Le Corbusier

By Laura Gray

Charles Edouard Jeanneret was born on October 6, 1887, in LaChaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland.  He was expected to become a watch-maker, but he was accepted into an art school, Ecole d’Art, where he was taught by L’Eplanntenier who told Jeanneret to study architecture as well as painting.[1]  Jeanneret became much better known as an architect than as a painter.  In 1923, he created the pseudonym, Le Corbusier, to distinguish his work as an architect from his work as a painter.  Le Corbusier is known as much for his buildings as he is for his theories about architecture.  Along with Amédée Ozenfant, Le Corbusier defined and developed Purism as a modern movement that embraced clean lines and a move away from the chaotic.  He embraced machine-like technology, mathematical precision, and scientific discovery that served to celebrate modernism and the prowess of man; however, it is not his embrace of modernism that makes Le Corbusier innovative.  He is a master artist and architect, because he blends aesthetic with functionality and modernity with nature in an attempt to maintain balance.

Le Corbusier’s interest in balance was largely influenced by his relationship with Ozenfant who criticized Cubism for being too superficial and decorative.  They met in 1917, and their partnership lasted until 1925.   They stopped working together because they could not agree who deserved credit for their joint work.  Between 1917 and 1925, Le Corbusier and Ozenfant wrote many texts about the direction they thought art should take.  Two of their biggest contributions were Après le Cubisme (After Cubism) and L’Esprit Nouveau (The New Spirit).  Après le Cubisme was a novel that served as a manifesto, stating that they wanted to move away from purely ornamental art.  L’Esprit Nouveau advocated the return to classical order, mathematical precision, and simplicity.  The relationship between Le Corbusier and Ozenfant helped them explicitly define the goals of the Purist Movement and publish these goals to influence the public.

Le Corbusier’s and Ozenfant’s goals for Purism are expressed in an article that was published in L’Esprit Nouveau.  They argue that there is a hierarchy in art and that mathematical precision is the highest level of art, because it is ordered.[2]  Purists strive to create order in their work, because they think that orderly artworks make people feel happier and transcendent.  Many of Le Corbusier’s and Ozenfant’s ideas resulted from the chaos caused in France after World War I.  Purism was part of the Return to Order Movement, in which artists attempted to repair the devastation caused by the war.  Purists attempted to “return to order” in a number of ways, such as rejecting the chaos in abstraction.  Their artwork was simplified, embracing clean lines and primary colors.  Purists also embraced industrialism and mechanization as orderly.  They looked to industrial, mass produced products as a way of improving society by creating affordable and accessible objects.

The Purist glorification of man-made objects is evidenced in Le Corbusier’s painting, Still Life, and Fernand Léger’s painting, The BalusterStill Life is a painting of guitars and bottles, which are significant because they are not unique looking, suggesting that they are ordinary, mass produced items.  Along with the accessibility of these industrialized items, Le Corbusier’s Still Life contains round shapes to stress the importance of geometric, mathematical figures.  The circle represents the most perfect, pure, and orderly shape.  Both Still Life and The Baluster are still life paintings, which appealed to Purists because the objects in these paintings are static and appear more orderly than if the objects were depicted as moving.  Fernand Léger did not wholly subscribe to the Purist Movement, but he created some Purists paintings, such as The Baluster.  Le Corbusier hung The Baluster in a model house, because it depicts a classical column, representing not only Le Corbusier’s attraction to static objects but also his obsession with timelessness.  Purists attempted to create a balance between traditional and modern by depicting classical objects, such as Leger’s column in The Baluster, and by using modern methods of primary, muted colors and clean, black lines.

The most important classical influence on Le Corbusier’s work was his adoption of the Golden Ratio, which was used to construct many classical buildings.  Purists used the Golden Ratio in their artworks, because they thought it represented the mathematical precision that made their artwork aesthetically pleasing as well as transcendent.  Peter Blake explains the way in which Le Corbusier modified the Golden Ratio to fit his own needs as an artist:

The Greeks’ ‘Golden Section’ represented a possible approach; it took him twenty years to develop a more refined system- a system he has called the Modular- to            serve the needs of the mass production today. Those needs as he saw them from       the start, were to facilitate prefabrication while avoiding repetitive monotony. The        Modular, with its proportionate scale, makes possible an infinite number of            variations within a unit system of construction.[3]

The Modular is Le Corbusier’s way of reconciling classical proportions with the needs of modern men.  He uses the proportions of classical precision and adjusts them, so that they can be combined in an infinite number of ways to create prefabricated houses to combat the destruction caused by World War I.

Le Corbusier attempted to demonstrate the ways he wanted to improve France, using the Modular, in his model of central Paris Voison Skyscrapers.  This plan was never realized, but it demonstrates Le Corbusier’s goals as an architect.  With the model of central Paris Voison Skyscrapers, Le Corbusier attempted to solve France’s housing problem.  He attempted to forge a sense of community through a multitude of apartment buildings.  He was also concerned with creating space as a way of living a healthier life, so his buildings were raised above ground to allow for more green space.  They also included several windows to give the illusion of space.  His apartments also represent the mathematical ideal and love for technology, as they were designed using a grid system, which revolved around the modern transportation system.  Even though this plan was never realized, Le Corbusier’s design introduced several new ideas involving aesthetic and function.

Some of Le Corbusier’s most famous innovations were his design of the Maison Dom-ino and his Five Points of Modern Architecture, which he utilized in the Villa Savoye.  The Maison Dom-ino was a design that Le Corbusier created to explore the potentials of reinforced concrete in building prefabricated, affordable houses.  It spawned the creation of his five points: a roof garden, a pilotis (support structures such as columns), a free plan, a free façade, and a strip of horizontal windows.  The Villa Savoye included all five of these aspects, making it the first truly Purist building.

His five points allowed the Villa Savoye to maintain balance between industrialism and nature.  Le Corbusier always maintained balance within his works, because balance created mathematical precision, which he thought would bring people happiness.  The Villa Savoye glorifies industrialism, as evidenced by its use of concrete and glass, which are mass-produced objects.  It equally glorifies nature, illustrated by its rooftop garden which brings nature inside the house, as well as its numerous windows which make its occupants feel as if they are outside.  Blake argues that Le Corbusier was not interested in making his buildings look as if they were natural in themselves:

A building must be a clear, sophisticated statement, he felt, and it should stand in              contrast to nature, rather than appear as an outgrowth of some natural formation.                     Nature and architecture could enhance one another in this manner and create a                      sort of harmony by contrast.[4]

Blake states that it is the stark difference between Le Corbusier’s modern buildings and their natural settings, which create a balance in his works.  I agree with Blake to the extent that Le Corbusier attempts to create a distinction between the modern and the natural, which he does with his use of the pilotis to raise the building up, separating it from nature.  I disagree with Blake, however, when he argues that there is a total distinction between Le Corbusier’s buildings and nature.  Le Corbusier’s incorporation of the numerous windows and the roof garden allow the inhabitants to always perceive the natural world around them, even as they are inside the modern building.

Similarly, Le Corbusier blends aesthetic appeal and functionality in the Villa Savoye.  The free plan and free façade allow the inhabitants to arrange the rooms in a variety of ways to make them more efficient, while he also restricted certain rooms to certain functions.  For instance, the kitchen and dining rooms are on the first floor while the bedrooms are on the second.  Le Corbusier positioned the rooms in this manner to revolve around people’s daily lives to create greater efficiency.  This efficiency is also evidenced in the ramp near the entranceway.  This rectilinear ramp contrasts with the less efficient but more aesthetically pleasing, curvilinear staircase.  This attempt to be both beautiful and efficient resembles Le Corbusier’s reference to the home as “a machine for living in.”  Blake argues that what Le Corbusier meant was that a house should be as beautiful as a machine but not as efficient, however, I think the Purist manifesto opposes Blake’s claim.[5]  The Purist manifesto argues the importance machines have on modern society:

respect for the laws of physics and of economy has in every age created highly      selected objects; that these objects contain analogous mathematical curves with         deep resonances; that these artificial objects obey the same laws as the products of           natural selection and that, consequently, there thus reigns a total harmony,            bringing together the only two things that interest the human being: himself and      what he makes.[6]

Le Corbusier and Ozenfant describe machines as the objects that were adapted to best suit modern men, so that they help make men more efficient.  Because machines make men more efficient, they represent the more orderly, mathematically precise society that Purists thought men needed to recuperate from the destruction caused by the war.

Unfortunately, because France was recovering from the war, it did not have enough funds to finance all of Le Corbusier’s projects, so that many of his designs to improve France were never built.  The importance in his work, however, does not come from his buildings as much as from his revolutionary ideas.  His Five Points of Modern Architecture are still used by architects today.  Le Corbusier’s theories about architecture helped change the thinking of many of his contemporaries, which helped make France into a more modern-thinking nation.

 

Bibliography

Baker, Geoffrey H. Le Corbusier: An Analysis of Form. Berkshire, England: Van Nostrand          Reinhold, 1984.

Blake, Peter. Le Corbusier: Architecture and Form. Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books, 1960.

 

——. The Master Builders. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976.

 

Boyer, M. Christine, and Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier: homme de lettres. New York:          Princeton Architectural Press, 2011.

Choay, Françoise. Le Corbusier. New York: George Braziller, 1960.

 

Evenson, Norma. Le Corbusier: The Machine and the Grand Design. New York: George  Braziller, 1969.

Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. “Le Corbusier’s Five Points of Architecture.”      Last modified January 25, 2003. http://famusoa.net/achin/courses/le_corbusier/essay-tse    5.pdf.

Gardiner, Stephen. Le Corbusier. New York: Viking Press, 1974.

Jeanneret, Charles Edouard and Amédée Ozenfant. “Purism.” In Art in Theory 1900-2000: An      Anthology of Changing Ideas, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 239-42.          Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Jencks, Charles. Le Corbusier and the Tragic View of Architecture. Cambridge, Massachusetts:     Harvard University Press, 1973.

Le Corbusier. Towards a New Architecture. New York: Dover Publications, 1986.

 

Passanti, Francesco. “The Vernacular, Modernism, and Le Corbusier.” Journal of the Society of     Architectural Historians 56, no. 4 (1997): 438-451.


[1] Peter Blake, Le Corbusier: Architecture and Form (Baltimore, Maryland: Penguin Books, 1960), 16.

 

[2] Charles Edouard Jeanneret and Amédée Ozenfant, “Purism,” in Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 239.

[3] Peter Blake, The Master Builders: Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1976), 32-3.

[4] Blake, The Master Builders, 18.

[5] Idem., 25-6.

[6]Jeanneret and Ozenfant, “Purism,” in Art in Theory, 241.

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