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Le Corbusier (1887-1965)


Swiss-French writer, painter, perhaps the most famous architect of the 20th century, both renowned for his architectural projects and theoretical thought. In his early writings and designs Le Corbusier demonstrated that architecture is a combination of simple forms and utilitarian needs. After WW II Le Corbusier developed his own system of proportion, which became an integral part of his practice. His style also took influences from archaic past and grew increasingly expressionistic and sculptural. Le Corbusier's books include Towards a New Architecture (1923), The City of Tomorrow (1925), and When the Cathedrals Were White (1937).

"Working by calculation, engineers employ geometrical forms, satisfying our eyes by their geometry and our understanding by their mathematics; their work is on the direct line of good art." (from Towards a New Architecture)

Le Corbusier was born Charles Édouard Jeanneret-Gris in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a provincial town of some 27,000 people in the Swiss Jura. Edouard, as he was usually called at home, was the second son of Georges Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, a watch-enameller, and Marie Charlotte Amélie (née Perret), a pianist and music teacher. Georges Édouard continued the family business, but with the emergence of mass production his trade was doomed. "Industry, overwhelming us like a flood, rolls on to its predestined ends," Le Corbusier noted later, as if recalling the fate of the family business. "The father no longer teaches his son the various secrets of his little trade."

Artistic pursuits were encouraged in the family. Edouard's brother Albert became a musician and Edouard himself started to paint early. In 1902 he enrolled in the Ecole d' Art n La Chaux-de-Fonds, where he studied engraving. Under the influence of his teacher, Charles L'Éplattenier, he decided devote himself to architecture. His first house Le Corbusier designed at the age of nineteen with a local architect.

As a designer Le Corbusier was largely self-taught. He researched architecture on his tours to various countries and made copious notes. His pilgrimage to Acropolis Le Corbusier made in 1911. Later, when he presented his views on the necessity of standardization in architecture, he argued that even the Parthenon had been standardized in all its parts. This Voyage d'Orient lasted for some five months. Excepts from Le Corbusier's notes appeared in the newspaper Feuille d'Avis in 1911, but his travel diary remained unpublished until 1966. In Paris Le Corbusier worked in the office of Auguste Perret and studied art history, mathematics and engineering. He also worked in Berlin in the architectural office of Peter Behrens, the training ground for an entire generation of young architects, among them Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. After returning to La Chaux-de-Fonds, Le Corbusier taught architecture in L'Éplattenier's industrial art school, the new section of Ecole d'Art, which was established in 1912. His own office Le Corbusier opened in the same year.

For the Jewish industrialist Anatole Schwab, whose factory held the patents for Tavennes and Cyma watches, Le Corbusier completed somewhat mysterious house in 1917. The construction costs were much higher than originally estimated. By local residents the building was baptized as the "Turkish villa." This was still relatively mild reaction compared with the criticism of Le Corbusier's truly original and bold designs. In 1952, the locals in Marseilles nicknamed Le Corbusier's residential unit, La Cité Radieuse, the "crackpot house." The architect himself was labelled as "blind" and the apartments in the immense building were judged "narrow and suffocating."

Le Corbusier left in 1917 La Chaux-de-Fonds behind and moved to Paris. There he started as a consultant architect to Max Du Bois's Société a'Application du Béton (SABA), a company which designed and realized reinforced concrete buildings. In 1918 he lost the sight of one eye, a traumatic event, which affected his spatial orientation. In photographs of Le Corbusier's early houses his owl-eye glasses can occasionally be detected lying on a table or a mantelpiece. Since his childhood, Le Corbusier had suffered from poor eyesight.

In Paris Le Corbusier did not give up painting. Through his friend, Amédee Ozenfant, he familiarized himself with avant-garde art, especially the abstract aspects of painting. As an architect he started to use the pseudonym Le Corbusier, taking it from his great-grandfather, called Monsier Le Corbezier of Brussels (or Lecorbesier). His friends gave him the nickname "Corbu," which referred to the word corbeau (raven) and his raven-like features. Wearing a close-fitting black suit, a black bowler hat, exactly circular, horn-rimmed glasses, and riding on a bicycle he attracted attention even in the bohemian Quertier Latin, where he lived.

With Ozenfant, Le Corbusier created Purism, an extension of Cubism, which emphasized the beauty of mass-produced objects. Through their book, Après Le Cubisme (1918) and the magazine L'Espirit Nouveau, established in 1920, Le Corbusier promoted his ideas, becoming one of the leading theorists in the field of architecture. The contributors of the magazine included also the wrietrs Louis Aragon and Jean Cocteau, and the painter Juan Gris.

In 1922, with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, Le Corbuseir set up an office at 35 rue de Sèvres, Atelier 35S. At the age of thirty-six Le Corbusier published Vers une architecture (1923, Towards a New Architecture), a compilation of articles originally published in L'Epirit Nouveau. In this architectural bestseller Corbusier praised automobiles, airplanes, steamships, and mass-production, drawing the conclusion that we must "look upon the house as a machine for living or as a tool." The Pavillion of the New Spirit at the Paris Exhibition of 1925 offered Le Corbusier a change to introduce his ideas to the general public. His white, cubist dwelling unit consisted of standardized elements, except that a tree grew inside it and painting of Braque, Juan Gris, Picasso, and others hang from the walls.

Le Corbusier's theories had a strong social concern: "The machine that we live in is an old coach full of tuberculosis. There is no real link between our daily activities at the factory, the office or the bank, which are healthy and useful and productive, and our activities in the bosom of the family which are handicapped at every turn." Thus architecture is an instrument of restructuring the whole society, the rational alternative to revolution. In his villas, on the other hand, Le Corbusier put art before social reform.

The limitations and possibilities of the main building materials, ferroconcrete and steel, imposed homogeneity in building design, perhaps more than the material itself required. Plain white surfaces, an essential part of Le Corburies's aesthetics, had also deeper symbolic meanings. His ultimate aim was to create the spirit of constructing and living in mass-production houses. Architecture was the mould of modern spirit and modern man of the machine-age civilization. Le Corbusier's theories were enthusiastically read in the Bauhaus design school in Germany. However, Le Corbusier himself argued that Gropius and the Bauhaus pay too little attention to architecture and standardization.

For Michael Stein, the brother of the American writer Gertrude Stein, Sarah Stein, and Gabriele de Monzie Le Corbusier designed a luxurious villa at Garches. After seeing Le Corbusier's Church villa in Ville-d'Avary, Monsieur and Madame Savoye and their son Roger commissioned the architect to create them a country home in Poissy. The result, Villa Savoye (1928-29), also known as "Les Heures Claires," was a house built on pilars. It had steel and concrete structure, stucco walls, and steel-framed windows. During WW II, the building experienced rough times, when Nazis used it as a haystore.

The Villa Savoye fulfilled the principles of the five "Points of a New Architecture" Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret had formulated: The pilotis (columns which raised the house above the ground), free plan (due to free-standing walls, everything is optional), free façades (the exterior walls are no longer load-bearing), flat roof with roof garden (replacing land lost underneath the building), and ribbon windows. The American architect Frank Lloyd White characterized these solid cubes, which appear to rest precariously on thin supporting poles, "big boxes on sticks."

While returning in 1929 from South America to Europe, Le Corbusier met Josephine Baker on board the ocean liner Lutétia. Baker was famous around the world for her dance in which she was dressed in nothing but 16 bananas. Le Corbusier made several sketches of Josephine; there is also an erotic drawing of her. The fruitful voyage produced a book, Precisions on the Present State of Architecture and City Planning (1930). Soon after his return, Le Corbusier married Yvonne Gallis, a dressmaker and fashion model. She died in 1957. With the American Marguerite Tjader Harris Le Corbusier had a long extramarital affair; he left her in the early 1960s.

If the 1920s was for Le Corbusier a period of invention and single-mindness adherence to the "white box" style, the next decade brought with it organic forms and disappointments. Le Corbusier's commissions diminished considerably after the early 1930s, although at the same time he was hailed as the hero of modernism, or the International Style. The term was first coined in an exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During this decade Le Corbusier designed among others the Swiss House in the Paris Cité Universitaire (1930-32) and Hostel for the Salvation Army in Paris (1932-33). He made also several town-planning schemes, in which he moved away from a centralized city model toward viaduct or linear city structures. In Le Corbusier's ideal metropolis artificial, man-made elements, are integrated with environment. The city is divided in zones with green belts between the areas. Huge skyscrapers dominate the commercial center, roadways are elevated, and residential housing is grouped in great blocks of "villas." For Algiers Le Corbusier produced several town-planning proposals. He visioned a miles long housing viaduct, which contained shops, walkways, and small house cells, running along the coast. Similar coastal megastructure he had sketched also for Rio de Janeiro.

In the Soviet Union, where construction of communist society and the subsequent cultivation of the "new man" was under work, Le Corbusier's ideas of the needs of a mass society drew much attention. Thus he was invited in 1928 to Moscow, but his high hopes soon changed into struggles with Soviet authorities and left-wing criticism. For his disappointment, Le Corbusier did not win the competition for the Palace of the Soviets. The country was not ready for modern architecture; in the 1930s the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany openly rejected modernism in favor of Neo-Classicism. Le Corbusier himself was not attracted to Communism or Fascism, but in 1930 he joined the Neo-Syndicalist movement and contributed to the group's journal Prélude and its successor Plans. Influenced partly by the thought of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the anti-parliamentary movement attracted a number of intellectuals in the late 1920s. Some of the essays written for Plans Le Corbusier collected in La Ville Radieuse (1935).

In 1935, Le Corbusier held a series of lectures in the Unites States, at the invitation of the Museum of Modern Art. "The skyscrapers of New York are romantic; a gesture of pride, and that has importance of course," Le Corbusier wrote later in When the Cathedrals Were White (1937). "But the street has been killed and the city made into a mad-house."

A year before WW II broke out, Le Corbusier wrote a polemical book, Des canons, des munitions? Merci! Des logis... S.V.P. (1938). In it he expanded arguments he had published in his pacifist essay 'La Guerre? Mieux vaut construire' (1931) and juxtaposed armament production and the provision of public housing. After the German invasion of France, Le Corbusier collaborated with Vichy government. In 1942 he gave a lecture, in which he associated war and rebirth: "Hasn't the country for a long time had to construct itself, reconstruct itself, reconstitute itself as cells are reconstituted in tissue and families in households, through new generations, this acting out the eternal play of life?"

Vichy had little interest in modernism, but Le Corburier's ideas of order were welcomed. Writing to General Maxime Weygand he said: "In the present administrative state, only the highest authorities of the country can permit the necessary innovations, create the useful precedents, authorize the ignoring of old regulations, permit the Plan  to enter into life." In spite of Le Corbusier's open support to Marshall Pétain, he was dangerously linked to Bolshevism in an article, and he had to retire from Vichy to the Pyrenees, where he wrote prolifically.

After the war, Le Corbusier published in Modulor (1948) a proportional scale based on the male figure (Le Corbusier's man), to be used as a guide-line at the planning stage. Le Corbusier defined the Modulor as a "range of harmonious measurements to suit the human scale, universally applicable to architecture and to mechanical things." Time was also ripe for him to move from orthodox functionalism toward an expressionistic, anti-rational style, which borrowed from natural forms. The culmination of this tendency is found in the Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, completed in 1955. Complex and contradictionary, the Surrealistic chapel reconciles mysticism and Christian drama with rough concrete and physical massiveness. Its design influenced among others Alvar Aalto's Vuoksenniska Church (1955-58). 

When the Philips Industries commissioned Le Corbusier to build their pavillion for Expo '58 in Brussels, he designed with the composer Iannis Xenakis an union of architecture and electronic music. Familiar with the work by Edgard Varèse, Le Corbusier contacted him to provide a piece to be used in the pavillion. While in India, the directors of Philips tried to remove Varèse from the project. Le Corbusier's reply put a stop to any further questions: "The Poème électronique cannot be carried out except by Varèse's strange music. There cannot for a moment be a question of giving up Varèse. If that should happen, I will withdraw from the project entirely." Inside the pavillion, 400 loudspeakers mounted on the walls created a moving path of sound. The music was accompanied by visual projections selected by Le Corbusier.

The city of Chandigarh, a symbol of modern India in Punjab, was Le Corbusier's greatest achievement in architecture and planning. His monumental sculpture, the Open Hand, is situated outside the High Court in the capitol complex, made of béton brut. The huge collective effort was partly realized without the benefits of modern technology – in the capitol, hundreds of Indians carried tiny loads concrete up ramps and scaffolding tied with ropes. Relying more on his doctrine of architecture and urbanism than local cultural conditions, Le Corbusier transcended Chandigarh into a timeless, pan-cultural statement of the power of architecture.

Le Corbusier died of heart attack while swimming in the sea off Cap Martin on 27 August, 1965. He was buried alongside his wife in the grave he had designated at Robuebrune. Le Corbusier wrote some forty books and left a body of about 32,000 architectural drawings and plans.

For further reading: Le Corbusier by Jean-Louis Cohen (2005); Le Corbusier by Kenneth Frampton (2001); Le Corbusier and the Continual Revolution in Architecture by Charles Jencks (2000); Le Corbusier, The Noble Savage by A.M. Vogt (1998); Le Corbusier's Formative Years, ed. by H.A. Brooks (1997); Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms by William J. R. Curtis (1986); From Bauhaus to Our House by Tom Wolfe (1981); Elements of a Synthesis by Stanislaus Von Moos (1979); The Open Hand: Essays on Le Corbusier, ed. by R. Walden (1977); Le Corbusier in Perspective by Peter Serenyi (1975); Le Corbusier by Carlo Cresti (1970); Who Was Le Corbusier by Maurice Besset (1968); Chandigarh by Norma Evenson (1966); The Master Builders by Peter Blake (1960); Le Corbusier. Architect, Painter, Writer, ed. by S. Papadaki (1948)

Selected works:

  • L'Etude sur le mouvement d'art décoratif en Allemagne, 1912
  • Après Le Cubisme, 1918 (with A. Ozenfant)
  • L'Espirit Nouveau 1-28, 1920-1925 (with others)
  • Vers une architecture, 1923
    - Towards a New Architecture (translated by Frederick Etchells, 1946) / Toward an Architecture (translated by John Goodman, 2007)
  • Urbanisme, 1924
    - The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning (translated by Frederick Etchells, 1987)
  • L'Art décoratif d'aujourd'hui, 1925
    - The Decorative Art Today (translated by James I. Dunnett, 1987)
  • Almanach d'architecture moderne, 1926
  • Une maison, un palais, 1929
  • Précisions sur un état présent de l'architecture et de l'urbanisme, 1930
    - Precisions on the Present State of Architecture and City Planning (translated by Edith Schreiber Aujame, 1991)
  • La Ville Radieuse, 1935
    - The Radiant City (translated by P. Knight et al., 1964)
  • Aircraft, 1935
  • Quand les cathédrales étaient blanches, 1937
    - When the Cathedrals Were White, a Journey to the Country of Timid People (translated by Francis Edwin Hyslop, 1948)
  • Des canons, des munitions? Merci! Des logis... S.V.P., 1938
  • Oeuvre plastique, peintures, dessins, architecture, 1938
  • Destin de Paris, 1941
  • Les Quatre Routes, 1941
    - The Four Routes (translated from the French by Dorothy Todd, 1947)
  • La Maison des Hommes, 1942 (with F. de Pierrefeu)
    - The Home of Man (translated by Clive Entwistle, 1948)
  • Charte d'Athènes, 1943
  • Les Trois Établissements humains, 1945
    - The Three Human Establishments (translated by Eulie Chowdhury, 1979)
  • Propos d'Urbanisme, 1946
    - Concerning Town Planning (translated by Clive Entwistle, 1948)
  • Manière de penser l'urbanisme, 1946
    - Looking at City Planning (translated by Eleanor Levieux, 1971)
  • L'Unité d'habitation de Marseille, 1947
    - The Marseilles Block (translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury, 1953)
  • Modulor, 1948
    - Modulor 1 (translated by Peter de Francia and Anna Bostock, 1968) / The Modulor; a Harmonious Measure to the Human Scale, Universally Applicable to Architecture and Mechanics (translated by Peter de Francia and Anna Bostock, 1958)
  • Modulor 2, 1955
    - Modulor 2 (translated by P. de Francia and A. Bostock, 1955)
  • L'Atelier de la recherche patiente, 1960
    - My Work (translated by James Palmes, 1960) / Creation is a Patient Search (translated by James Palmes, 1960)
  • Le Livre de Ronchamp, 1961
  • Le Corbusier Talks With Students, 1961
  • Mise au point, 1966 (edited by Jean Petit)
    - The Final Testament of Père Corbu (translated by Ivan Zaknic)
  • Le Voyage d'Orient, 1966
    - - Journey to the East (edited and annotated by Ivan Zaknic; translated by Ivan Zaknic in collaboration with John Gery and Nicole Pertuiset, 1987)
  • Le Corbusier: Oeuvre complète, 1946-1970 (8 vols.)
  • Le Corbusier Drawings, 1978
  • Le Corbusier Sketchbooks, 1981 (4 vols., edited by A. Wogensky and F. de Franclieu)
  • The Le Corbusier Archive, 1982
  • Voyage d'Orient. Carnets 1-6, 1988
    - Journey to the East (edited and annotated by Ivan Zaknic; translated by Ivan Zaknic in collaboration with John Gery and Nicole Pertuiset, 1987)
  • Le Poème de l'Angle Droit, 1989
  • Les Voyages d'Allemagne. Carnets 1-4, 1995
  • Le Corbusier: Complete Works 1910-1969, 1995

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