Le Corbusier

Born at the registry office with the full name Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, the Swiss architect and designer chose the stage name Le Corbusier. He set the tone for modernism and the movement’s aesthetic with his European colleagues of the time, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto, and Jean Prouve. Rejecting the ideas and styles of Neoclassicism, this group of creators designed functional, clean, and elegant.

One thing their buildings weren’t? Subtle. Just like the legacy of Le Corbusier shows.

A Short Biography

Originally from Switzerland, Charles was born in 1887 in the alpine city of La Chaux-de-Fonds, near the French border. In typical Swiss style, this town was famous for its watches, which were always punctual and always of excellent quality. His father was one of these unique artisans, while his mother was a piano teacher. So, while he didn’t come from an architect and design background, Le Corbusier definitely came from a creative family.

So much so that he joined the art school in La-Chaux-de-Fonds when he was a teenager and even took a course in decoration, learning from painters and artists alike. The fundamental influence that pushed the Swiss creator toward architecture was his teacher, René Chapallaz, who inspired him to focus on this craft. With Chapallaz, young Charles designed his first building in 1905, the Villa Fallet.

Two years later, Le Corbusier started a long series of travels that would take them all around Europe, leaving the safety net of Switzerland behind. He traveled to Austria, Italy, France, and Germany. Later, his curiosity took him to Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia.

World War I didn’t stop him from designing buildings like the Dom-Ino House (1914–15). In 1917, Le Corbusier moved permanently to Paris and later gained French citizenship. Up to World War II, he kept working in architecture and even painting, taking inspiration from the best artists of his generation. He even participated in postwar projects like the United Nations headquarters. Le Corbusier liked experimenting and sharing his ideas as a writer, architect, and designer.

He kept working until the end, and he even managed to leave his mark in the United States with the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The native Swiss creator died in 1965, leaving some projects unfinished but a lot of ideas and concepts for the following architecture and design generations.

Dom-ino House

Le Corbusier: Taking Inspiration Where He Found It

The architect’s travels were a source of wonder and inspiration for the young creator. For example, in Florence, Italy, he saw the housing project of Charterhouse in Galluzzo, which he admired for its structure and organization. In Vienna, he was the guest of the famous painter Gustav Klimt, which fueled his love for painting. Then, in Paris, he met the master of concrete blocks, the architect Auguste Perret, an innovation Le Corbusier would later use in his buildings.

In Germany, he worked alongside influential names of European modernism, like Mies van der Rohe, who would become an example of functionality and simplicity. Back in Italy, the native Swiss creator visited the historical site of Pompeii, and then he later traveled to Rome, taking inspiration like a sponge from the country’s beauty.

When he moved to Paris, Le Corbusier became part of the local artists’ community, absorbing like a sponge the teachings of painters like Amédée Ozenfant. Two created a new movement: Purism. This movement focused on rationality, and its manifesto included concepts such as:

  • Using techniques that reflect the artist’s ideas instead of messy executions
  • The idea has to be organized and structured, with a precise concept and plan
  • Nothing too fancy or romantic because purism focuses on the pureness of the techniques, the work, and the materials

While this movement started as a painter’s aesthetic, it showed the ideology of Le Corbusier, who applied the same concepts to architecture and design. Since he lived in the era of modernism and the industrial boom, his buildings and creations were rational, useful, and without ornamentation. It was minimalism before minimalism even existed.

And Inspiring Others

During his career, the native Swiss creator collaborated with his contemporaries, sharing his work with architects, painters, and designers. He wasn’t afraid to share the glory as soon as he shared it with like-minded people. One of his famous collaborations was with Pierre Jeanneret, and it produced a house with spare interiors and exteriors, empty spaces (and walls), and industrial-inspired furniture.

Le Corbusier shared his views on art, modern living, and architecture in his writings. For example, the book The Decorative Art of Today (1925). The central idea of this book is:

Modern art doesn’t have any decoration.

Modern art had to be barren, spare, and minimal in all forms, from painting to design. There was no space for frills, unlike the contemporary movement that was spreading in the United States with architects like Frank Lloyd Wright. On the other hand, Le Corbusier didn’t appreciate decoration, which he wrote was “a small abominable perversion.” The fewer frills, the better; the less color, the better; and the less clutter, the better. He also criticized the artists who were inspired by Eastern styles. To him, “decor is not necessary. Art is necessary.”

To him, three adjectives defined modern art and made it worth it:

  1. Convenient
  2. Functional
  3. Luxurious

He also liked to reiterate the importance of execution. The final result? A useful space without any ornaments reflects the industrial society’s needs: working (and producing) without any distractions. In his mind, urban housing had to come from mass production in each detail, from the construction materials to the objects inside.

While not all of his contemporaries agreed with these views, Le Corbusier inspired others who wanted to detach themselves from traditional (and more ornamental) art. Somehow, he would later inspire the “Art Deco” movement.

The Most Notable Projects by Le Corbusier

First and foremost, he was born as an architect, his first love of the arts. He showed his passion for industrial products like metal and glass early in his career and projects. In these buildings, more traditional materials didn’t find much space. Instead, Le Corbusier preferred concrete, a resource he described as flexible and plastic. The creator stayed true to himself, from his first architectural projects to his last ones, although the evolution is visible.

Throughout his career, Le Corbusier used one element, from his villas to his urban housing projects: the pilotis, or pylon. These reinforced concrete structures raised the building from the ground. This had different purposes, such as letting the air circulate on the ground floor and letting the light in, especially the sunlight one. Plus, the houses, raised from the ground, were difficult to miss. The architect always made an impression.

Here are some of his most famous buildings:

  • One of his first projects was the house he built for his parents in 1912 in La-Chaux-de-Fonds. Also called the “Maison Blanche,” this building features horizontal lines and bright white walls (hence the nickname) and stands in contrast with the Swiss Alpine slopes. The Maison Blanche makes a statetement. Even in its interiors with a central salon and an open plan.

Maison Blanche by Le Corbusier

  • Over ten years later, specifically in 1925, Le Corbusier built the Esprit Nouveau Pavilion for the Paris International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts. For this project, he also collaborated with his friend Ozenfant, another representative of purism. With their pavilion, the two wanted to show the future of urban housing without any decorations or useless objects. The Pavillion featured a tree in the middle, glass windows, and an interior terrace. Every furniture or slight decor came from mass production instead of artisanship.

Esprit Nuveau Pavillon

  • After the Exhibition, Le Corbusier had gained fame. He started working all over France, building the famous Villa Savoye (1928-1931) in Poissy. Made of his signature (and beloved) reinforced building, this house is a true modernist masterpiece with elements such as an open-space ground floor, an open facade, and horizontal windows. The roof is also functional since it can be both a terrace and a garden, ensuring that nature is a part of the Villa Savoye. Much of the light is natural, and the three-story house features ramps, stairs, and some external terraces. The owners of the villa wanted to impress people who were entering the estate. And they chose the right architect for it.

Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier

  • Le Corbusier was part of France’s reconstruction after World War II’s destruction. The architect had the opportunity to build an urban housing project he believed in. It’s the “Unité habitation de grandeur conforme” in Marseille. In his project, the architect showcased his ideals. In fact, this project is functional and features a reinforced concrete framework, reinforced steel, and terraces in each of the 337 apartments. The housing project featured shops, eateries, and even a nursery school. The creator also designed the furniture and decorations that went into the flats, which were always functional.

Unité habitation de grandeur conforme Marseille

His Furniture and Designs

Every piece Le Corbusier designed adhered to his philosophy. Even furniture. His most famous creations are:

  • The armchairs LC1 and LC2 (1928-1929) are compact and light, made to fit the needs of industrial society. The two models feature a stainless steel frame, a leather covering, and an adjustable backrest. It was such a success that the Italian design company Cassina still produces it nowadays.

LC1 Arnchair by Le Corbusier for Cassina

LC2 Armchair by Cassina

  • The LC3 Sofa, also known as Fauteuil Grand Confort, dates back to the same years as the LC1 and LC2. It features a tubular frame and different configurations since it can be two- or three-seater. With polyurethane foam padding and in-fill paneling, the LC3 has become a classic of modernist furniture.

LC3 Lounge by Le Corbusier

  • The chaise lounge LC4 (1927-1928) features a tubular steel frame and cowhide upholstery.

LC4 Daybed by Le Corbusier for Cassina

  • The table LC6 was first introduced to the public at the Salon D’Automne in Paris in 1929. This modernist table features a clear distinction between the top and the base. The palette of colors also reflects the designer’s preferences, soft and unassuming. The company Cassina still produces the LC6 with multiple choices for the top, which can be made of glass, tinted thermoformed glass wood, or Carrara marble.

LC6 Table by Cassina

Sometimes, Le Corbusier chose the furniture for his buildings, like in the case of the urban housing plan in Marseille. Notably, most of his furniture pieces came from collaborations, specifically with Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand. Together, these designers create mass-production objects designed for everyone and ready-made furniture. The one-of-a-kind philosophy wasn’t part of the plan. Part of the plan was taking inspiration from designers like Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer, who both focused on functionality.

Criticism and Legacy

Throughout his long career, Le Corbusier received criticism for his views and for his character, which some people believed was challenging to deal with. Controversy was part of his career, just as much as modernism was, especially when it came to women like the journalist Taya Zinkin found out.

“We are not going to discuss architecture,” the architect told the journalist, “I hate talking shop to a woman. You should come to my room in Maiden’s Hotel in Delhi tomorrow evening. Now run along; don’t stand there wasting my time.” Zinkin left the room, but criticism followed Le Corbusier until the end. Perhaps he even looked for it.

“You don’t start a revolution by fighting the state but by presenting the solutions,” the architect is often cited as saying. He was ready to start his own revolution without asking for permission or saying “please.” Anyone who disagreed with him had to move along and not be part of Le Corbusier’s legacy.

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