Born Charles Édouard Jeanneret, Swiss-born architect, designer and theorist, Le Corbusier was one of the most influential artistic figures in 20th-century architecture, publisher of the Esprit Nouveau Modernist newspaper in 1920, author of several influential books including Vers une architecture (1923), L’art décoratif d’aujourd’hui (1925) and Les 5 points d (CIAM). He also coined the principle that ‘a machine for living in’ was the modern home.
He studied architecture at the local art school after an early career as a watch engraver in the Swiss town of La Chaux de Fonds, winning an award at the 1902 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art in Turin, and, after a time of travel, moved to Paris in 1908 to work in the architectural offices of Auguste Perret, a reinforced concrete specialist.
Before World War 1
Le Corbusier went to Berlin in 1910 to work under Peter Behrens, a proto-modernist architect and artist, before returning to his home town in 1912 via Eastern Europe to teach architecture and decorative arts. He devoted his energies to architectural theory from 1914 to 1916, including his ideas for the concrete-structured Dom-ino House, before returning to Paris in 1917. He met and took up painting with the painter Amadée Ozenfant.
Influenced by Cubism
Influenced by the formal elements of Cubism and Futurism’s emphatic spirit of the 20th century, they invented Purism, a clean, pure-formed Modernist aesthetic advocated in their 1918 Après le Cubisme manifesto and followed up in the 1920 to 1925 publication of the journal Esprit Nouveau. Le Corbusier’s ideas about what he saw as the decadence of excessive and inappropriate decoration in the contemporary decorative arts were critically founded in his book L’art décoratif d’aujourd’hui.
1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels
At the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels, they were realised in physical form in the bright, clearly articulated interiors of his Pavillon de L’Esprit Nouveau, a stark contrast to the decorative exuberance of most of the more commercially focused and trendy pavilions on display. Standardised unit furniture, mass-produced bentwood Thonet chairs and abstract Fernand Léger paintings hung on white, undecorated walls were included in its modular construction.
In his two apartment buildings at the internationally influential Weissenhof Siedlungen housing exhibition in Stuttgart and the celebrated Villa Savoye of 1929-31, other significant visual and spatial characteristics underpinned by his theoretical premises were also seen.
Collaboration with Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand
Her practical design knowledge and understanding of materials such as tubular steel were valuable means of translating Le Corbusier’s design concepts into material objects. This was exemplified by late 1920s designs such as the B301 Grand Confort armchair, the B302 swivel chair, and the B306 Chaise-Longue that combined leather or skin upholstery with tubular steel frames and were first developed by Thonet.
Further demonstrations of his designs for contemporary interiors and furniture or ‘Equipment for Living’ were seen at 1929 Salon d’Automne, where the three worked on a new apartment proposal. At the Building Trades Exhibition in London in 1930, Le Corbusier became a French citizen. They also displayed a plywood exhibition stand for the Venesta plywood firm. However, this commission marked the end of Le Corbusier’s association with furniture design.
He joined the Union des Artistes Modernes (UAM) in 1930, a radical group of designers founded in the previous year as a response to the Société des Artistes Décorateurs’ conservatism. He dedicated his energy to architecture from the 1930s. He was active in urban planning ventures and the realisation of his housing estate, the Unité d’Habitation block of flats in Marseilles, between 1947 and 1952. This building marked a fundamental change from its streamlined ‘machine age’ forms of the 1920s and early 1930s, finished in rugged concrete, utilising expressive elements of colour and sculptural shape.
Other architectural projects
The Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut in Ronchamp (1950-5), the planning of Chandigarh’s city in India, and the Monastery of Sainte-Marie-de-la-Torette at Evreux (1957-60) were other notable later architectural projects. Le Corbusier also carried out tapestry designs for the Law Courts at Chandigarh and the UNESCO building in Paris in the mid-1950s. His (and Perriand and Jeanneret’s) furniture designs have continued to be replicated by the Italian furniture company Cassina since the mid-1960s. They have taken their place as 20th-century design classics.
Woodham, J. M. (2006). A dictionary of modern design. Oxford University Press.
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