The Early Years, Between La Chaux-de-Fonds and Paris (1907–1917)
Charles-Édouard Jeanneret was born on October 6, 1887, at La Chaux de Fonds, a small town in the Swiss Jura specialized in watchmaking. In 1901, his parents placed him in the engraving and metal chasing course at the town’s art college. At the suggestion of his teacher, the painter Charles L’Eplattenier, he was admitted to the Superior Course at the college where he studied architecture. The result was his first house, the Fallet Villa, constructed in 1906-07.
In 1907, he made his first study trip abroad, visiting Florence, Siena, and Ravenna. He also spent six months in Vienna where he tried unsuccessfully to get work with Josef Hoffmann. In 1908–09, he was a draughtsman for fifteen months in the studio of the Perret brothers in Paris. In 1910–11 he was in Germany, preparing a report for the School of Art in his home town on the teaching of the decorative arts then enjoying resurgence. On this occasion he met several members of the Deutscher Werkbund and worked for five months in the Berlin studio of Peter Behrens. He next embarked on his travels to the East, traveling in 1911 from Italy to Greece and the Middle East via the Balkans. An important moment in his development came when he discovered the Mediterranean, Constantinople, and the Acropolis in Athens, making copious notes, photographs, and sketches.
Between 1912 and 1917, he was back in La Chaux-de-Fonds, where he taught architecture and interior decoration in the New Section instituted at the art college. At the same time, he constructed several houses, the last of which was the Villa Schwob (1917), and began, in 1914, to investigate the possibilities of reinforced concrete for frameworks and of mass-produced houses, for which he imagined the Dom-ino system.
Purism in Painting and Architecture (1917–1929)
In 1917, Le Corbusier moved permanently to Paris, where he met Amédée Ozenfant, a painter active in Parisian avant-garde circles. With Ozenfant, he began exhibiting his first paintings in 1918 and signed the Purism manifesto, Après le cubisme. After 1925, Le Corbusier was to abandon the strict geometric rules and “object-types” advocated by Purism, but he continued, nevertheless, to paint, in 1927–28 introducing the human figure, “objects of poetic reaction”, and, above all, more formal freedom in his artistic output.
In 1919, Ozenfant and Jeanneret, with the poet Paul Dermée, established the journal L’Esprit nouveau. Jeanneret took the pseudonym of Le Corbusier in 1920, using it to sign his “Three Reminders to Architects,” an essay in the journal that was to reappear in 1923 in Vers une architecture, a book that met with dazzling success. In 1922, he opened an architecture studio at 35, Rue de Sèvres in partnership with his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, working with him without interruption until 1940. That same year he exhibited his “Citrohan” house and his plan for a “contemporary city of three million inhabitants” at the Salon d’Automne.
From 1923, he built numerous individual houses: the Ozenfant studio, a small house for his parents on the banks of Lake Geneva, the La Roche-Jeanneret House at Auteuil, the Cook Villa in Boulogne, the Church Villa in Ville d’Avray, and the Stein-de Monzie Villa in Garches. In 1925, in the Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau he built for the Exposition des arts décoratifs, he presented his “Voisin Plan” for Paris. The same year saw the publication by the Éditions Crès of Urbanisme, L’art décoratif d’aujourd’hui, and La peinture moderne (co-authored with Ozenfant).
In 1926, Le Corbusier worked on designs for a workers’ settlement of one hundred thirty standardized dwellings, the Quartiers modernes Frugès in Pessac, near Bordeaux. In 1927, the German Werkbund invited him to construct two houses in the experimental neighborhood of Weissenhof in Stuttgart. In the same year, he received a joint first prize in the competition for the League of Nations building in Geneva, but his design was subsequently rejected. In 1928, Le Corbusier’s project for the “Mundaneum” was the object of fierce criticism from the German, Swiss, and Czech functionalists, and from El Lissitzky. Making a triumphal visit to Moscow, he was commissioned to design the Centrosojuz, not finished until 1936. In 1929, he designed a project for inexpensive houses with metal frameworks while involved in the construction of the luxurious Villa Savoye in Poissy.
At the Salon d’Automne of 1929, he exhibited a collection of furniture designed with Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret for “furnishing the modern house”—the grand confort armchair, a tilting chair, a chaise longue, standard cabinets. He gave a series of lectures in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, published together in 1930 under the title Précisions sur un état présent de l’architecture et de l’urbanisme. At the same time he was developing plans for the cities of Rio, Montevideo, and São Paulo.
The Poetics of the Vernacular and the Grand Projects (1930–1945)
In 1930, Le Corbusier became a French citizen by marrying Yvonne Gallis. During this period he received various commissions for residential blocks and public buildings: the Cité de Refuge for the Salvation Army, the Swiss Pavilion at the Cité universitaire, the Clarté block in Geneva, the apartment building in Rue Nungesser-et-Coli in Paris (where he lived on the top floor until his death), an office block for Rentenanstalt in Zurich, and a housing block with terraces near Algiers. These last two commissions were never executed.
His design for the competition for the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow was rejected in 1932, after he had drawn up plans for the capital in 1930 in response to a questionnaire from the Moscow Soviet. This project and other articles appearing from 1931 onward in the journals Plans and Prélude together with his study of the reorganization of agriculture entitled the “Radiant Farm” were to be collected together in the publication La Ville radieuse of 1935.
In the thirties, he put forward suggestions for the urbanization of Algiers with his provocative “Plan Obus”, followed by plans for Antwerp, Geneva, and Stockholm. He also drew up an outline for improving the Zlín Valley in Czechoslovakia. He took part in the 1933 IV International Congress of Modern Architecture, summing up the resolutions passed there in his Charte d’Athènes, published in 1942. In 1934, he attempted to meet Benito Mussolini in Rome. At this same period, with the unrealized project for the Errázuriz house in Chile (1930), the Villa de Mandrot at Le Pradet (1929-31), and the small weekend house at La Celle-Saint-Cloud (1934-35), he was turning away from the simple geometric forms of the houses of the twenties, instead introducing themes derived from his observation of traditional vernacular building. His paintings also changed, sometimes taking on surreal elements.
From his visit to the United States in 1935, he brought back impressions that were recorded in his book, published in 1937, Quand les cathédrales étaient blanches, voyage au pays des timides. On a visit to Rio de Janeiro in 1936 he was asked to design a building for the ministry of education and health, eventually constructed by a team led by Lucio Costa. In France, Le Corbusier attempted to gain the agreement of Léon Blum’s socialist government for his project to rebuild a slum area, the îlot insalubre no.6. Unsuccessful in this, he designed his Pavillon des Temps nouveaux for the 1937 International Exposition, where he exhibited, in particular, his Plan de Paris 37. In 1938, he put forward a last design for Algiers, a skyscraper for the Quartier de la Marine.
In 1941, he went to Vichy, headquarters of Maréchal Pétain’s collaborationist government, staying there for eighteen months, trying to gain a hearing for his ideas on housing and the use of land. In 1943, he established the Assemblée des constructeurs pour une rénovation architecturale (ASCORAL) in preparation for the reconstruction of the country. In 1944, he presided over the Commission d’urbanisme du Front national des architectes, a body set up by the Resistance against the Nazi occupiers.
Toward a Synthesis of the Arts (1945–1960)
In 1945, Le Corbusier was working on plans for the reconstruction of the towns of Saint-Dié, Saint-Gaudens, and La Rochelle-La-Pallice, all of which came to nothing. That same year he was commissioned to build the Unité d’habitation in Marseille; this first large residential block was only finished in 1952. In 1946, he produced his first sculptures in cooperation with a Breton woodcarver, Joseph Savina. He designed his first tapestry cartoons in 1948.
Returning to the United States in 1946, he worked on the project for the United Nations headquarters in New York, eventually realized by Wallace Harrison. In 1949 he sketched out designs for holiday houses on the rocky headland of Roquebrune-Cap Martin, building himself a spartan cabin for the summer months. He made his first foray into the field of religious architecture with the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp (1950–55), manifesto of a new sculptural form, and the Sainte-Marie de la Tourette convent at Eveux-sur-l’Arbresle (1953–60). Invited to India in 1951, he was asked to design the new capital of the Punjab, Chandigarh. After drawing up an urban plan for the town, he concentrated his efforts on the capitol, building the high court, the secretariat, the legislative assembly and, lastly, the Open Hand monument. Also in the 1950s, he designed a number of buildings for the town of Ahmedabad: the Mill Owners’Association building, the art gallery, and the Sarabhai and Shodhan Villas.
In France, after the unrewarding project of the pavilion of the Synthesis of Major Arts at the Porte Maillot conceived for Paris in 1950, Le Corbusier made the Jaoul Houses at Neuilly (1952), looking back to vernacular building materials in his use of bare brick. In 1950, he published the first volume of his study of the “Modulor” system of harmonious measurement based on the golden section and statistical human dimensions, something that he had been working on since 1942. His last publications took on an increasingly autobiographical character, with the Poème de l’angle droit (1955), L’Atelier de la recherche patiente (1960), and the continuation of the publishing of his Oeuvre complète, begun in 1930.
His Poème électronique (Electronic Poem), composed with Edgar Varèse, was performed in the pavilion he designed with Iannis Xenakis for Philips at the 1958 Universal Exposition in Brussels. In 1957, with the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, he was finally able to realize his “museum of unlimited growth” first thought of in 1928 for the Mundaneum. He also built two versions of it in India.
Reminiscence and Creativity in the Late Work (1960–1965)
Le Corbusier’s last projects mark a fruitful return to some of the themes of Purism with a revival of the rigor of form of his early pictures, even as he was exploring new forms in his painting. He made much use of his own concepts, such as the “free plan,” his views of the city still changing as he began work in 1962 on a design for a hospital in Venice. In 1959, he was commissioned to construct the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts in Cambridge, Massachusetts, only finished in 1962, while he was asked to design an exhibition pavilion for Heidi Weber in Zurich, completed in 1967.
After Nantes-Rezé (1955) and Berlin-Charlottenburg (1958), two other versions of his Unité d’habitation were built, one at Briey-en-Forêt (1961), the other at Firminy (1967). The house of culture in Firminy was built in 1965, while the church of Saint-Pierre, begun there in 1971, was not opened until 2006.
At the end of Le Corbusier’s life, the studio in Rue de Sèvres was working on numerous projects that never came to fruition. They included a hotel and conference centre on the site of the Gare d’Orsay in Paris (1961), a computer center for Olivetti at Rho near Milan (1961), a conference center in Strasbourg, and the French Embassy in Brasilia (1964). In 1962, the Musée d’art moderne in Paris presented a retrospective exhibition of his collected work, the echo of which has continued to grow since the world over. Le Corbusier spent all his summers at Cap Martin on the Côte d’Azur. Here is also where he died on August 27, 1965 after suffering a stroke while swimming.