Le Corbusier

Updated Monday 26th November 2001

The man who believed that a house was a machine for living in - and set about making that work.

Le Corbusier Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

Date:
(1887 - 1965)

Nationality:
Swiss

Famous Buildings:
L'Esprit Nouveau Pavilion (Paris)
Villa Savoye (Poissy)
Unité d'Habitation (Marseilles)

L'Esprit Nouveau

Le Corbusier is without doubt the most influential, most admired, and most maligned architect of the twentieth century. Through his writing and his buildings, he is the main player in the Modernist story, his visions of homes and cities as innovative as they are influential. Many of his ideas on urban living became the blueprint for post-war reconstruction, and the many failures of his would-be imitators led to Le Corbusier being blamed for the problems of western cities in the 1960s and 1970s.

Like Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, and other architects of his generation, Le Corbusier had little architectural training. But he did have a strong conviction that the twentieth century would be an age of progress: an age when engineering and technological advances, and new ways of living, would change the world for good. Only architecture was failing to embrace the future, as new buildings continued to ape various historical styles.

In 1908, Le Corbusier went to work with Auguste Perret, the French architect who had pioneered the use of reinforced concrete, and then Peter Behrens, the German exponent of 'industrial design'. Behrens admired the engineer's ethic of mass production, logical design, and function over style, and Corbusier brought two of these early influences together in his 'Maison Dom-Ino' plan of 1915.

This house would be made of reinforced concrete and was intended for mass production, but was also flexible: none of the walls were load-bearing and so the interior could be re-arranged as the occupant wished.

A House Is A Machine For Living In

By 1918, Corbusier's ideas on how architecture should meet the demands of the machine age led him to develop, in collaboration with the artist Amédée Ozenfant, a new theory: Purism. Purist rules would lead the architect always to refine and simplify design, dispensing with ornamentation. Architecture would be as efficient as a factory assembly line. Soon, Le Corbusier was developing standardised housing 'types' like the 'Immeuble-villa' (made real with the Pavilion de l'Esprit Nouveau of 1925), and the Maison Citrohan (a play on words suggesting the building industry should adopt the methods of the mass production automobile industry), which he hoped would solve the chronic housing problems of industrialised countries.

His radical ideas were given full expression in his 1923 book Vers Une Architecture ("Towards a New Architecture"), an impassioned manifesto which is still the best-selling architecture book of all time. "A house", Le Corbusier intoned from its pages, "is a machine for living in."

But despite his love of the machine aesthetic, Le Corbusier was determined that his architecture would reintroduce nature into people's lives. Victorian cities were chaotic and dark prisons for many of their inhabitants. Le Corbusier was convinced that a rationally planned city, using the standardised housing types he had developed, could offer a healthy, humane alternative.

Urbanisme

The first of his grand urban plans was the Ville Contemporaine of 1922. This proposed city of three million would be divided into functional zones: twenty-four glass towers in the centre would form the commercial district, separated from the industrial and residential districts by expansive green belts. In 1925, Corbusier's ambitious Plan Voisin for Paris envisioned the destruction of virtually the entire north bank of the Seine to incorporate a mini version of the Ville Contemporaine. Understandably, it remained only a plan.

More realistic was the Ville Radieuse (1933-1935), in which long slab blocks were laid out in parkland and where the housing types were considerably cheaper than the Immeuble-villas which filled earlier plans. A version of this was built at the Alton West Estate in Roehampton, England in 1958.

After the Second World War, with Europe's housing problems worse than ever, Le Corbusier got his chance to put his urban theories into practice. The Unité d'Habitation in Marseilles (1952) is a synthesis of three decades of Corbusian domestic and urban thinking. Seventeen storeys high and designed to house 1,600 people, the Unite incorporates various types of apartment, shops, clubs and meeting room, all connected by raised 'streets'. There is also a hotel and recreation facilities. It is now an immensely popular building, and a coveted address for Marseille's middle-class professionals today.

When Le Corbusier died in 1965, the backlash against Modernism was gaining momentum. His theories on urban renewal were plagiarised by local authorities on tight budgets, which often failed to understand the essential humanism behind Le Corbusier's plans. Ronan Point was the result. But blaming Le Corbusier as the architect of post-war housing failure ignores the deep concern for human comfort and health that underpinned his work.

The Modernist architects

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Ronan Point Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

History & The Arts 

Ronan Point

A gas explosion in Newham changed the way towers blocks would be built.

Article
Britain's Great War: Download your free 'The First World War Experienced' booklet Creative commons image Icon The Open University under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license article icon

History & The Arts 

Britain's Great War: Download your free 'The First World War Experienced' booklet

From casualties to commemoration, explore the realities of war with this free booklet.

Article
Tremors - Reformation & Counter-reformation Europe Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Wark Clements article icon

History & The Arts 

Tremors - Reformation & Counter-reformation Europe

The authority of the Catholic Church shattered; Europe reacts: Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

Article
From the exam room to the trenches: How the OU helped Kevin Doyle prepare for The Crimson Field Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC video icon

History & The Arts 

From the exam room to the trenches: How the OU helped Kevin Doyle prepare for The Crimson Field

Kevin Doyle, OU alum, explains how his studies helped prepare him for his role in war drama The Crimson Field.

Video
The Roman Empire: introducing some key terms Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 3 icon

History & The Arts 

The Roman Empire: introducing some key terms

This free course, The Roman Empire: Introducing some key terms, will define basic concepts and terms that are essential for an understanding of the culture and identity of the Roman Empire. Terms such as 'Roman Empire' and 'imperium' will be introduced in the context of the formation and expansion of the empire, and the course will provide you with the background for further study of the Roman Empire.

Free course
14 hrs
The Barcelona (German) Pavilion Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: degreezero2000 under CC-BY-SA licence article icon

History & The Arts 

The Barcelona (German) Pavilion

Freed from the need for a building to have a function, the pavilion could allow modernism to be at its most extreme.

Article
How typical is your family? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

History & The Arts 

How typical is your family?

Evelyn Kerslake explains how demographics can help you understand your family history.

Article
About The People's War Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

History & The Arts 

About The People's War

Discover more about the People's War project

Article
Women of substance Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Alan Mather | Dreamstime.com article icon

History & The Arts 

Women of substance

Rich women are not a modern phenomenon. In the 19th century there were hundreds of thousands of women of ‘rank and property’. Discover the secrets of their success.

Article