Even if your knowledge of architecture is rudimentary at best, there’s a good chance you’ll be familiar with the work of Le Corbusier. Widely regarded as the most influential architect of the twentieth century, many world cities have taken their cue from his stark modernist aesthetic.
That being said, Le Corbusier’s creations have not been without controversy. The Swiss-French architect continues to be as divisive as he was gifted. Keep reading to discover more.
“Space and light and order. Those are things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep.” – Le Corbusier
Spotlight on Le Corbusier
Born on October 6 1887 in the small Swiss city of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (or Le Corbusier as he would later be known), was attracted to the visual arts from an early age. Yet it wasn’t architecture that immediately caught the would-be visionary’s attention.
Following in the footsteps of his artisan father, Le Corbusier initially studied applied arts in relation to watchmaking. It wasn’t until a spell under the mentorship of painter Charles l’Eplattenier in 1903, however, that Le Corbusier was encouraged to give architecture a try.
Despite the magnitude of his impact, it’s interesting to note that Le Corbusier had no formal training in architecture. Much like contemporaries Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier was self-taught. Perhaps this is what gave him the freedom to disrupt tradition.
From 1907, Le Corbusier embarked on a series of travels, balancing sketching tours with stints at some of Europe’s most progressive architectural practices of the time.
During the war years (1914-1918), Le Corbusier retreated back to his home town, teaching theoretical architectural studies at his old school. It was during this time that the architect began to lay the foundational philosophies that would come to define his work for the next ten years.
Most notable in this vein was Domino House. Though this project was never built, it embodied many of Le Corbusier’s key principles, such as the open floor plan, and the disassociation of a building’s structure from its walls.
In 1917, Le Corbusier moved to Paris and began his own architectural practice in collaboration with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret. This partnership would go on to last until the 1950s.
Five Points of Architecture
Le Corbusier’s approach to architecture lay in the singular belief that a house should be a ‘machine for living’.
Derived from Le Corbusier’s conception of the car as ‘a machine whose appearance was not an end in itself, but a result of the engineer’s goals’, the architect believed that the house should be functional in nature.
Le Corbusier’s beliefs culminated in his ‘Five Points of Architecture’ – an architectural manifesto of sorts that would guide much of his early work. Key to this philosophy was the idea of a free facade. Here, a home would be structurally supported by pillars above the ground so that its internal walls could be changed and adapted at will. The points also stated that a home should have a roof terrace, long strips of ribbon windows, and a simple, ornament-free facade. For examples of this in action, see the Villa Savoye in Poissy and the Citrohan Haus in Germany.
In the post-war era immediately following the second world war, a shortage of materials led Le Corbusier to experiment with raw rough-cast concrete for his designs. Given the relative low cost of concrete compared to traditional building materials, this enabled Le Corbusier to design large-scale buildings on a low budget, such as the Sainte Marie de La Tourette Convent. This cost-effective design choice went on to become the inspiration for the brutalist aesthetic.
Alongside individual dwellings, Le Corbusier sought to push a new modernist vision of urban planning. His ideas included austere tower blocks of apartments stacked atop each other, each with their own small terrace.
These notions were ultimately embodied in the Athens Charter, which went on to have a considerable impact on urban planning in the aftermath of World War II. Le Corbusier’s vision became the basis of many of the high-rise socialist housing blocks found across France, the UK and South America today. Of note is the city of Chandigarh, the (then) new capital of the state of Punjab in India, designed by Le Corbusier in the 1950s.
Le Corbusier’s urban planning has by far been the most contentious aspect of his work. Many blame him for the presence of today’s soulless high-rise concrete residential estates, whilst others still deride Le Corbusier’s designs for the way they alienate people from their neighbors.
After a long and distinguished career, Le Corbusier passed away on August 27 1965 after going for a swim in the Mediterranean against his doctor’s orders. It is believed he suffered a heart attack whilst out at sea. His body was later recovered by bathers.
Following his death, tributes poured in from all corners of the world. Painter Salvador Dali, US President Lyndon B. Johnson, and French novelist and art theorist Andre Malraux were among those to pay their respects.
What do you think of Le Corbusier’s work?
For more on Le Corbusier’s lasting influence on architecture, have a read of our feature on modern brutalist design.