Le Corbusier Architecture Essays

Le Corbusier Essay

Le Corbusier

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret is an internationally known influential Swiss architect and city planner, whose designs combine the functionalism of the modern movement with a bold, sculptural expressionism. He belonged to the first generation of the so-called International school of architecture and was their most able propagandist in his numerous writings. In his architecture he joined the functionalist aspirations of his generation with a strong sense of expressionism. He was the first architect to make a studied use of rough-cast concrete, a technique that satisfied his taste for asceticism and for sculptural forms.

Education and early years

Le Corbusier was born in a small town in the mountainous Swiss Jura region, since the 18th century the world's centre of precision watchmaking. All his life he was marked by the harshness of these surroundings and the puritanism of a Protestant environment. At 13 years of age, Le Corbusier left primary school to learn the enamelling and engraving of watch faces, his father's trade, at the École des Arts Décoratifs at La Chaux-de-Fonds. There, Charles L'Eplattenier, whom Le Corbusier later called his only teacher, taught him art history, drawing, and the naturalist aesthetics of Art Nouveau.

It was L'Eplattenier who decided that Le Corbusier, having completed three years of studies, should become an architect and gave him his first practice on local projects.
From 1907 to 1911, on his advice, Le Corbusier undertook a series of trips that played a decisive role in the education of this self-taught architect. During these years of travel through central Europe and the Mediterranean, he made three major architectural discoveries. The Charterhouse of Ema at Galluzzo, in Tuscany, provided a contrast between vast collective spaces and "individual living cells" that formed the basis for his conception of residential buildings. Through the 16th-century Late Renaissance architecture of Andrea Palladio in the Veneto region of Italy and the ancient sites of Greece, he discovered classical proportion. Finally, popular architecture in the Mediterranean and in the Balkan peninsula gave him a repertory of geometric forms and also taught him the handling of light and the use of landscape as an architectural background.

At the age of 30 he returned to live in Paris, where his formation was completed a year later when he met the painter and designer Amédée Ozenfant, who introduced him to sophisticated contemporary art. Ozenfant initiated Le Corbusier into Purism, his new pictorial aesthetic that rejected the complicated abstractions of Cubism and returned to the pure, simple geometric forms of everyday objects. In 1918 they wrote and published together the Purist manifesto, Après le cubisme. In 1920, with the poet Paul Dermée, they founded a polemic avant-garde review, L'Esprit Nouveau. Open to the arts and humanities, with brilliant collaborators, it presented ideas in architecture and city...

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Architecture is the design of individual building and garden projects that make the realm of the voids visible, memorable and ultimately, useful. Crucial to the making of any city is the clear distinction of such projects by scale and character. Firstly, the definition of buildings and landscape that builds an urban collective form, a fabric. And secondly, civic and community buildings and gardens, physically distinguishable by their institutional purpose.

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Le Corbusier, the great Swiss Architect is often mistaken as being of French origin. In actuality, he was born in 1887 as Charles Edouard Jeanneret in La Chaux-de-fonds, a watch-making city in Switzerland. He left school at age 13 to learn the trade of engraving watch faces. Encouraged by a local art teacher he taught himself architecture, travelling throughout Europe to observe architectural styles. Settling in Paris in 1917, he met Ozenfant, who introduced him to Purism, and with whom he collaborated in writing several articles under his pseudonym (the name of a relative on his father's side). His main interest was large urban projects and city planning. Many of his designs were rejected, but they influenced other architects throughout the world. Examples of his work are the Unité d'habitation, Marseille (1945--50); Chandigarh, the new capital of the Punjab; the Swiss Dormitory in the Cité Universitaire in Paris; and the Exposition Pavilion in Zürich.

In 1920 he started publishing his magazine L'Esprit Nouveau, until his death in 1965. He inspired several generations of architects not only in Europe but also around the world. He was more than a mercurial innovator. Irascible, caustic, Calvinistic, Corbusier was modern architecture's conscience.

One of the most famous houses of the modern movement in architecture, the Villa Savoye is a masterpiece of Le Corbusier's purist design. It is perhaps the best example of Le Corbusier's goal to create a house which would be a "machine a habiter," a machine for living (in). Located in a suburb near Paris, the house is as beautiful and functional as a machine.

The Villa Savoye was the culmination of many years of design, and the basis for much of Le Corbusier's later architecture. Although it looks severe in photographs, it is a complex and visually stimulating structure. As with his church of Notre Dame du Haute, Ronchamp, the building looks different from every angle. After falling into disrepair after the war, the house has been restored and is open to the public.

In 1922, Le Corbusier created a City for Three Million, a vast landscape of identical skyscraper monoliths that appealed to the aggressive urban futurism of the twenties. Transportation was clean, organized, and partially invisible: Subways would run beneath the vast city of towers, and planes would land in the center, cutting seamlessly among the buildings on their way in. "I relied on the sure paths of reason," Le Corbusier wrote of his design, "and having absorbed the romanticism of the past, I felt able to give myself up to that of our own age, which I love. My friends, astonished to see me so deliberately passing over immediate considerations, said, 'All this is for the year 2000!' Everywhere journalists wrote of it as the 'city of the future.' Yet I had called it 'A Contemporary City' -- contemporary because tomorrow belongs to nobody."

Le Corbusier's City for Three Million was, like many of his creations, predicated on the idea that great modern cities could only function if order and efficiency were at the heart. Aim for efficiency first, he believed, and then follow it up with noble aesthetic design. He believed, too, that social unrest was largely tied to a lack of buildings suited to the needs of workers, arguing that good design could rescue societies from social unrest; the choice, he said, was "architecture or revolution."

Le Corbusier loved Manhattan, its newness, its Cartesian regularity, and its tall buildings. He had only one reservation, which he revealed on landing in New York City in 1935. The next day, a headline in the Herald Tribune informed its readers that the celebrated architect finds American skyscrapers much too small. Le Corbusier always thought big. He once proposed replacing a large part of the center of Paris with 18 sixty-story towers; that made headlines too.

When he was 29, he went to Paris, where he soon after adopted his maternal grandfather's name, Le Corbusier, as his pseudonym. Jeanneret had been a small-town architect; Le Corbusier was a visionary. He believed that architecture had lost its way. Art Nouveau, all curves and sinuous decorations, had burned itself out in a brilliant burst of exuberance; the seductive Art Deco style promised to do the same. The Arts and Crafts movement had adherents all over Europe, but as the name implies, it was hardly representative of an industrial age. Le Corbusier maintained that this new age deserved a brand-new architecture. "We must start again from zero," he proclaimed.

The new architecture came to be known as the International Style. Of its many partisans--among them Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius in Germany, Theo van Doesburg in Holland--none was better known than Le Corbusier. He was a tireless proselytizer, addressing the public in manifestos, pamphlets, exhibitions and his own magazine. He wrote books on interior decoration, painting and architecture. They resembled instruction manuals. An example is his recipe for the International Style: raise the building on stilts, mix in a free-flowing floor plan, make the walls independent of the structure, add horizontal strip windows and top it off with a roof garden. What is most memorable about the austere, white-walled villas that he built after World War I in and around Paris is their cool beauty and their airy sense of space. "A house is a machine for living in," he wrote. The machines he admired most were ocean liners, and his architecture spoke of sun and wind and the sea.

By 1950 he had changed course, abandoning Purism, as he called it, for something more robust and sculptural. His spartan, lightweight architecture turned rustic, with heavy walls of brick and fieldstone and splashes of bright color. He discovered the potential of reinforced concrete and made it his own, leaving the material crudely unfinished, inside and out, the marks of wooden formwork plainly visible. Concrete allowed Le Corbusier to explore unusual shapes. The billowing roof of the chapel at Ronchamp resembles a nun's wimple; the studios of the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard push out of the building like huge cellos. For the state capital of Chandigarh in India, he created a temple precinct of heroic structures that appear prehistoric.

Le Corbusier says, "Modern town planning comes to birth with a new architecture," he wrote in a book titled simply Urbanism. "By this immense step in evolution, so brutal and so overwhelming, we burn our bridges and break with the past." There were to be no more congested streets and sidewalks, no more bustling public squares, no more untidy neighborhoods. People would live in hygienic, regimented high-rise towers, set far apart in a park-like landscape. This rational city would be separated into discrete zones for working, living and leisure. Above all, everything should be done on a big scale--big buildings, big open spaces, big urban highways.

He called it La Ville Radieuse, the Radiant City. Wherever it was tried--in Chandigarh by Le Corbusier himself or in Brasilia by his followers--it failed. Standardization proved inhuman and disorienting. The open spaces were inhospitable; the bureaucratically imposed plan, socially destructive. In the U.S., the Radiant City took the form of vast urban-renewal schemes and regimented public housing projects that damaged the urban fabric beyond repair. Today these megaprojects are being dismantled, as superblocks give way to rows of houses fronting streets and sidewalks. Downtowns have discovered that combining, not separating, different activities is the key to success. So is the presence of lively residential neighborhoods, old as well as new. Cities have learned that preserving history makes a lot more sense than starting from zero. It has been an expensive lesson, and not one that Le Corbusier intended, but it too is part of his legacy.

He died in the Mediterranean in 1965.

The following are celebrated quotes form Le Corbusier: “Architecture is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light.” (1)

“I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster, and allows less room for lies.” (2)

“The materials of city planning are: sky, space, trees, steel and cement; in that order and that hierarchy.” (3)

“Our own epoch is determining, day by day, its own style. Our eyes, unhappily, are unable yet to discern it.” (4)

“A hundred times have I thought New York is a catastrophe and fifty times: It is a beautiful catastrophe.” (5)

Le Corbusier himself considered his creations in the domain of visual arts of primary importance and proclaimed that his architectural creations flowed from them. His noteworthy statement "there are no sculptors only, no painters only, no architects only, the plastic incident fulfills itself in an overall form in the service of poetry." explains his global commitment to the visual arts.

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