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Modernism, Classics

Birth date / place

October 6th 1887, La Chaux de Fonds, Switzerland

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Paris, France

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Maxwell Fry
Peter Behrens
Pierre Jeanneret
Jane Drew

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"Volume and surface are the elements through which architecture manifests itself. Volume and surface are determined by the plan. It is the plan that is the generator. So much the worse for those who lack imagination!"
Le Corbusier

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Article last edited by Maria Thuroczy on
November 03rd, 2013

Le Corbusier Change this

Change thisParis, France
born 1887, La Chaux de Fonds

Le Cobusier with a model of the Villa Savoye

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About Change this

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, who chose to be known as Le Corbusier (October 6th, 1887 – August 27th, 1965), was a Swiss-French architect, designer, urbanist, writer and also painter, who is famous for being one of the pioneers of what now is called Modern architecture or the International Style. He was born in Switzerland, but became a French citizen in his 30s.

He was a pioneer in studies of modern high design and was dedicated to providing better living conditions for the residents of crowded cities. His career spanned five decades, with his buildings constructed throughout central Europe, India, Russia, and one each in North and South America. He was also an urban planner, painter, sculptor, writer, and modern furniture designer.

Early life and education

He was born as Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a small city in Neuchâtel canton in north-western Switzerland, in the Jura mountains, just 5 kilometres across the border from France. He attended a kindergarten that used Fröbelian methods.

Young Jeanneret was attracted to the visual arts and studied at the La-Chaux-de-Fonds Art School under Charles L'Eplattenier, who had studied in Budapest and Paris. His architecture teacher in the Art School was the architect René Chapallaz, who had a large influence on Le Corbusier's earliest houses.

In his early years he would frequently escape the somewhat provincial atmosphere of his hometown by traveling around Europe. About 1907, he traveled to Paris, where he found work in the office of Auguste Perret, the French pioneer of reinforced concrete. In 1908, He studied architecture in Vienna with Josef Hoffmann. Between October 1910 and March 1911, he worked near Berlin for the renowned architect Peter Behrens, where he might have met Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. He became fluent in German. Both of these experiences would prove influential in his later career.

Later in 1911, he journeyed to the Balkans and visited Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, filling sketchbooks with renderings of what he saw, including many famous sketches of the Parthenon, whose forms he would later praise in his work "Toward an Architcture".

Early career: the villas

Le Corbusier taught at his old school in La-Chaux-de-Fonds during World War I, not returning to Paris until the war was over. During these four years in Switzerland, he worked on theoretical architectural studies using modern techniques. Among these was his project for the Domino House (1914–1915). This model proposed an open floor plan consisting of concrete slabs supported by a minimal number of thin, reinforced concrete columns around the edges, with a stairway providing access to each level on one side of the floor plan.

This design became the foundation for most of his architecture for the next ten years. Soon he would begin his own architectural practice with his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, a partnership that would last until the 50s, with an interruption in the WWII years, due to Le Corbusier's ambivalent position towards the Vichy regime.

Pseudonym adopted

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 among those in Paris.

Single family houses

Between 1918 and 1922, Le Corbusier built nothing, concentrating his efforts on Purist theory and painting. In 1922, Le Corbusier and his cousin 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 expanses of uninterrupted banks of windows. The house used a rectangular plan, with exterior walls that were not filled by windows, 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.

Between 1922 and 1927, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret designed many of these private houses for clients around Paris. In Boulogne-sur-Seine and the 16th arrondissement of Paris, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret designed and built the Villa Lipschitz, Maison Cook (see William Edwards Cook), Maison Planeix, and the Maison La Roche/Albert Jeanneret, which now houses the Fondation Le Corbusier.

Toward an architecture

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 which lasted until 1925. Rejecting Cubism as irrational and romantic, the pair jointly published their manifesto, "Après le cubisme".

In 1920 Ozenfant and Le Corbusier started to write essays which they published in a journal titled L'esprit nouveau which they had founded together. In L'esprit nouveau they advocated a "new spirit" - the use of modern industrial techniques and strategies to transform society into a more efficient environment leading to a higher standard of living for everybody. Le Corbusier forcefully argued that this transformation was necessary to avoid the spectre of revolution that would otherwise shake society. His dictum, "Architecture or Revolution" became his rallying cry for the book "Vers une architecture" (Toward an Architecture) which he published in 1923 under the name Le Corbusier-Saugnier.

Le Corbusier urges readers to cease thinking of architecture as a matter of historical styles. He argues that by relying on calculations, engineers are capabable of using simple, legible geometric forms which are alone in arousing the emotions architecture should induce. Beauty in architecture emanates from its clear physical conditions which have to be presented as brute facts. The elements through which architecture manifests itself must be primary unambiguous volumes (e.g. cubes, cones, spheres or cylinders) brought together by shadow and light and accentuated by surfaces shaped only by their practical necessity. The plan based on pure geometry had the role of an indispensable generator who would bring volumes and surfaces together in an orderly manner.

The book had an immediate impact on architects throughout Europe and strongly influenced how his contemporaries saw the relationship between architecture, technology, and history. It remains a foundational text for students and professionals to the present day.

To make his point Le Corbusier also reprinted several photographs of industrially engineered grain elevators which exemplify the simple volumes Le Corbusier propagated. However, they were already "discovered" and published by Walter Gropius earlier. Gropius famously complained in a letter that Le Corbusier had not respected his copyright.


Urbanism

For a number of years French officials had been unsuccessful in dealing with the squalor of the growing Parisian slums, and Le Corbusier sought efficient ways to house large numbers of people in response to the urban housing crisis. He believed that his new, modern architectural forms would provide a new organizational solution that would raise the quality of life for the lower classes. His Immeubles Villas (1922) was such a project. It called for large blocks of cell-like individual apartments stacked one on top of the other, with plans that included a living room, bedrooms and kitchen, as well as a garden terrace.

Not merely content with designs for a few housing blocks, soon Le Corbusier moved into studies for entire cities. In 1922, he presented his scheme for a "Contemporary City" for three million inhabitants (Ville Contemporaine). The centerpiece of this plan was the group of sixty-story, cruciform skyscrapers; steel-framed office buildings encased in huge curtain walls of glass. These skyscrapers were set within large, rectangular park-like green spaces. At the center was a huge transportation hub, that on different levels included depots for buses and trains, as well as highway intersections, and at the top, an airport. He had the fanciful notion that commercial airliners would land between the huge skyscrapers.

Le Corbusier segregated pedestrian circulation paths from the roadways and glorified the use of the automobile as a means of transportation. As one moved out from the central skyscrapers, smaller low-story, zigzag apartment blocks (set far back from the street amid green space), housed the inhabitants. Le Corbusier hoped that politically-minded industrialists in France would lead the way with their efficient Taylorist and Fordist strategies adopted from American industrial models to reorganize society. As Norma Evenson has put it, "the proposed city appeared to some an audacious and compelling vision of a brave new world, and to others a frigid megalomaniacally scaled negation of the familiar urban ambient."

In 1925 he exhibited his "Plan Voisin," sponsored by an automobile manufacturer. In it, he proposed to bulldoze most of central Paris north of the Seine, and replace it with his sixty-story cruciform towers from the Contemporary City, placed in an orthogonal street grid and park-like green space. His scheme was met with criticism and scorn from French politicians and industrialists, although they were favorable to the ideas of Taylorism and Fordism underlying Le Corbusier designs. Nonetheless, it did provoke discussion concerning how to deal with the cramped, dirty conditions that enveloped much of the city.

In the 1930s, Le Corbusier expanded and reformulated his ideas on urbanism, eventually publishing them in 1935 in La Ville Radieuse (The Radiant City). Perhaps the most significant difference between the Contemporary City and the Radiant City is that the latter abandons the class-based stratification of the former; housing is now assigned according to family size, not economic position.

Some have read dark overtones into The Radiant City: from the "astonishingly beautiful assemblage of buildings" that was Stockholm, for example, Le Corbusier saw only “frightening chaos and saddening monotony.” He dreamed of "cleaning and purging" the city, bringing "a calm and powerful architecture" — referring to steel, plate glass, and reinforced concrete. Though Le Corbusier's designs for Stockholm did not succeed, later architects took his ideas and partly "destroyed" the city with them.

La Ville radieuse also marks Le Corbusier's increasing dissatisfaction with capitalism and his turn to the right-wing syndicalism of Hubert Lagardelle. During the Vichy regime, Le Corbusier received a position on a planning committee and made designs for Algiers and other cities. The central government ultimately rejected his plans, and after 1942 Le Corbusier withdrew from political activity.

After World War II, Le Corbusier attempted to realize his urban planning schemes on a small scale by constructing a series of "unités" (the housing block unit of the Radiant City) around France. The most famous of these was the Unité d'Habitation also known as La Cité Radieuse of Marseilles (1946–1952). In the 1950s, a unique opportunity to translate the Radiant City on a grand scale presented itself in the construction of the Union Territory Chandigarh, the new capital for the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana and the first planned city in India. Le Corbusier designed many administration buildings including a courthouse, parliament building and a university. He also designed the general layout of the city dividing it into sectors. Le Corbusier was brought on to develop the plan of Albert Mayer.

The Modulor

In the years 1942 to 1948, Le Corbusier developed a system of measurements which became known as "Modulor". Based on the Golden Section and Fibonacci numbers and also using the physical dimensions of the average human, Modulor is a sequence of measurements which Le Corbusier used to achieve harmony in his architectural compositions. Le Modulor was published as a book in 1950 and after meeting with success, Le Corbusier went on to publish Modulor 2 in 1955. In many of Le Corbusier's most notable buildings, including the Chapel at Ronchamp, Sainte Marie de La Tourette and the Unité d'habitation as well as in his own studio in the rue de Sèvres, evidence of his Modulor system can be found.

Le Corbusier developed the Modulor in the long tradition of Vitruvius, Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, the work of Leone Battista Alberti, and other attempts to discover mathematical proportions in the human body and then to use that knowledge to improve both the appearance and function of architecture.[The system is based on human measurements, the double unit, the Fibonacci numbers, and the golden ratio. Le Corbusier described it as a "range of harmonious measurements to suit the human scale, universally applicable to architecture and to mechanical things."

With the Modulor, Le Corbusier sought to introduce a scale of visual measures that would unite two virtually incompatible systems: the Anglo Saxon foot and inch and the French Metric system. Whilst he was intrigued by ancient civilisations who used measuring systems linked to the human body: elbow (cubit), finger (digit), thumb (inch) etc., he was troubled by the metre as a measure that was a forty-millionth part of the meridian of the earth.

In 1943, in response to the French National Organisation for Standardisation's (AFNOR) requirement for standardising all the objects involved in the construction process, Le Corbusier asked an apprentice to consider a scale based upon a man with his arm raised to 2.20m in height. The result, in August 1943 was the first graphical representation of the derivation of the scale.

The graphic representation of the Modulor, a stylised human figure with one arm raised, stands next to two vertical measurements, a red series based on the figure's navel height (1.08m in the original version, 1.13m in the revised version) then segmented according to Phi, and a blue series based on the figure's entire height, double the navel height (2.16m in the original version, 2.26m in the revised), segmented similarly. A spiral, graphically developed between the red and blue segments, seems to mimic the volume of the human figure.

In his first book The Modulor, Le Corbusier has a chapter on the use of the modular in the Unité d'Habitation. The modular governs: the plan, section and elevations; the brise-soleil; the roof; the supporting columns and the plan and section of the apartments. It was also used for the dimensions of the commemorative stone laid on 14 October 1947. A version of the Modulor Man was cast in concrete near the entrance.

Death

Le Corbusier's death had a strong impact on the cultural and political world. Homages were paid worldwide and even some of Le Corbusier's worst artistic enemies, such as the painter Salvador Dalí, recognised his importance (Dalí sent a floral tribute). The President of the United States 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". Visitors may find his grave site in the cemetery above Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in between Menton and Monaco in southern France.

Today the Fondation Le Corbusier (or FLC) functions as his official Estate.

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