European Architecture Series
Le Corbusier

Biography of Functionalist Architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret.
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Villa Savoye (1929-31)

ART AND DESIGN
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Le Corbusier (1887-1965)
Charles-Edouard Jeanneret

Contents

Biography
Education and Architectural Training
Early Designs
Avant-Garde Art in Paris
Professional Architect
Urban Planning, Social Housing
Building Designs
Modulor Scale of Architectural Proportions
Unite d'Habitation, Marseilles
Brutalism
Recognition



Unite d'Habitation, Marseilles (1946)

TWENTIETH CENTURY ARTS
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Le Corbusier, see:
Modern Artists (1850-present).

HISTORY
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Biography

In the history of architecture, the Swiss-born architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, best known by his pseudonym "Le Corbusier" is regarded - along with Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) - as one of the greatest architects of the 20th century and a leading theorist and practitioner of modern functionalist design. He is famous for (1) his open plan private domestic architecture - similar to the styles emanating from of the Bauhaus Design School - perfected in his Villa Savoye (1929–1931). (2) His utopian urban development schemes, including his 1922 plan for a "Contemporary City" (Ville Contemporaine) designed for three million inhabitants, and his 1935 plan for a socially progessive "The Radiant City" (La Ville radieuse) of 1935. In 1946, he resurrected the "Unité d'Habitation" - the basic concrete apartment block used in The Radiant City plan - and erected them (1946-65) in Marseilles, Nantes, Berlin, Briey and Firminy. He also built a series of Radiant-City-type buildings in Chandigarh, India, during the 1950s. (3) His theoretical ideas on architectural design, as expressed during the 1920s in the journal L'Esprit Nouveau, and later published in his highly influential book "Vers une architecture" (Toward an Architecture). His ideas on building design were influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Houses, the AEG works of Peter Behrens, the concrete, glass and steel designs of Walter Gropius, the spatial concepts of Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964), the geometrical lines of De Stijl, and the social awareness of Russian Constructivism ( later the Soviet Narkomfin Building). However, while acknowledging his influential role in the development of 20th century architecture, critics of Le Corbusier say his architecture paved the way for the concrete excesses of Brutalism, and to the isolation of communities in badly built housing blocks. Le Corbusier became a French citizen in 1930.

Architectural
Terminology

For a guide, see:
Architecture Glossary.

 

Education and Architectural Training

Born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris in La Chaux-de-Fonds, in the Swiss Jura region, a longtime centre of watchmaking. At 13, he left school to learn his father's trade, namely the engraving and enamelling of watch faces, at the local Ecole des Arts Decoratifs. It was there that he was taught drawing and the history of art by the influential Charles L'Eplattenier, who, after three years, decided that Le Corbusier should become an architect. To this end, on his advice, Le Corbusier took a number of trips around Europe (1907-11), during which he discovered the classical proportions of Greece (notably at the Parthenon), as well as those used by Andrea Palladio (1508-80) - the leading figure in Venetian Renaissance architecture - along with various forms of popular architecture in southern Europe. He also worked in several different architectural offices: in Paris (1907) under Auguste Perret, an expert in reinforced concrete; in Vienna (1908) under Josef Hoffmann; in Berlin (1910-11) under Peter Behrens, where he would almost certainly have met Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, as well as members of the Deutscher Werkbund (German Work Federation).

Note: For other famous Continental architects active at this time, see the Viennese Secessionist Joseph Maria Olbrich (1867-1908); and the art nouveau designers Victor Horta (1861-1947); and Hector Guimard (1867-1942).

Early Designs

During World War I, Le Corbusier returned to La-Chaux-de-Fonds, where he taught at his old school while continuing with his architectural studies. One of his early building designs was for the Domino House (1914–1915), based on an open floor plan made of concrete slabs supported by a number of thin, reinforced concrete columns, curtain non-load-bearing walls and a stairway giving access to each level. This type of design would be his template for the next decade.

 

Avant-Garde Art in Paris

In 1917, he settled in Paris, where the following year he met the French painter, teacher and writer Amedee Ozenfant (1886-1966), who introduced him to the latest in avant-garde art, and with whom he founded Purism and co-wrote the movement's manifesto "Apres le Cubisme". In 1920, the pair, along with the poet Paul Dermee, set up the radical review "L'Esprit Nouveau", which championed new ideas in architecture and applied art, including those of Belgian architect Henri van de Velde (1863-1957) and the influential Czech-born architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933), which paved the way for modern designs devoid of all decoration. Le Corbusier's articles urged a transformation of urban society with a functional progressive architecture, in order to ward off the threat of revolution. He championed the use of modern building methods and mass-produced materials. When writing his articles, Le Corbusier dropped his real name, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, and for the first time adopted his pseudonym. Many of his articles were collected and published in his book "Vers une architecture" (1923), which had a significant impact on mid-century American architecture. A number of American architects - such as Louis I Kahn (1901-74) - were introduced to modernist designs through Le Corbusier's book. He continued to write for the rest of his life, although many of his basic concepts and ideas remained unchanged throughout his career. Among his most famous publications are: Urbanism (1925), The City of Tomorrow (1929), When Cathedrals Were White (1937), La Charte d'Athenes (1943), Les Trois Etablissements Humains (1945) and The Modular (1948).

Professional Architect

In 1922, after four years of designing and building nothing, Le Corbusier set up a design studio in Paris, with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret. He focused on designs for single-family houses or villas, with uncompromising geometric forms and plain facades. One such design, known as the "Citrohan House", which he exhibited at the Salon d'Automne in late 1922, incorporated much of his basic modernist architecture: the use of stilts (pilotis) to support the structure, thus freeing up the ground underneath; a roof garden or terrace; an open-plan interior, with non-load-bearing curtain walls providing maximum fenestration. Other examples of Corbusier villas include those built for: Ozenfant (1922), Raoul La Roche (1923), Michael Stein, brother of the famous art collector Gertrude Stein (1927), as well as Villa Lipchitz, Maison Cook, Maison Planeix, and his masterwork Savoye House (1930) at Poissy.

Urban Planning, Social Housing

Although focused on domestic architecture, Le Corbusier also produced a wealth of ideas on large-scale housing projects to overcome the urban housing crisis. Like other modernist architects, he believed that his new architectural forms - like his Immeubles Villas (1922) - would raise the quality of life for the lower classes.

A true utopian, Le Corbusier also began producing plans for entire cities, like his 1922 scheme for a "Contemporary City" for 3 million residents, whose housing centrepiece consisted of a series of 60-story, cruciform skyscrapers, anticipating the residential skyscraper architecture of the Second Chicago School of the 1950s. Urban planning remained a constant interest. In 1925, he showcased his "Plan Voisin" at the Exhibition of Decorative Art in Paris, which called for the clearance of central Paris north of the Seine, and its replacement with futuristic clusters of 60-floor apartment blocks, laid out in an orthogonal grid of streets and parks. As usual, there were no concessions for local building traditions. For Le Corbusier, modern architecture meant pure functionalism, with no historical ornament. In the 1930s, he reorganized and recast his ideas on urban planning, publishing them in La Ville Radieuse (The Radiant City) (1935). This was followed by a series of master urban plans for Buenos Aires (1938) and Algiers (1938-42).

Building Designs

In 1927, Le Corbusier produced an acclaimed International Style design for the League of Nations headquarters in Geneva, only to see it disqualified on a technicality. However, the resulting publicity led to his election as French secretary in the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM). In 1929, he travelled to Moscow where he won the competition to design Centrosoyuz building (1929-35). Two other influential Paris buildings of this period, designed by Le Corbusier, included the Salvation Army Hostel, and the Swiss Dormitory at the City University.

Modulor Scale of Architectural Proportions

During the war, Le Corbusier co-operated with Vichy, while his cousin joined the Resistance, thus ending their partnership. As building commissions dried up, Le Corbusier used the time to devise new ideas, including his "Modulor" concept - a scale of measurements that pegged architectural elements in proportion to a human being: something he had introduced earlier at the Stein Villa in Garches. He regarded his system as a continuation of the classical tradition of the Roman architect Vitruvius (author of "De Architectura"), as developed by Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519, creator of "Vitruvian Man"), and Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72, author of "De re Aedificatoria").

Unite d'Habitation, Marseilles

At the end of World War II, confident that now at last he would be able to put his housing plans into practice, in the reconstruction of war-torn France, he designed skyscraper apartment blocks for two badly damaged towns in the Vosges region. In one town, five functional high-rise towers would re-house 30,000 inhabitants. Perhaps not surprisingly, the plans were rejected but were widely circulated and proved highly influential in modernist circles. In any event, in 1946, he was commissioned to design a private housing complex in Marseilles, for which he produced his "Unite d'Habitation" (the basic housing unit in his "Radiant City" scheme). Built between 1947 and 1952, and constructed from rough-cast concrete (beton brut), the Marseilles structure was developed in collaboration with Corbusier's assistants Shadrach Woods and George Candilis. It consists of 337 split-level apartments spread over twelve floors, all suspended on large pillars or pilotis. The building includes shops as well as medical and educational facilities, a hotel and a restaurant, and a communal roof terrace complete with running track and pool.

Brutalism

Similar utopian designs by Le Corbusier were completed in four other locations: Nantes-Reze (1955), Briey (1963), Firminy (1965) and Berlin-West (1957). This led to the building of numerous post-war concrete housing complexes along similar lines. In 1954, this style of Le Corbusier-inspired architectural utopianism was nicknamed "Brutalism" by British architects Peter and Alison Smithson, and triggered the publication of a celebratory manual, The New Brutalism (1954) by Reyner Banham. A typically ghastly example of alienating Brutalist architecture - one that has not yet been torn down - is London's National Theatre, designed by Sir Denys Lasdun.

Later in the 1950s, Le Corbusier went to India, where he designed a parliament building, several administration buildings, a courthouse, and a university, as well as a general urban layout for the city of Chandigarh, capital of the Punjab. As usual, his designs were executed without any reference to local methods, materials or decorative style.

Recognition

By the late 1950s, as well as being an iconic champion of avant-garde architectural values, Le Corbusier began to achieve official recognition. In 1961, he was awarded the Frank P. Brown Medal and the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal. Commissions were plentiful. He designed and built Tokyo's National Museum of Western Art (1960), the Olivetti computer centre in Milan (1963), the Palais des Congres in Strasbourg (1964) and the Carpenter Visual Art Center at Harvard University (1964). On August 27, 1965, he drowned at sea off Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France.

For another avant-garde architect of the 20th century, see the Canadian-American Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank O. Gehry (b.1929), pioneer of Deconstructivism, the anti-geometrical design.

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