Swiss-French architect, designer, city planner, painter, multifaceted genius: Le Corbusier was one of the most influential architects and pioneers of the 20th century, his body of work becoming a new genre itself and paving the way not just for the Modern style, but all architecture to come.
Form and function
Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris was born in Switzerland on October 6, 1887, second son of Edouard Jeanneret, a dial painting artist in his hometown’s renowned watch industry, and Madame Jeannerct-Perrct, a musician and piano teacher. At age 13, he left primary school to attend Arts Décoratifs at La Chaux-de-Fonds, learning in his father’s footsteps to enamel and engrave watches; under the tutelage of one of the teachers, known as L’Eplattenier, Le Corbusier abandoned watchmaking in favor of focusing on art history, drawing, and even architecture; as such, around 1907, after designing his first house, Jeannaret took trips through central Europe and the Mediterranean, dreaming to become a painter. His travels brought him under the wing of Auguste Perret and later Peter Behrens, among others, greatly shaping him in his formative years. In 1917, he moved to Paris and assumed the well kiìnown pseudonym Le Corbusier, embracing his philosophy of reinvention as part of his personal identity.
During his travels and tutelages, his awareness grew towards three major construction principles: the contrast between large collective spaces and individual compartmentalized spaces, an observation that formed the basis for his vision of residential buildings; use of classical proportions via Renaissance architecture examples; and, owing also to his naturalistic studies, the use of landscape as an architectural medium.
In his architecture, he chiefly built with steel, plate glass and reinforced concrete, deeming them as instrumental to “cleaning and purging” the city with “a calm and powerful architecture”; Le Corbusier’s painting approach emphasized clear forms and structures, which corresponded to his architecture.
A house is a machine for living in […] a curved street is a donkey track; a straight street, a road for men.
Le Corbusier envisioned a new architecture,a new Contemporary City, meant for the industry, for the metropolises, for the common man, a – his idea of the thusly named Functionalism. His aims included prefabricated houses, a concept echoing the modern assembly lines of cars and the likes; using two prototypes as the basis for his philosophy – Maison Monol and the “machine of living”, Maison Citrohan, Le Corbusier published his theories in “La Ville Radieuse” (The Radiant City) in 1935. In it, a showcase of the principles that would go on to define modern architecture and urban planning: support pillars raising the house above the ground, roof terraces, an open floor plan, an ornamentation-free facade and horizontal windows in strips to maximize natural light, balancing the internal contrast between open living space and cell-like bedrooms; green parks and gardens, together with clusters of skyscrapers, completed his vision.
Busily working throughout the 30s and 40’s, Le Corbusier died of an apparent heart attack while swimming in the Mediterranean Sea on August 27, 1965.
Most important works
Villa Savoye in Poissy is arguably Le Corbusier’s most renowned work, and a prime example of Modernist architecture: the sleek geometry of the white living space, with its elongated ribbon windows, is supported by a series of narrow columns around a curved, glazed entrance, topped with a solarium. Completed in 1931, this building was revolutionary for its time: the use of reinforced concrete required for fewer load-bearing internal walls, allowing for an all-new open-plan design.
Another iconic structure is the Notre Dame du Haut in Romchamp, one of the earliest Modernist churches. Then, there are Villa Jeanneret & Villa La Roche (1923-25, Paris, France), two semi-detached houses, now home to the Le Corbusier Foundation; the United Nations Headquarters (New York, United States); the colorful structure of the Palace of Justice (Chandigarh, India), a prime example of Le Corbusier’s work in India; the Palace of Assembly (Chandigarh, India), the elegant counterpart to the nearby Palace of Justice; the Heidi Weber Museum (Switzerland), originally commissioned as an exhibition centre; the Mill Owners’ Association Building (Ahmedabad, India); the Sainte Marie de la Tourette (Lyon, France), a Dominican priory; and the Saint-Pierre (Firminy, France), the last major work of Le Corbusier, completed posthumously in 2006 by his student José Oubrerie.
As an interior designer, Le Corbusier produced the LC-1 (Sling Chair, originally titled Basculant), LC-2 (Comfort-oriented sofa, small model), LC-3 (Comfort-oriented sofa, large model), and LC-4 (Long chair), along with many others. These chairs were included in Le Corbusier’s Salon d’Automne installation (1929).
Le Corbusier, owing to his early aspirations, realized several paintings; one of the most remarkable is Still Life (1920), a typical Purist (a doctrine he and his family followed since infancy) piece,where he purified the colour scheme to include only the neutrals—gray, black, and white—and monochromes of green, applying the paint smoothly to enhance the sense of impersonal objectivity.
Finally, as a city planner, Le Corbusier published a book on urbanism called The Radiant City (1933), an unrealized urban masterplan, first presented in 1924, designed to emphasize effective means of transportation, an abundance of green space and sunlight. Though radical, strict and nearly totalitarian in its order, symmetry and standardization, Le Corbusier’s proposed principles had an extensive influence on modern urban planning.
Key ideas and principles
Le Corbusier developed the Five Points of Modern Architecture, a vademecum of fondamental rules to rewrite the principles of architecture in a new, modern context:
- Lift The Building Over Pilotis: the ground floor of an house, like the street, belongs to the automobile; therefore, housing is raised on pilotis to allow the vehicle’s movement or the eventual green continuity.
- Free Designing Of The Ground Plan: a building’s floor plan should be free from structural condition, so partitions can be better organized.
- The Free Façade: the structure separates from the façade, relieving it of its structural function.
- The Horizontal Window: the façade can be cut along its entire length to allow rooms to be lit equally.
- The Roof Garden: a building should give back the space it takes on the ground, by replacing it with a garden in the sky.
Other key concepts forming his design ethic inclduded:
- The architectural promenade, the experienced movement through spaces;Villa Savoye design is based on this.
- Le Corbusier’s city of the future (The Radiant City) would not only provide residents with a better lifestyle, but would contribute to creating a better society.
- The Modulor, a universal system of proportions devised to reconcile maths, the human form, architecture and beauty into a single system.
- The Open Hand, a sign of peace and of reconciliation.