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India’s first Prime Minister once made a comment about Le Corbusier’s design for Chandigarh – the symbol of a new India following their independence: “The most important thing about Chandigarh is not whether you like it or not but that it hits you on your head and makes you think.” The same can be said about all of Le Corbusier’s work. His architecture, designs or perspective are not a question of preference, but of significance and reaction to the work itself. Undeniably one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century and arguably one of the most controversial, Le Corbusier remains a central talking point for architects and designers all across the globe even today. Painter, architect, theoretician, urban planner – his story is a roller-coaster ride of spectacular success and critical failures.
Le Corbusier was born in 1887 as Charles-Édouard Jeanneret in a small town in Switzerland. At the age of 13, he left school and, fascinated by the arts, began teaching himself architecture. He never obtained formal education in the field, yet he built his first house in 1905. He traveled for much of his early life, working in different architecture practices, sketching and writing.
Upon returning to his home town, he began to seriously contemplate the possibilities of reinforced concrete as a building material. His design of the modular structure Dom-Ino House marked the beginning of his lifelong exploration of the qualities of reinforced concrete, mass production, and standardization in architecture. He developed these initial ideas further with his Citrohan house. It was a quip on the name of the French automobile manufacturer Citroën, denoting that a house can be mass-produced just like a car. Built upon a grid of concrete columns with horizontal windows and a roof terrace, the design of the house is largely a precursor to the Five Points of a New Architecture which he would define later that year in his magazine, L’Esprit Nouveau.
Jeanneret was an artist as well as an architect. In his earlier years, he explored the cubist style, moving to Paris in 1917. The following year, however, was a turning point in his style. Rejecting cubism for its “romantic ornamentism”, he established a new artistic movement with the cubist painter Amédée Ozenfant. Purism represented the art and architecture of the Machine Age – pure and simplistic in form, devoid of all ornamentation. It was the foundation for all of his works during that time.
In keeping with L’Esprit Nouveau – the spirit of the times – Jeanneret reinvented himself, changing his name to Le Corbusier, a trend which prevailed with many artists in Paris at the time.
In the following years, he began forming his views on urban planning, presenting his plan for the Ville Contemporaine. It was a utopian city for three million inhabitants in which cruciform skyscrapers dominated the skyline. It contained many of the principles Le Corbusier would further develop in his urban studies – the segregation of functional zones; identical concrete mega-structures set against large expanses of greenery. The vision of Ville Contemporaine provided the basis for his plans of the destruction of a central part of Paris and replaced by strikingly familiar cruciform skyscrapers. He presented the idea at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts. Plan Voisin was his solution to the social question of overcrowded and worn down neighborhoods. However, his ideas were controversial to say the least and met great criticism.
For the same exhibition, he built the Esprit Nouveau Pavilion – an embodiment of his purist notions. “Decorative Art, as opposed to the machine phenomenon, is the final twitch of the old manual modes, a dying thing.” In condemning decorative arts, he exhibited his ideas of a house as a machine for living, one of his most famous propositions. Designed as a unit for mass production in an urban setting, everything about the pavilion was standardized and industrially manufactured, from the structural elements to the furniture inside.
Like his Plan Voisin, critics ostracized the pavilion. Le Corbusier, however, was firm about his ideas of a mass-produced concrete utopia, continuing to promote his utilitarian ideas in further written works.
“Why call bottles, chairs, baskets and objects decorative? They are useful tools…. Decor is not necessary. Art is necessary.” An excerpt from his book: The Decorative Art of Today. His attacks, founded on Loosian ideas, propagate the design of objects with pure functionality at mind. Eventually, these ideas would flourish with the rise of the modern movement, suppressing the ornament for decades to come.
Le Corbusier’s contribution to the modern movement is, arguably, unprecedented. His early works foresaw the elementary characteristics of the new style that was taking the world by storm. His Five Points of a New Architecture remain one of the founding principles of his, as well as the work of many of his contemporaries. These principles were best embodied in his design for Villa Savoye. The pilotis, horizontal windows, open plan enabling the design of a free facade entirely defined the functional house he built in the suburbs of Paris. It adopts his signature machinist aesthetic, while the roof terrace gives back to the earth what architecture took from it.
Today, the interior is stark, save a few pieces of furniture Le Corbusier and his collaborators designed. One of them is the LC4 Chaise Lounge – created with the shape of the human body in mind and placing form and function in service of relaxation. It is one of the many examples of Le Corbusier’s exploration of proportion in design. Decades later he would define an anthropometric scale called the Modulor using the proportions of the human body in service of architecture – or better said – architecture in service of the human body.
Le Corbusier’s need for standardization defined almost all of his work. From the design of standardized housing units meant to be multiplied and stacked on top of one another, to his preoccupation with the model of the ideal functional city. His urban theory influenced many attempts of solving housing crises and social issues, although later they largely proved to be destructive, disorienting and inhuman. The shortcomings of the modernist city were lessons to be learned, igniting counter-movements under the umbrella of post-modernism worldwide.
Le Corbusier’s exploration of concrete at the beginning of his career ultimately turned into a defining element of his architecture. His love of concrete was evident in almost all his designs. He coined the term Béton Brut, literally meaning raw concrete, to characterize the expression of the material in his Unité d’Habitation. The gigantic housing estate combines his newly-discovered concrete aesthetic with his urban design principles, condensing an entire neighborhood into one imposing superstructure. The raw concrete aesthetic sparked an interest among architects, greatly influencing the new Brutalism movement in architecture, centered around the honest expression of materials and structural elements.
While his earlier works expressed the Machine Age in architecture, his later projects were more sculptural, directly relating to the plasticity and adaptable qualities of concrete. The new city of Chandigarh in India was planned by Le Corbusier in Béton Brut, while the Chapel at Ronchamp represents the pinnacle of his sculptural expression of the material. The chapel is also one of his rare deviations from the rigidity of modernist principles, a unique specimen of his oeuvre.
The life of Le Corbusier is one of audacity and fearlessness, avant-garde innovation and ultimately, a humble acceptance of failures. His concern with improving the quality of city life was admirable, although his approach was too inflexible and set in a rigid modernist doctrine. He often repeated that “life is right, and the architect is wrong”. And the architect was right.
Nevertheless, despite his shortcomings, his ideas have been the inspiration for a great many projects extending beyond his time, rendering him a true icon. He provided the world with a much needed new outlook on design and revolutionized the world with his models of mass-production and extensive written work. He also proved that concrete, too, can be beautiful.
Featured Image: Le Corbusier (1964) by Joop van Bilsen / Anefo used under license CC0 1.0 / cropped from original
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