by David Fox
Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light. Our eyes are made to see forms in light; light and shade reveal these forms; cubes, cones, spheres, cylinders or pyramids are the great primary forms which light reveals to advantage; the image of these is distinct and tangible within us without ambiguity.
It is for this reason that these are beautiful forms, the most beautiful forms. Everybody is agreed to that, the child, the savage and the metaphysician.
A Swiss-born France architect, Le Corbusier, belonged to the first generation of the so-called International school of architecture.
His designs combine the functionalism with of the modern movement with a bold, sculptural expressionism; highly polemical designer hailed from obscurity in the Swiss Jura Mountains to become the most influential architect and urban planner of the twentieth century.
His ideas about rationalized, immense, zoned and industrially-constructed cities, seduced, but also shocked a global audience, while they never come to fruition as a cohesive vision, his disciples put many of their pieces into place around the world during and after his life.
Charles Édouard-Jeanneret was born on October, 6, in 1887, in the small industrial town La Chaux-de-Fonds, known for its renowned watchmaking industry, in the section of the Alps in Switzerland, just across the border from France.
His mother was a music teacher, and his father worked as watch engraver and enameller.
The parents encouraged their son to study decorative arts in the hope that he would also become an engraver of watchcases like his father. Accordingly, Jeanneret entered the Advanced Decorative Arts Course at the Art School in La Chaux-de-Fonds, in 1904, but he left the school at the age of 13.
The course on decoration there was taught by the painter Charles L’Eplattenier (pictured below). He would exert a strong influence on the young Jeanneret, whom he called ‘my master’ and later referred to him as his only teacher.
L’Eplattenier taught Jeanneret drawing, art history and a naturalist aesthetics of Art Nouveau, and he insisted that his pupil also study architecture, and he arranged for his first commissions working on local projects.
Starting in 1907, Jeanneret began his life’s extensive travels, first encountering classical architecture on a visit to Italy. In the following next years, he visited many European cities, including Paris, where he worked in the studio of architect Auguste Perret (1908-10); moved on to Berlin, between 1910 and 1911, where he worked in the office of Peter Behrens, the most important architect in Germany at that time.
Afterwards, Jeanneret embarked on a trip to Eastern Europe visiting cities: Prague, Athens, Istanbul, Budapest, Bucharest, and making extensive drawings that would later be compiled in his book Journey to the East (1966).
These trips played a crucial role in Jeanneret’s education, providing him three major architectural discoveries; he witnessed and absorbed the importance of the contrast between large collective spaces and individual compartmentalized spaces, an observation that formed the basis for his vision of residential buildings, classic proportions via Renaissance architecture and geometric forms and the use of landscapes as an architectural tool.
Back to home in La Chaux-de-Fonds, he began to teach architecture, interior design, and began working on his own studies of reinforced concrete. Around 1914/15, he developed and applied for a patent for his ’Dom-ino’ House system of construction, which consisted of slab floors of concrete raised slightly above grade, supported on thin reinforced pillars set back from the edges, so as to free up the entire facade and the interior floor space.
It was a first step towards Le Corbusier’s new theory of modern architecture.
In 1917, at the age of 30, Jeanneret moved to Paris and opened his own studio. In this period, he met cubist painters Georges Braque, Picasso, Juan Gris and Amédée Ozenfant, who introduced him to sophisticated contemporary art.
With Ozenfant he developed a new movement in painting called Purism, which took its name from the purity of the geometric forms of objects depicted in their still-life works. The following year, the two exhibited their painting in Paris, accompanied by the manifesto Après le Cubisme, After Cubism, a critique of Cubism and Futurism.
As a artistic movement, Purism gained strength in 1920, with the launch of the magazine L’Esprit Nouveau, in whose first issue Jeanneret adopted his professional pseudonym Le Corbusier an alteration of his grandfather’s name, Lecorbesier, to reflect his belief that anyone could reinvent himself.
In addition, adopting a single name to represent oneself artistically was especially en vogue at the time, and Le Corbusier wanted to create a persona that could keep separate his critical writing from his work as architect and painter.
In this period, he focused primarily on painting and published his ideas on architecture and art in this very magazine.
Purism intended to represent objects as pure, simple forms stripped of detail, to provide a timeless quality to industrial subject matter. The painting Still Life with a Stack of Plates, from 1920, is one of the best examples of Purism, shows an ideological celebration of industrial civilization and exhibiting the ready-made lexicon of everyday life as an aesthetic discourse.
In this piece, Le Corbusier depicted the naked forms in paint, historically the format that promised to elevate its subject matter to a new level of respect worthy of discussion. The solidity and wholeness of the chosen objects, the composition that creates new form represents Purism’s faith in modernity and its commitment to moving civilization forward.
The pure forms comprise a critique of Futurism and Cubism, the movements that glorified the fragmentation or destruction of the objects, destruction of the world and the field of vision, akin to the modern destruction caused by World War I.
The years from 1922 to 1940 were as extremely rich in city planning projects in architecture. As was always to be the case with Le Corbusier, inbuilt projects, as soon as they were published, created as much stir as did the finished buildings.
In 1922, Le Corbusier formed a partnership with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, which lasted until 1940. One of their first projects was a new studio for Ozenfant in Paris; it revealed Le Corbusier’s dedication to the new industrial aesthetic: using large expanses of glass set into reinforced concrete structure raised on point-support piers called pilotis, the roof employed a sawtooth configuration of skylights, like industrial buildings, as if to indicate that the studio was a factory for art.
The same year, at the Salon d’Automne Le Corbusier exhibited two projects that expressed his idea of social and public environment and contained the essence of all works of this period. The first project, Citrohan House, displays his conception of modern architecture; pillars supporting the structure, freeing the ground beneath the building, a roof-terrace, transformable into a garden and an essential part of the house, an open floor plan: a clear facade free of ornamentation, and windows in strips that affirm the independence of the structural frame.
The second project was his first urban scheme, the Contemporary City for Three Million Inhabitants, whose propositions were very shocking: cruciform-plan, a grid of sixty-story, naked glass-and-steel skyscrapers set amongst a web of highways and streets, surrounded by a low-rise complex of apartment buildings set within a park-like green space.
In the center a massive multilevel transit hub rose amongst the skyscrapers, with a landing strip for airplanes on the roof-a highly imaginative feature that probably was not workable.
In 1923, Le Corbusier published Vers une architecture/ Toward the Architecture, which consists of his collated and edited polemical articles from L’Espirite Nouveau magazine. The text lays out his principles of a modern architecture the essential precepts of what would become the so-called International Style.
Le Corbusier’s polemical articles proposed a new architecture that would satisfy the demands of industry, functionalism and the abiding concerns of architectural form, as defined over generations.
In this very book Le Corbusier termed the Five Points of a New Architecture; the foundation of the Five Points was the use of pilotis, which enabled the second point, the free plan, by allowing for maximum flexibility in floor space; as well as the third point, a free façade, since the point supports meant that there was no need for load-bearing exterior walls.
Le Corbusier preferred to blur the boundary between interior and exterior, so the fourth point of his system emphasized the use of ribbon windows, or a curtain wall; to highlight the building’s link to nature, a roof terrace constituted the fifth point.
The best illustrations of his system can be seen in the numerous villas he constructed around Paris in the 1920s.
In 1925s, Le Corbusier revealed these concepts for the general public in his own Espirit Nouveau pavilion at the world’s fair, the Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, that eventually produced the term Art Deco.
The pavilion functioned as a manifesto of Le Corbusier’s ideas and illustrated his belief that industry, through standardization required for mass-production, could create the buildings necessary for modern living. He aimed to show the radical transformation and structural liberties reinforced concrete and steel allow us to envisage in urban housing.
Also, he aimed to demonstrate that the comfortable and elegant units of habitation could be agglomerated in long, lofty blocks of villa-flats. Le Corbusier’s insistence on the utility of his model, thereby exposing the crass commercialization of the rest of the fair, no doubt contributed to the exposition’s directors’ attempts to cordon off his pavilion behind a barrier until an injunction from the Ministry of Culture lifted it.
By the late 1920s, Le Corbusier’s stature as one of the founders of the new architecture was secured.
In 1927, Le Corbusier took part in the competition set by the League of Nations for its design of its new centre in Geneva. His projects with its wall of insulating and heating glass, is one of the finest examples of functional analysis.
He proposed an office building for a political organization that was not a neoclassical temple,(for the first time anywhere), but corresponded in its structure and design to a strict analysis of function. This very plan was to become the prototype of all future United Nations buildings.
His project verily would have shared a first prize but was eliminated on the grounds of not having been drawn up in india ink as the rules of the competition specified. This disqualification, which was certainly the result of conspiracy on the part of conservative members of the jury, embittered Le Corbusier in his attitude toward official architectural circles.
However, the elimination of his project gave him needed publicity by identifying him with modern avant-garde architecture.
In this period, Le Corbusier began traveling as his services were in demand internationally. In 1929, he visited South America, lecturing in Argentina, Brazil and Urugvay. He also visited the Soviet Union and won the contract for the government office building, the Centrosoyuz, in Moscow, 1933, which would turn out to be his first and only building in USSR.
In 1935, Le Corbusier was invited back in Brazil at the behest of Lúcio Costa, an admirer, who with a team of architects had been given the commission to design the new Ministry of Education and Health in Rio de Janeiro.
Le Corbusier’s design took his Five Points to literally new heights as he led the design team to craft a skyscraper on pilotis whose massive curtain-wall facade was articulated by external brise-soleil, sunbreaker shades, due to the hot tropical climate.
During the 1930s Le Corbusier’s commissions in France began to decline (due to the Great Depression) but, he continued to write hoping to get his urban plans adopted by the governmental authorities. At the same time, his politics began to take a dangerous turn; an enthusiast of capitalism and the major industrialists, he flirted with Communism, beginning with his visit to the USSR, dropped much of his support for capitalism after the stock market crash in 1929.
Also, having fallen out of Stalin’s favor in the early 1930s due to the adoption of Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union, Le Corbusier began to sympathize Fascism. In his urban plans, particularly in the publication of Radiant City, from 1930, he described the cities he imagined as ruled by an ‘architect-dictator’.
In addition, Le Corbusier accepted invitation from Mussolini to lecture in Rome in 1934; in 1940, when Vichy regime came to power in France, he offered his services to Marshal Philippe Petain’s pro-Nazi government, but was rebuffed.
Eventually, he abandoned hopes of collaboration in 1942.
Around the final stage of World War II, Le Corbusier created the Modulor, a proportional system based on the Golden Section and scaled to the human figure. From 1945 onwards, all of his projects would be based on this system of proportions; the outline of a muscular man with his left hand arm raised above his head can be seen in most of his drawings or imprinted in the walls of windows of some of his iconic buildings.
Given the fact to which Western nations tried to erase all traces of Fascism after the war, it remains astonishing that Le Corbusier’s attempts at collaborations did not definitively sink his career. In addition, by the time the war ended, Le Corbusier had welded the attacks launched against him by representatives of traditional architecture into a myth, for the public, he had become the Picasso of architecture, and for architecture students, the symbol of modernity.
In 1945, Le Corbusier was given the chance to build the first large-scale housing block, the Unité d’Habitation, in Marseilles. The Unité, the first of several that Le Corbusier built around Europe in the 1940s and 1950s; its conception was a long time in making and can be traced back to the blocks of apartments he developed for his housing scheme of the 1930s.
The Unité represents the most complete realization of Corbusier’s idea of communal housing, very often described as a ‘city within a city. The 337 apartment units in the building are divided into 23 types in order to accommodate different family arrangements- from a bachelor to a family with eight children.
Halfway up the building, along the interior road of floors seven and eight, essential services are provided such as bakery, dairy, seafood shop, vegetable and fruit shop, butcher, drugstore, laundry, post office, cleaning service, hotel, restaurant etc.
In addition, on the 17th floor, it can be found a nursery and a kindergarten; a ramp leads to the rooftop, which contains indoor and outdoor athletics facilities, swimming pool and a snack bar.
Le Corbusier’s buildings from his late period offered a more conscious homage to nature and exposed primordial materials; stone in combination with concrete. This rough aesthetic formed the basis of some of Corbusier’s most organic, sculptural works, as the chapel Notre-Damme-du-Haut (1950-55), near Ronchamp in eastern France.
Perched on atop o the hill, the church is atypical among Le Corbusier’s works. Its highly organic and sculptural forms use virtually no right angles and make no reference to his prismatic clarity. The inclined walls appear almost to be collapsing inwards under the weight of the massive brown concrete roof.
Only when the visitor enters the small and dark sanctuary, pierced by small shards of light, does he discover the thickness and solidity of these walls that firmly enfold the space, creating a solemn atmosphere with meditative tranquility.
The scholars and critics have traced Le Corbusier’s inspirations for this chapel to the Athenian Acropolis, Mediterranean sources, the Hebrew temple and Bronze Age crypts.
In 1951, he was awarded the commission for designing a new provincial Indian capital of Chandigarh, which had to be created from a blank slate due to the territorial partitions between India and Pakistan.
For him, this job was the chance to show the Western powers what they had missed in refusing to implement his urban plans. For the next ten years, he was occupied with intensive work on this project.
Chandigarh was planned to house 300,000 inhabitants, spread over 47 numbered sectors organized on a grid; each sector consist of a self-sufficient unit with basic services, such as shops, health center, school, areas for worship and recreations.
As in his other projects, Le Corbusier prioritized the automobile connecting the sectors through wide boulevards. In order to confirm the modern ideas of efficiency and functionality, the city was zoned according to its different uses: a commercial center, residential buildings, university complex, recreation area, medical complex, and central park around a large artificial lake.
He also designed the famed Capitol Complex which included the Legislative Assembly, the High Court buildings, the Secretariat; it was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2016.
Their impressive scale boldly displays the architect’s affinity for rough cast-concrete, punctuated by long rows of bays articulated by prominent brise-soleil to provide relief from the hot desert sun. Chandigarh’s success might be gauged from recent polls that reveal it to be the happiest city of India, most likely due to the calm and order resulting from its unique design.
Le Corbusier died on August, 27, 1965 of an apparent heart attack while swimming in the Mediterranean. In spite of the many times in which the state had rejected his services, he was given a funeral in the courtyard of the Louvre on September, 1st 1965.
Le Corbusier’s six decade career reshaped cities from India to South America. He disseminated his ideas through his forty books and hundreds of published essays and worked on over four hundred architectural projects and the extensive practice established him as one of the most controversial and most influential artists of the twenty century.
However, many of his ideas were too utopian and idealistic to be put in practice, especially the ones reflecting his desire for a sort of order of society and extreme control.
Le Corbusier’s perspectives and interpretations of the world and its interaction with architecture often changed and remain difficult to trap down. Even today, his work continues to be studied, reinterpreted and criticized gaining new meanings over and over again, inspiring generations to come.
About David Fox
David Fox is an artist who created davidcharlesfox.com to talk about art and creativity. He loves to write, paint, and take pictures. David is also a big fan of spending time with his family and friends.