(October 6, 1887 – August 27, 1965)
Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, who chose to be known as Le Corbusier, was a Swiss architect, designer, urbanist, writer and painter, famous for being one of the pioneers of what now is called Modern architecture or the International style. He was born in Switzerland and became a French citizen in his thirties. His career spanned five decades, with his buildings constructed throughout central Europe, India, Russia, and one each in North and South America.
He was a pioneer in studies of modern high design and was dedicated to providing better living conditions for the residents of crowded cities. Later commentators criticized Le Corbusier’s plan to raze part of Paris and replace it with a grid of towers as soulless and arrogant, but his striking innovations have influenced every generation of architects that followed him.
Le Corbusier adopted his pseudonym in the 1920s, allegedly deriving it in part from the name of a distant ancestor, “Lecorbésier.” However, it appears to have been an earlier (and somewhat unkind) nickname, which he simply decided to keep. It stems from the French for “the crow-like one”. In the absence of a first name, some have suggested, pejoratively, that it indicates “a physical force as much as a human being,” and brings to mind the French verb courber, to bend.
He was awarded the Frank P. Brown Medal in 1961.
Life Early life and education, 1887–1913He was born as Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a small city in Neuchâtel canton in north-western Switzerland, in the Jura mountains, just 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) across the border from France. He attended a kindergarten that used Fröbelian methods.
Le Corbusier was attracted to the visual arts and studied at the La-Chaux-de-Fonds Art School under Charles L’Eplattenier, 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 would frequently escape the somewhat provincial atmosphere of his hometown by traveling around Europe. About 1907, he traveled to Paris, where he found work in the office of Auguste Perret, the French pioneer of reinforced concrete. In 1908, He studied architecture in Vienna with Josef Hoffmann. 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 journeyed to the Balkans and visited Bulgaria, 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) (“Towards an Architecture,” but usually translated into English as “Towards a New Architecture”).
Early career: the villas, 1914–1930Le 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 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 Le Corbusier established the Purist journal L’Esprit nouveau. He was good friends with the Cubist artist Fernand Léger.
Pseudonym adopted, 1920In 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 themselves. Some architectural historians claim that this pseudonym translates as “the raven-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.
The name “Le Corbusier” is a registered trademark (US Reg. 2073285) owned by the Fondation Le Corbusier and licensed for the production of designs created by Charles Jeanneret alone and with his co-authors Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret.
Between 1918 and 1922, Le Corbusier built nothing, concentrating his efforts on Purist theory and painting. In 1922, Le Corbusier and Ozenfant 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.
Personal relationshipsWhile returning in 1929 from South America to Europe, Le Corbusier met entertainer and actress Josephine Baker on board the ocean liner Lutétia. Le Corbusier made several nude sketches of Baker. Soon after his return to France, Le Corbusier married Yvonne Gallis, a dressmaker and fashion model. She died in 1957. Le Corbusier also had a long extramarital affair with Swedish-American heiress Marguerite Tjader Harris.
Le Corbusier took French citizenship in 1930.
Portrait on Swiss ten francs banknote Forays into urbanismFor 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 organizational solution that would raise the quality of life for 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 presented his scheme for a “Contemporary City” for three million inhabitants (Ville Contemporaine). The centerpiece of this plan was the group of sixty-story, cruciform skyscrapers; steel-framed office buildings encased in huge curtain walls of glass. These skyscrapers were set within large, rectangular park-like green spaces. At the center was a huge transportation hub, 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 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 low-story, zigzag apartment blocks (set far back from the street amid green space), housed the inhabitants. Le Corbusier hoped that politically-minded industrialists in France would lead the way with their efficient Taylorist and Fordist strategies adopted from American industrial models to reorganize society. As Norma Evenson has put it, “the proposed city appeared to some an audacious and compelling vision of a brave new world, and to others a frigid megalomaniacally scaled negation of the familiar urban ambient.”
In this new industrial spirit, Le Corbusier contributed to 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 (Toward an Architecture, previously mistranslated into English as Towards a New Architecture), which comprised selected articles he contributed to L’Esprit Nouveau between 1920 and 1923. In this book, Le Corbusier followed the influence of Walter Gropius and reprinted several photographs of North American factories and grain elevators.
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 criticism and scorn from French politicians and industrialists, although they were favorable 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 1930s, 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. Some have read dark overtones into The Radiant City: from the “astonishingly beautiful assemblage of buildings” that was Stockholm, for example, Le Corbusier saw only “frightening chaos and saddening monotony.” He dreamed of “cleaning and purging” the city, bringing “a calm and powerful architecture”—referring to steel, plate glass, and reinforced concrete. Though Le Corbusier’s designs for Stockholm did not succeed, later architects took his ideas and partly “destroyed” the city with them.
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.
High Court in Chandigarh, IndiaAfter 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 the Union Territory Chandigarh, the new capital for the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana and the first planned city in India. Le Corbusier designed many administration buildings including a courthouse, parliament building and a university. He also designed the general layout of the city dividing it into sectors. Le Corbusier was brought on to develop the plan of Albert Mayer.
DeathAgainst 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 may have suffered a heart attack. 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. He was buried alongside his wife in the grave he had designated at Roquebrune.
Le Corbusier’s death had a strong impact on the cultural and political world. Homages were paid worldwide and even some of Le Corbusier’s worst artistic enemies, such as the painter Salvador Dalí, recognised his importance (Dalí sent a floral tribute). The 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.
Visitors may find his grave site in the cemetery above Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in between Menton and Monaco in southern France.
The Fondation Le Corbusier (or FLC) functions as his official Estate. The U.S. copyright representative for the Fondation Le Corbusier is the Artists Rights Society.
Ideas Five points of architectureIt 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 for the green area consumed by the building and replacing it on the roof. A ramp rising from 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 mark after 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.
The ModulorMain article: Modulor
Cover of Modulor and Modulor 2Le 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 the golden section and the Fibonacci 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.”
FurnitureCorbusier said: “Chairs are architecture, sofas are bourgeois.”
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, the company that manufactured his designs in the 1930s.
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 and 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.
The most famous of these chairs are the now-iconic LC-1, LC-2, LC-3, and LC-4, originally titled “Basculant” (LC-1), “Fauteuil grand confort, petit modèle” (LC-2, “great comfort sofa, small model”), “Fauteil grand confort, grand modèle” (LC-3, “great comfort sofa, large model”), and “Chaise longue” (LC-4, “Long chair”, English: “chaise lounge”). The LC-2 and LC-3 are more colloquially referred to as the petit confort and grand confort (abbreviation of full title, and due to respective sizes). The LC-2 (and similar LC-3) have been featured in a variety of media, notably the Maxell “blown away” advertisement.