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Le Corbusier

He was convinced that the bold new industrial age required an equally audacious style of architecture. And who better to design it than him?
By WITOLD RYBCZYNSKI for Time Magazine


Le Corbusier loved Manhattan. He loved its newness, he loved its Cartesian regularity, above all he loved its tall buildings. He had only one reservation, which he revealed on landing in New York City in 1935. The next day, a headline in the Herald Tribune informed its readers that the celebrated architect finds American skyscrapers much too small. Le Corbusier always thought big. He once proposed replacing a large part of the center of Paris with 18 sixty-story towers; that made headlines too.

He was born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret in Switzerland in 1887. When he was 29, he went to Paris, where he soon after adopted his maternal grandfather's name, Le Corbusier, as his pseudonym. Jeanneret had been a small-town architect; Le Corbusier was a visionary. He believed that architecture had lost its way. Art Nouveau, all curves and sinuous decorations, had burned itself out in a brilliant burst of exuberance; the seductive Art Deco style promised to do the same. The Arts and Crafts movement had adherents all over Europe, but as the name implies, it was hardly representative of an industrial age. Le Corbusier maintained that this new age deserved a brand-new architecture. "We must start again from zero," he proclaimed.

The new architecture came to be known as the International Style. Of its many partisans — among them Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius in Germany, Theo van Doesburg in Holland — none was better known than Le Corbusier. He was a tireless proselytizer, addressing the public in manifestos, pamphlets, exhibitions and his own magazine. He wrote books — dozens of them — on interior decoration, painting and architecture. They resembled instruction manuals. An example is his recipe for the International Style: raise the building on stilts, mix in a free-flowing floor plan, make the walls independent of the structure, add horizontal strip windows and top it off with a roof garden. But this makes him sound like a technician, and he was anything but. Although he dressed like a bureaucrat, in dark suits, bow ties and round horn-rimmed glasses, he was really an artist (he was an accomplished painter and sculptor). What is most memorable about the austere, white-walled villas that he built after World War I in and around Paris is their cool beauty and their airy sense of space. "A house is a machine for living in," he wrote. The machines he admired most were ocean liners, and his architecture spoke of sun and wind and the sea.

By 1950 he had changed course, abandoning Purism, as he called it, for something more robust and sculptural. His spartan, lightweight architecture turned rustic, with heavy walls of brick and fieldstone and splashes of bright color. He discovered the potential of reinforced concrete and made it his own, leaving the material crudely unfinished, inside and out, the marks of wooden formwork plainly visible. Concrete allowed Le Corbusier to explore unusual shapes. The billowing roof of the chapel at Ronchamp resembles a nun's wimple; the studios of the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard push out of the building like huge cellos. For the state capital of Chandigarh in India, he created a temple precinct of heroic structures that appear prehistoric.

Le Corbusier was the most important architect of the 20th century. Frank Lloyd Wright was more prolific — Le Corbusier's built oeuvre comprises about 60 buildings — and many would argue he was more gifted. But Wright was a maverick; Le Corbusier dominated the architectural world, from that halcyon year of 1920, when he started publishing his magazine L'Esprit Nouveau, until his death in 1965. He inspired several generations of architects — including this author — not only in Europe but around the world. He was more than a mercurial innovator. Irascible, caustic, Calvinistic, Corbu was modern architecture's conscience.

He was also a city planner. "Modern town planning comes to birth with a new architecture," he wrote in a book titled simply Urbanisme. "By this immense step in evolution, so brutal and so overwhelming, we burn our bridges and break with the past." He meant it. There were to be no more congested streets and sidewalks, no more bustling public squares, no more untidy neighborhoods. People would live in hygienic, regimented high-rise towers, set far apart in a parklike landscape. This rational city would be separated into discrete zones for working, living and leisure. Above all, everything should be done on a big scale — big buildings, big open spaces, big urban highways.

He called it La Ville Radieuse, the Radiant City. Despite the poetic title, his urban vision was authoritarian, inflexible and simplistic. Wherever it was tried — in Chandigarh by Le Corbusier himself or in Brasilia by his followers — it failed. Standardization proved inhuman and disorienting. The open spaces were inhospitable; the bureaucratically imposed plan, socially destructive. In the U.S., the Radiant City took the form of vast urban-renewal schemes and regimented public housing projects that damaged the urban fabric beyond repair. Today these megaprojects are being dismantled, as superblocks give way to rows of houses fronting streets and sidewalks. Downtowns have discovered that combining, not separating, different activities is the key to success. So is the presence of lively residential neighborhoods, old as well as new. Cities have learned that preserving history makes a lot more sense than starting from zero. It has been an expensive lesson, and not one that Le Corbusier intended, but it too is part of his legacy.


Le Corbusier (1887-1965), a Swiss architect, city planner, and painter who practiced in France, was one of the most influential architects of the 20th century.

Le Corbusier, the pseudonym for Charles Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, was born on Oct. 6, 1887, at La-Chaux-de-Fonds, where he attended the School of Fine Art until the age of 18 and was then apprenticed to an engraver. He studied architecture in Vienna with Josef Hoffmann (1908), in Paris with Auguste Perret (1908-1909), and in Berlin with Peter Behrens (1910-1911). In 1911 Le Corbusier traveled in the Balkans, Greece, Asia Minor, and Italy. The Acropolis in Athens and the sculpture of the 5th century B.C. by Phidias on the Parthenon made a great impression on him, as did Michelangelo's contributions to St. Peter's in Rome.

In 1904 Le Corbusier designed and built a small house at La-Chaux-de-Fonds, a building so picturesque that it would have fitted into the 18th-century hamlet at Versailles. Of the half-dozen villas that he built in his native town, one (1916) is as playful as any 16th-century mannerist structure by Sebastiano Serlio or Andrea Palladio. The dominating blank panel of the main facade of Le Corbusier's villa of 1916 relates to a similar motif that Palladio used on his own house in Vicenza, Italy, of 1572. Such a parallel between architects of the 16th and 20th centuries is relevant to an understanding of Le Corbusier. His system of geometric proportion, first used in the 1916 villa and expounded in two books, Le Modulor I (1950) and Le Modulor II (1955), follows in the tradition of Vitruvius, Leon Battista Alberti, and Palladio, and his concept of "modulor man" is an extension of Leonardo da Vinci's "Vitruvian man."

His Purism

The influence of Perret, Tony Garnier, and other architects became evident in Le Corbusier's 1915 Dom-ino project for prefabricated houses, a solution to spatial construction consisting of columns, floor slabs, and stair-cases for vertical circulation. To reduce a building to such simple elements was cubistic, and it was perhaps a preview of things to come in Paris, where Le Corbusier settled in 1917. Architectural commissions were slow in coming, and he turned to painting. He and Amédée Ozenfant evolved a form of cubism known as purism, in which they attempted to restore to ordinary objects their basic architectonic simplicity. Le Corbusier's Still Life (1920) depicts a bottle and other everyday objects; the bottle is seen from the side, above, and below. By fragmenting the bottle in such a manner, the viewer has a greater understanding of the bottle than a photograph or a realistic painting would provide. From 1920 to 1925 Ozenfant and Le Corbusier published the magazine L'Esprit nouveau, which preached purist theories.

This painterly expression of Le Corbusier influenced his architecture. The clean-cut planes and their relationships to the volume of a space of the Dom-into house and the Still Life bottle were combined in the Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau at the 1925 Paris International Exposition of Decorative Arts. Even the interior of the Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamp (1950-1955) is cubist, since, like the bottle, it expresses more than what the eye can actually see. The 6-inch slit between the top of the walls and the roof suggests a continuation of the billowing ceiling shape beyond the external walls, and the undulating shapes of the walls suggest spaces which exist but which are cut off from the viewer.

Machine for Living

Le Corbusier's most influential book, Towards a New Architecture (1923), is illustrated with his sketches of the Acropolis in Athens and other sites, the architecture of Michelangelo, the "industrial city" of Tony Garnier, American grain silos, ships, airplanes, and automobiles. Under the diagram of a "Delage Front-Wheel Brake" is the caption: "This precision, this cleanness in execution go further back than our reborn mechanical sense. Phidias felt in this way: the entablature of the Parthenon is a witness." The perfection to be found in Phidias's sculpture on the Parthenon and in the front-wheel brake design for a Delage car was demanded by Le Corbusier for 20th-century architecture. A house would be a "machine for living," not reducing man to the level of an automaton but uplifting him by as precise an environment in totality as the precision of an automobile brake. Ventilation, sound insulation, sun-traps in winter, and sun shields (brises-soleil) in summer were all a part of this precision and of Le Corbusier's ideals for a total environment.

Collaboration with Jeanneret

From 1922 to 1940 Le Corbusier was in partnership with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, and they collaborated on the project for the League of Nations Palace in Geneva (1927; not executed). The houses in the Weissenhof quarter of Stuttgart that they designed for the Deutsche Werkbund exposition (1927) were "perhaps the most imaginative structures at the Weissenhof" (Peter Blake, 1964). Le Corbusier's Centrosoyus (Palace of Light Industry) in Moscow (1929-1935) was one of the last major structures of post-World War I modern architecture in the Soviet Union.

Two notable villas designed by Le Corbusier are the Villa Monzie at Garches (1927), which derives its proportions, plan, and volumetric elements from Palladio's Villa Malcontenta of 1560, and the Villa Savoye at Poissy (1930), which incorporates the five tenets of his architecture: the piloti (freestanding structural column), the independence of the structural frame from the external skin, the free plan of the interior accommodation, the free elevation, and the roof garden.

City Planning

The Swiss Hostel (1931-1933) and the Brazilian Pavilion (1956-1959) at University City in Paris and the Unité d'Habitation in Marseilles (1947-1952) were designed as though they were part of Le Corbusier's projected Radiant City, just as Frank Lloyd Wright's post-1932 projects were for Broadacre City. The Unité d'Habitation, which is an enormous housing block, has a wide variety of apartments, lead-encased for sound insulation, with east-west ventilation, sun-trap balconies which let in the winter sun but exclude the summer sun, and access streets at every third floor. Pilotis raise the building off the ground to maximize open space for pedestrian use, which, in the Radiant City of 3 million people, would amount to 85 percent of the total area.

In the Voisin Plan for Paris (1925) Le Corbusier developed his urbanistic concepts, and thereafter he projected a score of plans for cities on four continents. Only one was realized, that for Chandigarh, the capital of the Punjab, India (begun 1953). Geometrically classical, Chandigarh is divided into different sectors: the Capital, consisting of the governor's palace (not built), the Parliament, the High Courts of Justice, and a ministries building; a commercial area; an industrial area; and a cultural center. Le Corbusier also designed the Open Hand monument, the democratic symbol of giving (that is, elected representatives are granted the privilege of giving good government in return).

Last Works and Influence

Le Corbusier's last major buildings were the Chapel at Ronchamp, one of the most personal and expressive statements by the architect, and the Dominican monastery of Ste-Marie-de-la-Tourette at Eveux-sur-Arbresle (1957-1959). On Aug. 27, 1965, Le Corbusier died of a heart attack at Cap-Martin.

The Ministry of Education and Health building in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1936-1945), by Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, for which Le Corbusier was the consultant, gave impetus to a slowly emerging modern movement in South America. His Maison Jaoul at Neuilly (1952-1956) spawned a movement termed the "new brutalism" in England, a country which had already accepted Le Corbusier's philosophy in spirit and had developed upon it. Kunio Mayekawa and Junzo Sakakura, who worked for Le Corbusier in Paris, returned to Japan to glorify the master. Le Corbusier's buildings have been an inspiration in whatever country they have been constructed, including his Carpenter Visual Arts Center (1961-1963) at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. He was the principal founder of the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM) in 1928, which propagated the objectives of the new architecture; it was disbanded in 1959. He was also a prolific writer, and his books have been extremely influential.











This web page was last updated on: 12 December, 2008