Le Corbusier, the father of modern architecture

Architecture design Art 6 min read

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, more widely known as Le Corbusier (‘The Crowlike One’), was a Swiss-French architect, designer, urban planner, and writer.

Le Corbusier, 1964.

Early Life

Though he would eventually become a French citizen in 1930, Charles-Édouard was born in the mountainous region of Jura, Switzerland, in 1887, to a music-teacher mother and a watch-enameler father. When he was 13, he enrolled at the local École d’Art, after having been helping his father from a young age. During his time at the École, Corbusier would develop under the tutelage of Charles L’Eplattenier, who guided him in a variety of subjects, including art history, drawing, and the naturalist aesthetics of art nouveau. Ultimately, it was L’Eplattenier who urged Le Corbusier to pursue architecture, even though the young Corbusier had never intended to.

Trusting his mentor’s instinct, Le Corbusier decided to accept this calling, despite being completely self taught and having no previous formal education in architecture. L’Eplattenier gave him his first practice on local projects. He then took several trips, during which he created innumerable sketches and notes that would later influence his work.

Through his travels across Europe and the Mediterranean, he developed some of his architectural philosophies. When he saw The Charterhouse of Ema at Galluzzo, in Tuscany, it provided a contrast between vast collective spaces and “individual living cells” that formed the basis for his conception of residential buildings. Because of the 16th-century, Late Renaissance architecture of Andrea Pallagio in the Veneto region of Italy, and the ancient sites of Greece, he grew reverence for classical proportions. Finally, popular architecture in the Mediterranean and the Balkan peninsula gave him a repertory of geometric forms; and also taught him about the handling of light and the use of landscape as an architectural background.

Le Corbusier, Notre Dame du Haut
Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, France, 1954. Photographer: Ricardo Gomez Angel | Source: Unsplash

Le Corbusier is born

Le Corbusier adopted his famous moniker in 1920, as a play on his grandmother’s last name. He used this name to show the idea that people should be able to reinvent themselves. At this time, Le Corbusier was still mostly focused on art and writing.

In 1922, Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeannaret opened a studio of their own in Paris. While working on residential projects, he grew frustrated at what he saw as the city’s decay. His goal, then, became improving the living situations for the overcrowded population of the city. In response to this, he proposed the Plan Voisin: a city of steel-framed skyscrapers encased in enormous walls of glass. Though his proposal was rejected, his vision and design language were very influential for other architects and urban planners, including Oscar Niemeyer’s project for Brasilia.

Le Corbusier, Ville Savoye
Villa Savoye, Poissy, France, 1931. Photographer: Bildarchiv Monheim Gmbh | Source: architecturaldigest.com

Light was always a major concern for Corbusier. Drawing inspiration from his travels, he developed elaborate methods to shape and bend the natural light in his buildings. By playing with lighting in an exaggerated fashion, his structures gained their distinct design features. He saw it as a major part of his general vision – not a result of it. His use of light creates an almost ethereal effect on his work. He incorporated daylight through multi-angled windows, allowing it to bounce off different lines and curves and giving a contrast between light and dark.

This play of light becomes even more impressive considering how he incorporated the Earth’s rotation into his thinking. In many of his structures, light shifts in different ways as the sun rises and sets. These methods contribute to their inhabitants’ wellbeing, allowing the increased light to brighten their moods. In that regard, the structures transcend their physical aspects.

Interior Church of Saint-Pierre
Church of Saint-Pierre, Friminy, France, 1971. Photographer: Henry Plummer | Source: ArchDaily
“Light creates ambience and a feel of a place, as well as the expression of a structure”-Le Corbusier

Iconic Works

Seventeen of his works are listed on UNESCO’s world heritage list, 51 years after his passing. In France alone, his heritage structures include:

  • The houses La Roche and Jeanneret, Paris (1923)
  • Cite Fruges, Pessac, Aquitaine (1924)
  • Villa Savoye and Loge du Jardinier, Poissy (1928)
  • Rental property at Porte Molitor, Boulogne-Billancourt (1931)
  • La Cité Radieuse, Marseille, Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur (1945)
  • The factory in Saint-Die-des-Vosges, Lorraine, France (1946)
  • Notre-Dame-du-Haut chapel, Ronchamp, France (1950)
  • Le Corbusier hut, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur (1951)
  • The monastery Saint-Marie-de-la-Tourette, Eveux, Rhone-Alpes (1953)
  • Maison de la Culture in Friminy, Rhone-Alpes (1965)

Additionally, Corbusier designed the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo Japan in 1960, the Carpenter Visual Art Center at Harvard University in 1964 and an Exposition Pavilion in Zurich. Corbusier continued to birth new ideas and work even late in life, showing his obvious dedication and passion for the art.

What is arguably his greatest work, Unite d’Habitation in Marseille, France is one of the most innovative architectural responses to residential housing. It still remains a prime example of brutalism for architects all over the world. Besides being his biggest project in size, it is probably most complex one focusing on catering to community life: providing a place for its inhabitants to shop, play, and live. This specific structure exemplifies his design philosophy, including The Pilotis – a grid of columns to replace load-bearing walls, thus allowing architects to make more use of floorspace.

Unite d'Habitation Marseille
The Unite d’Habitation, Marseille, France, 1957. Photographer: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra | Source: Flickr
“He was the first star architect and role model for today’s star architects, he worked on a global stage he wooed the media.” – Arthur Rüegg, Le Corbusier scholar

Later Life

Le Corbusier was not a fan of his later recognition in life, preferring his aura of persecuted genius and misunderstood creativity. Despite this, he continued to build upon his legendary status, creating new projects such as the Art Centre in Frankfurt and the Palais des Congrès in Strasbourg among others. He also undertook furniture design projects with Pierre Jeanneret, including the LC1 chair and LC4 chaise lounge.

LC1 chair
LC1 chair, 1928. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

Death and Legacy

Corbusier died suddenly of a heart attack whilst swimming off the coast of the French Riviera. Ironically, the man who considered himself misunderstood and under-appreciated was given a national funeral. The Fondation Le Corbusier was created in 1968 to preserve and promote his collection of drawings, res. All fitting the grand scheme of modern architecture – for better or worse – his creations have become pilgrimage sites for architecture junkies from all over the globe.

Unfortunately, Le Corbusier’s political allegiances have now cast an overwhelming shadow over his craft. He allied himself with France’s far right. He was on a committee studying urbanism for the Vichy regime that collaborated with Nazi Germany during the Second World War. In a letter to his mother Corbusier described Hitler and Vichy rule would bring about a marvelous transformation of society. He later denounced the regime. However, some historians speculate he simply started to cozy up the people in power to earn commissions.

Despite Corbusier’s unsavory political ideology he his still recognized for his unmatched vision and skill. His face adorns the ten franc note, and streets and squares are named after him.

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