Design Icons: Pioneer of Modern Architecture, Le Corbusier

Design Icons: Pioneer of Modern Architecture, Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier is considered one of the very most influential architects of the 20th century (if not that the most powerful), typically placed alongside Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. His buildings and urban plans pointed the way for innumerable architects and even bureaucrats, many taking his ideas in directions (home projects, by way of example) that have made his contributions suspicious. At a new exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes, June 15 to September 23, 2013), curator Jean-Louis Cohen reconsiders Le Corbusier’s work in terms of various types of landscapes. While the display can’t replace some long-held ideas, it will give us a new lens for considering the architect and his prolific output.

Produced in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, in 1887 as Charles-Edouard Jeanneret — he gave himself the moniker Le Corbusier (The Crow) later — Le Corbusier opened a studio in Paris later travel to Germany, Greece, Italy and Turkey. From the introduction of his studio in 1922 to his death in 1965, Le Corbusier would reach over 50 buildings and write over 30 novels, also handling the design of towns.

His influence stems from his own architecture, ideas and ambitions, but also significant was that the development of his architecture from International-style modernism in the 1920s and ’30s to expressionistic buildings rendered in real in later years. This ideabook looks at his residential projects to paint a picture of a few of the 20th century’s most influential architects.

If any one home comes to mind upon hearing the title Le Corbusier, it’s Villa Savoye, revealed here, just outside of Paris and completed in 1931. The home embodies the architect’s Five Points for a New Architecture (the supports, the roof gardens, the free layout of the floor program, the flat window along with the free layout of the facade) in a form apparently without precedent. However, did Le Corbusier arrive in this layout? What occurred in the three years leading up to its realization that enabled such a significant shift from the standard?

Like most architects before and since, Le Corbusier (found here in Sweden a few years after the Villa Savoye was assembled) was affected by instructors and employers within their early years. These included Charles L’Eplattenier in La Chaux-de-Fonds, August Perret in Paris and Peter Behrens in Berlin.

The previous two had a strong influence in particular; Perret for his expressionistic designs in concrete, and Behrens for his poetic functionalism. Obviously, Le Corbusier was over the sum of these parts, but his choice of mentors helped to give him his direction.

Following a year of self-education in Germany, Le Corbusier returned to La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1912, designing and teaching his first independent commission for, naturally, his parents.

The Villa Jeanneret-Perret (aka Maison Blanche) could hardly be more different than the Villa Savoye. In fact, Le Corbusier’s own monographs and other documents play down the role of the early layout, even because it might have played a part in his development.

John Hill

The neoclassical design departed from the conventional architecture prevalent in the area at the time, but its implementation bears some of the ease of the modern architecture that would follow in just more than ten years.

This massive opening (found in a full-size inside at MoMA, among four out of the exhibition), in particular, presages the ribbon window of Le Corbusier’s Five Points. Little openings prevailed much of the home, but the liberation of windows out of structural outside walls would have allowed for even large openings.

Even the Villa Schwob, also situated in his boyhood hometown, exhibits an eclectic, Oriental tendency that likewise does not strongly point to Le Corbusier’s evolution. Still, the liberal use of volumes, surfaces and windows appears to capture an architect looking for his way. The Fondation Le Corbusier calls it “his most accomplished work before leaving for Paris.”

Following his move to Paris along with the setting up of his clinic together with cousin and longtime collaborator Pierre Jeanneret, Le Corbusier realized the first of his Purist homes: Villas La Roche-Jeanneret (1923–25); two homes, with a gallery for La Roche.

The distinct break between these homes can be found in the intellectual development that occurred from composing (Le Corbusier really put “homme de lettres,” or “person of letters,” on his identity card once he became a French citizen in 1930); namely, he wrote for the diary L’Esprit Nouveau and worked out his Five Points.

A two-story curved volume (shown in the preceding photograph and visible through the glass wall) homes La Roche’s gallery, even though other pieces of the Five Points can be located from the ribbon windows along with the free layout of the facade. Afterwards Le Corbusier would phone the double villa that the first of the Four Compositions (the final was Villa Savoye).

With these compositions the architect carefully tracked his development, here imagining the way the “interior takes its simplicity and pushes to form diverse projections,” as he wrote.

John Hill

The living room from the display that shows Le Corbusier’s Purist stage is the Pavilion for its Villa Church in Ville d’Avray (1927–29), where Le Corbusier renovated a neoclassical home into a very modern one. The exhibition’s interior concentrates on the way the architect employed the window to carefully frame the picture, transforming it to a two-way picture.

By now Le Corbusier obtained the commission for its Villa Savoye out Paris, the notion of landscape had been explored but hardly with such a powerful site in an opening in some trees. The architect made the most of the website by lifting the living spaces above the landscape and observing the car in the process through a driveway that looped round the building and round around some glass walls on the floor level.

The combination of raised living spaces and decoration windows led to rooms with panoramic views of the surrounding trees. As with the Villa Church, the landscape is flattened on the glass like an image that is selectively framed.

Recalling the window in Villa Church even more than the ribbon window is the opening cut into the wall defining a part of their roof two floors above the entrance. Here we’re above the treetops, and conscious of the, Le Corbusier carefully styled a remote view. This was a strategy that he had done, but in Villa Savoye, it’s the culmination of a promenade architecturale through the home along with other perspectives of the landscape.

Following the Villa Savoye — the fourth of his Four Compositions and the most renowned of his homes, even in his day — Le Corbusier spent his time on big commissions, even handling urban plans to a higher degree than another architect before or since. In many cases the architecture and urban plans were united in idea and conception.

The Unité d’Habitation (1947–52) in Marseilles, France, is a stand-alone building, but one that embodies Le Corbusier’s societal goals. The big concrete building homes 337 apartments in addition to a resort and an elevated shopping “street” — the latter remain in use today. All the several types of residential units are flow-through units; interlocking duplexes are organized such that corridors happen every couple of floors.

John Hill

1 consequence of the interlocking duplexes is cross venting, otherwise hard in multifamily home with double-loaded corridors. It also means that each one of the units face toward the ocean, while using their living rooms or bedrooms. These generous views are illustrated in the fourth full-scale interior from the MoMA exhibition, pictured here.

The 1950s was a fruitful decade for Le Corbusier (and also for many architects after the end of World War II), however much of his architecture bore little similarity to the Purist buildings of the 1920s where he is known.

If the earlier period was roughly the Five Points, this older period was all about the Modular (a proportional system he developed that was based on the individual body with one arm upraised) and its application to projects in occasionally vague ways.

However, what actually comes within this project is that the overt tactility of the brick, concrete and timber, which would have been anathema in his Purist stage.

The qualities evident in Maisons Jaoul would find recognition in considerably bigger projects in France and outside, but among the most intriguing projects completed in the same decade is this cottage Le Corbusier built for his wife in the South of France. The unassuming one-room cottage is just 12 feet square, but as we will see, it’s all about the furniture.

John Hill

In fact, Le Corbusier treated the furniture as architecture. He explained, “The furniture here represents the first form by which the item comes into being.”

Eliminating one wall of the Petit Cabanon for the display shows how the plywood-covered interior was zoned (following the Modular system) to work through the day, and how the tiny windows closely frame the landscape. The window we view in the display occurs to frame the shore where Le Corbusier died in August 1965.

Those seeing the MoMA exhibition are faced with the cottage and Le Corbusier’s death before seeing anything else in the series, but the exceptionally private design welcomes visitors to see the person behind the endeavors and ideas.

More: 10 Must-Know Modern Homes

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