Charles-ÉdouardJeanneret (6 October 1887 – 27 August 1965), known as Le Corbusier, was a Swiss-French architect, designer, painter, urban planner, writer, and one of the pioneers of what is now called modern architecture. He was born in Switzerland and became a French citizen in 1930. His career spanned five decades, and he designed buildings in Europe, Japan, India, North and South America.
Dedicated to providing better living conditions for the residents of crowded cities, Le Corbusier was influential in urban planning and was a founding member of the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM). Le Corbusier prepared the master plan for the city of Chandigarh in India and contributed specific designs for several buildings there.
On 17 July 2016, seventeen projects by Le Corbusier in seven countries were inscribed in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites as The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement.
His father was an artisan who enamelled boxes and watches, while his mother gave piano lessons. His elder brother Albert was an amateur violinist. He attended a kindergarten that used Fröbelian methods.
Like his contemporaries Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier did not have formal academic training as an architect. He was attracted to the visual arts and at the age of fifteen, he entered the municipal art school in La-Chaux-de-Fonds which taught the applied arts connected with watchmaking. Three years later he attended the higher course of decoration, founded by the painter Charles L’Eplattenier, who had studied in Budapest and Paris. Le Corbusier wrote later that L’Eplattenier had made him “a man of the woods” and taught him painting from nature. His father took him frequently into the mountains around the town. He wrote later, “we were constantly on mountaintops; we grew accustomed to a vast horizon.”His architecture teacher in the Art School was the architect René Chapallaz, who had a large influence on Le Corbusier’s earliest house designs. However, he reported later that it was the art teacher L’Eplattenier who made him choose architecture. “I had a horror of architecture and architects,” he wrote. “…I was sixteen, I accepted the verdict and I obeyed. I moved into architecture.
Le Corbusier began teaching himself by going to the library to read about architecture and philosophy, by visiting museums, by sketching buildings, and by constructing them. In 1905, he and two other students, under the supervision of their teacher, René Chapallaz, designed and built his first house, the Villa Fallet, for the engraver Louis Fallet, The success of this house led to his construction of two similar houses, the Villas Jacquemet and Stotzer, in the same area.
In September 1907, he made his first trip outside of Switzerland, going to Italy; then that winter travelling through Budapest to Vienna, where he stayed for four months and met Gustav Klimt and tried, without success, to meet Josef Hoffmann. In Florence, he visited the Florence Charterhouse in Galluzzo, which made a lifelong impression on him. “I would have liked to live in one of what they called their cells,” he wrote later. “It was the solution for a unique kind of worker’s housing, or rather for a terrestrial paradise.” He travelled to Paris, and during fourteen months between 1908 until 1910 he worked as a draftsman in the office of the architect Auguste Perret, the pioneer of the use of reinforced concrete in residential construction and the architect of the Art Deco landmark Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Two years later, between October 1910 and March 1911, he travelled to Germany and worked four months in the office Peter Behrens, where Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius were also working and learning.
In 1911, he travelled again for five months; this time he journeyed to the Balkans and visited Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, as well as Pompeii and Rome, filling nearly 80 sketchbooks with renderings of what he saw—including many sketches of the Parthenon, whose forms he would later praise in his work Vers une architecture (1923). He spoke of what he saw during this trip in many of his books, and it was the subject of his last book, Le Voyage d’Orient.
Dom-ino House and Schwob House
During World War I, Le Corbusier taught at his old school in La-Chaux-de-Fonds, He concentrated on theoretical architectural studies using modern techniques. In December 1914, along with the engineer Max Dubois, he began a serious study of the use of reinforced concrete as a building material. He had first discovered concrete working with Auguste Perret in Paris, but now wanted to use it in new ways.
“Reinforced concrete provided me with incredible resources,” he wrote later, “and variety, and passionate plasticity in which by themselves my structures will be the rhythm of a palace, and Pompieen tranquillity.”.This led him to his plan for the Dom-Ino House (1914–15). This model proposed an open floor plan consisting of three concrete slabs supported by six thin reinforced concrete columns, with a stairway providing access to each level on one side of the floor plan.
The system was originally designed to provide large numbers of temporary residences after World War I, producing only slabs, columns and stairways, and residents could build exterior walls with the materials around the site. He described it in his patent application as “a juxtiposable system of construction according to an infinite number of combinations of plans. This would permit, he wrote, “the construction of the dividing walls at any point on the façade or the interior.”
Painting, Cubism, Purism and L’Esprit Nouveau
Le Corbusier moved to Paris definitively in 1917 and began his own architectural practice with his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, a partnership that would last until the 1950s, with an interruption in the World War II years
In 1918, Le Corbusier met the Cubist painter Amédée Ozenfant, in whom he recognised a kindred spirit. Ozenfant encouraged him to paint, and the two began a period of collaboration. Rejecting Cubism as irrational and “romantic”, the pair jointly published their manifesto, Après le cubisme and established a new artistic movement, Purism. Ozenfant and Le Corbusier began writing for a new journal, L’Esprit Nouveau and promoted with energy and imagination his ideas of architecture.
In the first issue of the journal, in 1920, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret adopted Le Corbusier (an altered form of his maternal grandfather’s name, Lecorbésier) as a pseudonym, reflecting his belief that anyone could reinvent themselves. Adopting a single name to identify oneself was in vogue by artists in many fields during that era, especially in Paris.
Between 1918 and 1922, Le Corbusier did not build anything, concentrating his efforts on Purist theory and painting. In 1922, he and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret opened a studio in Paris at 35 rue de Sèvres. His theoretical studies soon advanced into several different single-family house models. Among these was the Maison “Citrohan”, a pun on the name of the French Citroën automaker, for the modern industrial methods and materials Le Corbusier advocated using for the house. Here, Le Corbusier proposed a three-floor structure, with a double-height living room, bedrooms on the second floor, and a kitchen on the third floor. The roof would be occupied by a sun terrace. On the exterior, Le Corbusier installed a stairway to provide second-floor access from ground level. Here, as in other projects from this period, he also designed the façades to include large uninterrupted banks of windows. The house used a rectangular plan, with exterior walls that were not filled by windows but left as white, stuccoed spaces. Le Corbusier and Jeanneret left the interior aesthetically spare, with any movable furniture made of tubular metal frames. Light fixtures usually comprised single, bare bulbs. Interior walls also were left white.
Toward an Architecture
In 1922 and 1923, Le Corbusier devoted himself to advocating his new concepts of architecture and urban planning in a series of polemical articles published in L’Esprit Nouveau. At the Paris Salon d’Automne in 1922, he presented his plan for the Ville Contemporaine, a model city for three million people, whose residents would live and work in a group of identical sixty-story tall apartment buildings surrounded by lower zig-zag apartment blocks and a large park. In 1923, he collected his essays from L’Esprit Nouveau published his first and most influential book, Towards an Architecture. He presented his ideas for the future of architecture in a series of maxims, declarations, and exhortations. commencing with “A grand epoch has just begun. There exists a new spirit. There already exist a crowd of works in the new spirit, they are found especially in industrial production. Architecture is suffocating in its current uses. “Styles” are a lie. Style is a unity of principles which animates all the work of a period and which result in a characteristic spirit…Our epoch determines each day its style..-Our eyes, unfortunately, don’t know how to see it yet,” and his most famous maxim, “A house is a machine to live in.” Most of the many photographs and drawings in the book came from outside the world of traditional architecture; the cover showed the promenade deck of an ocean liner, while others showed racing cars, airplanes, factories, and the huge concrete and steel arches of zeppelin hangars.
The Decorative Art of Today
n 1925, Le Corbusier combined a series of articles about decorative art from “L’Esprit Nouveau” into a book, L’art décoratif d’aujourd’hui (The Decorative Art of Today). The book was a spirited attack on the very idea of decorative art. His basic premise, repeated throughout the book, was: “Modern decorative art has no decoration.”He attacked with enthusiasm the styles presented at the 1925 Exposition of Decorative Arts: “The desire to decorate everything about one is a false spirit and an abominable small perversion…The religion of beautiful materials is in its final death agony…The almost hysterical onrush in recent years toward this quasi-orgy of decor is only the last spasm of a death already predictable.”He cited the 1912 book of the Austrian architect Adolf Loos “Ornament and crime”, and quoted Loos’s dictum, “The more a people are cultivated, the more decor disappears.” He attacked the deco revival of classical styles, what he called “Louis Philippe and Louis XVI moderne”; he condemned the “symphony of colour” at the Exposition, and called it “the triumph of assemblers of colours and materials. They were swaggering in colours… They were making stews out of fine cuisine.” He condemned the exotic styles presented at the Exposition based on the art of China, Japan, India and Persia. “It takes energy today to affirm our western styles.” He criticized the “precious and useless objects that accumulated on the shelves” in the new style. He attacked the “rustling silks, the marbles which twist and turn, the vermilion whiplashes, the silver blades of Byzantium and the Orient…Let’s be done with it!”
“Why call bottles, chairs, baskets and objects decorative?” Le Corbusier asked. “They are useful tools….The decor is not necessary. Art is necessary.” He declared that in the future the decorative arts industry would produce only “objects which are perfectly useful, convenient, and have a true luxury which pleases our spirit by their elegance and the purity of their execution and the efficiency of their services. This rational perfection and precise determinate creates the link sufficient to recognize a style.” He described the future of decoration in these terms: “The idea is to go work in the superb office of a modern factory, rectangular and well-lit, painted in white Ripolin (a major French paint manufacturer); where healthy activity and laborious optimism reign.” He concluded by repeating “Modern decoration has no decoration”.
The book became a manifesto for those who opposed the more traditional styles of the decorative arts; In the 1930s, as Le Corbusier predicted, the modernized versions of Louis Philippe and Louis XVI furniture and the brightly coloured wallpapers of stylized roses were replaced by a more sober, more streamlined style. Gradually the modernism and functionality proposed by Le Corbusier overtook the more ornamental style. The shorthand titles that Le Corbusier used in the book, 1925 Expo: Arts Deco was adapted in 1966 by the art historian Bevis Hillier for a catalogue of an exhibition on the style, and in 1968 in the title of a book, Art Deco of the 20s and 30s. And thereafter the term “Art Deco” was commonly used as the name of the style.
Five Points of Architecture to Villa Savoye
The notoriety that Le Corbusier achieved from his writings and the Pavilion at the 1925 Exposition led to commissions to build a dozen residences in Paris and in the Paris region in his “purist style.” These included the Maison La Roche/Albert Jeanneret (1923–1925), which now houses the Foundation Le Corbusier; the Maison Guiette in Antwerp, Belgium (1926); a residence for Jacques Lipchitz; the Maison Cook, and the Maison Planeix. In 1927, he was invited by the German Werkbund to build three houses in the model city of Weissenhof near Stuttgart, based on the Citrohan House and other theoretical models he had published. He described this project in detail one of his best-known essays, the Five Points of Architecture.
The following year he began the Villa Savoye (1928–1931), which became one of the most famous of Le Corbusier’s works, and an icon of modernist architecture. Located in Poissy, in a landscape surrounded by trees and large lawn, the house is an elegant white box poised on rows of slender pylons, surrounded by a horizontal band of windows which fill the structure with light. The service areas (parking, rooms for servants and laundry room) are located under the house. Visitors enter a vestibule from which a gentle ramp leads to the house itself. The bedrooms and salons of the house are distributed around a suspended garden; the rooms look both out at the landscape and into the garden, which provides additional light and air. Another ramp leads up to the roof, and a stairway leads down to the cellar under the pillars.
Villa Savoye succinctly summed up the five points of architecture that he had elucidated in L’Esprit Nouveau and the book Vers une architecture, which he had been developing throughout the 1920s. First, Le Corbusier lifted the bulk of the structure off the ground, supporting it by pilotis, reinforced concrete stilts. These pilotis, in providing the structural support for the house, allowed him to elucidate his next two points: a free façade, meaning non-supporting walls that could be designed as the architect wished, and an open floor plan, meaning that the floor space was free to be configured into rooms without concern for supporting walls. The second floor of the Villa Savoye includes long strips of ribbon windows that allow unencumbered views of the large surrounding garden, and which constitute the fourth point of his system. The fifth point was the roof garden to compensate for the green area consumed by the building and replacing it on the roof. A ramp rising from ground level to the third-floor roof terrace allows for a promenade architecture through the structure. The white tubular railing recalls the industrial “ocean-liner” aesthetic that Le Corbusier much admired.
Le Corbusier was quite rhapsodic when describing the house in Précisions in 1930: “the plan is pure, exactly made for the needs of the house. It has its correct place in the rustic landscape of Poissy. It is Poetry and lyricism, supported by technique.” The house had its problems; the roof persistently leaked, due to construction faults; but it became a landmark of modern architecture and one of the best-known works of Le Corbusier.
World War II and Reconstruction; Unité d’Habitation in Marseille
During the War and the German occupation of France, Le Corbusier did his best to promote his architectural projects. He moved to Vichy for a time, where the collaborationist government of Marshal Philippe Petain was located, offering his services for architectural projects, including his plan for the reconstruction of Algiers, but they were rejected. He continued writing, completing Sur Les Quatres routes (On the Four Routes) in 1941. After 1942, Le Corbusier left Vichy for Paris. He became for a time a technical adviser at Alexis Carrel’s eugenic foundation, he resigned from this position on 20 April 1944. In 1943, he founded a new association of modern architects and builders, the Ascoral, the Assembly of Constructors for a renewal of architecture, but there were no projects to build.
When the war ended, Le Corbusier was nearly sixty years old, and he had not had a single project realized in ten years. He tried, without success, to obtain commissions for several of the first large reconstruction projects, but his proposals for the reconstruction of the town of Saint-Dié and for La Rochelle were rejected. Still, he persisted; Le Corbusier finally found a willing partner in Raoul Dautry, the new Minister of Reconstruction and Urbanism. Dautry agreed to fund one of his projects, a “Unité d’habitation de grandeur conforme”, or housing units of standard size, with the first one to be built in Marseille, which had been heavily damaged during the war.
This was his first public commission and was a major breakthrough for Le Corbusier. He gave the building the name of his pre-war theoretical project, the Cité Radieuse, and followed the principles that he had studied before the war, he proposed a giant reinforced concrete framework, into which modular apartments would be fit like bottles into a bottle rack. Like the Villa Savoye, the structure was poised on concrete pylons though, because of the shortage of steel to reinforce the concrete, the pylons were more massive than usual. The building contained 337 duplex apartment modules to house a total of 1,600 people. Each module was three stories high and contained two apartments, combined so each had two levels (see diagram above). The modules ran from one side of the building to the other, and each apartment had a small terrace at each end. They were ingeniously fitted together like pieces of a Chinese puzzle, with a corridor slotted through the space between the two apartments in each module. Residents had a choice of twenty-three different configurations for the units. Le Corbusier designed furniture, carpets and lamps to go with the building, all purely functional; the only decoration was a choice of interior colours that Le Corbusier gave to residents. The only mildly decorative features of the building were the ventilator shafts on the roof, which Le Corbusier made to look like the smokestacks of an ocean liner, a functional form that he admired.
The building was designed not just to be a residence, but to offer all the services needed for living. Every third floor, between the modules, there was a wide corridor, like an interior street, which ran the length of the building from one end of the building to the other. This served as a sort of commercial street, with shops, eating places, a nursery school and recreational facilities. A running track and small stage for theatre performances were located in the roof. The building itself was surrounded by trees and a small park.
Le Corbusier wrote later that the Unité d’Habitation concept was inspired by the visit he had made to the Florence Charterhouse at Galluzzo in Italy, in 1907 and 1910 during his early travels. He wanted to recreate, he wrote, an ideal place “for meditation and contemplation.” He also learned from the monastery, he wrote, that “standardization led to perfection,” and that “all of his life a man labours under this impulse: to make the home the temple of the family.”
The Unité d’Habitation marked a turning point in the career of Le Corbusier; in 1952, he was made a Commander of the Légion d’Honneur in a ceremony held on the roof of his new building. He had progressed from being an outsider and critic of the architectural establishment to its centre, as the most prominent French architect.
United Nations Headquarters
Le Corbusier made another almost identical Unité d’Habitation in Rezé-les-Nantes in the Loire-Atlantique Department between 1948 and 1952, and three more over the following years, in Berlin, Briey-en-Forêt and Firminy; and he designed a factory for the company of Claude and Duval, in Saint-Dié in the Vosges.
In early 1947 Le Corbusier submitted a design for the Headquarters of the United Nations, which was to be built beside the East River in New York. Instead of competition, the design was to be selected by a Board of Design Consultants composed of leading international architects nominated by member governments, including Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer of Brazil, Howard Robertson from Britain, Nikolai Bassov of the Soviet Union, and five others from around the world. The committee was under the direction of the American architect Wallace K. Harrison, who was also the architect for the Rockefeller family, which had donated the site for the building.
Le Corbusier had submitted his plan for the Secretariat, called Plan 23 of the 58 submitted. In Le Corbusier’s plan, where offices, council chambers and General Assembly hall were in a single block in the centre of the site. He lobbied hard for his project, and asked the younger Brazilian architect, Niemeyer, to support and assist him on his plan. Niemeyer, to help Le Corbusier, refused to submit his own design and did not attend the meetings until the Director, Harrison, insisted. Niemeyer then submitted his plan, Plan 32, with the office building and councils and General Assembly in separate buildings. After much discussion, the Committee chose Niemeyer’s plan but suggested that he collaborate with Le Corbusier on the final project. Le Corbusier urged Niemeyer to put the General Assembly Hall in the centre of the site, though this would eliminate Niemeyer’s plan to have a large plaza in the centre. Niemeyer agreed with Le Corbusier’s suggestion, and the headquarters was built, with minor modifications, according to their joint plan.
Later life and work
The 1950s and 1960s were a difficult period for Le Corbusier’s personal life; his wife Yvonne died in 1957, and his mother, to whom he was closely attached, died in 1960. He remained active in a wide variety of fields; in 1955 he published Poéme de l’angle droits, a portfolio of lithographs, published in the same collection as the book Jazz by Henri Matisse. In 1958 he collaborated with the composer Edgar Varèse on a work called Le Poème électronique, a show of sound and light, for the Philips Pavilion at the International Exposition in Brussels. In 1960 he published a new book, L’Atelier de la recherché patiente The workshop of patient research), simultaneously published in four languages. He received growing recognition for his pioneering work in modernist architecture; in 1959, a successful international campaign was launched to have his Villa Savoye, threatened with demolition, declared a historic monument; it was the first time that a work by a living architect received this distinction. In 1962, in the same year as the dedication of the Palace of the Assembly in Chandigarh, the first retrospective exhibit on his work was held at the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris. In 1964, in a ceremony held in his atelier on rue de Sèvres, he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Légion d’honneur by Culture Minister André Malraux.
His later architectural work was extremely varied and often based on designs of earlier projects. In 1952–1958, he designed a series of tiny vacation cabins, 2.26 by 2.26 by 2.6 metres (7.4 by 7.4 by 8.5 feet) in size, for a site next to the Mediterranean at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. He built a similar cabin for himself, but the rest of the project was not realized until after his death. In 1953–1957, he designed a residential building for Brazilian students for the Cité de la Université in Paris. Between 1954 and 1959, he built the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo. His other projects included a cultural centre and stadium for the town of Firminy, where he had built his first housing project (1955–1958); and a stadium in Baghdad, Iraq (much altered since its construction). He also constructed three new Unités d’Habitation, apartment blocks on the model of the original in Marseille, the first in Berlin (1956–1958), the second in Briey-en-Forêt in the Meurthe-et-Moselle Department; and the third (1959–1967) in Firminy. In 1960–1963, he built his only building in the United States; the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
At the time of his death in 1965, several projects were on the drawing boards; the church of Saint-Pierre in Firminy, finally completed in modified form in 2006; a Palace of Congresses for Strasbourg (1962–65), and a hospital in Venice, (1961–1965) which were never built. Le Corbusier designed an art gallery beside the lake in Zürich for gallery owner Heidi Weber in 1962–1967. Now called the Centre Le Corbusier, it is one of his last finished works.
Against his doctor’s orders, on 27 August 1965, Le Corbusier went for a swim in the Mediterranean Sea at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France. His body was found by bathers and he was pronounced dead at 11 a.m. It was assumed that he may have suffered a heart attack. His funeral took place in the courtyard of the Louvre Palace on 1 September 1965, under the direction of writer and thinker André Malraux, who was at the time France’s Minister of Culture. He was buried alongside his wife in the grave he had designated at Roquebrune.
Le Corbusier’s death had a strong impact on the cultural and political world. Tributes came from around the world, even from some of Le Corbusier’s strongest artistic critics. Painter Salvador Dalí recognised his importance and sent a floral tribute. United States President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “His influence was universal and his works are invested with a permanent quality possessed by those of very few artists in our history.” The Soviet Union added, “Modern architecture has lost its greatest master”. While his funeral occurred in Paris, Japanese TV channels broadcast his Museum in Tokyo in what was at the time a unique media homage.
His grave is in the cemetery above Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, between Menton and Monaco in southern France.
The Foundation Le Corbusier (FLC) functions as his official estate. The US copyright representative for the Foundation Le Corbusier is the Artists Rights Society.
In 1937, Le Corbusier was named Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. In 1945, he was promoted to Officier of the Légion d’honneur. In 1952, he was promoted to Commandeur of the Légion d’honneur. Finally, on 2 July 1964, Le Corbusier was named Grand Officier of the Légion d’honneur.
He received the Frank P. Brown Medal and AIA Gold Medal in 1961.
The University of Cambridge awarded Le Corbusier an honorary degree in June 1959.