Le Corbusier (born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris October 6, 1887, died August 27, 1965), was a Swiss-born architect, designer, urbanist, writer and also painter, who is famous for his contributions to what now is called Modern Architecture.
He was a pioneer in theoretical studies of modern design and was dedicated to providing better living conditions for the residents of crowded cities. His career spanned five decades, with his iconic buildings constructed throughout central Europe, India, Russia, and one structure each in North and South America. He was also an urban planner, painter, sculptor, writer, and modern furniture designer. He was good friends with the Cubist artist Fernand Léger.
Early life and education, 1887-1913
He was born as Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a small town of Neuchâtel canton in north-western Switzerland, in the Jura mountains, which is just five kilometres across the border from France. He attended a kindergarten that used Froebelian methods.
Le Corbusier was attracted to the visual arts and studied at the La-Chaux-de-Fonds Art School under Charles L'Éplattenier, 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 frequently would escape the somewhat provincial atmosphere of his hometown by travelling around Europe. About 1907 he travelled to Paris, where he found work in the office of Auguste Perret, the French pioneer in reinforced concrete. 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 proved influential in his later career.
Later in 1911 he would journey to the Balkans and visit 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 Vers une architecture (1923).
Early career: the villas, 1914-1930
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 "Dom-ino" 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 (1896-1967), a partnership that would last until 1940.
In 1918 Le Corbusier met the disillusioned Cubist painter, Amédée Ozenfant, in whom he recognised a kindred spirit. Ozenfant encouraged him to paint, and the two began a period of collaboration. Rejecting Cubism as irrational and "romantic," the pair jointly published their manifesto, Après le Cubisme and established a new artistic movement, Purism. Ozenfant and Jeanneret established the Purist journal L'Esprit Nouveau.
Pseudonym adopted, 1920
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 oneself. Some architectural historians claim that this pseudonym translates as "the crow-like one." Adopting a single name to identify oneself was in vogue by artists in many fields during that era, especially among those in Paris.
Between 1918 and 1922 Le Corbusier built nothing, concentrating his efforts on Purist theory and painting. In 1922 Le Corbusier and 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.
Le Corbusier took French citizenship in 1930.
Forays into 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 organisational solution that would raise the quality of life of the lower classes. His Immeubles Villas (1922) was such a project that 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 also presented his scheme for a "Contemporary City" for three million inhabitants (Ville Contemporaine). The centrepiece of this plan was the group of sixty-story, cruciform skyscrapers built on steel frames and encased in huge curtain walls of glass. They housed both offices and the apartments of the most wealthy inhabitants. These skyscrapers were set within large, rectangular park-like green spaces. At the very middle was a huge transportation centre, 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 the 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 multi-storey, zigzag blocks set in green space and set far back from the street, housed the proletarian workers. Le Corbusier hoped that politically-minded industrialists in France would lead the way with their efficient Taylorist and Fordist strategies adopted from American models to reorganise society.
In this new industrialist spirit, Le Corbusier began a new journal called L'Esprit Nouveau that advocated the use of modern industrial techniques and strategies to transform society into a more efficient environment with a higher standard of living on all socioeconomic levels. He forcefully argued that this transformation was necessary to avoid the spectre of revolution, that would otherwise shake society. His dictum "Architecture or Revolution", developed in his articles in this journal, became his rallying cry for the book Vers une architecture (Towards an Architecture, mistranslated into English as Towards a New Architecture), which comprised selected articles from L'Esprit Nouveau between 1920 and 1923.
Theoretical urban schemes continued to occupy Le Corbusier. He exhibited his Plan Voisin, sponsored by another famous automobile manufacturer, in 1925. 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 only criticism and scorn from French politicians and industrialists, although they were favourable 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 1930's, Le Corbusier expanded and reformulated his ideas on urbanism, eventually publishing them in La Ville radieuse (The Radiant City) of 1935. 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. 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 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 Chandigarh, the new capital of the Indian state of (what was then) Punjab. Le Corbusier was originally brought on to redesign parts of Albert Mayer's master plan, but he ended up taking over the entire project.
Against his doctor's orders, on August 27, 1965, Le Corbusier went for a swim in the Mediterranean Sea at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France. His body was found by bathers and he was pronounced dead at 11 a.m. It was assumed that he suffered a heart attack, at the age of seventy-eight. His death rites took place at the courtyard of the Louvre Palace on September 1, 1965 under the direction of writer and thinker André Malraux, who was at the time France's Minister of Culture.
Le Corbusier's death had a strong impact on the cultural and political world. Homages were paid world-wide and even some of Le Corbusier's worst artistic enemies, such as the painter Salvador Dalí, recognised his importance (Dalí sent a floral tribute). Then-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". Japanese TV channels decided to broadcast, simultaneously to the ceremony, his Museum in Tokyo, in what was at the time a unique media homage.
Five points of architecture
It was Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye (1929-1931) that most succinctly summed up his five points of architecture that he had elucidated in the journal L'Esprit Nouveau and his book Vers une architecture, which he had been developing throughout the 1920s. First, Le Corbusier lifted the bulk of the structure off the ground, supporting it by pilotis – reinforced concrete stilts. These pilotis, in providing the structural support for the house, allowed him to elucidate his next two points: a free façade, meaning non-supporting walls that could be designed as the architect wished, and an open floor plan, meaning that the floor space was free to be configured into rooms without concern for supporting walls. The second floor of the Villa Savoye includes long strips of ribbon windows that allow unencumbered views of the large surrounding yard, and which constitute the fourth point of his system. The fifth point was the Roof garden to compensate the green area consumed by the building and replacing it on the roof. A ramp rising from the ground level to the third floor roof terrace, allows for an architectural promenade through the structure. The white tubular railing recalls the industrial "ocean-liner" aesthetic that Le Corbusier much admired. As if to put an exclamation point on Le Corbusier's homage to modern industry, the driveway around the ground floor, with its semicircular path, measures the exact turning radius of a 1927 Citroën automobile.
Le Corbusier explicitly used the golden ratio in his Modulor system for the scale of architectural proportion. He saw this system as a continuation of the long tradition of Vitruvius, Leonardo da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man", the work of Leon Battista Alberti, and others who used the proportions of the human body to improve the appearance and function of architecture. In addition to the golden ratio, Le Corbusier based the system on human measurements, Fibonacci numbers, and the double unit.
He took Leonardo's suggestion of the golden ratio in human proportions to an extreme: he sectioned his model human body's height at the navel with the two sections in golden ratio, then subdivided those sections in golden ratio at the knees and throat; he used these golden ratio proportions in the Modulor system.
Le Corbusier's 1927 Villa Stein in Garches exemplified the Modulor system's application. The villa's rectangular ground plan, elevation, and inner structure closely approximate golden rectangles.
Le Corbusier placed systems of harmony and proportion at the centre of his design philosophy, and his faith in the mathematical order of the universe was closely bound to golden section and Fibonacci the series, which he described as "... rhythms apparent to the eye and clear in their relations with one another. And these rhythms are at the very root of human activities. They resound in Man by an organic inevitability, the same fine inevitability which causes the tracing out of the Golden Section by children, old men, savages, and the learned."
Le Corbusier began experimenting with furniture design in 1928 after inviting the architect, Charlotte Perriand, to join his studio. His cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, also collaborated on many of the designs. Before the arrival of Perriand, Le Corbusier relied on ready-made furniture to furnish his projects, such as the simple pieces manufactured by Thonet.
In 1928 Le Corbusier and Perriand began to put the expectations for furniture Le Corbusier outlined in his 1925 book L'Art Décoratif d'aujourd'hui into practice. In the book he defined three different furniture types: type-needs, type-furniture, and human-limb objects. He defined human-limb objects as: "Extensions of our limbs and adapted to human functions that are. Type-needs, type-functions, therefore type-objects and type-furniture. The human-limb object is a docile servant. A good servant is discreet and self-effacing in order to leave his master free. Certainly, works of art are tools, beautiful tools. And long live the good taste manifested by choice, subtlety, proportion, and harmony". The first results of the collaboration were three chrome-plated tubular steel chairs designed for two of his projects, The Maison la Roche in Paris and a pavilion for Barbara and Henry Church. The line of furniture was expanded for Le Corbusier's 1929 Salon d'Automne installation, Equipment for the Home.
In the year 1964, while Le Corbusier was still alive, Cassina S.p.A. of Milan acquired the exclusive worldwide rights to manufacture his furniture designs. Today many copies exist, but Cassina is still the only manufacturer authorised by the Fondation Le Corbusier.
Le Corbusier moved increasingly to the far right of French politics in the 1930's. He associated with Georges Valois and Hubert Lagardelle and briefly edited the syndicalist journal Prélude. In 1934, he lectured on architecture in Rome by invitation of Mussolini. He sought out a position in urban planning in the Vichy regime and received an appointment on a committee studying urbanism, only to have his plans for the redesign of Algiers and other cities completely ignored. After this defeat, Le Corbusier largely eschewed politics.
Although the politics of Lagardelle and Valois included elements of fascism, anti-semitism, and ultra-nationalism, Le Corbusier's own affiliation with these movements remains uncertain. In La Ville radieuse, he conceives an essentially apolitical society, in which the bureaucracy of economic administration effectively replaces the state.
Le Corbusier was heavily indebted to the thought of the nineteenth-century French utopians Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier. There is a noteworthy resemblance between the concept of the unité and Saint-Simon's phalanstery. From Fourier, Le Corbusier adopted at least in part his notion of administrative, rather than political, government.
Since his death, Le Corbusier's contribution has been hotly contested, as the architecture values and its accompanying aspects within modern architecture vary, both between different schools of thought and among practising architects. At the level of building, his later works expressed a complex understanding of modernity's impact, yet his urban designs have drawn scorn from critics.
Technological historian and architecture critic Lewis Mumford wrote in Yesterday's City of Tomorrow,
the extravagant heights of Le Corbusier's skyscrapers had no reason for existence apart from the fact that they had become technological possibilities; the open spaces in his central areas had no reason for existence either, since on the scale he imagined there was no motive during the business day for pedestrian circulation in the office quarter. By mating utilitarian and financial image of the skyscraper city to the romantic image of the organic environment, Le Corbusier had, in fact, produced a sterile hybrid.
James Howard Kunstler, a member of the New Urbanism movement, has criticised Le Corbusier's approach to urban planning as destructive and wasteful:
Le Corbusier [was] ... the leading architectural hoodoo-meister of Early High Modernism, whose 1925 Plan Voisin for Paris proposed to knock down the entire Marais district on the Right Bank and replace it with rows of identical towers set between freeways. Luckily for Paris, the city officials laughed at him every time he came back with the scheme over the next forty years – and Corb was nothing if not a relentless self-promoter. Ironically and tragically, though, the Plan Voisin model was later adopted gleefully by post-World War Two American planners, and resulted in such urban monstrosities as the infamous Cabrini Green housing projects of Chicago and scores of things similar to it around the country.
The public housing projects influenced by his ideas are seen by some as having had the effect of isolating poor communities in monolithic high-rises and breaking the social ties integral to a community's development. One of his most influential critics has been Jane Jacobs, who delivered a scathing critique of Le Corbusier's urban design theories in her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The city of Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, is a planned city based exclusively on the principles of Le Corbusier. While it is a tranquil and safe city, many consider it sterile and lacking the community and leisure facilities of other Brazilian cities. Conversely, other urban schemes heavily influenced by Corbusier such as the Barbican Estate in London are considered a social success; the Indian city of Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier himself, is similarly seen as successful.
Le Corbusier was at his most influential in the sphere of urban planning, and was a founding member of the Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM).
One of the first to realise how the automobile would change human agglomerations, Le Corbusier described the city of the future as consisting of large apartment buildings isolated in a park-like setting on pilotis. Le Corbusier's theories were adopted by the builders of public housing in Western Europe and the United States. For the design of the buildings themselves, Le Corbusier said, "by law, all buildings should be white" and criticised any effort at ornamentation. The large spartan structures, in cities, but not of cities, have been widely criticised for being boring and unfriendly to pedestrians.
Throughout the years, many architects worked for Le Corbusier in his studio, and a number of them became notable in their own right, including painter-architect Nadir Afonso, who absorbed Le Corbusier's ideas into his own aesthetics theory. Lucio Costa's city plan of Brasília and the industrial city of Zlín planned by František Lydie Gahura in the Czech Republic are notable plans based on his ideas, while the architect himself produced the plan for Chandigarh in India. Le Corbusier's thinking also had profound effects on the philosophy of city planning and architecture in the Soviet Union, particularly in the Constructivist era.
Le Corbusier was heavily influenced by the problems he saw in the industrial city of the turn of the century. He thought that industrial housing techniques led to crowding, dirtiness, and a lack of a moral landscape. He was a leader of the modernist movement to create better living conditions and a better society through housing concepts. Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities of Tomorrow heavily influenced Le Corbusier and his contemporaries.
Le Corbusier deliberately created a myth about himself and was revered in his lifetime, and after death, by a generation of followers who believed Le Corbusier was a prophet who could do no wrong. But in the 1950s the first doubts began to appear, notably in some essays by his greatest admirers such as James Stirling and Colin Rowe, who denounced as catastrophic his ideas on the city. Later critics revealed his technical incompetence as an architect, such as Brian Brace Taylor, whose book "Armée du Salut" went into great detail about Le Corbusier's machiavellian activities to create this commission for himself, his many ill-judged design decisions about the building's technologies, and the sometimes absurd solutions he then proposed. More recently still there has been much discussion about Le Corbusier's dubious right-wing politics, and his open flirtation with Fascism in the 1930s, when he tried to persuade Benito Mussolini to commission him to design a new capital city for Ethiopia after Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935 using nerve-gas, in breach of League of Nations rules.
Some critics believe that Le Corbusier is no longer the central figure of modernism he was once believed to be. That against the background of a wide-ranging critical reassessment of the whole phenomenon of modernity, he is only one of a number of influential figures of the time. Yet others maintain that he is not only central to modernism, but to the still lingering possibility of a poetic architecture.