Installation view Moment Le Corbusier's Secret Laboratory

Installation view Moment Le Corbusier's Secret Laboratory, 2013 Photo: Åsa Lundén/ Moderna Museet

Secret laboratory

Le Corbusier stands out in 20th-century art history for his radical ideas on architecture and urban planning and for his many outstanding works, but also for the broad spectrum of his practice. He was a pioneer of new architecture and strove to interpret the methods and values of the machine age. But he did so without departing from time-honoured principles on proportion and composition, and strove consistently to achieve a poetic expression.

He has designed some 400 buildings and urban plans, and 75 of his buildings now exist in a dozen countries. The attempts to gain popularity also engendered some 40 books, which have been published in a number of languages, and hundreds of articles, including many that have had a profound impact on modern architecture and discourse.

But the architectural revolution that Le Corbusier prompted would never have taken place had it not been for what he in 1948 termed the “secret laboratory” of his studio, where he spent his mornings before moving on to writing and drawing work in the afternoon. In the two-dimensional space of his paintings, and in the sculptures he designed, which were later produced by Joseph Savina, he made discoveries that are reflected in his most remarkable architectural innovations, from the play on primary shapes in his purist 1920s Paris villas, to the Ronchamp Chapel’s sculptural plasticity in the 1950s.

The exhibition especially explores how Le Corbusier’s works relate to his investigations of painting and sculpture. It clarifies the interaction between the disciplines he studied for nearly six decades, from art to urban planning by way of architecture and furniture design. The interplay between his architectural designs and the exploration of pictorial and sculptural form, is recreated against the backdrop of the most significant phases in the artistic output, from the first villas designed for the Paris elite, to his only implemented urban project, the centre of the new city Chandigarh from 1950.

Stockholm apparently came up twice in Le Corbusier’s career, but on neither occasion were his ideas realised. In the competition for the regeneration of central Stockholm in 1933, he elaborated on the basic premises of his Ville radieuse [Radiant City], which he had developed five years previously for Moscow. His plans for the Ahrenberg pavilion in 1961 incorporated the exhibition pavilion concept that he had been working on for years, while his vision of the urban landscape began to materialise.

Le Corbusier’s interest in museum architecture deserves particular attention in this context. It was a programme he thought about constantly, from 1928, during the planning of the Mundaneum, to the last weeks of his life, when he was drafting a museum for modern art in Paris. A collection of drawings and selected contemporary models visualise how his ideas in this field developed.

Le Corbusier and the museums

On his early travels, Le Corbusier had seen the museums in Vienna, Munich, Paris and Berlin, as the drawings in his sketchbooks reveal. Throughout his life, he was fascinated by the exhibition as a modern medium, and from the 1920s and onwards he designed several museums, both as utopian projects and as actual commissions.

From the Mundaneum, imagined in 1928 for the Belgian philanthropist Paul Otlet, to the 1960s creations, Le Corbusier worked simultaneously on two types of buildings. The first is lit directly from above and has a spiral floor plan, the idea being that the building can thereby grow endlessly. The second type is a pavilion with a convoluted origami-style roof.

The second type was originally conceived as a pavilion for the Synthesis of the arts – an idea he was pursuing then – that had been proposed for Paris in 1950 and was eventually adapted for the Ahrenberg pavilion in Stockholm, which was never built, and for the Le Corbusier Centre in Zurich, completed after his death. The drawings combine the potential to utilise natural light with a consideration for the visitor’s route through the entire architectural promenade from room to room.

The Carpenter Center for Harvard University

A former assistant of Le Corbusier, Catalan architect José Luis Sert, contacted Le Corbusier in 1959, requesting him to design the building for a visual arts centre near the oldest part of the university campus.

Le Corbusier noted that “the roof spiral of the museum will be a walk with plantations and rock gardens laid out in the landscape and constituting the landscape”.

He was adamant that his only building in the USA would display the virtues of concrete. Thanks to the “exceedingly elegant and very pure” formworks that are being used, he effectively refuted the accusations of brutality that had been levelled at him at the time.

Furniture by Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret

One day in 1927, the young interior designer Charlotte Perriand knocked on Le Corbusier’s door to show her drawings. She had made a name for herself that year, when she exhibited her Bar sous le toit [Bar under the Roof] at the Autumn Salon.

Already at the 1929 Autumn Salon, Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret then presented a collective scheme for the interior outfitting for the home. The standard cupboards from the Esprit nouveau pavilion in 1925 had been redesigned and complemented with a series of chairs that would soon be mass-produced by Thonet. The comfortable upholstery of the Grand Confort armchair was a definite improvement on the ascetic first steel tube furniture from Germany. And the chaise-longue with its design derived from hospital examination berths invited the new lounging postures that were congenial with the garçonne fashion.

These pieces of furniture have become classics and are now produced by Cassina S.p.A., under the auspices of the Le Corbusier Foundation.

Reminiscences and creativity in Le Corbusier’s late works

A certain nostalgia crept into Le Corbusier’s multifaceted work in the 1960s, when he used to spend more time in his painting studio than at his architecture firm, and gave his young assistants increasingly freer reins. He returned to the subject matter of his purist period and re-read Don Quijote, The Iliad and Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

The surrounding landscape became essential to his work, and he exerted himself to include it, whether it was the mountains of Lyon for the La Tourette convent, the hills of Forez for the Firminy church, or Venice, where the hospital he began designing in 1962 reflects his ideas from the 1930s about the historical city.

Despite having attained international recognition, Le Corbusier’s late works suggest that he gradually became more morose and introverted. Symptomatically, the book he finally completed for publication during his last summer is one of the first he wrote while on the roads of the Balkans and Italy, Le Voyage d’Orient [Journey to the East].

Objects of “poetic reaction”

Objects entirely unlike the well-ordered guitars, glasses and bottles began to appear in Le Corbusier’s still-lifes after his purist period.

He wrote in 1960: “These fragments of natural elements, pieces of stone, fossils, wood chips, things bashed about by the elements and accrued near water, lakes and oceans […] which express physical laws, wear, erosion, decay, and so on, have not only sculptural qualities, but also an extraordinary poetic potential.”

From the infinitely elongated crab-shell that forms the roof in Ronchamp, to the simple motives of his paintings, these shapes vie for his attention and define the general tendency of his sculptural creations.

Purism and the white architecture of the 1920s

Le Corbusier’s first painting, La Cheminée (1918), launched his study of the type objects and simple geometric forms that he and Amédée Ozenfant were to use in their paintings. At around the same time, his articles in L’Esprit nouveau caused a stir, with slogans such as “The house is a machine for living”.

After discovering the Dutch group De Stijl, he turned his attention in 1923 towards a more abstract architecture, with large expanses of colour and glass walls, but his houses also embody the idea of an architectural promenade, inspired by the Acropolis in Athens.

In addition to realised projects using concrete, such as the Dom-ino and Citrohan houses, Le Corbusier also drew up urban renewal plans, including Plan Voisin for the restructuring of central Paris. Now that he was a public figure, he began receiving commissions to design houses for the Paris elite, including Villa Stein-de-Monzie and Villa Savoye. Remarkably, these structures are often designed in echo to the purist paintings.

The National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo

In April 1954, Le Corbusier was commissioned to design a museum in Tokyo’s Ueno Park for Kojiro Matsukata’s collection of French art, which had been confiscated by France during the Second World War.

Le Corbusier’s draft proposal was to “create the three relevant sections of a modern arts centre in congenial proximity to one another: a museum and a pavilion for temporary exhibitions, set around a uniting prism, a form of Boîte à miracles [Miracle box] (a space for research in drama, music, electronics, dance, and so on)”.

The greatest efforts were devoted to the design of a system of double lanterns that conduct natural daylight to the galleries. The external walls were covered with prefabricated concrete panels faced with pebbles.

The Ahrenberg Pavilion in Stockholm

When the Swedish industrialist and art collector Theodor Ahrenberg and his wife Ulla commissioned him a museum in 1961, Le Corbusier revived a theme he had drafted for several of his projects: the idea of a large parasol roof under which the various components of the building were housed.

According to the plan, a pleated steel roof, developed by the engineer Louis Fruitet, would be supported on pillars over cubic building volumes. Their dimensions would be multiples of a base element with a side measuring 2.26 m – the key dimension of the Modulor system. The exterior of these cubic volumes would be covered by windows and multi-coloured sheets of enamelled steel. A ramp would connect the different levels and provide an architectural promenade with a view of the city and the harbour.

A relatively accurate image of what it would have looked like can be surmised from a related building, the pavilion built for the gallery owner Heidi Weber in Zürich, which was completed after Le Corbusier’s death.

The film Architecture d’aujourd’hui

In 1930, the young film director Pierre Chenal began shooting three short silent movies that were later funded by the Paris magazine L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui [Contemporary Architecture], which had been founded that year by André Bloc. The most famous of these films is about Le Corbusier, and it promotes and illustrates the architect’s most famous aphorisms, for instance, “The house is a machine for living”.

Le Corbusier is shown at the wheel of his car, an Avions Voisin C 12, arriving at the Stein-de Monzie villa. The film also features the Savoye and Church villas, illustrating the “five points of a new architecture”, formulated in 1927. In his presentation of the model for Plan Voisin for Paris, he is portrayed as a demiurge who can transform a city with a wave of his hand. The soundtrack was composed by Le Corbusier’s older brother, Albert Jeanneret.

Chenal – originally named Philippe James Cohen – was born in 1904 in Brussels and died in Paris in 1990. He had a brilliant career in France before moving to Argentina to escape racist persecution. His best-known films are L’homme de nulle part (1937), Les mutinés de l’Elseneur (1936) and Le dernier tournant (1939).

The cycle of grand projects

Le Corbusier did not design as many buildings as he would have liked in the period between the Great Depression in 1929 and the Second World War, but this was when he achieved major recognition.

It was as an expert on urban renewal, however, that he addressed the public. He used lectures as a means of proclaiming his convictions and winning general appreciation, and presented his ideas in Buenos Aires, New York, Moscow and Algiers, never neglecting to draw up urban regeneration plans for every stop he made on his endless journey.

After his defeat in the competition for the League of Nations in 1927, he succeeded in realising his largest building project during the inter-war period in Moscow. Here, the Centrosoyuz building, the headquarters of the Central Union of Consumer Cooperatives, was completed in 1936. Prior to that, his project for the competition to design the Palace of the Soviets in 1931–32, had been rejected.

The bittersweet experiences prompted him to reflect on the dilemma of “Americanism” and “Bolshevism” when faced with the global crisis, and he made the momentous decision to join the French proponents of planned economy. They advocated increased government control of the economy but were opposed to parliamentary democracy, being – among others at the time – great admirers of Mussolini. Le Corbusier constantly sought new audiences and allies in all camps, torn, as he was, between his elite clients and the left-wing organisations to which his colleagues and many of his supporters belonged.

The Unité d’Habitation in Marseille

In his 1942 book La Maison des Hommes, the plan for the housing unit or the vertical garden city – one of the oxymorons Le Corbusier liked to use – was formulated, and in 1945 the drawings were finalised. The French minister of reconstruction, Raoul Dautry, promptly commissioned a prototype, to be used as temporary housing for Marseille residents who had lost their homes during the war.

The 337 two-level apartments stretch from one side of the building to the other and the structure is made of reinforced concrete. Inside, wide “streets” run through the building. One of these is used for services. A kindergarten is located at the top of the building, which has a roof terrace with a view of the Marseille bay and surroundings.

The housing unit exhibits many experimental features. Le Corbusier based the modules on the dimensions and proportions of the Modulor system, an elaborate strategy that was somewhat counteracted by the mediocre concrete used by the contractors. The rough-cast surfaces, the imprint of the wood moulds and the stacked moulding frames nevertheless caused Le Corbusier to extol the beauty of rough, or brute, concrete.

The interior of the housing unit is a collective effort. The built-in kitchen cabinets were designed by Charlotte Perriand, and Jean Prouvé’s stairs are complemented with elegant shelves.

The Cabanon and the chapel in Ronchamp

In 1951, on the corner of a table in a small bistro on the French Riviera, Le Corbusier drew up the plans for a cabanon – a cabin “on a cliff surrounded by raging waves”. It had the Modulor dimensions of 3.66 x 3.66 x 2.26 m, and it contained, he said, “the finest an architect can imagine”. The exterior rustic timber modules and the furniture were made in Corsica and transported to the site.

Two square windows overlook the bay, with mirrored shutters to make them look twice the size. The interior consists of one single room with a bed, a sink and a table, all fixed to walls. In 1952, he told the photographer Brassaï: “I so enjoy living in my cabin that I will probably end up dying here.” As though he had been able to predict the future, he died on the beach below the cabin.

In 1950, Le Corbusier was commissioned to rebuild the church in Ronchamp, eastern France, which had been destroyed in the war in 1944. He introduced ideas inspired by organic forms – the roof combines the shape of a crab shell he found on Long Island with that of an aircraft wing. In the course of the project, however, he also recalled seeing the gargoyles of the Topkapi Palace in Constantinople in 1911, the Serapis Temple at Hadrian’s villa and the thick stone wall of the small Sidi Brahim mosque in El Atteuf, discovered in 1931. He orchestrated a procession up to the church, as a reminder of the Acropolis in Athens.

In 1955, he announced to the archbishop in Besançon that he was presenting “a chapel in honest concrete, possibly daring, most definitely brave”, but also replete with the experience of four decades. Notre-Dame du Haut is, in fact, two churches in one. The exterior serves as a large apse for the pilgrims, while the interior invites the congregation to a simple yet joyous nave bathed in the play of coloured light falling through the south-facing wall.

Le Corbusier’s sculptures

At the end of the Second World War, Le Corbusier encouraged Joseph Savina, a cabinet maker from Brittany whom he considered to have a “good sense of sculpture”, to convert a few of his drawings into volume. “Sculpture No 1”, titled Petit homme, is a figure from a painting made in 1931. The procedure had matured fully by the time Savina converted the painting Ubu I from 1942 into a three-dimensional work.

Over the years, these painted wood sculptures became larger. They were the subject of frequent correspondence, illustrated with drawings, in which Le Corbusier often requested the sculptor to correct or adjust certain parts. Occasionally, he would protest against Savina’s own suggestions. In a letter dated 1952, he deems one work to be “very beautiful, wild and poetic”, but reproaches Savina for being to “fussy” in his use of colour, and adds: “One must strive for finesse while maintaining the energy. It is only when everything has been reduced to the utmost that the proportions come to light. To simplify involves classifying, ranking, weeding out and putting in order.”

The Bull period

In his Parisian studio on Rue Nungesser & Coli, the “rough, clean skin” of the partition wall stones formed the background for Le Corbusier’s paintings. The wall was his “everyday friend”, and it harmonised with the artworks in progress. After 1945, certain purist subjects reappeared in Le Corbusier’s paintings, and he returned periodically to his type objects, giving them new colours and pursuing his play with female figures.

New themes also appeared in his paintings, such as the figure of Ubu, a character created by the author Alfred Jarry, and his bull period, which reveal influences from Picasso. In 1958, he wrote to Ronald Alley, a conservator at the Tate Gallery in London, that this series began with “a photograph of a vertical painting from 1920 viewed from the side. Eventually, thirty years later, a gradual deformation appeared, when I thought of something completely different, and especially of how important it is when it comes to human figures to have access to a ‘bestiary’. And when I discovered a bull one day in one of my paintings, it appeared to be totally beyond my control.”

Urban planning

Until 1920, Le Corbusier expressly favoured picturesque urban architecture, in line with Camillo Sitte’s theories. Influenced by discussions in Berlin, and in reaction to his perception of American cities, he began to envision urban planning as a large-scale composition of isolated buildings, and to advocate that existing cities should be treated with radical “surgical measures”.

His Plan Voisin for Paris, presented in 1925 at the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts caused uproar, when he proposed that the historical centre of the French capital should be replaced with a group of skyscrapers with glass facades. Commissioned by the Soviet government, he converted his plan in 1930 into a standard model that he called the Ville radieuse [Radiant City] and adapted it for Geneva, Anvers and Stockholm. For Rio de Janeiro, and later also for Algiers, he developed more organic plans that responded to the topography of each of these places.

In 1950, a commission from the Indian government under Jawaharlal Nehru finally gave Le Corbusier the opportunity to conceive an entire city, the new capital of Punjab, Chandigarh. Based on his observations of Indian villages, he reviewed the grid layout that had previously been proposed by the American architect Albert Mayer, and introduced a hierarchical system of seven roads for different kinds of traffic. The Capitol Complex, above all, meant that Le Corbusier was able to realise his most monumental building project. The layout of this ensemble reflects his studies of the city plan of ancient Rome.


Le Corbusier’s visit to Moscow in October 1928 was a triumph. The Russian participants in the competition for the Central Union of Consumer Cooperatives unanimously requested that its president Izidor Liubimov give Le Corbusier the commission. He drafted several proposals together with the Moscow architect Nikolaj Kolli, who was to supervise the building project.

The shortage of modern materials brought the building to a standstill for several months and made it impossible to implement Le Corbusier’s system for respiration exacte [exact respiration]. Most of the vital features were completed, however, especially the extraordinary ramps. The building was praised by the constructivists but condemned by the Stalinist leader Lazar Kaganovich, who insisted that it resembled a “fat, pink sow on legs too short”. This is the largest of all Le Corbusier’s buildings designed before the Second World War.

When he was invited in 1931 to participate in the competition for the Palace of the Soviets, Le Corbusier submitted a remarkably ambitious design, but the taste had turned to socialist realism in 1932 and his “congress hangar”, as the Party’s daily Pravda called it, was not endorsed.

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