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Le Corbusier: architecture's master modernist

The untold story of Le Corbusier – the hard-living master of modern architecture

Taken from the August 2008 issue of Dazed & Confused:

It’s easy to assume that what lay behind the stiff, formal attire and severe, circular horn-rimmed glasses of Le Corbusier was a man constrained by the lines and angles of his modernist architecture. But this apparently stern individual, who is widely considered to be the most important architect of the 20th century, knew exactly how to create an image. Le Corbusier was a pseudonym, a mask for the heavy drinker, brothel frequenter, and, in one roguish incident, thief, who tried to win a city-planning project in Berlin by breaking the rules of entrants’ anonymity. He never confined himself to one or even several distinct styles, and unlike most architects, who are known for their lack of ornamentation, his apartment in Paris was full of objects. He embraced modern materials like concrete and iron, which he used to construct enormous housing blocks, while putting an emphasis on space, light, and greenery.

"[Corb] was bastard in many ways. He was very severe with people, especially after the 1930s when he became a world figure, and he sometimes slapped people aside." – Tim Benton, Le Corbusier's biographer

Tim Benton, who co-wrote Le Corbusier Le Grand, says that Corbusier was, especially later on in life, a “bastard in many ways. He was very severe with people, especially after the 1930s when he became a world figure, and he sometimes slapped people aside. On the other hand, people say how generous he was, and kind.” This secretly sensitive man grew up dominated by his mother, who he continued to write to on a weekly basis until she reached 100 years old. One of Corb’s first buildings was a home for his parents, but the financial burden of the house proved too much for them, and they ended up retreating to a holiday home Corb had built on Lake Geneva.

Le Corbusier was born in 1887, and was named Charles-Édouard Jeanneret by his parents. It wasn’t for another 23 years that he adopted “Le Corbusier” – after his grandfather’s name, “Lecorbésier”, but even this shrunk to “Corb” in time. His father was a clock engraver and his mother a pianist in the Swiss town of La Chaux-de-Fonds, a place that Karl Marx referred to as “one big watch-making factory”. He attended the art school, and edged away from his father’s plans for him to follow family tradition as a watch manufacturer. Between 1907 and 1912 (after having built several houses in his hometown), Corb broadened his cultural knowledge by visiting a number of European cities, and was particularly taken with the Parthenon.

What began as an interest in the Arts and Crafts movement grew into a longing for a new type of architecture to go with the times, which he eventually found in the International Style. When Corb finally settled in Paris, he was informed about a pair of brothers, Auguste and Gustave Perret, who were experimenting with concrete construction. It only took one look at Le Corbusier’s sketches to convince Auguste to take on this young unknown for a period of 15 months. Around this time, Corb began reading Nietzsche, and the Nietzschean maxim “Become who you are!” became his life’s motto.

He paired up with engineer Max du Bois in 1914, and together they designed the “Dom-ino” house, which had a unique construction of domino-style upright concrete slabs. Then, through his old mentor Perret, he was introduced to the painter and editor Amédée Ozenfant, with whom Corb formulated Purism, a derivative of Cubism that is more concerned with modern machinery. In 1920 they set up the groundbreaking publication, l’Esprit nouveau, with the poet Paul Dermé, which gave them an outlet to air their theories. Through the journal, Corb met artists like Juan Gris and Fernand Lééger, and some of his articles were assembled into the anthology Vers une architecture (Towards an Architecture) – the best-selling architecture book of all time, in which he famously wrote, “A house is a machine for living in”.

His ideas on urban development were radical, he wanted to restructure big cities to wipe out blocks and streets, in favour of a landscape composed of large freeways linking up buildings like autonomous islands. His 1922 proposal, Ville Contemporaine, laid out a city for three million inhabitants, with buildings separated into residential, commercial, and industrial districts, with green spaces in between. While this was more of a theoretical proposal, he intended his Plan Voisin for Paris to be taken seriously. Corb proposed bulldozing the Right Bank in order to incorporate a toned- down version of the same layout.

“The underworld of cabaret and brothels fascinated him, and he would bring out his sketchbook in all manner of darkened corners”

Needless to say, the French authorities were horrified. His more easily approved mass-housing schemes such as the Unite d’habitation in Marseilles sparked a whole generation of concrete tower blocks, and, despite the fact that he never built a single structure in Britain, the necessity for cheap and convenient post-war housing meant that Corb’s ideas were widely appropriated here. Unfortunately, the copyists often omitted his apartments’ best features, like complete acoustic insulation and a double-height space for the living area. “In France, when a suburban housing development burns, everyone blames Le Corbusier,” says Jean-Louis Cohen, co-author of Le Corbusier Le Grand. “But take the example of Corb’s Unite d’habitation in different contexts. The one in Firminy, which became decrepit council housing, was threatened by demolition a couple of years ago. But the very same building in a more central complex, inhabited by professionals, was a total success. The ideas of Corb become dangerous when they are at the service of segregation.”

Corb met his wife-to-be, a model from Monaco called Yvonne, in 1922. Though he remained faithful when he was at home in Paris, with Corb’s travels came a number of infidelities. He always had a fascination for the female form, which frequently appeared in his artwork. “I paint filth. My women are bestially lascivious, prurient, in heat,” he wrote in one of his scores of notebooks, dated 1918. He was something of a voyeur, and when he first moved to Paris, he posed as a clairvoyant and loitered around Montmartre at night. The underworld of cabaret and brothels fascinated him, and he would bring out his sketchbook in all manner of darkened corners.

In 1927, Corb devised his fi ve points of architectural theory, all of which were employed in the building of his Villa Savoye. He designed the Salvation Army HQ in Paris and the Centrosoyuz ministry building in Moscow, yet still wound up in such grave debt that bailiffs seized the furniture from his studio in 1935. He made plans for around 40 city planning projects, but very few of them were actually realised, and most disappointingly for Corb, none of his plans for Europe were put into action.

For 12 years he attempted to get plans for North America approved, without any success, except for a minor role in the design for the UN building. His unpopularity was not limited to the professional realm – back during the war, Corb came under stern inspection from Leftist friends for supporting the Vichy regime (Marshal Philippe Péétain’s illegitimate French government that openly collaborated with the Nazis), though he later swung back to the Left. The one place he was able to satisfy his grand vision was the Indian city of Chandigarh, where he designed all of the government buildings in the early 1950s. Another of Corb’s successes was the “Modulor” – a proportional system of building that took into account the measurements of the average human body and Fibonacci numbers. Albert Einstein, who met and was photographed with Corb in 1946, listened to his arguments and pronounced the Modulor a “scale of proportions which makes the bad difficult and the good easy.”

Albert Einstein, who met and was photographed with Corb in 1946, listened to his arguments and pronounced the Modulor a “scale of proportions which makes the bad difficult and the good easy.”

Neave Brown is one of the few remaining architects who can recount a first-hand Corb anecdote. While he was studying at the Architectural Association in the 1950s, he gathered together a select group of fellow students and wrote to invite Le Corbusier to lunch. To their surprise, Corb accepted. “We met him at the Berkeley hotel, and he jumped into the back of my friend Patrick Hodgkinson’s ancient open roofed car, who tore off like a fiend as Corb clasped his hat to his head. At the lunch, he was charming towards this group of students who were besotted. Towards the end, I produced a sketchbook and a couple of magic markers, and he performed superbly, giving us a series of drawings, talking all the time about the Modulor, about the fact that he smoked a pipe and could never give up, about his vision of the new city, and about how the trouble with New York was that it was just too regular and not high enough. He had this important engagement at the RIBA, however being late didn’t seem to trouble him too much. When he went to leave, he realised somebody else had taken his coat. Horror! Crisis! But he looked up and down the line of pegs and saw an overcoat that was about the right size, and without saying a word, he put it on and walked out. We drove him down to the RIBA where he went in, late, and that was the last we saw of him.”

Corb was extraordinarily hardworking, but he always reserved a month each year for holiday, which he would usually spend in Roquebrune Cap-Martin on the Côte d’Azur. In 1965 and in a typically obstinate stunt, Corb went swimming there against his doctor’s advice, and consequently died of a heart attack. His elaborate funeral cortège in the Cour Carré of the Louvre attracted mourners from across the globe, with an Indian representative bringing holy water from the Ganges, and Corb still refuses to be forgotten. Eric Parry, head of the London firm Eric Parry Architects, says, “From opposition to imitation, he reverberates everywhere... and very evidently through the flourishing of arts projects funded by the Lottery.” Even Rem Koolhaas, whose structures are quite different, has taken on a certain Corbusian attitude in terms of redefining what a building is. Since his death, a number of Corb’s plans have been seen through to their tangible end, and it is still possible that some of his unrealised designs might yet be built, such is the respect for this master of modernist design. Perhaps Corb’s hypothetical city for three million inhabitants was a more achievable plan than even he could have predicted.