cold forms of the 1920s. The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1961–1964), offered Le Corbusier a unique opportunity to demonstrate his late style in America.

Le Corbusier was both a brilliant polemicist and a thoughtful and self-questioning artist, never satisfied with the solutions promoted by himself or others. He will be remembered as much as a humanist who stood against functionalism and social determinism as a purveyor of sometimes dogmatic and oversimplistic urban and architectural solutions.

See alsoArchitecture; Modernism .


Primary Sources

Le Corbusier. Towards a New Architecture. Translated by Frederick Etchells. New York, 1927.

Secondary Sources

Benton, Tim. The Villas of Le Corbusier, 1920–1930. New Haven, Conn., 1987.

Benton, Tim, et al. Le Corbusier, Architect of the Century: A Centenary Exhibition Organized by the Arts Council of Great Britain. London, 1987.

Brooks, H. Allen. Le Corbusier's Formative Years: Charles-Edouard Jeanneret at La Chaux-de-Fonds. Chicago, 1997.

Curtis, William J. R. Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms. London, 1986.

Moos, Stanislaus von. Le Corbusier: Elements of a Synthesis. Cambridge, Mass., 1979.

Moos, Stanislaus von, and Arthur Ruegg, eds. Le Corbusier before Le Corbusier: Applied Arts, Architecture, Painting, Photography, 1907–1922. New Haven, Conn., 2002.

Tim Benton

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Le Corbusier (1887–1965)

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