Le Corbusier

1887 - 1965

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, who was later to take the name of Le Corbusier, was born in 1887 at La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, the son of an engraver.

From 1901 he studied at the art school of his native town (a 19th century foundation for the training of engravers for the watch industry) and in 1902 he made an engraved clock, which was exhibited at the Turin exhibition and much admired. The young man had already shown a gift for drawing and was always to "cultivate a taste for art in a quiet little corner of my being", but his interest was first directed towards architecture by the painter and sculptor Charles L'Eplattenier, then a professor at the school.

In 1905, when scarcely eighteen, Jeanneret received his first commission: to design and build a villa for a member of the faculty of the art school. By 1908 he had designed two further villas in La Chaux-de-Fonds, but most of the years 1907-11 were taken up with travel. He went to Italy, Hungary and Austria (where he met Josef Hoffmann, the leader of the Vienna Workshop - Wiener Werkstaette). In France he met Tony Garnier and worked in Paris for fifteen months under Auguste Perret, the celebrated pioneer in the use of reinforced concrete. In Germany he worked under Peter Behrens, whose knowledge of design and industrial planning made the young man realize the importance of industry, and studied the activities of the Deutscher Werkbund.

After further travels in the Balkans and Asia Minor, he returned to La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1912 to take up an appointment at the art school and devoted the next five years largely to teaching.


Jeanneret's first plans for Dom-ino houses date from 1914. Dom-ino was simple statement about the possibilities of reinforced-concrete construction: a frame of six columns, set back from the edges not unlike the six dots of a domino piece, supporting floating floor and roof slabs, with a cantilevered stair linking the different levels to the ground and the roof. Experimentation with this model provided Le Corbusier with the basis for his Five Points of Architecture. This standardized prefabricated framework of floors, stairs and load-bearing columns were the only fixed parts of the house; everything else was nonstructural and hence entirely flexible - allowing an open plan and non-structural façades. The walls, windows, etc were independent and could be added in any arrangement and style that appealed to the owner.

The system was intended to provide a rapid means of making good the damage World War I was causing, but the war dragged on and it remained only a plan. "I gabble elementary geometry; I am possessed with the color white, the cube, the sphere, the cylinder and the pyramid. Prisms rise and balance each other, setting up rhythms in midday sun the cubes open out into surface, at nightfall a rainbow seems to rise from forms in the morning they are real, casting light and shadow and sharply outlined as a drawing. We should no longer be artist, but rather penetrate the age, fuse it until we are indistinguishable. We too are distinguished, great and worthy of past ages. We shall even do better still, that is my belief" (Le Corbusier 1911)

In 1917 Jeanneret settled in Paris, where he produced his first paintings, and formed friendship with the painter Ozenfant, because of the difficulty of obtaining architectural commissions during the war he came to consider himself as more a painter than an architect. The next year, together with Ozenfant, he held his first exhibition and the two of them founded the Purist movement and published its manifesto Après le cubisme. The poet Paul Dermée joined them in 1920 to found L'Esprit Nouveau, a magazine devoted to all the arts as well as psychology, economics, politics, architecture and industrial design. It was at this point that Jeanneret adopted the name

Le Corbusier, applying it to his architectural work and writings to distinguish them from his paintings which, for a time, he continued to sign 'Jeanneret'. In 1922, together with his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, Le Corbusier set up his famous studio in the Rue de Sèvres. This was the beginning of his most productive period. In the same year he designed Ozenfant's house and exhibited designs for a 'Ville Contemporaine', capable of housing three million people, at the Salon d'Automne; in 1923 be published Vers une architecture, a re-working of some of his articles in L'Esprit Nouveau; in 1923-4 he designed the La Roche house at Auteuil; he designed the Esprit Nouveau pavilion at the 1925 Exhibition of Decorative Art (a cell from the 'villa-apartment' blocks already planned for the 'Ville Contemporaine') and showed in it his 'Voisin Plan' for the rebuilding of the centre of Paris. In 1925 Le Corbusier was commissioned by the Bordeaux industrialist Monsieur Frugès to design and build two hundred houses at Pessac. However the project met with great local hostility and only forty were eventually built.

Two years later he built two houses for the second International Exposition of the Deutscher Werkbund at Stuttgart. One of these was of the 'Citrohan' mass-production type first studied in 1920. It had two load-bearing side walls, the end walls being largely glazed, a flat roof with an elaborate roof garden, with guest-rooms located in a samll penthouse superstructure; inside, the living-room, where most time would be spent, took up half the area and the whole height, while a gallery divided the rest of the house into ground and first floors containing the other rooms. A spiral stair connected the living level to the sleeping areas and formed a sculptural counterpoint to the severe, rectilinear geometry of the hollow cube that was the interior. Here in the Citrohan house was the first development of one of Corbusier's major spatial ideas: the creation of interlocking spaces of different but related heights. The two-to-one interior space - has been a recurrent theme in all of Le Corbusier's work ever since Citrohan.

The other house was designed around an ingenious arrangement whereby movable partitions converted an open-plan day-time living area into small enclosed sleeping compartments at night. These designs embody Le Corbusier's five points', which were published at the time of the Exposition: first the pilotis, the use of reinforced concrete columns to raise the house above the ground, in conjunction with rigid floors of the same material, to form a rigid load-bearing skeleton, thus permiting the garden to continue under and through the building. Second, the use of roof-gardens, for privacy and to ensure even humidity in the concrete structure thus allowing the ground captured by the building to be freed creating parks in the sky. Thirdly, the open plan, the result of a structural system of a very few widely spaced columns which do not require the support of closely spaced interior walls, thus permiting free and open interior planning in the arrangement of partitions and other space divisions. Fourth, ribbon glazing; horizontal rather than vertical windows, extending from one structural column all the way over to the next one, to provide a more even distribution of light through the interior of the building - unlike the traditional window (a hole punched into a scructural wall) which according to Corbusier creates pockets of gloom next to rectangles of glaring light.

And, finally the free facade, exterior walls, which, released from their load-bearing function could be opened and closed at will, to satisfy functional or aesthetic requiements. These ideas of architecture would stick with him for the rest of his life. It was an architecture of the time, and it was likened to the machine - "practical machines for living in". It was this new 'machine aesthetic' that led him to a rationalization of the effect of the machine upon the production of architecture. With supreme clarity he discussed the problems and opportunities of mass production in building, recognizing that such mass production would mean adherance to certain dimensional standards.

Corbusier went back to the traditional Renaissance rules of measure and a proportional for a guide to some sort of modern unit system. He analysed the 'Goldern Section' - the famous proportional system of old. He realized from the start that a system based upon a 1 plus 1 plus 1 rhythm (ad infinitum) could only lead to monotony. To avoid this Corbusier felt that a system not of identical units but a related proportions was the answer to the mass production of building parts. The Greeks 'Golden Section' represented a possible approach, it took him 20 years to develop a more refined system - a system he called the Modulor - to serve the needs of mass production today. The Modulor, with its proportionate scale, makes possible an infinite number of variations within a unit system of construction. To him it was clear that architecture in the 20th century could no longer be the isolated building, the individual house.

The city as a whole was architecture: its basic organization, its spatial relationships, its forms, its levels of activity, its heart - all these seemed to Corbusier of supreme significance, of much greater imprtance even than the development (or absence) of a style. Throughout his life Corbusier had searched for a rule of law in art. Corbusier's concept of a rule of law is intimately tied to a rule of life; and his Modulor system is a beautiful expression of what he means. Le Corbusier and his colleagues developed the Modulor, a harmonious measure to the human scale, universally applicable to architecture and mechanics. '...a range of dimensions which makes the bad difficult and the good easy' (Albert Einstein). The Modulor is based on two lines, arrived at via the Goldern Section and related to the proportions of the human body. The Modulor starts with the division of the height of a man into two proportions, at the waistline. These two proportions, according to Corbusier govern all other dimensions of the human body: for example, a man with his arm naturally upraised creates another Modulor proportion, the distance between his head and his waist being in the proper relation to the distance between his head and his fingertips.

Starting with this interlocking system of proportions - fingertips to head to waistline to soles of feet - Corbusier developed a gradually diminishing scale of proportionate dimensions. The initial dimension is 7 foot 5 inches (226cm) - an upright man with his hand raised - AND half that, 3 foot 9 inches (113cm) - a man's height is taken as 6 foot (183cm). In Corbusier's studio at 35 rue de Sèvres each draughtsman and designer had a list of related Modulor dimensions pinned up on the wall next to his or her drawing-board. The list consists of only two columns of ten numbers each. According to Corbusier this proportionate scale was applicable to the design of anything and had the added advantage: it is apparently the only numerical scale that relates to foot-and-inch system to the metric system and vice versa. Le Corbusier applied the use this scale of proportions in everything he designed. In 1950, when he began to build the Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp in France, (pictured right), he used the Modulor to determine the spacing of his window divisions, and the result was a façade that was vibrant with movement, and ever changing light. Le Corbusier's entry in the 1927 competition for the Palace of the League of Nations at Geneva failed to win first prize, which led to a public outcry, lawsuits and acrimony; this experience led him to seek out other architects of the modern movement in order to make common cause in identifying and developing new ideas in the face of opposition from established institutions. As a result the ClAM (International Congress of Modern Architecture) was founded and the first Congress held at the Chateau de La Sarraz, near Lausanne, in 1928.

In the same year Le Corbusier designed furniture in collaboration with Pierre Jeanneret and Charolotte Perriand, which was shown at the Salon d'Automne, and planned the famous Villa Savoye at Poissy which was completed in 1930. He also designed the Centrosoyus Building in Moscow and in 1931 presented a design for the Palace of the Soviets, though the latter was rejected in favour of a more traditional design by the Russian architect Iofan, due to Stalinist repression of the cultural avant-garde. At this period Le Corbusier developed an increasing interest in town-planning, producing studies for São Paolo, Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo (in 1929), Geneva, Antwerp and Stockholm (in 1933) and Algiers (1930-4). In 1930 he was commissioned by the Committee of Swiss Universities to design the Swiss Pavilion for the Cité Universitaire in Paris, and this was followed by the Salvation Army Citadel in the same city.

In 1935 there was a lecture tour in the United States at the invitation of Nelson Rockefeller and the Museum of Modern Art, and the next year Le Corbusier was invited to advise on the building of the Ministry of Health and Education in Rio de Janeiro : this was the first of his buildings to include the brise-soleil (sun-break). During World War II he retired to Southern France and devoted himself mainly to painting and writing. In 1943 he published La Charte d'Athenes (The Athens Charter) based on the discussions of the fourth ClAM Congress at Athens in 1933, which was to become one of the basic text-books of modern town-planning. In 1945 and 1946 he prepared town plans for Saint-Dié and La Rochelle-Pallice. Since 1945 he had been developing the concept of the unite d'habitation for the French Ministry of Reconstruction.

This was a complex containing residential units together with the services they required (shops, schools etc.); construction of the first of these unités began in Marseilles in 1947 and others followed in Nantes, Berlin , Meaux and Briey en Foret. In these buildings Le Corbusier began to make use of something he had been developing since the war years: the 'Modulor' system of proportional modulor measurements based on the stature of a man rather than on mathematical concepts. In 1950 Le Corbusier undertook the design of the Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp which was followed, three years later, by the monastery of The Convent of Saint-Marie de la Tourette near Lyons. Most of the 1950s, however, were devoted to Chandigarh , the new capital of the Punjab for which he drew up a master plan and went on to design the major public buildings. At the same time he was responsible for a number of houses and a museum at Ahmedabad. The 1961-2 plans for rebuilding the centre of Berlin and for the Olivetti Electronic Centre near Milan were not carried out. The hospital in Venice was left unfinished when Le Corbusier died of a heart attack while bathing at Cap Martin on 27 August 1965.

Foto: Karolinsky-Archive