Le, Corbusier Charles-Édouard Jeanneret
The career of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, is inextricably linked with the fate of 20th-century architecture; the same triumphs and defeats, the same hopes and frustrations were shared by both. To pin down this many-sided, controversial genius is as difficult as charting the twists and turns of a creative spirit like Picasso—an artist with whom Le Corbusier liked to be compared.
Born at La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland, the son of an engraver of watches, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret was encouraged to take up architecture by his local art school teacher, Charles L'Eplattenier. The years from 1906 to 1912 were spent in self-education and travel. He made contract with many of the pioneers of modern architecture: Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos in Vienna, Tony Garnier in Lyons, Auguste Perret in Paris, who taught him about reinforced concrete, and Peter Behrens in Berlin, then involved with industrial design. From his eye-opening tour of Greece and Turkey in 1911 he brought back some important sketches.
In 1917 he left Switzerland to settle in Paris, after the construction of his first major building, the Villa Schwob at La Chaux-de-Fonds (1916). Already the ideals of his later work are present: geometrical simplicity, perfect proportional harmony, a rational method of planning and construction, and an ability to sculpt fluid, plastic spaces.
In 1918 Le Corbusier and the painter Amadée Ozenfant launched the movement known as Purism. Le Corbusier began to paint, an activity he never gave up. In 1920, the year he adopted his pseudonym, they began publishing the magazine L'Esprit Nouveau in which he formulated his aesthetic and architectural ideas. These were collected in 1923 in what was to become the most influential book by any 20th-century architect, Vers Une Architecture.
In a series of private houses between 1923 and 1930 Le Corbusier put these ideas into practice. The Villa Savoye at Poissy (1927 - 31) was a poetic demonstration of the elements of the clean white cubic style first shown to the public at the Weissenhof Exhibition at Stuttgart (1927). It used a reinforced-concrete support system, developed from earlier projects for skeleton-framed, mass-produced housing (Dom-ino, 1914; Citrohan, 1921). It also abolished the load-bearing wall, permitting long uninterrupted strips of window, and fluid internal spaces that were often composed like the primary geometrical shapes of Purist painting, and were similarly colored. Thin columns (“pilotis”) lift up the box-like living area, giving the house a weightless appearance. The roof of flat, with terrace or garden. The use of standard industrial components, given prominence in the Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau (1925), completes the streamlined, “machine aesthetic” finish.
In the early 1930s Le Corbusier worked on large-scale projects that were of great influence. Of the few actually built, the most important were the Salvation Army Hostel (1931; Paris) and the Pavillon Suisse (1932; Paris). Both works show their architect conceiving of a building in terms of a complex of interlocking but clearly defined parts, each with a different function, lending weight to his much-quoted proposition that “Architecture is the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of volumes assembled in light.”
A crucially important but now largely discredited aspect of Le Corbusier's whole output, especially during the 1930s, was town planning, The smallest unit or cell of his many schemes for collective housing was the Immeuble-Villa (1923) or Pavillon de l'Esprit Nouveau, a flat on two floors with double-story living-room. His prototypes, the Contemporary City for three million (1922) and the Plan Vision (1925), owed much to Sant'Elia's drawings for a Futurist New City (1914) and to Tony Garnier's Cité Industrielle (1901). Multilevel circulation, a cluster of enormous skyscrapers for business in the center, and multistory villas set in parkland, were the main features of these and numerous other designs for cities throughout the world.
In the 1930s Le Corbusier also renounced the somewhat inhuman, “precision-instrument” idiom of the previous decade; he began to incorporate solid, earthy materials—stone, brick, timber—and more willful forms into his buildings. The first hint of this came in the Pavillon Suisse, with its curved rubble wall; it was confirmed in a tiny, picturesque Maison de Weekend at La Celle-de-Saint-Cloud (1935). But it was not until the postwar, monumental Unité d'Habitation at Marseilles (1947 - 52) that crude concrete became an aesthetic end in itself, later to be imitated by the architects of Brutalism.
With the Unité, which was followed by others at Nantes and Berlin, Le Corbusier was at last able to put into effect his schemes for mass-housing, although even this was only one part of a proposed suburb made up of similar massive blocks. Some of the themes of his earlier work were taken up—giant “pilotis” (Pavillon Suisse) and sunbreaks (Salvation Army Hostel)—but the extraordinary sculpted roofscape was the most daring thing of its kind to date. The Unité was composed of 350 apartments in eight double-stories and based on a proportional system which Le Corbusier called “Modulor”. In the two little Maisons Jaoul at Neuilly (1954 - 6) he continued his exploitation of rough concrete and natural materials; the brick walls and barrel vaults were again widely copied.
The pilgrimage church of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp (1950 - 4) was visually his most exciting postwar work and undoubtedly one of his masterpieces. Its shape suggests some huge bird poised for flight, a moving, living being. Every detail of this expressive, sculptural building appears arbitrary, but its irregularity is the result of a complete reassessment of the requirements of worship. It is a potent symbol of the wonder of religion; to visit it is a profoundly moving experience.
From 1951 Le Corbusier was busy with plans for the new city of Chandigarh, capital of the Punjab, where, in addition to designing the Law Courts and Secretariat, he was able to try out many of his solutions to problems of urban living. The Dominican convent of Sainte-Marie-de-la-Tourette at Eveux-sur-Arbreste (1957 - 60) was perhaps his strongest single statement in the years preceding his death. In stark contrast to the smooth white curves of Ronchamp, but no less dramatic, it is a predominantly rectilinear building in exposed concrete: it is rich in sculptural forms, with two identical strips of precast cells raised high on three sides above a central courtyard overlooking a valley.
Le Corbusier not only worked in Europe, he practiced on a world scale—in India, South America, North Africa, U.S.A., and Japan. Like Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, he helped to ensure the universal recognition of a new architectural language which he believed spoke for the rapidly changing patterns of 20th-century life. He was the most internationally admired—and hated—of them all.
Further reading Besset, M. Who was Le Corbusier?, Geneva (1968). Curtis, W. et al. Le Corbusier, History of Architecture and Design 1890 - 1939, Milton Keynes (1975). Le Corbusier The Complete Architectural Works, London (1966). Moos, S. von Le Corbusier, L'architecte et Son Mythe, Paris (1971).
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