Today is the birthday (1887) of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier, a Swiss-French architect, designer, painter, urban planner, writer, and one of the pioneers of what is now called modern architecture. He was born in Switzerland and became a French citizen in 1930. His career spanned five decades, with his buildings constructed throughout Europe, India, and the Americas. Dedicated to providing better living conditions for the residents of crowded cities, Le Corbusier was influential in urban planning, and was a founding member of the Congrès international d’architecture moderne (CIAM).
He 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 kilometers (3.1 mi) across the border from France. Young Jeanneret 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 major influence on Le Corbusier’s earliest house designs.
In his early years he would frequently escape the somewhat provincial atmosphere of his hometown by traveling around Europe. In September 1907, he made his first trip outside of Switzerland, going to Italy; then that winter traveling through Budapest to Vienna where he would stay for four months and meet Gustav Klimt and Josef Hoffman. At around 1908, he traveled to Paris, where he found work in the office of Auguste Perret, the French pioneer of reinforced concrete. It was during both his trip to Italy and his employment at Perret’s office that he began to form his own ideas about architecture. Between October 1910 and March 1911, he worked near Berlin for the renowned architect Peter Behrens. More than anything during this period, it was his visit to the Charterhouse of the Valley of Ema that influenced his architectural philosophy profoundly for the rest of his life. He believed that all people should have the opportunity to live as beautifully and peacefully as the monks he witnessed in the sanctuaries at the Charterhouse.
Later in 1911, he journeyed to the Balkans and visited Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece, filling nearly 80 sketchbooks with renderings of what he saw—including many 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”).
During World War I, Le Corbusier taught at his old school in La-Chaux-de-Fonds, 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 (1914–15). 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 over the next ten years. Soon he began his own architectural practice with his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret (1896–1967), a partnership that would last until the 1950s, with an interruption in the World War II years, because of Le Corbusier’s ambivalent position towards the Vichy regime.
In 1918, Le Corbusier met the Cubist painter Amédée Ozenfant, in whom he recognized 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.
Between 1918 and 1922, Le Corbusier did not build anything, concentrating his efforts on Purist theory and painting. In 1922, he and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret 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 facades to include large uninterrupted banks of windows. The house used a rectangular plan, with exterior walls that were not filled by windows but 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. Such Spartan clean lines for walls and furnishings became Le Corbusier’s trademark.
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 Jeanneret designed and built the Villa Lipschitz, Maison Cook, Maison Planeix, and the Maison La Roche/Albert Jeanneret, which now houses the Fondation Le Corbusier.
For 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 an organizational solution that would raise the quality of life for the lower classes. His Immeubles Villas (1922) was such a project, calling for large blocks of cell-like individual apartments stacked one on top of one another, 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, Le Corbusier soon moved into studies for entire cities. In 1922 he presented his scheme for a “Contemporary City” (Ville Contemporaine) for three million inhabitants. The centerpiece of this plan was the group of sixty-story cruciform skyscrapers, steel-framed office buildings encased in huge curtain walls of glass. Referred to as towers in a park, 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. Le Corbusier had the fanciful notion that commercial airliners would land between the huge skyscrapers. He segregated pedestrian circulation paths from the roadways and glorified the automobile as a means of transportation. As one moved out from the central skyscrapers, smaller low-story, zig-zag 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 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 the 1930s, Le Corbusier expanded and reformulated his ideas on urbanism, eventually publishing them in La Ville radieuse (The Radiant City) in 1935. Perhaps the most significant difference between the Contemporary City and the Radiant City is that the latter abandoned the class-based stratification of the former; housing was 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. Although Le Corbusier’s designs for Stockholm did not succeed, later architects took his ideas and incorporated them.
After 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 Marseille (1946–52). 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 India’s first planned city. 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.
Against 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 suffered a heart attack. His funeral took place in 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.
During his career, Le Corbusier developed a set of architectural principles that dictated his technique, which he called “the Five Points of a New Architecture” and were most evident in his Villa Savoye. The five points are:
- Pilotis – Replacement of supporting walls by a grid of reinforced concrete columns that bears the structural load is the basis of the new aesthetic.
- The free designing of the ground plan—the absence of supporting walls—means the house is unrestrained in its internal use.
- The free design of the façade—separating the exterior of the building from its structural function—sets the façade free from structural constraints.
- The horizontal window, which cuts the façade along its entire length, lights rooms equally.
- Roof gardens on a flat roof can serve a domestic purpose while providing essential protection to the concrete roof.
It 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 configure 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 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. The driveway around the ground floor, with its semicircular path, measures the exact turning radius of a 1927 Citroën.
A kitchen designed by Le Corbusier is on display at MoMA in New York City. In it you see his desire for clean efficiency – rather like an ocean liner galley. I’m in favor of the general idea although not this particular design. The kitchen sits in the middle of an open plan living space – isolated from seating areas by a sliding-panel wall which can be opened to pass food through.
Le Corbusier’s birthplace of Neuchâtel is noted for several culinary delights, including absinthe which was first produced there in the 18th century, although its roots may be older. It is also home to a particular style of cheese fondue. I used to hold fondue parties as a young man, but don’t do them any more because I gave away all of my apparatus. But I still know what I am doing. The main thing is to encourage guests as they dip their bread to swirl the cheese mixture as it is apt to separate. If it does, add a little more warmed wine and mix.
Neuchâtel-style Cheese Fondue
1 clove garlic, split open
1 ½ cups shredded cheese, ½ emmanthaler and ½ gruyère
½ cup dry Neuchâtel white wine
3 tablespoons kirsch (or more to taste)
1 pinch pepper
1 pinch nutmeg
day-old French bread, torn into bite-sized pieces
Use a metal or ceramic fondue pot with a spirit burner, or a ceramic, thermostatically controlled one. In the latter case, prepare the cheese mix on the stove in a saucepan and transfer it to the pot.
Rub the inside of the pot well with the garlic (and leave it in if you wish). Heat the wine gently until it bubbles slightly.
Toss the cheese with a little flour and add it slowly to the warming pot, whisking vigorously. When all the cheese is melted, add the kirsch, pepper and nutmeg, whisk quickly and bring to the table.
Spear the bread pieces with fondue forks and swirl them in the cheese mix. Let the cheese cool slightly and eat the morsel whole. It can be washed down with more Neuchâtel wine. Halfway through it is traditional to have a toast with kirsch.