Following on from last week’s introduction, today I would like you to meet my architectural hero (one of many) – Le Corbusier. Born in 1887 in Switzerland, he become a French citizen in 1930. His practice was based in Paris throughout his 50 year career. His buildings however, can be found across Europe, India and America.
As mentioned last week his real name was Charles Edouard Jeanneret, he adopted the name Le Corbusier for his career, an altered version of his grandfather’s name, demonstrating his belief that anyone could reinvent themselves. In the years that followed Le Corbusier did not just re-invent himself, but also the way we design our homes.
In his early years whilst studying at art school, he frequently travelled with sketchbook in hand. On one such trip to Paris in 1907 he found his first job in the office of August Perret, a french architect. Perret was the first to begin experimenting with reinforced concrete for structural building elements. The introduction of concrete was one of the biggest changes in the history of building construction. This was a significant encounter for the young Le Corbusier, who later took what he learned about concrete much further, using it for entire buildings; and in doing so transformed the way buildings looked forever.
Le Corbusier lived in significant time of change: industrialisation – where machinery allowed mass production not previously possible with the traditional hand made techniques. Travel was changing too, ocean liners and commercial airlines were beginning to emerge. The world was modernising, but architecture at the time was slow to follow.
Le Corbusier and a few young german architects (they will be introduced in other blog posts in this series), had other ideas. They were influenced by these changes taking place around them: the look of ocean liners, planes and machines inspired them. It was these architects who pushed architecture in an entirely new direction, modernising it to represent the rapid technological advancements taking place. They bought ‘Modernist architecture’ to the modern world.
Where buildings were decorated with wrought iron latticework, cornices, mouldings etc, the fathers of modernism saw this as the old way of doing things. Machines, ships and planes did the task they were required to without the need for superfluous ornamentation. They were about function, and with that came what the modernists believed was an honesty due to their lack of decoration – decoration they felt hid the true structure behind. So Le Corbusier stripped away this applied decoration from his buildings. He took his admiration for the design of machinery a steep further when he declared that “houses are machines for living in”. With his earlier introduction to concrete, he had a new material available to him that would allow him to realise his simplified design ideas. Concrete made is possible for him to create perfectly flat, monolithic surfaces that were not possible before. And so houses in Paris went from this:
To this: The Villa Savoye, built in 1925. I have included an image of a modern car of the same year below it; demonstrating how forward thinking and different this design was to anything else that existed at that time. I think this house looks as if it could have been built this year, yet it’s nearly 90 years old!
Also radically different on the inside too, the use of concrete allowed larger spaces to be created. We see the beginnings of “open planned living” we love today. The strip windows allowed uninterrupted views to the landscape, where before windows were small rectangular openings that offered only a small viewing angle unless you went right up close to it. So we see for the first time the notion of bringing the outside in, and with that blurring the boundaries between inside and out, making the interior feel bigger by creating large views to outside.
Le Corbusier proved to be so far ahead of his time that other ideas are only becoming relevant today. The house is on stilts to allow for car parking below, within the footprint of the house. Even greater however, he placed a garden on the roof, as he felt it necessary to give back the garden lost to the footprint of the building. This would revolutionise cites today had we taken on this idea, instead we place our houses on the ground, then need more space to have a yard out back. He was tackling urban sprawl, decades before it was even an issue.
I hope this gave you a greater insight into why I am so in awe of this man. A genus in my eyes, who changed the way we live. Not just one of the greatest architects of all time, he was also a famous painter. His artwork hangs in famous galleries around the world, and they rate amongst my favourites too.
It’s safe to say, I really like Le Corbusier.
Hi famous chapel in Ronchamp, France.