Le Corbusier was a complex character. I was first introduced to his work as a university student, young and impressionable. He brought about a desire for me to understand the way in which we live, an effect that has been long lasting. His work centres on trying to make sense of the world through architecture.
There is so much to tell, I am not sure where to begin.
Le Corbusier was born Charles Edouard Jeanneret in a Swiss Village in 1887. Early on he showed interest in the decorative arts. As a young man he travelled Europe extensively and these experiences strongly influenced his desire to become an architect. At the age of thirty he moved permanently to Paris, at this time he was engaged in both the arts and architecture. During 1920 he wrote a manifesto with artist Amedee Ozenfant, titled ‘après le Cubism’ (after Cubism). It was a criticism of highly decorative art and architecture and an ode to a new artistic movement he labelled Purism.
I wish you didn’t name the Cubist movement a ‘romantic cobweb’. I fear you will be misunderstood. I see your desire to bring order to this busy world. When I look at your paintings I see the beauty in their simplicity. With such ease you direct my gaze, I see earthy nature and stillness. I note you have changed your name, you will always be Charles to me. It is just as you say…there are “Eyes that see and eyes that do not see”.
Shortly after his Manifesto on Purism Le Corbusier realised his passion lay in architecture. In 1925 he completed the Esprit Nouveau Pavilion in Paris for an important International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Industrial Arts. It was designed with Amedee Ozenfant and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret. Built in a simple standardised modernist style with little decoration, it was widely criticised by the exhibition authorities and journalists. Le Corbusier stated at the time that “Right now one thing is for sure, 1925 marks the turning point between old and new”. Within months of the exhibition Le Corbusier had a dozen housing projects in Paris. He quickly became a well-established architect with his own unique style. A simplicity of form with a strong focus on function.
In 1928 he began work on Villa Savoye, a home that was to become iconic of modernist architecture. Villa Savoye was completed in 1931. The home was a purified example of Le Corbusier’s five points of architecture. It had reinforced concrete columns, free design of the ground plan and façade, horizontal windows and a roof garden. So brilliant was this home he announced to the public that it was “Poetry and lyricism supported by technique”. The house leaked continuously, and the owners complained ferociously. Le Corbusier was virulent in his own defence and widely accused of being arrogant in public. But there was no denying this house was visionary and it went on to lead a new international modernist style. At this time Le Corbusier also got married to a model named Yvonne Gallis. They were together for twenty-seven years until she died in 1957. By all accounts he was an attentive husband although not a faithful one. He conducted a long term affair with Marguerite Tjader Harris.
Charles, when you pontificate with such enthusiasm they do not see you. They do not see your erudite doubtfulness, that you swing from being elated to depressed in turns. They do not see how generous you are in private. You should never have told them about her, especially not shortly after your wife died. They do not understand it is possible to love two women at once.
Le Corbusier wrote more than fifty books during his long career, expounding his numerous theories on how people should live, frequently implying the uneducated masses needed to be saved from themselves. For a period of eighteen months he worked on urban planning designs for the Vichy government. This has caused significant concern to historians recently. Was he also a Nazi sympathizer? There is no doubt he was an ideologist, but his focus remained firmly on the potential of architecture. It was always about the building and the buildings ability to provide. In some ways his point of view was utopic. On housing he said, “what modern man wants is a monk’s cell, well-lit and heated, with a corner from which he can look at the stars”. So there exists a dichotomy within this narrative. Always striving for a modern, standardised profound simplicity but leaving a little space for the stars, for dreaming and wonder.
Charles when you told me you “prefer drawing to talking” I didn’t understand. But now all of this time has passed, I see what you mean. They pore over all of your words, searching for the truth, but they forget you were an architect. They are trying to decide if you are still worthy of their adoration. Do they not look to your buildings? I think it was right of you to say, “drawing is faster and leaves less room for lies”.
Over the course of his career Le Corbusier completed projects in fourteen countries, many of them large institutional projects. Perhaps one of the most famous was the building of a city for the Indian government in Chandigarh, begun in 1952. The buildings are a fine example of Le Corbusier’s five points of architecture. Chandigarh has been lauded as one of the most successful planned urbanisations in modern history. Chandigarh is also the site for Le Corbusier’s largest open hand sculpture, it stands twenty-six meters tall. Le Corbusier designed the open hand to be a sign of peace and reconciliation. It is open to give and receive.
Le Corbusier was recognised during his lifetime with awards of the highest order in both France and America. His contribution to modern architecture continues to be influential today. In 2016 UNESCO added seventeen Le Corbusier sites to the World Heritage List. These projects were completed over a fifty year period and represent both his residential Villa Style homes and his large institutional projects. Le Corbusier died in 1965 at the age of seventy-eight. He had pre-determined that his grave would be inscribed with his birth name Charles Edouard Jeanneret. Underneath that in quotation “Le Corbusier”.
When you cast that spell on me all those years ago I could never have imagined you less than good. I think your life was dedicated to an exploration of temporality and where we find our place in this beautiful world. I remember you said “To be modern is not a fashion, it is a state. It is necessary to understand history, and he who understands history knows how to find continuity between that which was, this which is and that which will be” I think about you often.
To learn more about Le Corbusier