Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, who chose to be known as Le Corbusier (October 6, 1887 – August 27, 1965), was a Swiss-French architect, designer, urbanist, writer and also painter, who is famous for being one of the pioneers of what now is called Modern architecture or the International Style. He was born in Switzerland and became a French citizen in his 30s.
He was a pioneer in studies of modern high design and was dedicated to providing better living conditions for the residents of crowded cities. His career spanned five decades, with his buildings constructed throughout central Europe, India, Russia, and one each in North and South America. He was also an urban planner, painter, sculptor, writer, and modern furniture designer.
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, which is just five kilometres across the border from France. He attended a kindergarten that used Fröbelian methods.
Le Corbusier 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 large influence on Le Corbusier's earliest houses.
In his early years he would frequently escape the somewhat provincial atmosphere of his hometown by travelling around Europe. About 1907, he travelled to Paris, where he found work in the office of Auguste Perret, the French pioneer of reinforced concrete. Between October 1910 and March 1911, he worked near Berlin for the renowned architect Peter Behrens, where he might have met Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. He became fluent in German. Both of these experiences proved influential in his later career.
Later in 1911, he journeyed to the Balkans and visited Greece and Turkey, filling sketchbooks with renderings of what he saw, including many famous sketches of the Parthenon, whose forms he would later praise in his work Vers une architecture (1923) (towards an architecture).
Le Corbusier taught at his old school in La-Chaux-de-Fonds during World War I, 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 (1914-1915). 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 for the next ten years. Soon he would begin his own architectural practice with his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret (1896-1967), a partnership that would last until 1940.
In 1918, Le Corbusier met the disillusioned Cubist painter, Amédée Ozenfant, in whom he recognised 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 Jeanneret established the Purist journal L'Esprit nouveau. He was good friends with the Cubist artist Fernand Léger.
Studies into urbanism
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 a new organisational solution that would raise the quality of life of the lower classes. His Immeubles Villas (1922) was such a project that called for large blocks of cell-like individual apartments stacked one on top of the other, 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, soon Le Corbusier moved into studies for entire cities. In 1922, he also presented his scheme for a "Contemporary City" for three million inhabitants (Ville Contemporaine). The centrepiece of this plan was the group of sixty-storey, cruciform skyscrapers, steel-framed office buildings encased in huge curtain walls of glass. These skyscrapers were set within large, rectangular park-like green spaces. At the very middle was a huge transportation centre, that on different levels included depots for buses and trains, as well as highway intersections, and at the top, an airport. He had the fanciful notion that commercial airliners would land between the huge skyscrapers. Le Corbusier segregated pedestrian circulation paths from the roadways and glorified the use of the automobile as a means of transportation. As one moved out from the central skyscrapers, smaller low-storey, zigzag 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 Taylorist and Fordist strategies adopted from American industrial models to reorganise 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 this new industrial spirit, Le Corbusier contributed to a new journal called L'Esprit Nouveau that advocated the use of modern industrial techniques and strategies to transform society into a more efficient environment with a higher standard of living on all socioeconomic levels. He forcefully argued that this transformation was necessary to avoid the spectre of revolution, that would otherwise shake society. His dictum "Architecture or Revolution", developed in his articles in this journal, became his rallying cry for the book Vers une architecture (Toward an Architecture, previously mistranslated into English as Towards a New Architecture), which comprised selected articles he contributed to L'Esprit Nouveau between 1920 and 1923.
Theoretical urban schemes continued to occupy Le Corbusier. He exhibited his Plan Voisin, sponsored by another famous automobile manufacturer, in 1925. In it, he proposed to bulldoze most of central Paris, north of the Seine, and replace it with his sixty-story cruciform towers from the Contemporary City, placed in an orthogonal street grid and park-like green space. His scheme was met with only criticism and scorn from French politicians and industrialists, although they were favourable to the ideas of Taylorism and Fordism underlying Le Corbusier designs. Nonetheless, it did provoke discussion concerning how to deal with the cramped, dirty conditions that enveloped much of the city.
In the 1930s, Le Corbusier expanded and reformulated his ideas on urbanism, eventually publishing them in La Ville radieuse (The Radiant City) of 1935. Perhaps the most significant difference between the Contemporary City and the Radiant City is that the latter abandons the class-based stratification of the former; housing is now assigned according to family size, not economic position. La Ville radieuse also marks Le Corbusier's increasing dissatisfaction with capitalism and his turn to the right-wing syndicalism of Hubert Lagardelle. During the Vichy regime, Le Corbusier received a position on a planning committee and made designs for Algiers and other cities. The central government ultimately rejected his plans, and after 1942 Le Corbusier withdrew from political activity.
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 Marseilles (1946-1952). In the 1950s, a unique opportunity to translate the Radiant City on a grand scale presented itself in the construction of Chandigarh, the new capital for the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana. Le Corbusier was brought on to develop the plan of Albert Mayer.
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 be configured 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 which constitute the fourth point of his system. The fifth point was the Roof garden to compensate the green area consumed by the building and replacing it on the roof. A ramp rising from the 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. As if to put an exclamation point on Le Corbusier's homage to modern industry, the driveway around the ground floor, with its semicircular path, measures the exact turning radius of a 1927 Citroën automobile.
Le Corbusier explicitly used the golden ratio in his Modulor system for the scale of architectural proportion. He saw this system as a continuation of the long tradition of Vitruvius, Leonardo da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man", the work of Leon Battista Alberti, and others who used the proportions of the human body to improve the appearance and function of architecture. In addition to the golden ratio, Le Corbusier based the system on human measurements, Fibonacci numbers, and the double unit.
He took Leonardo's suggestion of the golden ratio in human proportions to an extreme: he sectioned his model human body's height at the navel with the two sections in golden ratio, then subdivided those sections in golden ratio at the knees and throat; he used these golden ratio proportions in the Modulor system.
Le Corbusier's 1927 Villa Stein in Garches exemplified the Modulor system's application. The villa's rectangular ground plan, elevation, and inner structure closely approximate golden rectangles.
Le Corbusier placed systems of harmony and proportion at the centre of his design philosophy, and his faith in the mathematical order of the universe was closely bound to the golden section and the Fibonacci series, which he described as "[...] rhythms apparent to the eye and clear in their relations with one another. And these rhythms are at the very root of human activities. They resound in Man by an organic inevitability, the same fine inevitability which causes the tracing out of the Golden Section by children, old men, savages, and the learned.