Le Corbusier - Biography and Legacy
Swiss-French Modern Architect, Urban Planner, Designer, Sculptor, Painter, and Writer
La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland
Biography of Le Corbusier
Charles Édouard-Jeanneret was born in the fall of 1887 in the small industrial town of La Chaux-de-Fonds, in the section of the Alps called the Jura Mountains, just across the border from France. The city was known for its renowned watchmaking industry. His father was a watch engraver and enameller, and his mother worked as a music teacher. They encouraged their son to study decorative arts in the hope that he would also become an engraver of watchcases. Jeanneret also frequently made trips with his father into the mountains around La-Chaux-de-Fonds, becoming intimately acquainted with nature and the environment.
Like several other of his fellow designers who also became towering figures in the history of modern architecture, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Walter Gropius, Jeanneret did not receive a formal architectural education, but, like Wright, he did play with Froebel blocks as a child. He also frequented libraries to read about architecture, sketched buildings, and visited museums as part of this informal training.
Early Training and Work in La-Chaux-de-Fonds
Jeanneret entered the Advanced Decorative Arts Course at the Art School in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1904, even though he would later (1951) tell the BBC that "I am anti-school....I left school at 13 because schools were very mean in the past; they were no fun." The course on decoration there was taught by the painter Charles L'Eplattenier, who would exert a strong influence on the young man, encouraging him to study architecture, even though the architect René Chapellaz was actually the instructor in that field at the municipal art school. In 1905, in collaboration with Chapallaz and two other students, Jeanneret, then only 18, designed his first house, the Villa Fallet, a wooden mountain chalet with a steep roof and geometric patterning, for a member of the board of the Art School, the engraver Louis Fallet.
In 1907 Jeanneret began his life's extensive travels, first encountering classical architecture on a visit to Italy. In the following years, he would visit many European cities, including Paris, where from 1908-10 he worked in the studio of architect Auguste Perret, a pioneer in the use of reinforced concrete. Jeanneret then moved on to Berlin, where between 1910-11 he worked in the office of Peter Behrens, arguably the most important architect in Germany at the time, whose great AEG Turbine Factory, one of the seminal early works of modern architecture, was nearing completion. There Jeanneret first met Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, both of whom were also simultaneously employed by Behrens. In 1911, the Wasmuth Portfolio of Frank Lloyd Wright's work was published in Berlin, and it is said that on the day a copy arrived in Behrens' office, all work came to a standstill. Le Corbusier was later known to have owned a copy of the Wasmuth Portfolio.
That same year, Jeanneret embarked on a trip to Eastern Europe, visiting Prague, Budapest, Bucharest, Athens, Istanbul, among other cities, making extensive drawings that filled some eighty sketchbooks. These would later be compiled into the book Journey to the East (1966). Back home, Le Corbusier built several houses, including one for his parents, and began to teach architecture and interior design.
Jeanneret went to Cologne in 1914 for the seminal Deutscher Werkbund exhibition, which was organized by a group of architects, designers, and industrialists who sought to integrate the decorative arts with industry. The exhibition included the Model Factory building designed by Gropius and Adolf Meyer, which presented a spiral staircase enclosed in a glass wall with a steel frame.
Back in La-Chaux-de-Fonds after the outbreak of World War I, Jeanneret taught architecture and began working on his own studies of reinforced concrete; during the winter of 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 and 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 the first step towards Le Corbusier's new theory of modern architecture. He immediately used concrete for the structure of his next commission, the Villa Schwob (1916), which would prove to be the last of his works in La-Chaux-de-Fonds. Though given a massive budget, Jeanneret fought bitterly with his client, and in 1917 moved to Paris.
Upon his arrival in Paris, Jeanneret opened a studio at 20, rue de Belzunce. The following year he met cubist painters Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, as well as Amédée Ozenfant. With Ozenfant he would develop the movement in painting called Purism, which took its name undoubtedly from the purity of the geometric forms of objects depicted in their (largely) still-life works. In 1918 the two artists exhibited their paintings together at the Galerie Thomas in Paris, accompanied by the manifesto Après le Cubisme (After Cubism), a critique of both Cubism and Futurism.
Purism gained further strength in 1920 with the launch of their magazine L'Esprit Nouveau, in whose first issue Jeanneret adopted his professional pseudonym Le Corbusier, likely derived from his maternal grandfather, Lecorbesier. He built nothing between 1918 and 1922, during which time he focused heavily on his painting and published his ideas on art and architecture in L'Esprit Nouveau. Le Corbusier had long required glasses, and by 1918 had gone nearly blind in one eye; as a result, he sometimes quipped that his spectacles, whose circular horn rims became nearly a trademark, should be half-price. Gradually after 1920 Le Corbusier allowed his painting to largely take a back seat to his architectural practice, though he never fully abandoned the medium.
Establishing a Modern Architecture, 1920-30
The pure forms of objects depicted in Le Corbusier's paintings resonated with those he had seen of industrial structures in Europe and secondhand from North America, particularly the massive grain silos of the Great Plains, which for him were emblematic of the new, efficient, modern, and industrialized world that - in part - the First World War had revealed with devastating clarity. Unlike others who shrank from the advance of modern materials and technology, Le Corbusier embraced them as the means for creating a new, humane world. He hoped that similar-minded industrialists in France would seize the chance in the postwar period to use architecture to change society. Taking his cue from the political revolutions then shaking Europe in the aftermath of the war, Le Corbusier famously declared that the choice laid before society was between "Architecture or Revolution. Revolution can be avoided."
In 1922 Le Corbusier formed an architectural partnership with his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, which lasted until 1940. One of their first projects was a new studio for Ozenfant in Paris, which revealed Le Corbusier's dedication to the new industrial aesthetic, using large expanses of glass set into a reinforced concrete structure raised on point-support piers called pilotis like those seen in the Dom-ino House system. The roof employed a sawtooth configuration of skylights much like industrial buildings, as if to indicate that the studio was a factory for art.
That same year he exhibited his first of many urban schemes, the Contemporary City for Three Million Inhabitants, at the Autumn Salon, whose propositions were shocking: a grid of sixty-story, cruciform-plan, naked glass-and-steel skyscrapers set amongst a web of highways and streets, surrounded by a snaking 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. One famous story relates Le Corbusier's discussion with an official at the Salon, wherein he asked what the term "urbanism" meant. The official replied that it connoted objects like park benches, lampposts, traffic lights, and kiosks. "Very well," said Le Corbusier, "I shall design a great fountain and place a city for three million people behind it."
Le Corbusier collated and edited several of his articles from L'Esprit Nouveau and published them in book form in 1923 as Vers une architecture (Towards an Architecture). The text lays out Le Corbusier's principles of a modern architecture, the essential precepts of what would become the so-called International Style and which 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 facade, since the point supports meant that there was no need for load-bearing exterior walls. Le Corbusier preferred to blur the boundary between exterior and interior, so the fourth point of his system emphasized the use of ribbon windows (or a curtain wall), and to highlight the building's link to nature, a roof terrace constituted the fifth point. Though he intended for the system to apply to buildings of any scale, the best illustrations of it can be seen in the numerous suburban villas he constructed around Paris in the 1920s, which constituted most of his building commissions.
In 1925, Le Corbusier revealed these concepts in built form for the general public in his own Esprit Nouveau pavilion at the Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, the world's fair in Paris that eventually gave us the term Art Deco. Le Corbusier distinctly set his architecture, which he considered socially transformative, in contrast to the commercialized, packaged style of the rest of the fair, which he regarded as a flashy, updated classicism. His pavilion, which was underwritten by the auto manufacturer Voisin, included inside an adaptation, for Paris, of his 1922 Contemporary City for Three Million Inhabitants, called the Plan Voisin. The pavilion drew ire from fair officials who attempted to fence it off; only Le Corbusier's appeal to the Minister of Fine Arts permitted its opening.
International Career, 1927-45
By the late 1920s, Le Corbusier's stature as one of the founders of the new architecture was secured. In 1927 Vers une architecture was translated into English (though as Towards a New Architecture), and that same year he displayed some of his housing designs at the Weissenhofseidlung, a housing exhibition in Stüttgart, Germany, which represented in many ways a coming-out party for the International Style.
The following year, 1928, he helped found the International Congresses of Modern Architecture, an organization of mostly European architects created with the purpose of formalizing and disseminating the principles of modern architecture. Among its members were Pierre Jeanneret, Pierre Chareau, Gerrit Rietveld, Walter Gropius, and Alvar Aalto. Le Corbusier remained an influential member throughout most of the group's early history, though he left the organization in 1955, four years before it was dissolved.
Le Corbusier began to travel as his services were in demand internationally. In 1929, he visited South America, lecturing in Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay; on the ocean liner en route he met the dancer and singer Josephine Baker, famously sketching her nude. He visited the Soviet Union and won the contract for the government office building called the Centrosoyuz in Moscow (1933), which would turn out to be his only building in the USSR (though he would also serve as a consultant to Soviet urban planning projects in the early 1930s). In 1930 he also became a French citizen and married Yvonne Gallis, a model from Monaco who he had met in 1922.
In 1935, Le Corbusier was invited back to 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. He developed new, fantastical urban plans for Rio de Janeiro and other South American cities, with sketches illustrating the multistory block of a concrete apartment building snaking, unbroken, for miles along the hillsides and topped by an expressway - a scheme that was very likely not feasible either in terms of cost or engineering.
During the 1930s Le Corbusier's commissions in France began to dry up due to the Great Depression. He continued to write, opportunistically hoping to get his urban plans adopted by some governmental authority. His politics thus began to take a dangerous turn. Previously an enthusiast of capitalism and the major industrialists as the prime movers of civilization in the aftermath of the war, Le Corbusier flirted with Communism beginning with his visits to the USSR, and dropped much of his support for capitalism after the 1929 stock market crash.
Having fallen out of Stalin's favor in the early 1930s with the adoption of Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union, Le Corbusier began to drift towards Fascism. In his urban plans, beginning with the publication of The Radiant City in 1930, Le Corbusier described the cities he imagined as ruled by an "architect-dictator" and frequently titled his schemes the "plan directeur." He accepted invitations from Mussolini to lecture in Rome in 1934. When the Vichy regime came to power in France in 1940, Le Corbusier offered his services to Marshal Philippe Petain's pro-Nazi government, along with grand schemes for the redevelopment of Algiers, but was rebuffed. He abandoned hopes of collaboration in 1942, marking his disappointment with a simple "Adieu, dear shitty Vichy."
The Return to Form, 1945-52
During the latter part of World War II, reduced to writing and theorizing, Le Corbusier created the Modulor, a proportional system based on the Golden Section and scaled to the human figure. From 1945 onwards, all his projects would be based on this system of proportions and the standardized figure - the outline of a muscular man with his left arm raised above his head - can be seen in most of his drawings, and often imprinted in the walls or windows of some of his iconic buildings. It remains astonishing that his attempts at collaboration did not definitively sink his career, given the extent to which Western nations wished to erase all traces of Fascism in the aftermath of the war.
Le Corbusier desperately hoped to receive major commissions for the French postwar reconstruction, but the revolving door of Ministers of Reconstruction, coupled with his own infamous inability to get along with clients (including entire populations of destroyed cities) derailed most of these plans. His schemes for reconstruction were in many ways derivations of the urban ideas that he had been refining since the publication of The Radiant City.
Named to the team of architects charged with the construction of the United Nations' new headquarters in New York in 1945, Le Corbusier also famously attempted to essentially seize control of the planning process and force the adoption of his plan over that of Oscar Niemeyer. As a compromise, the end product was closest to Niemeyer's submitted project, but reflected a few modifications as a nod to Le Corbusier's intense lobbying.
It was during these negotiations that Le Corbusier made his first visit to the United States; as a longtime unabashed admirer of skyscrapers, a distinctly American invention, he famously created a stir by declaring upon his arrival that the towers in New York were too small, thinking that they would be taller, and recommended that they be built farther apart. He also apparently made the mistaken assumptions that everyone on the Atlantic coast of the United States could speak French, and that everyone living west of the Eastern seaboard was so homely as to wear feathers in their hair.
In 1945, Le Corbusier was awarded the commission for a new large housing project in Marseilles, which he called the Unité d'Habitation. He had hoped to make the design the linchpin of housing in his vast urban schemes from the late 1930s onwards. These would never be truly realized as part of a larger urban redevelopment, although the idea of large communal housing blocks full of individual apartments and set within a park-like setting inspired many of his disciples, such as Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer in their designs for the new capital Brasilia, to use them with abandon.
The Unité also became one of the major inspirations for public housing in the United States, where such apartment blocks became the symbols of some of the worst of the urban planning initiatives engineered by officials such as Robert Moses. The Unité in Marseilles, the first of several that Le Corbusier built around Europe in the 1940s and 1950s, has, however, often been admired for its ability to foster a community among its residents, with its corps of supplemental commercial and service sectors: a grocery store, primary school, daycare, hotel, laundromat, gymnasium, and roof terrace. The Unité in Marseilles, for which ground was broken on the 14th of October 1947, was completed exactly five years later, opening on the same day in 1952.
Late Period, 1953-65
In the Unité d'habitation Le Corbusier had exhibited a fondness for a rough-concrete aesthetic called béton brut, which exposed the grains of the wood that were used in the forms for casting (eventually, its widespread use would lead to the strand of architecture called Brutalism, most conspicuously seen during the 1970s). Frequently, Le Corbusier's buildings from his late period offered a more conscious homage to nature and frankly exposed primordial materials, such as stone, in combination with concrete; one can see this in the rocky walls of the Maisons Jaoul, a duplex of private houses built in 1953 in Neuilly-sur-Seine just outside Paris.
This rough aesthetic formed the basis of some of Le Corbusier's most sculptural works, such as the chapel called Notre-Dame-du-Haut near Ronchamp, in the Vosges Mountains of eastern France, built from 1950-55, whose inclined walls and curved roof contours have variously been likened to a ship's sails or a nun's cowl. Though an atheist, Le Corbusier had long understood the spiritual effects of architecture. In Vers un architecture, he famously decreed: "You employ stone, wood and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces. That is construction. Ingenuity is at work....But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say: 'This is beautiful.' That is Architecture. Art enters in." In the last fifteen years of his life Le Corbusier received two other important religious commissions: the monastery of Sainte-Marie de la Tourette (1953-60) and a church at Firminy-Vert (1960-2006).
With his assistant Iannis Xenakis, Le Corbusier also used concrete innovatively in 1958 at the Brussels World's Fair, where their design for the Philips Pavilion exhibited a set of precast concrete panels hung from steel poles in the forms of intersecting hyperbolas, giving it the appearance of a canvas tent despite its solidity.
In 1951, Le Corbusier was awarded the commission for designing the new northwestern provincial Indian capital of Chandigarh, which had to be created from a blank slate due to the territorial partitions between Pakistan and India when the British left South Asia in 1947. He viewed the job as the chance to show the Western powers what they had missed in refusing to implement his urban schemes over the previous thirty years. He would be occupied for the next ten years with intensive work on the project. During his extensive time in India, Le Corbusier also cultivated a new generation of Indian architects, including Balkrishna Doshi.
Chandigarh is representative of the esteem in which Le Corbusier was held in the latter stages of his career, which has lasted in many circles to the present day; in 1997, for example, he was featured on the 10 Swiss francs banknote. Le Corbusier died suddenly on August 27, 1965, of an apparent heart attack while swimming in the Mediterranean Sea - against doctor's orders - while staying at his rustic Cabanon, which he built for himself as a summer refuge at the beach town of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin (1951-52) in the southeast of France. 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 1, with a tribute delivered by Andre Malraux, the longtime French Minister of Culture.
The Legacy of Le Corbusier
Le Corbusier's six-decade career reshaped cities from South America to India. He built seventy five buildings in a dozen countries and worked on over four hundred architectural projects. He disseminated his ideas through his almost forty books and hundreds of published essays. This extensive practice, characterized by the "poetic and often provocative interpretation of the technologies and values of the new machine age," as architectural historian Kenneth Frampton puts it, established him as one of the most influential and controversial artists of the 20th century. Many of Le Corbusier's ideas, however, were too utopian to be put in practice, especially the ones reflecting his desire for a somewhat extreme control and order of society.
Architect, city planner, painter, furniture designer, writer, publisher, and amateur photographer and filmmaker, Le Corbusier introduced unconventional ideas that helped shape modern society. As suggested by Kenneth Frampton "no single scholar has been able to master all the ramifications" of Le Corbusier's creativity, not the least because Le Corbusier's perspectives and interpretations of the world and its interaction with architecture often changed and remain difficult to pin down. Thus his work continues to be studied, criticized, and reinterpreted today, gaining new meanings and influencing generations to come.