The Genteel
April 17, 2021


Le Corbusier. Source:

Born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret in the Swiss village of La Chaux-de-Fonds, Le Corbusier's use of the technological advances of industrialisation in rational, calculated ways made him one of the 20th century's most influential architects. A couple of New York exhibits and recently published books are turning 2013 into the summer of Le Corbusier.

Maison Ternisien, Boulogne-sur-Seine, France, 1926.

Before reinventing himself as Le Corbusier, Jeanneret he was a young watchmaker who spent his time exploring the landscape of his home as well as its buildings, seeing their faults and realising he could improve on the structures himself. 

A wanderjahr throughout Europe inspired the artistic Jeanneret to replicate his experiences in sketches and watercolour paintings. The landscapes of the Mediterranean, especially in Italy, Greece and Turkey, exposed Jeanneret to different building styles from what he was used to in Northern Europe. The sensuous curved lines of Byzantine architecture contrasted with the measured, sharp lines of classic Greek and Roman architecture and cemented Jeanneret's interest in architecture.

In 1917 he moved to Paris where he spent time writing on Cubism, pursuing a career in the arts, and starting the magazine, L'Esprit Nouveau. During this time, Jeanneret adopted the pseudonym Le Corbusier, and with it, became a one-name wonder.

Defining houses as "machines for living," Le Corbusier stressed the importance of practical living spaces. Chronically dissatisfied with the existing buildings surrounding him, the architect was fortunate to work in an age of fast-paced industrial and technological advancement. With this, his use of a relatively cheap material - concrete - gave way to the design of affordable housing in postwar Europe.

Prefabrication became popular after many homes were destroyed during the war and factories were left without weapons and supplies to produce. Soon, Le Corbusier and his contemporaries took advantage of the opportunity to build cheap housing while maintaining good design. Le Corbusier's Five Points of Architecture boiled down the essential features in his building technique, and has become one of the most important architectural manifestos of our time. The use of the Five Points - pilotis, roof gardens, a free plan and façade, and horizontal windows - is best seen in the Villa Savoye in Poissy, France, Le Corbusier's best known work in the International style. 

A model of Villa Savoye can be seen in an exhibition coming to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes, along with other influential examples of Corbusian architecture. Launching June 15, guest curator Jean-Louis Cohen looks at Le Corbusier's diverse career in architecture, interior design, city planning, writing and photography, pulling works in watercolour, sketches, photographs and building models.

Le Corbusier with Pierre Jeanneret.
Villa Savoye Poissy-sur-Seine, France. 1929–31.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. 

As well as keeping written journals during his trips, Le Corbusier sketched local buildings, painted stunning landscapes, and took photos to use as reference for his own designs. His inspirational travels would continue for the rest of his life, as he built Modernist structures throughout Europe and even in India, where his mass housing projects revolutionised the Punjab region's building techniques as well as the Chandigarh city landscape.

The MoMA exhibition has curated the collection of works in a way that allows viewers to understand the roots of Le Corbusier's design. With access to Le Corbusier Foundation's extensive archives, Cohen has traced the processes of Corbusian design, from the reconstructions of his first attempts at interior design in Switzerland, to the projects he never saw completed due to his unexpected death. In between, the exhibit takes visitors on a tour of the world from the perspective of artistic genius. The sketches and paintings of his exploration as a young man can be seen in the urban planning later in his career.

For three Tuesday evenings in July, MoMA will also be offering a course entitled, The Internationalist: Le Corbusier's Travels, Theories, and Practice that looks into his influential world travels, functionalist projects, and mass production of prefabricated housing for a war-torn Europe. Le Corbusier's mass housing projects are among his most well known. The architect not only became famous for perfection in design, but for his civic dedication as well.

At the agnès b Galerie Boutique in New York, Lucien Hervé: Le Corbusier in India has already opened as a retrospective on the architect's many projects in the developing country through the camera lens of his dear friend. During two trips in 1955 and 1961, Hervé shot Le Corbusier's civic projects that dominated the newly settled area of Chandigarh. The photographer became a sort of student under the architect, learning and adopting Le Corbusier's obsession with perfection. His photographs stun in stark black and white, the structures' concrete jagged on the flat Indian landscape beyond.

Chandigarh's State Assembly, India, 1955.

If you can't make it to New York for the exhibitions, two books on the architect's work have just been published. Coffee table books seem to pile up quickly, but at least one on architectural photography is certainly deserved of a place in your collection. Nathalie Herschdorfer and Lada Umstatter collaborate on showing the impact of photography on the architect's career, in Le Corbusier and the Power of Photography, explaining the dissemination of images that led to the success of both the architect himself and his Modernist style.

Another book, Le Corbusier's Pavilion for Zurich, by Catherine Dumont d'Ayot and Tim Benton, delves into the conception and design of his last architectural project: the ideal exhibition space. Similar to the MoMA exhibition, the book consults a plethora of primary sources including notes and sketches to document the structure's entire history. This project holds bittersweet meaning as well, as the architect did not live to see it completed in 1967. However, the pavilion's use of unusual shapes and colour defines Le Corbusier as more than a talented architect; they show his keen intellect and achievement of perfection, even if that perfection was reached posthumously. 



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