Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD REFERENCE ( (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2013. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single entry from a reference work in OR for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 18 January 2019

Corbusier, Le

The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture

James Stevens Curl,

Susan Wilson

Corbusier, Le Pseudonym (from 1920—meaning ‘the crow-like one’) of Swiss-born architect 

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (1887–1965), who was probably the most influential (and not entirely beneficial) figure in C20 architecture. He built (with René Chapallaz (1881–1976)) his first house, the Villa Fallet, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland (1906–7), partly influenced by vernacular architecture, before setting off on one of a series of educational journeys. His visits (1907–8) took him to the medieval Carthusian monastery (Certosa di Val d’Ema—which impressed as an example of how repetitive living-quarters could be organized within one monumental composition), and he appears to have met leading Viennese architects, including Hoffmann. He also designed the Jacquemet and Stotzer villas, La Chaux-de-Fonds, then worked briefly (1908–9) with Perret in Paris before making a study-visit to Germany, working in Behrens’s Berlin office (1910–11), and meeting leading German figures in the Arts-and-Crafts movement and Deutscher Werkbund, including Muthesius and Tessenow. At that time he absorbed the works of Viollet-le-Duc, Sitte, and Choisy, and wrote a report on the decorative-art movement in Germany (published 1912), in which his admiration for German organization was expressed. He travelled (1911) down the Danube to Istanbul, returning through Greece and Italy, which profoundly affected his perceptions, and made him more aware of the power of the primitive, the rugged, and the ruined, while awakening his appreciation of the qualities of southern light. At the end of 1911 he returned to Switzerland, was involved in teaching and in the Swiss equivalent of the Werkbund, but, more especially, designed several buildings, including the Villas Jeanneret (1911–12), Favre-Jacot (1912–13), and Schwob (1916–17). This last was one of his first reinforced-concrete houses, clearly influenced by Perret and Behrens in its stripped Neo-Classical form: it gained him recognition, and was published. During this period at La Chaux-de-Fonds he evolved (1914–15) the low-cost Maison Dom-Ino, the name of which evolved from the Latin domus (house) and the innovative reinforced-concrete column-grid that suggested the patterns of a domino-piece. Essentially, columns supported floor-slabs, and the design offered a prototype for industrialized living-units, giving freedom in matters of room-arrangement and elevational treatment: non-structural partitions could be placed where desired, and the elevations filled with any design of glazing and solid uninhibited by structural requirements because the columns were not placed around the edges of the slabs, but back from the perimeters.

Jeanneret-Gris settled in Paris (1916), where he developed skills as a self-publicist. Through Perret he met the painter Ozenfant, and, having absorbed Cubism and Futurism, together they invented Purism, where the primacy of the objects was insisted upon, disposed on canvas using a proportioning device based on the Golden Section, and depicted by means of a limited range of pure colours. Purism was promulgated in the manifesto Après le Cubisme (1918) and L’Esprit Nouveau (1920–5), a journal edited by Jeanneret-Gris and Ozenfant which also contained ideas on architecture, published under the pseudonym ‘Le Corbusier’: those contributions were collected in Vers une architecture (1923), translated as Towards a New Architecture (1927), and became influential texts. Their heady brew of the latest technology, messianic slogans proclaiming the supposed moral and hygienic virtues of the architectural language, and dodgy claims that ideas therein derived from Antiquity, attracted uncritical devotees. In his writings Le Corbusier defined architecture as a play of masses brought together in light, and advocated that buildings should be as practically constructed as a modern machine, with ‘rational’ planning, and capable of being erected using mass-produced components.

Corbusier, LeClick to view larger

Dom-Ino skeleton showing floor-slabs supported on columns (after Le Corbusier).

Another study-visit to Italy (1922) was followed by the exhibition of his Maison Citrohan: it started (1919) as a box-like form with the structural walls along the long sides, but evolved with the introduction of pilotis to raise the building from the ground. The name suggests the Citroën motor-car, with its connotations of mass-production and industrialization, logical evolution, economy, and efficiency. From 1921 Le Corbusier collaborated with his cousin, A.-A.-P.Jeanneret-Gris, and their Paris office attracted many architects, for from it flowed Modernist polemics and designs for experimental housing in which simple forms and smooth surfaces were expressed. The Citrohan houses were published in L’Esprit Nouveau and Vers une architecture, and were the precedents for the realized designs at the Villa Besnus, Vaucresson (1922–3), followed by many more, including the influential Villa Stein at Garches (1927), two houses at the Weissenhofsiedlung, Stuttgart (1927), and the Villa Savoie, Poissy (1928–31). The last was the definitive exemplar of the famous Five Points for a New Architecture, and, with its formal architectural language, pilotis, linkage of external and internal spaces, long strip-windows, and crisp, uncompromising lines, became a powerful paradigm for C20 supposed Rationalism. The cinq points, with other ideas, were expounded in Alfred Roth’s Zwei Wohnhäuser von Le Corbusier und Pierre Jeanneret (1927): they were, in essence, the use of pilotis as structural elements, lifting the building and leaving a space under it; columnar-and-slab construction enabling floor-plans to be left as free and adaptable as possible, partitions (if required) not being structural; the creation of a roof-garden at the top, affording better light and air than on the ground; the mode of construction facilitating long continuous strips of windows; and complete freedom of façade-design.

At the Exposition International des Arts-Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, Paris (1924–5), Le Corbusier and Jeanneret-Gris presented their Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau. A white box derived from an L-shaped variant of the Citrohan type, it contained a model of the so-called Plan Voisin for Paris, an architectural and town-planning time-bomb, proposing the complete destruction of part of Paris east of the Louvre, between Montmartre and the Seine, and its replacement with eighteen gigantic skyscrapers. Earlier (1910), Le Corbusier had prepared La Construction des Villes, much influenced by Sitte, in which he analysed town-planning taking into account the existing historic cores, but this approach was to be wholly jettisoned by 1925 when Urbanisme came out (translated as The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning, 1929). The Ville Contemporaine, a design for a city of 3 million inhabitants (1922), and the Plan Voisin provided the imagery for redevelopment and new towns that was to be almost universally adopted (largely through the influence of CIAM, with which Le Corbusier and Jeanneret-Gris were to be intimately connected from its beginnings (1928)) after the 1939–45 war with such disastrous results for countless towns and cities.

His pernicious mis-titled book, La Ville Radieuse (1935), contains demands for a Utopian city in which buildings conforming to his aesthetic would be erected. In the 1930s, indeed, he was able to build paradigmatic structures in Paris, including the Pavillon Suisse, Cité Universitaire (1930–3), and the Cité de Refuge (1929–33). These slab-blocks of framed construction were designed with large areas of glass (the curtain-wall) that caused difficulties with solar-heat gain and glare as well as heat-loss, yet were to be progenitors of countless problematic slab-blocks thereafter solely because of image and pseudo-religious belief. Such facts can only be explained by obsessions about glass (perhaps derived from the slogans of Taut) as an indicator of ‘modernity’, ‘progressiveness’, and ‘cleanliness’. Large-scale projects also occupied Le Corbusier from the late 1920s, including the competition designs for the League of Nations Palace, Geneva (1927), and the Palace of the Soviets, Moscow (1931). With Soviet disciples, he built (1928–36) the Tsentrosoyuz Building, Moscow, and prepared other designs, including the Ministry of Education and Health, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (executed by Costa, Niemeyer, and Reidy, 1936–43), and a preliminary project for the United Nations Building, NYC (final design and execution by Harrison and Abramovitz, 1947–50).

Corbusier, LeClick to view larger

Corbusier Plans of Villa Savoie (Savoye), Poissy, near Paris (after Le Corbusier). (a) Ground-floor showing pilotis, car-parking arrangements, entrance, central ramp, and stair. (b) First floor. (c) Second floor.

For the Exposition Internationale, Paris (1937), Le Corbusier built the Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux of steel, with a tent-like canvas roof, the whole derived from an image of the Jewish Tabernacle in the Wilderness mixed with elements of aeroplane structures. The slogan over the rostrum evoked the Popular Front (a union of Communist, Socialist, and Radical parties), and inside, like the Ten Commandments, were CIAM principles, some of which would be incorporated in the Athens Charter. Thus, politically, Le Corbusier’s brand of Modernism appeared to be allied with the Left, but his position throughout the 1930s was ambivalent, for he was also involved with the Syndicalists (who had affiliations with Fascism), and sympathized with the Vichy régime, which affected his relationships with both Jeanneret-Gris and Perriand, but had no effect whatsoever on his hero-worshipping disciples.

After 1945 Le Corbusier abandoned the smooth images with which he had been associated, and produced a series of aggressive, massively constructed buildings, beginning with the huge Unité d’Habitation, Marseilles (1946–52). Originally a steel frame had been proposed, but shortages led to the use of reinforced concrete, with board-marked béton-brut, much use of the brise-soleil, and a system of proportions based on Le Corbusier’s Modulor, derived from the Golden Section. The Unité was conceived as a huge structure for autonomous living, partly inspired by the Utopian theories of Charles Fourier (1772–1837), with a shopping-street, hotel, gymnasium, crèche, community services, and running-track. Other Unités were built at Nantes-Rezé (1952–7), Charlottenburg, Berlin (1956–8), Meaux (1957–9), Briey-en-Fôret (1957–60), and Firminy-Vert (1962–8): apartments within them were two-storey living units with double-height living space, linked by internal ‘streets’. The images of the Unités were copied in a ludicrously scaled-down form at Roehampton Park by the LCC’s Department of Architecture (1952–5), but the immediate international influence was in the use of raw, unfaced concrete in countless buildings, giving rise to the style known as New Brutalism. Powerful, chunky forms of béton-brut recurred at the Dominican Monastery of Ste-Marie-de-la-Tourette at Eveux-sur-Arbresle, near Lyons (1953–9).

Le Corbusier’s Pilgrimage Church of Notre-Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamp (1950–4), with its battered walls filled with rubble and sprayed with Gunnite (a patent rough-cast finish), silo-like tower, windows of many shapes and sizes piercing the walls at random, and distorted boat-like roof apparently floating over the walls, seemed to suggest a complete shift towards anti-Rationalism (causing infantile consternation in CIAM). At the Maisons Jaoul, Neuilly-sur-Seine (1952–6), coarsely laid brickwork, oversized concrete beams, and segmental vaults influenced architects such as Spence and Stirling.

With Drew, Fry, and others, Le Corbusier laid out (1950s) Chandigarh as the administrative capital of the Punjab, India, and built several gigantic public buildings (using excessively heavy, over-sized, chunky, raw concrete) that were influential, notably in Japan, and were (like the Unités) attempts to create a spurious ‘monumentality’ (a tendency denounced as early as 1929 by Teige). One of his last significant buildings was the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA (1960–3). Some commentators have defended Corbusier from charges of totalitarianism: however, his adoption of a pseudonym is uncomfortably reminiscent of other, hardly liberal-minded dictators (see bellot).


AA (2003); P.Baker (1996, 1996a); Besset (1976); Birksted (2009); Boesiger (ed.) (196670, 1972); H.Brooks (ed.) (1982, 1987, 1987a); Choay (1960); Wi.Cu (1995a); E.Darling (2000); Etlin (1994); F (2001; 2002a); Franclieu (ed.) (1981–2); D.Gans (2000); J-G (1964, 1968, 1973, 1973–7); J-G & J-G (1999); Js (1973, 2000); Jenger (1996); Lucan (ed.) (1987); Moos (2009); Murray & Osley (eds) (2009); Ozenfant & J-G (1975); P (1982); Raeburn & W.Wilson (eds) (1987); T & DC (1986); Tzonis (2001); Walden (ed.) (1977)